“I mean, they say you die twice. One time when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time.”
This week began in London with intense rumours of an imminent lockdown that so far seem not to be true and with an unprecedented rise of the Omicron spread. It seemed like more people were ill with it than those who weren’t. It was also my turn to join the trend, as I came down with symptoms last Friday, and then tested positive a few days later. This meant a week in isolation, an experience reminiscent of the initial lockdown, but even more extreme, as I have no previous memory of not having ventured to the outside world for an entire week. As I felt well enough to continue working online, during the time which was also the build up to Christmas, I noticed how the experience of isolation is predominantly an internal state of mind rather than an external reality.
For me, having symptoms of Omicron felt primarily like an experience of connectedness, as many people reached out to support me or to share with me their own story of having been ill with Omicron. There were times though, especially during the first two days when I felt more ill, that reminded me of the deep existential alienation which can be experienced when not connected with others. It has been said that we all die alone in the end. In states of illness one becomes aware of being enclosed in their body in an unpleasant way, which cannot be shared with anyone else even those who care for us.
It was notable throughout the week how many stories I heard about alienation as well as connectedness, stories that convinced me that either state is a deep internal experience which is being driven by what Freud called the death or life instinct respectively. What I mean by that is that when we feel in community with others, we also feel, almost by definition, that we are drawn to life through remaining present in others’ mind in a loving and caring way, and also carrying our own concern and positive regard for those we love in our own mind. In the inner state of isolation though we are utterly alone and as such, drifting away from life unnoticed. This is what serious physical or mental illness can feel like.
It is rather common knowledge for therapists, which as I recall I expanded on in one of my first blogs, that Christmas is a very challenging time of the year emotionally for many people, and especially so for those who have experienced previous trauma and losses. Family life is where the supposed jolliness of Christmas is meant to unfold, and yet it is in the midst of family life, where many people may feel utterly isolated, invisible and muted. What is it that can create a genuine sense of communion during a time of expected celebration and what is it that triggers emotional isolation and despair? In the stories I listened to this week, there were two clear themes. One I would call authentic being and relating and the other awareness. When there is the possibility of being oneself and relating to others in a truthful way, family life during a time of high stress such as Christmas does not become devoid of conflicts and dramas, but it creates the possibility of a sense of belonging and feeling cared for. Awareness also seems to make a big difference, as it is not always possible or realistic to relate authentically in situations where a number of people come together and previous hurts and dramas get replayed. It is more feasible sometimes, to quietly notice the dynamics between people and refrain from contributing to the toxicity or to find a way to contribute in a more thoughtful way. This too can make a difference internally and externally as well.
Going back to Banksy’s quote with which I began this blog, connectedness is one of the most life giving experiences, as it is only when we can have a place in each other’s mind that we can feel truly alive and a part of the world. Yet, true connectedness only takes place when we can relate to others authentically and in order to do so, we need to be aware of the roles that have been previously allocated to us in our families and that no longer serve us well and to try to shift position. When so, it is possible that even in isolation, we can stay in touch with the fact that we are all in it together despite our differences.
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