I’m a Licensed Mental Health Counselor, and my work for the past 17 years has been to help people overcome psychological and situational problems that cause them emotional distress.
The COVID-19 pandemic has brought many people back into counseling – I’m now seeing, through telemedicine, almost twice as many clients as I was seeing in person before the pandemic. It has also led many who never worked with a therapist into counseling for the first time. I have multiple windows, literally and figuratively, into how the pandemic is affecting us.
In my years as a therapist, I’ve observed how clients work through a series of steps from when they begin therapy, unbalanced in some way, and when they leave, balance restored. Those steps are: Detect, Assess, Plan, Restore, Integrate, Monitor/Maintain. I’ve described the six steps in my book The Art of Balance: Staying Sane in an Insane World.
This post is one in a series that explores how we can use the six steps and related self-help techniques to manage our lives in the pandemic. The series also explores how to apply the same principles and techniques on a much larger scale.
It may seem unusual for someone with a therapy background to apply psychological theory and techniques to a global event. But, global events are also psychological events, and our behaviors as communities and nations in crisis follow essentially the same pattern as our behaviors during a personal crisis.
What follows is, in part, my story, but it is also the story of my clients, of my neighbors, of my community, and of our species as we work through the greatest unbalancing force we have experienced in a century and move toward a new, and more resilient, equilibrium.
I hope you find it helpful.
David J. Bookbinder, LMHC
Step 0: Denial
I’ve been watching the pandemic since it began in China, closely observing how I’ve been reacting, how my friends and family have responded, and how my clients are handling it. And the steps I see people going through are the same as what I’ve observed with individual clients during the many years I’ve been doing psychotherapy.
Initially, when something unbalances us, whether it’s a personal loss, a stress that eats away at our resilience, or a global crisis that envelops us all, most of us are in denial.
Denial is and unconscious resistance to the truth about a situation. It’s not, as many people believe, that when we’re in denial, we know we have a problem but aren’t admitting it. Rather, we truly don’t see that we have a problem, no matter how obvious it may be to the people around us that we are in trouble.
We can have the problem for a long time before denial breaks down.
For instance, people who have a serious problem with drinking can believe they’re doing fine for years, even as their lives unravel, before they finally see that they crossed over to addiction. In addiction treatment circles, this is called the “pre-contemplative” step. It’s the step in which you’re not even contemplating any kind of treatment because – well, why would you? You don’t know you have a problem.
We can see how denial played out on a national scale with the COVID-19 pandemic.
In the U.S., life was “business as usual” for more than two months after the virus had started to spread through Wuhan, to other parts of China, and on to the Middle East and Europe. But this is America, we seemed to have thought, leader of the free world, invincible. That virus thing’s in China, or in Iran, or Italy, or Spain. “It can’t happen here,” as Sinclair Lewis put it in his prophetic 1935 novel. So we shut our borders to those countries, believing that keeping non-Americans from crossing our borders would somehow keep us safe.
But we’d shut the barn door long after the horses had escaped.
By then, as we all now know, the virus had been silently spreading throughout the United States and wending its way to nearly every corner of the globe. The infection rate in the U.S. was particularly bad because we were in denial. We didn’t believe we were vulnerable, so we weren’t testing, we weren’t contact tracing, we weren’t social distancing. We weren’t following any of the pandemic plans laid out by previous administrations or the WHO, or even the advice of our own intelligence agencies and scientists.
For some, minimizing the coronavirus threat may have been conscious, deliberate, and self-serving – deception rather than denial. But for most of us, it was an unconscious response to the unthinkable.
I’m a psychotherapist and a writer, and I pride myself on picking up subtle psychological trends and responses. But I had the same blind spot most of us had about COVID-19.
My awareness didn’t immunize me against denial. Yet I should have known better, not only because I’m a psychologically astute guy, but also because I was receiving daily news reports from Asia for months before the State of Emergency was declared in the United States.
I was in Hong Kong in June, 2019, just as the protest movement there began. To stay current with the movement as it evolved, I subscribed to daily emails from the South China Morning Post. Weeks before they were reported in Western media, I’d noticed the increasingly alarming coronavirus reports coming out in the Chinese press. But even as I saw the virus’ rapid progression in Wuhan and beyond, I had no sense of personal alarm. Although I had personally experienced how close we really are to Asia – my plane ride from Boston to Hong Kong’s bustling airport was a mere 16 hours – what was happening in China still seemed… remote.
How sad for them, I remember thinking. For them, but not for us. It can’t happen here.
It wasn’t until March 13th, when a palpable fear of being too close to other people finally surfaced and I cancelled a birthday dinner at a nearby restaurant, that I truly felt something was very, very wrong.
That was my “Oh, crap!” moment, the “hair on fire” moment we all experience when a real threat finally breaks through a wall of denial. It’s the moment when you realize things are not the way you thought they were, and that all the while you were thinking everything was just fine, danger was tightening its noose. The moment that stops you in your tracks.
In the Art of Balance system framework, this was the start, for me, of the Detect step, the first of six steps of recovery from imbalance.
The Detect step begins with a decisive moment when our internal Balancer is overwhelmed and UnBalancer has the reins. It’s the moment of greatest uncertainty and confusion. And it’s also the moment that makes returning to balance possible.
Waking up from denial is a prerequisite for entering the recovery process. In the COVID-19 pandemic, that wake-up moment happened at different times for different people, both across the globe and within individual communities.
In the U.S., as late as early March, despite overwhelming evidence that COVID-19 was turning into a deadly and crippling pandemic, the president of the United States repeatedly assured us that it was not a significant threat: It’s the “Corona Flu,” it’ll vanish when the weather warms up “like a miracle,” we’ll be back in church for Good Friday.
These statements may have been the consequence of the president’s personal denial, or they may have been consciously self-serving; we may never know. But regardless, their effect was to prolong the nation’s awakening to the threat and relinquishing our denial. In Art of Balance terms, this messaging delayed the call to our national ReBalancer. Instead of leaping into action to begin the mammoth task of setting things right again, ReBalancer was half asleep, out of shape, unprepared for the task at hand.
Even as late as the end of April, after more Americans had already died from COVID-19 than were killed in the Vietnam War, some of us continued to defy shelter-in-place orders, refused to wear masks, gathered at local beaches, “hooked up” with strangers, and protested at state capitols, wielding rifles and demanding that restrictions on movement and commerce be lifted, egged on by the president’s tweets.
But for most of us, by then, denial could no longer shield us from reality. We’d eaten the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and the Garden of Eden was in our rear view mirror.
The Six Steps in a Global Crisis
In the Art of Balance system, there are six steps between awakening from denial and eventual return to balance. They are: Detect, Assess, Plan, Restore, Integrate, and Monitor/Maintain.
These six steps describe the overall arc of recovery we will all engage in within our individual lives, as a nation, and as a species, as we work our way through the pandemic to a new and, I hope, more resilient equilibrium.
Here’s a summary. I’ll go into more detail on each step later in this piece.
- Detect. The first step of recovery from imbalance is the Detect step. That’s when we can no longer deny that we’re out of balance. By then, we’ve been walking in circles for a long time, and finally we give up the pretense that everything’s still okay. In Art of Balance terms, Balancer capitulates and UnBalancer’s in command.
- Assess. The second step is the Assess step. We call on ReBalancer to help us get back on our feet. We ask ourselves questions like: “Where am I now?” “What got me here?” “What can I do from here?” “How can I get back?” This is the time when we set up camp, sheltering ourselves, as best we can, from unknown dangers lurking in the woods. Then we identify our resources, start evaluating our options, and begin to sort how we might find our way home.
- Plan. The third step is the Plan step. Here, we connect the dots between our problems and potential solutions. Who can we call on and what can we try that might help us get back on our feet? We identify people and institutions that might help us, actions we can immediately take to improve our odds, experiments we can conduct that could lead us to some kind of equilibrium.
- Restore. The fourth step is the Restore step. This is typically where my therapy clients and I spend the most time and effort. It will be where we all spend most of our time and effort as we work through the pandemic. In the Restore step, we implement our plans, refining them as new data emerges. We connect with the resources and people that can help us, we test strategies that can move us in the direction of a new normal, and eventually, as we persist and adapt, we achieve a balanced state.
- Integrate. The fifth step, Integrate, is crucial to becoming more adept at handling future UnBalancer attacks – and future pandemics. Once we’ve restored our balance, we incorporate into our routines the insights, resources, strategies, and activities that helped us to restore our equilibrium. At this point, we’re healthy again – emotionally, physically, economically, as a community, and as a people –and we keep doing what got us there, so we can stay healthy in the future.
- Monitor/Maintain. The sixth step, Monitor/Maintain, may be the most important of them all. In this step, we adopt a methodology for making sure we continue to do the actions that brought us back to balance. At this point, not only are these actions integrated into our lives and social structures, but we can also quickly detect when we start to veer into potentially dangerous territory, and we can make immediate course corrections to get us back on track.
I see these steps being played out in myself, in my friends and family, and in my clients, and also on a national and global scale. As of this writing, we’re still in the Plan step, edging toward Restore. We have a long road ahead of us. But eventually, we will get there.
When we do, we’ll have a choice.
My hope is that we’ll be living in a changed reality that is more resilient than the one we’ve left behind, that we’ll keep our personal and societal immune systems strong, and that we’ll diligently and intelligently monitor for early warning signs of future global disruptions.
If we do that, we’ll be prepared for whatever the world’s UnBalancers throw our way next time.
If, instead, we drift back into complacence, we’ll be as unprepared for the next global UnBalancer as we were for this one.
Let’s choose to be prepared.
Then and Now: Living in a Changed World
Before I get into more detail about how we will recover from the Coronavirus UnBalancer, I’d like to detour into some personal background that gave me an insight that’s helping me and my clients deal more effectively with the pandemic.
It began with a medical error that nearly ended my life.
The year was 1993. I was 41, in my second year of graduate school in an English PhD program in Albany, NY. I was writing a novel, teaching creative writing, and dating a Japanese woman with whom I planned to spend the rest of my life.
My path seemed clear and straightforward and the future seemed brighter than it had for many years. And then one day, that path ceased to exist.
Little did I know, as I entered an Albany hospital where a minor medical issue escalated to a near-fatal event, that at that moment, I had entered a different timeline.
From that point forward, everything changed.
Some changes were internal. Because of the near-death experience, I felt as if a window had opened into a vastly different way of being human.
Before the NDE, I was aloof and cynical. Afterward, I had a child-like innocence.
My mind worked differently. Analytical tasks, which had always been my strength, were now harder, while a creative, more intuitive version of myself emerged. The old me could see inside machines and understand how they might be malfunctioning. The new me could look inside people and know what they were feeling and thinking.
I started taking photographs again, but my eye had changed. Instead of being drawn to the grittiness of urban street life, now I was attracted to the beauty of the natural world.
My body changed, too. Before, I’d been naturally healthy, with no significant ailments. After, I developed a succession of chronic, intractable illnesses.
My external life also changed. My relationship with the Japanese woman fell apart. I dropped out of the English PhD program. I returned to Boston, resumed work as a technical writer, but could no longer connect with most of my old friends.
I tried to get back to my old self and my old life, but each step I took seemed to lead me further away. Eventually, I realized I was no longer on the path I’d been on prior to the NDE, and that it was impossible to return to it.
Only when I gave up that old path did life start to flow again.
What I experienced on a personal level then is much like what we are all experiencing now.
Before the pandemic, most of us thought that what happened tomorrow would be an extension of what was happening today. Little did we know that as soon as the coronavirus infected the first person in Wuhan, we were all on a different path. I couldn’t jump back to my old English PhD path, and none of us, now, can return to the path we were on in February, 2020.
The ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed, long ago, that “no man steps into the same river twice, because he’s not the same man and it’s not the same river.” What was true then is true today: We’re not the same us, and it’s not the same world.
To be continued…
Copyright 2020, David J. Bookbinder