NON-ESSENTIAL ME

tied hands
My thoughts have focussed quite intently on this word ESSENTIAL over the last while. When lockdown closed in on all of us we were constantly reminded of what is essential and what is non-essential. As countries recover from the alleged waves of the pandemic, the lockdown severity is decreased in accordance with the essential nature of services.
(Some would consider that very debatable but that is another matter.)

Prior to the lockdown in South Africa, I was in hospital for surgery and had first hand experience to remind me of the vital role of medical staff. Whenever I heard about frontline staff I thought about the many traumatic sights and sounds I experienced during those eventful five days in hospital. A week after I was discharged the lockdown began. My admiration for medical service providers during my personal experience was reinforced in the context of the covid-19 pandemic.

There was however a shadow side to all this admiration. I began to feel less and less “essential”. I could not save lives. I could not even cook a pot of food for myself let alone contribute to relief efforts struggling to cope with a hunger crisis resulting “from no, work no pay”. My non-essential existence was reinforced with every message that only essential services are required. Childhood experiences have tuned my psychic antenna to search for messages of worthlessness. These had become vital cues to my survival. Many people share those experiences and for those who don’t, there are sufficient messages from modern society fear-mongering us to question our worth. We spend a lifetime trying to prove that our existence matters. Most of that effort is to prove our worth to ourselves. We hope that our skills, money, status will save us from the doom of being worthless.

As I sunk further into feelings of worthlessness, my efforts to validate my existence included thoughts of learning some essential skill at least. These thoughts were involuntary and intrusive. They arose from the unconscious processes over which I have no control. They found their way into my dreams demanding attention. I had a series of such dreams one night in which there were various scenes from the pandemic. In all these scenes there was a common thread – I could not make a contribution no matter how hard I tried. In one scene I was unable to wash the dishes. If I shared these thoughts with friends they will shower me with ideas and reminders that I matter and that I have some contribution to make. I could write an essay on all the wonderful things I have done in the world to argue my worth. I could also write an essay deliberating on what essential really means in a given context. I am not going to do any of that. Instead of dressing up an old wound to make myself feel better, I am going to walk toward this dreaded mirror and face the fear-feeding boggarts like Potter did.

I am going spend time embracing a part of myself I have rejected my entire life. I am going to welcome the part of me that I have fought so hard to banish. I am going to spend this lockdown period with my non-essential self who can’t save lives or cook a pot of food right now. I am going to ask her to forgive me for a lifetime of exile. I am going to forgive her for the silent ways in which she tormented me. I suspect fibromyalgia was one such way given its ruthless way of triggering thoughts of worthlessness. She and I will share stories and find a way to bring the fragments together and form a whole.

I will eventually cook a pot of food for a relief effort and I will sew face masks again. I will use all the skills I have gained over the last 50 years. When I do these things, my non-essential self and I will work together. We will have times when we are of great and admirable service and we will have times when we have nothing to offer anyone. In the productive times she will not be a rejected part of myself. In the idol times she will guide me. Instead of the harsh judgement and questions of self-worth, there will be gifts of wisdom from a part of myself I will have access to. This is what is meant by the Jungian term of integration and wholeness.

I am non-essential as much as I am essential. As the outer-world continues to remind me of my non-essential part, I accept the invitation and pull up a chair at the great mirror. I know this part of myself and now it is time to bring her home from the exile. Though she is not me, she is part of me and without her I cannot be whole.

Michelene Dianne Benson

The Stages of Isolation – a relative experience

emotions getty

Are you noticing how your reaction to self-quarantine and lockdown restrictions shifts as the weeks roll by?

Perhaps you have had highs and lows but not really understood the reasons for the changes in your endorphin levels? Perhaps you thought other people were being even more difficult than their normally difficult selves?  Some may even have considered getting over-the-counter hormone therapy.

I searched the internet for information and did not find very much. Here and there an article – some by mental health practitioners and some by economists. The latter obviously trying to predict when profit margins will begin to recover. The psychology articles I did find were not very useful. Many of them tried to force-fit the isolation process into the five stages of grief. To the extent that we have lost income, jobs and opportunities, the grief cycle would definitely apply. There is however something seriously different about the isolation caused by a pandemic and trying to collapse it with the grief cycle seems silly.

Unfortunately, the articles were all written by white academics who speak to the stages for the privileged losing a few pleasures and selectively-protected rights. In a reality where some lives are more equal than others, even the right to safety is selectively protected. We are certainly seeing that in South Africa with our surfer dudes and promenade joggers equating their needs with those in 3km queues for food. For those who have to choose between infection and starvation, the stages of lockdown is not remotely a consideration. Those of us who spent decades of our lives denied access to the beaches that were “reserved for whites” and now “reserved for the non-poor” really don’t have any sympathy for people moaning about their human right to surf.

Furthermore, the articles I read were based on observations in the USA and Australia: countries which are birthed from genocide, nourished by super-sized fries and sustained by branded propaganda will have a very different reality to Africa and war-torn countries. How the stages of isolation calibrate for you is entirely related to your level of privilege. Your experience will be determined according to how stuffed your backpack of rights was at the beginning of lockdown. At best, we can design stages within the levels of privilege.

I read a few articles about the impact of isolation on people doing doctorates and astronauts floating around in space for weeks or months. You may have heard the term “Third Quarter of Isolation” mentioned on Australian news networks recently. This term comes from studies conducted with astronauts. The third quarter refers to stage three of the four stage process.

In simple terms, the middle-class’ four stages of lockdown could look something like this:

Stage One – Confusion and Panic
This is when the news of the Covid-19 hit home and we realised it was not far, far away. Our hospitals began to shut down planned surgeries and grocery items disappeared as panic buyers freaked out. Rumours and fake news filled our WhatsApp feeds daily. Conversations were restricted to matters of the virus. We began to calculate how many hospital beds were needed per province. Finally, the lockdown was announced and another wave of panic buying began. Last visits and medication collections were our main activities. The first week or two of the lockdown created relationship challenges as we were suddenly quarantined with family members we normally could escape when they began to irritate us.

Stage Two – Settling in Honeymoon
In this phase we found ways to deal with the annoyances of our new reality – that is assuming you are not a victim of abuse in which case you would definitely not have honeymoon joy. Assuming you were in a home and had food to eat, you may even have started enjoying your new easy-living lifestyle. Suddenly there is no morning rush, traffic jam and school drop-off. If you were fortunate to have an income you may have welcomed the work-from home flexibility and stress-free salary. Baking, cooking and crafty activities may have provided a creative outlet and suddenly you are realising how good this pandemic is for your spiritual health. You even consider the idea that home-schooling will be good for your free-spirited child. You begin a gratitude journal. You release your control, breathe out and let it go! The lockdown is about to end and we wait for the president and his crazy mask.

Stage Three – “The Third Quarter”
What? The end is nowhere in sight. Five phases of lockdown and my career will only operate at phase two or phase one. My savings won’t last that long. I have no savings. Unemployment is going to take ages to pay out. I am working from home and earning a salary but I am missing my colleagues. It’s been two months since I saw the people in my life. I am at the end of my tether but the virus is only now beginning to spread in South Africa. The social distance queue outside every store is just too much so now I must do without things I am dependent on. I am not even collecting my medication anymore. Paying school fees while you are teaching your own child suddenly seems like legal robbery but you don’t know what to do. Is the virus even real?

This is only phase four of lockdown and we could go back to phase five. So maybe this will continue for the whole year. I can’t do this for a whole year! I am too depressed, irritated, frustrated, angry to speak to anyone. I don’t do the calls anymore. I am tired of the baking, cooking and crafting. I need to just be free to go wherever I want and connect with people without feeling like I am breaking the law.

Stage Four – Future is in sight
There is some hope that the heavy restrictions will be lifted. We have things we can look forward to and anxiety is abating slowly. We know what our losses are and we know what we can salvage from the lockdown wreckage. At least we can start to plan a way forward in the new normal which is becoming clearer. Even in this recession, at least we will be able to see family and friends without being arrested. We can finally begin to get our lives back on track beyond covid-19. We survived the virus! Our energy is focused on a future of some sort and we are no longer in limbo.

Depending on your personal context of course, you may or may not be able to identify with the stages. The third-quarter may or may not help you to understand why you have suddenly hit a low after doing so extremely well in the creative, mindful and pseudo-evolved state of stage two.

Given our social conditioning about planning, succeeding, achieving and control, homo sapiens are incredibly focused on the future. We don’t know how to be present in the now and we hate not knowing: stage three pins us down in the not-knowing. It rattles the cages of our conditioning.

South Africa has a phased approach to lockdown with phase five having the most severe restrictions and phase one the most lenient.  We are currently in phase four and phase one is very far away! With the numbers rising and services closing daily due to infections, phase five is scarily close. So the limbo of the third-quarter remains because we actually have no idea what tomorrow will bring.

In the context of social inequality, the stages of lockdown are entirely subjective. When your existence has been criminalized in the past you will relate to the restrictions differently. A right by its definition is inalienable. When a human right can be granted or withheld it is revealed as a privilege. While we are all affected by the lockdown, it will express itself differently in these disparate environments.