Blog Number 29. The Perils and Pleasures of Lockdown [11th June 2020]
No politics. No conversations with M. No humour. Just a few thoughts of a psychologist on the experience of lockdown.
The trauma of lockdown
I have been thinking of parallels between lockdown and the experience some people have during and after major traumas, something I have written a couple of books about. I can see parallels and I can also see differences.
One of the characteristics of a major trauma is that it derails normal life, suddenly, violently and unexpectedly. Think of being caught up in the 2005 London Tube bombings, or being physically attacked when you are out jogging, or having a serious road traffic accident, or watching helplessly as two planes crash into the Twin Towers. Death and fear of death are thrust into our faces. The illusion that all is well in our world shatters. Covid-19 doesn’t have the attributes of a sudden, unexpected trauma. It crept up on us, at least in Europe. For some weeks we could see it coming. At first it didn’t seem too threatening. Many got ill but very few died. Was it any worse than a seasonal flu? We know now that it is.
The first inkling that the virus was a serious threat came when China locked down Wuhan. A draconian measure even by Chinese standards. Then came our understanding that transmission could be asymptomatic, meaning you could have it, not know it, and pass it on. An invisible enemy, which is always more frightening. Then the chaos in Lombardy and another lockdown, this time in a country like ours. By early March it was clear that we wouldn’t escape it. Belatedly, after flirting with the ‘herd immunity’ strategy, on 23 March came the lockdown. I remember thinking this is unprecedented in my lifetime and feeling a rising panic. Covid-19 may have crept up on us but it felt like it had just hit me in the solar plexus. If we did not take precautions, there was a real prospect that I, my loved ones, my friends, could die. Our Prime Minister learned this the hard way, paying a heavy price for his insouciance, his boasting of shaking hands with those in hospital with the coronavirus. The message was clear: carry on as normal and you risk death. Normal life was transformed by the lockdown. This was, in any sense, traumatic.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]
I am cautious about making simplistic extrapolations. For example, I have heard mention in the media of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder [PTSD]. It is mooted that those who suffer during the pandemic, perhaps because of the death of a loved one, could go on to develop PSTD. A psychotherapist friend told me that some of her colleagues were planning to offer psychological help. Well-intentioned perhaps, but helpful? I was reminded of a psychologist who worked with the survivors of the Herald of Free Enterprise disaster reporting one victim saying that he hid under the table when yet another counsellor came in to offer help. Another example. Some years ago I recall hearing on the radio that a coach carrying schoolchildren had crashed on the M40 and that “trained counsellors” were being sent in. Leaving aside the revealing adjective “trained,” suggesting as it does that there are myriads of untrained counsellors who might descend on survivors, there is scant evidence that immediate counselling is helpful and even a suggestion it could be harmful though in my view there’s not enough good evidence to reach a definitive conclusion. What people want in the immediate aftermath of a major trauma is time and space to recover, ‘tea and sympathy’ as the Red Cross had it.
This brings me back to PTSD. Leaving aside the many weaknesses in the psychiatric diagnosis itself, it is simply incorrect to assume that the majority of people who go through a major trauma will develop PTSD. The research shows that, on average, a mere 10% of people experiencing a major trauma go on to develop the symptoms that lead to the diagnosis of PTSD. Ninety percent do not. This does not mean most people are psychologically unaffected by major traumas. Traumas do affect us. But in many different ways, most minor, some major, some like PTSD, some very different. The focus on PTSD is misleading because it suggests an inevitability that is not justified by the evidence as well as unnecessarily medicalising what are understandable experiences when our lives are turned upside down by major traumatic events. Does this matter? I think it does for it primes us to think in terms of being vulnerable when most of us are not. It also implies, as I have said, that most people would require professional help [drugs, therapy] to ‘recover’ when most will not.
What people know about PTSD is the experience of flashback memories that seem to come upon trauma survivors unawares. Flashbacks do occur for some and they can be very disturbing. But only a minority [in one study, about 10%] of those who are diagnosed with PTSD experience actual flashbacks. It is more accurate to say that after a major trauma, many have, unsurprisingly, disturbing memories of the experience but most are not in the form of flashbacks. Because the pandemic did not hit us suddenly with the force of a tsunami or earthquake, the threat to life is not as visceral. This may be significant for it’s a reasonable hypothesis that immediate fear of one’s life, sheer terror in many cases, primes a biological response that underpins the persistence of disturbing memories. The pandemic is different. It is more like the experience of a terminal illness, or a period of civil unrest or war, or a hostage situation, events that unfold over a long period of time. These are traumatic in a rather different way. There is a fear of death but it is attenuated, less visceral. This is not to say that it is less traumatic; only that the trauma is different.
In my case I experienced considerable anxiety in the first weeks of the lockdown. It affected my sleep and invaded my mind. I knew I was anxious. I experienced periodic thrumming fast heart beats. I lay awake worrying about death, and also, as is the way with anxiety, mulling over the stupid and shameful things I did in the past. I thought of comparisons with the rise of the Nazis in Germany and how many were unprepared for the horrors that came. Was this not something similar? Should we not be better prepared? I knew about treating anxiety from my psychologist days. But knowing about it does not stop the experience or necessarily help reduce it. Gradually it lessened. It has not gone away. Even writing this short piece makes me anxious. It’s more enjoyable is to write amusing conversations with M, real or imagined, or to satirise the bumbling incompetence of what passes for our government. I promise that will be in my next blog.
Positive consequences of lockdown
It has long been recognised that even the most terrible events can lead to positive change as in the age-old story of the Phoenix rising from the ashes. A grievous personal loss can be the wellspring of creativity; two literary examples are Hardy’s poems after the death of his first wife, Emma, and Tennyson’s poem, In Memoriam, to the death of his beloved friend, Arthur Hallam. In my book, To Hell and Back. Personal Experiences of Trauma and How We Recover and Move On, I described how people experienced major traumas and how the ensuing consequences affected them. For some, though not all, the change had positive aspects. This is in part explained by the crisis opening up an opportunity; the unexpected change enables someone to take a different course, one that they may have long wanted but never managed to realise. A man I assessed, who had been travelling into London on the Paddington train that crashed in October 1999, was traumatised by the experience even though physically unhurt. The psychological trauma enabled him to quit his job and become a farmer, something he had long wanted to do. Another man I interviewed for my book, whose former girlfriend died in the 2005 tube bombings, made a loving film about her life, not ever having done anything creative before. This doesn’t mean that people will always, or even frequently, benefit from terrible experiences. To many, terrible events make things worse. Imagine what it must be like to be in lockdown with an abusive partner. Imagine if you have lost your job with little prospect of finding another and money fast running out. Imagine not being able to be with your son or daughter, or mother or father, as they succumbed to the virus in complete isolation. Even so, even when the most terrible things have happened, people can say, ‘I didn’t want it to happen, and I wish it hadn’t, but I don’t want to go back to the way I was.’ These words were said to me by Georgie, a young woman who had been raped by three men in her flat in Paris, an ordeal that lasted several hours. Matthew Engel, the Financial Times journalist, said something similar. He had lost his 12 year-old son to a prolonged and painful illness. He was different as a result, he told me, and he valued the difference.
It seems generally true that, if positive changes occur, they tend to do so after a period of time has elapsed. Caught up in continuing horror and grief we can be too consumed by it to get the detachment needed to change. Yet it occurs to me that the seeds for that change may be sown during the crisis itself. Mark, another man I interviewed for my book, was held hostage by Colombian terrorists for many months, often in fear of his life. He was a filmmaker and he told me how through establishing a relationship with the leading terrorist, Antonio, he sowed the seeds of a film that he made after his release. Antonio wanted the plight of the poor and downtrodden Colombians to be brought to the attention of the world. A film could do that. He and Mark talked about it. Eventually, Mark returned to Colombia where he met Antonio again and made the film. In the film Mark turned the tables on Antonio, pointing out how his human rights had been violated by him. Antonio eventually admits this and asks for forgiveness. This admission was important for Mark. That and the film enabled him to move on.
The enforced change of the lockdown has disrupted, and continues to disrupt, normal life. There is a growing recognition that things will not be the same again whatever the long-term outcome is. It will be a ‘new normal’, people say though without knowing what that will mean. What can one learn from this? What seeds might be sown for the future? I notice how I have found solace in some rather surprising things. I have watched the changes in our garden closely, something I never did before. How long the wisteria lasted before the blooms faded, the persistence of climbers as they inched forward day after day, the relationships on the bird feeder, how starlings can drive off one jackdaw but not two, how the robin carefully times his/her trip to the seed feeder, the simple pleasure of regularly going round in the evening watering the plants. Gardeners know about this. Yet for me the pleasure is new as it was never a regular feature of my life. I am reminded of what the playwright Dennis Potter said in an interview with Melvyn Bragg as his terminal cancer – called ‘Rupert’ by the way – was in its final phase. He was moved to tears by the simple beauty of a blossom outside his window, he said. Appreciating the natural world, particularly beautiful at this time of year, is something I intend to hang on to, if I’m spared as the Irish say.
I have written before about the pleasure of listening to classical music. I was doing that before the lockdown. The difference is that now I take my time and explore new domains like contemporary composers. There’s no urgency though what urgency there was before rather escapes me. It often related to having to go out for coffee. I have my coffee now at home and it’s better! It’s not just classical music. Last night my eye was caught by an Essential Playlist of Bob Dylan songs. I put on ‘My Back Pages’, a song I hadn’t listened to for years. I heard Dylan’s refrain, ‘Oh but I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now.’ It wasn’t just the clever inversion. It struck me how prescient it was of how I was feeling now. Dylan was only in his 20s when he wrote it. How did he do it? Now that he is so much ‘younger’, he might reissue the song with the refrain reversed. You never know with Dylan. The debate about whether he’s a great poet as well as a great lyricist continues and will never be resolved, I suspect. The Nobel Committee thought so when it awarded him the Nobel Prize for Literature. I am not sure. I decide to listen again to ‘Desolation Row,’ one of my favourite tracks. In my poetry course with Philip Gross, we had discussed whether the words of ‘Desolation Row’ worked without the music. Did they have the quality of a poem? We had printed the lyrics out. We examined them. On balance we didn’t think so. It needed the music to bring it alive. But that was the point, I realise. Dylan’s words are full of meanings, many of which are obscure to me, and maybe even to himself. The rhymes can be strained. The lines often don’t scan properly. But with the music, that lovely trilling guitar in ‘Desolation Row’ for example, the song works wonderfully. Why ask for more than that?
Three antidotes today covering folk, jazz and classical. Take your pick or watch all three.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Linden Lea sung by members of the talented band, The Full English, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=THUKgRNxPQY&feature=youtu.be
For a more polished version, listen to the recording on their CD, The Full English,
Ray Charles would have fallen foul of the ‘MeToo’ movement had he been alive today. Apparently, he would feel the wrist of any prospective Raylette as a means of judging how attractive they were. He was a terrific gospel/blues singer and pianist as you can see from this 1963 video of the exciting, ‘What I’d Say.’
The delightful, lyrical playing of the violinist Alina Ibragimova of Mendelssohn’s lovely Violin Concerto, Opus 64 at the Concertgebouw Amsterdam in 2011.
 The figures are higher for those whose work exposes them to life-threatening traumas such as soldiers, emergency personnel and war journalists.