hey say that counting and other typical obsessive-compulsive symptoms are elicited in all of us in situations of danger. No doubt our distant ancestors had to check carefully that everyone was in their bed at night, that the cave door was blocked, and that there was enough wood on the fire to last through the night to stave off predators. In times of famine, counting stored goods might have come quite naturally.
I admit I have noticed all these symptoms – the rumination and the counting, ritualistic soothing activities — in myself, and though I have many pathologies, obsessive-compulsiveness isn’t among them.
An example is my desk.
In addition to counting supplies I might need, I’m counting days. Not days before this virus lockdown ends — because I suspect it will be a prolonged one — but the number of days from my last potential exposure to the contagion, factoring in the disease’s two-week incubation period. My inner, mental wall is covered in notches, a bit like the walls of a prisoner’s cell: 6 days since the last close brush in a store with someone who moved too close, 13 days since the lockdown began, 14 days since I last took a bus, 15 since I last shook hands with someone, 7 days since I went to a store without gloves.
Counting alone may not help, but it soothes. Rituals may help or not (masks may not, gloves may) but whether they do or don’t help in anti-viral terms, they acknowledge the fear and they soothe.
It is important to acknowledge fear, as it is to admit when sadness edges in (which I wrote about last time). Fear, after all, is what most protects us.
But what about irrational fear? From my perspective, there is no other kind. Fear is an emotion, and emotion is the antithesis of reason. And a good thing, too. If we had to think every time some weird thing happened, as in — Hmm, is that very large kitty cat with the sharp fangs friend or foe? — we’d be dead before completing the thought. Thought is slower than emotion. Emotion saves the day. And if it were in fact just a tame kitty cat, well, so what? Better safe than sorry.
As for this virus, it took me some time to actually feel the emotion of fear. I was inured to media hype, since its many calls of “Wolf!” began some 30 years ago, cries along the lines of “this is the worst snowstorm on a first Tuesday of a January in a leap year in recorded history,” or the noise surrounding the avian flu scare.
At first, like some Americans now, I thought, what’s the big deal, it’s just a flu. Then rapidly it moved from distant China to nearby northern Italy, and then before I knew it hospitals were overcrowded and people were dying.
Still, I wasn’t afraid, not yet. I did become cautious. Okay, I decided, I won’t take buses. Then came, I won’t go to London to visit my daughter and her family (losing the not changeable tickets). Then came, I will buy hand sanitizer, after which I started to wear a scarf over my face, and gloves when I went to the store. Not fear, but caution. Had it been fear, all this caution would have kicked in earlier.
At first, the virus numbers didn’t hit me. I’m so “dysnumeric” I tend to block out numbers of any kind when I hear them. But then stories began to grab me, some young people in Brescia told me all their grandparents and their friends’ grandparents had died in the last two weeks. Or the tale told to me by a colleague who works in a psychological counseling call service about a man quarantined at home with his child. His wife was in intensive care and he hadn’t heard from her in days. Her brother was already dead and his own mother was dying. Then came tales of people dying alone, their relatives also alone, no one to comfort anyone with closeness, with touch.
Which is when it hit me. This could be me. It could be one of mine.
I spent a long, almost sleepless night in fear.
Fear is good. It’s also good to be soothed. But what will soothe?
Certainly not someone saying Andrá tutto bene (“It’s gonna be all right.”). What do you know? I might retort. Do you have information I don’t have? How, I ask, is that phrase going to soothe me? As with sadness, fear requires empathy, a kind of “emotional dwelling,” an “I get it” that can be followed by a “but I’m here, and we can be afraid together.”
British psychologist John Bowlby, who first elaborated the theory of attachment, often referred to those who had survived serious trauma, such as mine shaft collapses. One man was trapped 7 levels down, no food, little water, little air. When he was rescued, he said he couldn’t have made it alone. Another miner was trapped with him, and though the other’s legs were broken and he had to drag him up to the next level — water was rushing upward and air was running out. Not being alone, he repeated, was what had saved him.
I’m lucky I’m not alone at home. But the plight these days, a least from a psychological standpoint, is that many of us are closed off from others. We are deprived of physical contact. Many live alone and are stuck there. There’s the web and the phone, both of which help us fill that void.
But to soothe each other, we should be willing to know our own fears to tie in with those of others. Empty words of positive thinking (“it’s gonna be all right…”) aren’t the solution, since we don’t know how it will be. I don’t doubt humanity will survive this plague, but will all the people I love survive? Nobody can tell me. You can talk about statistics, about “most” people will survive, but you can’t reassure me about a specific person. We can exhort those people to be careful, not to underestimate the danger. But again, and I can’t emphasize it enough, what helps most is knowing we are not alone in our fear, that others understand it, that we can take turns in soothing each other. That is the rock on which to build.