As a long-term survivor whose body and mind carries battle scars from another virus, the rise of the coronavirus has reinvigorated a swirl of old emotions. There are many ways in which the present pandemic differs from the HIV epidemic, but as both an aging person living with HIV and a mental health practitioner, I am acutely aware of how present circumstances create an emotional bridge to old and disturbing memories and emotions.
These are the remnants of trauma which I will no doubt always carry within me despite years of therapy and self-work. They are old wounds patiently waiting to be reawakened by the ripples of a new experience. These reminders of past events, some from long before HIV crashed into my life, reinvigorate very powerful emotions deep in the oldest part of my brain which direct me to react. Old emotions, thoughts, and false beliefs begin to whisper to me: I am unsafe, I am alone, I am powerless.
Fortunately, I now have tools to counteract these old triggers. I use my breath to ground myself and quiet my thoughts. I listen to my heart and to my body. I connect with my intuition. But one aspect of the current coronavirus epidemic continues to disturb me: the total isolation of those who become gravely ill. Just when they need each other most, loved ones are separated. Images abound of elderly husbands or wives singing or talking to their isolated loved ones through windows, unable to be in the same room. Although essential medical practice, it is reminiscent of the early days when AIDS patients were dying in their beds with no one to hug them or hold their hands or simply be there (in that case due to fear and stigma). Dying alone is particularly cruel, and underscores the importance of an essential element for survival and resilience: connection.
Less extreme interventions such as social distancing and isolation also have the potential to do emotional harm even as they keep us physically safe. Yet connecting with others doesn’t just feel good. It is essential to thrive and remain physically and emotionally healthy.
Images of people in Italy and Spain creating music with their neighbors from their windows have been uplifting. Most of us don’t live on quaint streets surrounded by folks with nearby windows and terraces, but there are other things we can do to maintain healthy connections in these turbulent and unpredictable times. Here are a few:
1. Connect with yourself and your feelings. I lose resilience when I lose touch with my inner thoughts and emotions. Fear, which is in abundance today, can cause people to cope in maladaptive ways with addictions, anger, and even confusion. Several daily practices can especially help, including routinely checking in with yourself and your feelings, activating and frequently using your social network, engaging your spiritual resources and, although it sounds counterintuitive, making a daily gratitude list. Each of these contributes to staying grounded and balanced.
2. Reach out to others. Connect with at least one other person each day. We are fortunate to have a variety of technological means to do this. I find that seeing someone on a screen, while not the same as visiting in person, adds a dimension to the experience that is far superior to a phone call alone. And this outreach isn’t just an act of self-preservation. It can be a lifesaver for the person to whom you reach out. A kind word, a gesture to help, or simply saying hello is highly therapeutic and healing for everyone involved.
3. Get creative with technology. Many of my therapist colleagues are rushing to incorporate telehealth into their practices as legal and privacy constrictions on such practices are loosened. Therapy, support groups and twelve step meetings have gone increasingly virtual in just a matter of days. The internet, which of late has been such a tool of divisiveness, has become an essential component of life-saving connectivity, providing a platform for all sorts of meetings and gatherings that would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
4. Be of service. Stepping out of ourselves and into service—even virtual—not only has personal therapeutic benefits but fosters good will and healing at a societal level. There are countless ways to do this. If you see a need, volunteer to organize a virtual support group. Participate in a webinar for information or support. Join a virtual prayer group or reiki circle for healing. We are limited only by our creativity.
As we face the next weeks and months there will be ongoing challenges to our resolve and resilience. Maintaining robust connections both to our feelings and with those around us will be essential.
David Fawcett PhD, LCSW is a social worker and clinical sexologist who has worked in addictions and mental health for over three decades. He is the author of Lust, Men, and Meth: A Gay Man’s Guide to Sex and Recovery (Healing Path Press 2015) which explores the intersection of gay men, drug use, and high-risk sexual behavior. The book was named “2016 Best Nonfiction Literature” by POZ magazine. He is also Vice President for Clinical Programming at Seeking Integrity LLC where he, in collaboration with Dr. Rob Weiss, develops and operates treatment programs for sex and porn addiction and chemsex. He is the producer of the podcast “Sex, Love, and Addiction: Healing Conversations for Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Men” and, in 2018, David co-produced the award-winning documentary Crystal City which follows the journeys of several men in recovery from chemsex in New York. He is a regular contributor to TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com and he has been published in Huffington Post, Positively Aware, and other journals.