Everything Is Still Terrible (we’re in a pandemic y’know?)

everything is terrible

This time on the podcast we attempted to normalise the tough feelings that most of us are having at this phase of the Covid-19 pandemic (going into Autumn/Fall 2020).

Phases of Disaster

Using the ‘Phases of Disaster’ model we framed our current moment as the long ‘disillusionment’ phase which may last months or even longer. We talked about why it’s really okay to not feel okay right now, and what we might do with our feelings of not-okayness.

From the SAMHSA website. Adapted from Zunin & Myers as cited in DeWolfe, D. J., 2000. Training manual for mental health and human service workers in major disasters (2nd ed., HHS Publication No. ADM 90-538). Rockville, MD: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Center for Mental Health Services. With thanks to Ellis Johnson for putting us onto this graph.

The importance of getting real

Before we got into the podcast proper we spent some time talking about authenticity, feeling our feelings, and the importance of getting real about what we’re going through – with ourselves and each other. 

We shared experiences of getting together with others who don’t want to talk about the pandemic, or their struggles with it, or who feel that they have to pretend to have ‘adapted’ and be fine, or that we could be ‘back to normal’. Such experiences can feel very gaslighting (see the gaslighting podcast on our Patreon) and crazy-making, leaving us feeling worse about ourselves.

In contrast we reflected on experiences of sharing our feelings and struggles openly with friends, and what a relief it can feel to discover, for example, that others are panicking in crowds, or feeling deep loneliness or hopelessness

We linked this to Gabor Maté’s work – which we are both currently obsessed with – about the deep mental and physical health toll taken when people are inauthentic with themselves and others, hiding their feelings and needs, and failing to assert their boundaries.

A theme that we returned to at the end of the podcast was the vital importance of sharing our feelings in order to connect with others. We linked this to the desperate need for collectivity and solidarity, drawing in conversations about mutual aid, Cassie Thornton’s work about the possibilities of peer-to-peer healthcare, and Deana Ayers’ call for community training in listening, conflict skills, and trauma responsiveness rather than replacing community policing with social work in response to #BLM.

Constructing a ‘natural disaster’

We also spent some time deconstructing the idea of a ‘natural disaster’. Justin pointed out that the pandemic could be better called an ‘event’ rather than a disaster, because it has been the political response of different countries which has determined whether it was a disaster or not. MJ suggested that the ‘man-made’ vs. ‘natural’ binary might also be called into question given the role of climate crisis and the invasion of ecosystems in the pandemic. There’s more about non-binary approaches to the pandemic here.

Considering the phase model of disaster we suggested this could be treated – rather like stage models of bereavement and dying – as culturally specific. 

The classic ‘5 stages of grief’ may well not apply in cultures which are less ‘death-denying’ and which have different perspectives on death as a tragedy versus transition versus normal part of life. 

Similarly the honeymoon to disillusionment model of disaster may only apply to neoliberal capitalist cultures where everyone is expected to function at beyond their capacity all the time, and where the graph always must ‘go up’ on happiness, success, and wealth. Even the word ‘honeymoon’ reminded us of the neoliberal capitalist model of falling-in-love and happily-ever-after which we frequently critique on the podcast.

Phases of a disaster

We then went through the phases of a disaster covered in Zunin & Myers’ model, and discussed how they applied to the current pandemic. We particularly focused on the disillusionment phase which are currently in. To quote the Samhsa website:

‘Phase 5, the disillusionment phase, is a stark contrast to the honeymoon phase. During the disillusionment phase, communities and individuals realize the limits of disaster assistance. As optimism turns to discouragement and stress continues to take a toll, negative reactions, such as physical exhaustion or substance use, may begin to surface. The increasing gap between need and assistance leads to feelings of abandonment. Especially as the larger community returns to business as usual, there may be an increased demand for services, as individuals and communities become ready to accept support. The disillusionment phase can last months and even years. It is often extended by one or more trigger events, usually including the anniversary of the disaster.’

We pulled out a couple of further themes which might be helpful to consider in relation to the current moment:

Consent reactions to a disaster

We suggested that the pandemic and lockdown have left many people in a particularly challenging place around consent.

The lack of human contact during lockdown has left a lot of us feeling quite desperate for touch and for human interaction. This means that we may try to push ourselves, and others, in ways that are not consensual, from a place of neediness, dependency, and desperation for intimacy.

The trauma of the pandemic has also brought up past trauma for many of us, which often relates to being treated non-consensually. This leaves us highly vulnerable to trauma responses when others seem to be pushing our boundaries around contact, or treating us non-consensually in other ways. 

Both of these aspects – our risk of behaving non-consensually, and our vulnerability to being treated non-consensually – may be going on within each of us. Or some of us may be more in the ‘needy/pushy’ place because the most pressing feelings are of loneliness and isolation. Others may be more in the ‘fearful/withdrawal’ place because the more pressing feelings are of fear and lack of safety.

It’s therefore worth thinking and talking about consent a lot at this time. How can we relate with others in ways where everyone involved feels safe enough and free enough to express their desires and needs, limits and boundaries? It’s worth tuning into the kinds of contact we would like, and the relationships we might find those in, and then having consent conversations in those relationships about what the other people want, where the overlaps are, and how we can respect each others’ current boundaries and limits, as well as access needs around the pandemic specifically.

Our relationship user guide can be a good resource for thinking through how you want to do relationships in general. You might adapt it for thinking about your relationship needs, wants, limits, and boundaries at the moment specifically.

Hiding our feelings or connecting with ourselves and others through feelings?

Returning to our other common theme – staying with feelings – we suggested that, for all kinds of reasons, one of the most important things we can do right now is to be open about our feelings with ourselves, and with each other – where it is safe enough and we have enough mutual trust to do so.

As always we questioned the concept of ‘negative’ vs. ‘positive’ feelings in response to where we’re at. We pointed out that the pretend ‘positive’ of the honeymoon period is part of what causes the extreme ‘negative’ of the disillusionment (in a disaster, as in so much of life). Expecting life – and feelings – to ebb and flow is a model which perhaps leads to less intense and distressing peaks and troughs.

We also pointed out that all emotions can result in the joyful feeling of connectedness with ourselves, and each other. 

When we can contact the feeling we are feeling honestly in ourselves, we can feel a kind of self-connection and self-compassion which often eludes us when we’re pretending to ourselves that we’re okay, or trying not to feel ‘negative’. MJ has written a lot recently about how working with plural parts can help us to feel – and be held and heard – in our tough feelings, and get that sense of internal connectedness or ‘attunement bliss’.

Sharing emotions with others can also be a source of great joy and connectedness, gratitude and relief, whatever the emotions. Even the hardest feelings of despair, rage, grief, and shame can be a source of deep connection when we hear that others have been struggling similarly, or we feel understood and heard in those feelings by somebody who gets it. And once we are less scared of being exposed in such feelings, there’s a real possibility for developing sustainable systems of care, transformative justice, and collective action.

© Meg-John Barker and Justin Hancock, 2020