Therapy during the pandemic

A couple of days ago a twitter thread by historians debated which historical moment was more similar to the current one. Historians were evenly split between the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s and the 1918 flu pandemic.

What about all those other massively deadly times, though? World War I. World War II. Vietnam. South East Asia and the Middle East since 9/11. All the border deaths. All the genocides.

I worry that this time feels new and dreadful because we didn’t think it could happen to us, the capitalist West, the developed West, our (predominantly) White countries full of structure and infrastructure, full of law abiding (White) people with good jobs and good livings and a ton of technology and comfortable homes.

My homeless-on-and-off friend (most unhoused people are on and off; they still count as homeless) is not giving the pandemic a thought. Maybe she has bigger problems on her hands. Maybe she has less to lose. Maybe she doesn’t care about dying (she doesn’t).

I have therapy on skype and:

1. I ask myself if my trauma shit is still relevant.

2. I ask myself if my therapist thinks my trauma shit is still relevant.


3. My shit doesn’t go away because there is a pandemic.

4. My shit gets worse because there is a pandemic.


5, The pandemic brings up childhood horrors.

6. The paranoid infant.

7. The abandoned child.

8. The child left to fend for herself.

9. The child with no tools to fend for herself who nonetheless built herself a little fire each night and curled up by it to ward off the horror.

To my therapist:

10. You keep your shit together for me.

11. You appear on the screen with a smile, freshly washed hair, a nice shirt, say, “How are you” and mean it.

12. You hesitate to go fully online because some of your patients don’t have the technology, the privacy, or the stability to do therapy online.

13. You say, I’ve got you.

To all therapists/helpers:

14. This is not just a job though it is also a job.

15. You are in the business of healing which is the business of love and

by God

16. There is no higher calling; there isn’t a nobler pursuit.

Painting by Perle Fine via a casualistic tendency



1. You can talk of any bad thing that happened to you except

2. That first hospitalization

3. When your sense of what was safe and what wasn’t safe in the world

4. Was broken and

5. Never reassembled, so that

6. Now

7. Nothing is safe in the world

8. No one is looking out for you

9. You can’t escape

10. Danger



1. You are traumatized because when you were little no one looked after your well being and safety and you had to look after them yourself.

2. You are traumatized because you had to rely on capricious and sadistic adults who were unable or unwilling to connect with you as a child.

3. You are traumatized by every encounter you had with arbitrary, sadistic, petty authoritarianism.

4. You are traumatized by a country that is authoritarian, sadistic, and petty toward so many, systemically, and has been so since its inception.

5. You are traumatized by sadism.

6. Your body body and mind feel unsafe to you.

7. You don’t know what feels safe to you.

8. Precious little feels safe to you right now.

9. Elizabeth Warren felt safe to you and now she’s gone.

10. How much un-safety can you feel and continue living?

11. Death was built into your idea of safety.

12. Death is for you infinitely preferable to the experience of sadism.

13. Our current administration is terrifying to you.


How therapy helps with fear

Naomi Shalev Detail.

1. Many of my friends are scared. I am scared. We have a terrible, cruel president who portends more and more pain, insecurity, and death for all of us.

2. And then we have COVID-19, and a government that will make it all but impossible for an epidemic to be managed anywhere near decently in our country.

3. Already people are charged ridiculous sums of money for COVID-19-related hospitalizations. Already, we know, people won’t come forward for fear of enormous bills, lost wages, lost jobs, deportation.

4. And then there are all the captive populations, mostly poor, mostly minorities, mostly abandoned (we still have concentration camps; we have bigger concentration camps; they are places of genocide and torment).

5. In the early 2000s I felt great despair over Guantánamo. Guantánamo is still there. Its population will die out, unfreed. Guantánamo is now all over the US. Children are in it. We are too exhausted and too frightened to do anything.

6. Analyst A gave me a mug once for my birthday. I have loved this mug. Last night the mug broke. I have put the broken mug, its two broken pieces, one inside the other on the shelf in front of me.

7. Life breaks irreparably but then we all — all of us find ways to be happy, at least sometimes, after the wreck. We find ways to be happy. We may not always be happy, but sometimes we are happy.

8. Maybe if we count all the moments we are actively miserable and all the moments we are actively happy, they even out.

9. How can therapy help when the world is so horrible?

10. First, you ask yourself how much of your pain is pain you are actually feeling your own self in this moment and how much is pain you feel because of uncertainty about the future, empathy toward others, or fear of what might happen.

11. Fear has deep roots. The capacity to feel the pain of others also has deep roots.

12. I go back to a time when I was afraid and no one helped me. My parents had no capacity to reassure me in any way. My parents could not even see me. My fear was annoying, negligible, or funny.

13. You learn to keep your fear to yourself. You learn to be tough. You never learn to modulate it. One day, tough is no longer enough and fear spills over the confines of your body and inks the entire universe. You float in terror.

14. No one ever helped me develop a containment system. I don’t have a decent one. My therapist and I have to start from scratch.

15. When your emotionally remote parents experience pain or distress, these feelings become yours.

16. Except you are little and your parents’ troubles are too big and scary and everyone is going to die. Pain evades the confines of your body and inks the sky.

17. You try to help your mom and dad.

18. You cannot help them.

19. You become a child of sorrow.

20. Therapy takes me back to when these injuries happened. My therapist looks with me into the wounds and the chasm. Then we have a do-over, the two of us.

21. Scary things are realistically scary when the confines of your body hold.

22. The pain of others, just like yours, is marbled with good days, resilience, even joy. It is not yours to carry. They are not carrying your pain.

23. You talk and talk and the past loosens its grip on you. Your body grows stronger confines. You hold the pain and worry in small places you can leave and distract yourself from.

24. You allow yourself joy. You allow yourself life.



1. How much trauma is too much trauma? How do we heal?

2. I just read in the Guardian a beautiful extract from a forthcoming book written jointly by the family of Greta Thunberg. This particular bit is written by Greta’s mom.

3. Healing takes a village. It also takes patience. It also takes luck.

4. I feel I have a village and I have patience, but I need a bit of luck.

5. I am a Christian but it’s hard for me right now to think of God. God is for many such a source of succor. For me now he’s a source of anxiety and also rage.

6. God, I cannot deprive myself of anything for Lent because my life could not be more pared down. If I deprive myself of more there will be nothing keeping me alive.

7. God, why do you keep letting me down?

8. Should I “deprive” myself of hopelessness? Is it possible? What will life look like without hopelessness? Should I try?

(Many apologies because I have not being able to provide alt text for images lately. It’s an unforgivable omission but I find it utterly exhausting. I’ll catch up as soon as I can)

books queerness

Deborah Levy’s The Man Who Saw Everything and Queer Trauma

Reviewers have read this as a story of self-absorption, but I see it instead as an investigation of the ways trauma disrupts time.

Saul, the protagonist, is a bisexual man who carries a hefty load of queer trauma. After his mother’s death his father and his brother torture him for being “inappropriately” masculine, and if you know about gender/sexuality trauma, you know that it never, ever goes away. Society will never stop being heteronormative, and every fresh reminder of your unfittingness will break the wound wide open.

When we encounter him, Soul is startlingly beautiful and universally attractive. His girlfriend has turned down his marriage proposal and, since he’s a scholar of the GDR and, fittingly, also a scholar of male dictators and their attitudes toward women (is he himself the women dictators abuse?), he goes to East Berlin to do research. In East Berlin traumatized, queer Saul lives that most heady of all times: the miraculous point in one’s youth when suffering and delight are equally acute and plentiful, and life feels like a torrential, delicious flood of pathos, lust, and love.

No one can stay long in such time. People prolong it with drugs but it inevitably ends. The mind cannot take all that intensity, and life anyway doesn’t work that way.

The non-traumatized mind (or the not-too-traumatized mind) moves on, looks back with nostalgia or embarrassment, incorporates the past into the present through memory, and finds a way to create satisfaction and contentment (and joy!) in adult living. The traumatized mind remains stuck in the past and the past is the present and its presence and absence equally torture us.

Levy is doing two things here:

The first is the thought experiment, would you survive a trip into your headiest days? Could you carry on after the acute re-experiencing of what you had and lost?

The second is an investigation of the mind of those who cannot but live in two places at once — the suffering and excitement of their past, the inevitable disappointment of their present.

I think the thought experiment is not really the point here. I think the point is that saul needs to go back, and back, and back, and both fix the terrible things that happened to him and also relive the grand things that happened to him and, this time, make them last, make them not go away. He needs to be back there and make it all override the way his life has become.

I love levy’s portrayal of the free, whirlwind, reciprocated desire Saul experiences in East Berlin. It’s beautiful and queer and delightful. Saul is innocent and kind, forgetful and selfish; he gets to have a second, less troubled childhood. He is hurt and he smothers this hurt in sex, as queer people sometimes do. Queer sex connects Saul to himself and heals, to an extent, or for the moment.

We don’t really know what the rest of saul’s life is like. We know he is loved, at least by some, and we also know that he fails massively at being happy.

Time is a kindness. Queer-traumatized people, most of us, find some relief in the dulling that time brings. How can one survive reliving freshly the moments when everything was still possible? Maybe one can’t.

Painting: Fred Smilde, Until that Time.