ADELINA TODOROVSKA

The pandemic is a mirror, reflecting our distorted personal and social features

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Adelina Todorovska is a psychodynamic and psychodrama therapist, member of the expert council of the Bulgarian foundation Psychology of Groups Institute, practitioner and trainer of the group dynamics method of the Austrian Association for Group Therapy InstitutesOAGGpracticing supervisor and board member of Bulgarian Association for Supervision (BAS), a Board member of the Bulgarian Gestalt Therapy Institute, a professional with а vast experience in crisis consulting and critical incidents resolution.

We have been living in a pandemic situation for more than a year now. What are your observations about the changes in our psyche?

The global health crisis radically changed our life. We have never faced such restrictions and uncertainty as individuals and as societies. The threat is invisible, long lasting and with no visible boundaries. This makes it highly destructive for the psyche. The psychological pain and anxiety that build up are breaking the link with our own inner self. We are no longer sure who we are and where we are heading to, we lose identity and inner stability. The situation triggers a wide range of desadaptive reactions and behaviours: from hectic undertaking of tons of initiatives, just to escape from the emptiness and the chaos in ourselves, to painful coma-like lethargy, in which we just sleep, eat and than sleep again, trying to escape everything that is outside our safe home and being unable to follow a normal life cycle. The severe restrictions do not come from closing the restaurants, but from our inability to define ourselves, our future and our life.

And in this situation we need to solve serious existential and moral dilemmas about being on top of the situation and keeping ourselves and our loved ones safe. It is very hard to make decisions when you feel that nothing depends on you. When your consciousness is focused on your vulnerable body. When you feel a deep urge for survival, the civilized human part of yourself may be pushed aside. We see this in the abruptly emerging conflicts around us and the rising acts of violence. We often witness “bloody” conflicts on the street for “the right” to go through first. The person next to you is now getting on your nerves, and this is not only because you need to coexist together for some prolonged time. It is also because in him you see your own vulnerability and helplessness and this makes these feelings strikingly real. Our inner restraining mechanisms do not work well now. That is why we see more and more critical incidents, in which people put in risk themselves and the ones around them.

You talk about conflicts and violence. Can we say that they are present in social media too?

Yes, we can clearly see the irreconcilable division between people on all important topics in social media. We cannot achieve inner reconciliation and this spills out in our interpersonal relationships. The current topics we fight over are the vaccination, the quarantine, the restrictions. They lead to harsh opinion collisions in which the arguments do not matter. We are obsessed by the regressive pleasure of forsefuly imposing ourselves and loudly denying the others. The medical facts and the scientific data are not used for finding the truth and a solution of the situation, but for achieving dominance over the others which are inevitably perceived as rivals. The pandemic brought the “quarrel culture” to unseen high levels.

Is this extreme language part of the so-called infodemic?

 The term infodemic refers not only to fake news, but also to an enormous quantity of conflicting and worrisome information. We are exhausted by our everyday attempts to filter and digest all this information without having a reliable criteria. People start talking about “pharma wars”. It is striking to think that there are political and economical interests behind this global hurdle, that includes so much personal loss and tragedies.

It is difficult to make decisions when you do not feel that something depends on you.

still do not see any signs that we are adapting to the situation. There is no common language, meaning, goals or agreements. The pandemic has turned into a mirror, reflecting our distorted personal and social features. The pandemic world is a metaphor of what the world we have created looks like.

How the life threatening aspect of the pandemic changed the way we think about death?

Before the pandemic death was not a popular public topic. We were more focused on enjoying all life pleasures to the fullest and we needed an extended youth for that. We were devoted to strict procedures for achieving a good look and physical health. The considerable lack of focus on the spiritual dimensions of life made the death discourse unthinkable. 

 It is hard to make a generalisation about how each of us now think about death. Whether we truly realise that we are mortal creatures, depends on the level of our psychological maturity and this level is different for each person. The pandemic reality cannot influence our maturity level so fast. Our fear of death often leads us to play different games: “I will follow the official restrictions, and now I will NOT follow them; I have no mask, nor vaccine, but I do not get sick -- this will simply not happen to me.” We deal with the fear by challenging it bit by bit. Thus we build an illusion that we are in control of the situation and the danger. Such acts of denial, rationalisation and downplaying the situation aim to make it more bearable. Paradoxically, while these techniques help us feel more normal and protect us psychologically, they actually increase the physical risk and make us more vulnerable.

Are you seeing a collective trauma and do you expect that there will be one for the generations living through the crisis?

We used to relate collective trauma to political persecution, violence, war, dictatorship. Now we add the pandemic to this list. But we will be able to consciously discuss this relation only after the pandemic is over. We will probably need years to process the trauma. Currently there is not enough material gathered to reflect on. That is why it is hard to find words to describe the trauma from the situation in its fullness and you talk about fragments of it, using a single image that haunts you as a model for everything that is happening. But you feel that something substantial is missing. You are overwhelmed by the threat and the loss, sinking in the abyss of the missing words to stay there locked and frozen. You feel as if you cannot make even one step, moreover you do not even know the right direction you need to head to. Time is needed for the words to come back and to help us process the suffering. The stories we will start telling will transform our feelings, will help us overcome the losses and will ease our pain to push the trauma in the history archives.

Now, more than ever, we need to feel connected with the others and think about them as much as we think about ourselves.

If we have to talk about collective trauma now, let’s focus on what we can achieve collectively. We face this threat together and it seems that the only way to overcome this tremendous chaos is our shared responsibility. This is an important lesson in a time of a widespread narcissistic individualism and a massive “selfie” culture of self-centred public display. Now, more than ever, we need to feel connected with the others and think about them as much as we think about ourselves. Тhe other people are turning from a source of support to a source of danger. Our biggest challenge is to keep the community feeling and the importance of the social ties regardless of the physical limitations and danger. 

The official channels seem to disregard the mental health topic.

The official channels seem to disregard the mental health topic. They do not address the question about the psychological price we pay for leaving this highly limited life. Now people, who are more prone to anxiety and hypochondria, claim the right to control the others and thus rationalize their own fears. No data is collected about the social and psychological damage of the restrictions. The big question now and in the near future will be: how to save lives without killing the livelihood and the vitality of life itself?

The close human contact is part of life’s vitality. What are the coping mechanisms of the individual now, that achieving closeness with the others is questionable?

There are different coping strategies. After a recent ski trip one of my clients realised and shared that it was not the race down the slopes that she was truly after. The more important stimulus turned out to be her desire to be among people that had the same experience as hers. The shared experiences, the exchanged glances and words in the mountain hut create a sense of togetherness. It is the same feeling when we go to a concert or a cinema. We connect to each other with the help of the common symbolic space we share at this moment. This connectedness soothes us, heals us and stimulates us. We feel seen and belonging. When this connectedness is missing, the person is weakened, his/her connection with life is becoming fragile and this may lead to internal crisis and a psychological meltdown. Same idea can be found in Murakami’s text: “when you do not share your thoughts, your thoughts start to share you”. .

How are the children affected by the life in isolation, the constantly changing restrictions and the pandemic as a whole?

The children’s perception of the crisis and the changes will be highly influenced by the attitude of their parents. Adults’ fears and tension easily go towards the children. The children’s connection with the reality is fragile, so it needs stable benchmarks like unambiguity, certainty and predictability in each situation. The worries of the kids will find an outlet while they play. Parents will have to overcome themselves and make an effort to present a more agreeable version of the situation, having in mind how much the children need stability and security.  

The situation is quite challenging for the teenagers too. To naturally rebel against the parents, the teenagers need to be connected and to belong to groups that are outside their families. This part of the maturation is now hindered by the pandemic measures. The relationships are getting tenser and the families need to look for a delicate balance between the natural needs of the child and the risk for the family and to try to avoid more serious psychological damages that can be harder to mend in the future.

Did something in your work change during the last year?

The office of the therapist is the quiet and secure place, where you can get together with your experiences, sufferings and hopes. There you look for a way ro rebuild yourself, you collect and reconcile parts of yourself and you separate them from the imposed outer damages. Now that there is a real danger, to connect with your traumatic feelings and to share them allows you to free yourself from their influence.  

We have the freedom to create, to rebuild, to develop ideas and new meanings.

After the initial shock and the unsurmountable collective threat and numbness, today it seems that the sacred personal experiences take the lead in the therapeutic sessions again. Free space for other discussions than the pandemic is gradually appearing, although the Covid topic is still present. The personal topics are about the substantial things: the closeness, the loneliness, our creative side, our limitations. In the office of the therapist we reveal how the isolation can also be a form of self-sheltering. Alone and undisturbed by the outside temptations, we can hear ourselves better. The things in our lives have a different value now -- our devotions and passions seem a little distant and useless. Other goals, that are not so shiny and ambitious, but may be closer to our identity, come out as more important. What we chose to do is determined by the innate human need to create, as well as our need to make our everyday life more predictable. Thus in the little space of our personal world we achieve part of the lost normality by distancing ourselves from the chaos outside. We now find the motivation to come back to some long postponed projects and decisions. Life is searching for ways to keep its vitality and wholeness.

Are there any lessons that we can learn in the current situation?

During the last year we were forced to realise and accept our vulnerability, our shorter perspective and the possible death that was hiding behind the curtain of uncertainty. What is the crisis giving us? Actually a lot, if we manage to keep our sanity. The deprivation increases the desire and awakes the creativity. We find out new roles and expertise, we go deeper in the things that happen around us. The limited contacts make us more open and responsive for the ones that have stayed around. We are forced to stop and see where we are -- our ways forward and our ways to nowhere. The price of our time rises -- we now know that we do not know how much time we have left. We dare to eliminate everything unneeded — everything that is not truly “ours”, the draining relationships, the vain choices and the empty words. Thus we gain more time. The well-known mathematician and philosopher Wittgenstein says: “the time you do nothing is the time when your soul is at work”.

What is your forecast for the next few years, having in mind the pandemic situation?

Right now we see the future full of uncertain hypotheses. The different generations will find their own discourse about themselves and the reality. Our individual state as always is mostly influenced by our subjective interpretations. We may see ourselves as victims of losses and restrictions that are hard to accept in the context of our short lifespan. But we are survivors, dealing with hardships that were unthinkable before the crisis, for which there were no algorithms and benchmarks before. All we have is ourselves and what we have built. In the disturbed balance there is a resource for a change. When we defeat the fear, we have the freedom to create, to rebuild, to develop ideas and new meanings. These choices cannot be taken away from us.

The interview with Adelina Todorovska is part of my project "How we live now?", which explores the psychological consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and presents the professionals from the frontline of the soul. Read more.

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Autor: Vera Gotseva

Vera Gotseva is a journalist, photographer, photography educator and author of the project "How we live now?", documenting our psyche and inner experiences in the COVID-19 pandemic.