Alexander Petrov

Our desire to go back to “normal” is actually a desire to be with the other people

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Alexander Petrov is a psychiatrist. He has passed a training for clinical supervision that was part of a project of IRCT – BrusselsHe participates in teams, working with violence and torture victims. He is also involved with the supervision of teams that work in institutions. He is also part of the intervision and supervision team of psychiatry interns. Alexander Petrov is also a licensed psychodrama therapist and is providing individual and group psychodrama sessions . In the field of psychoanalysis he is mostly influenced by Lacanian theory. Mr. Petrov is also a full member of the Bulgarian Psychoanalytic Space Association. Mr. Petrov is also a full member of the Bulgarian Psychoanalytic Space Association.

We have been living in a pandemic situation for over a year. What do you observe from March 2020 in the psyche of your patients? Are there any changes?

I do not believe the Covid crisis has led to a change in our psyche, but it has definitely changed some basic attitudes. I am witnessing some insecurity and defensive behaviours. For some people this is a crisis and they start to function accordingly. This is not a mental illness. It is rather the manifestation of some adaptive behaviors in the broad sense of this term. Of course some of the witnessed behaviours are in reality desadaptive, as they do not manage to help the person adapt to the situation. Also, very few people are going through a true crisis. I am also witnessing denial of what’s happening, mobilization of the personal resources (based on the personal capacity), anxiety, “negotiation” attempts, depression and, may be only to a small extent, some acceptance too. As a whole we currently have some crisis reactions present in the community, but to a much lower extent compared to before. In the beginning of the crisis the world institutions reacted actively to the news of the upcoming pandemic. We were not yet in a situation of pandemic, but the massive circulation of the information through the media about “what will happen”, even before it actually happens, resulted in some almost panic reactions. Now it may sound funny, but the disappearance of some food supplies and the toilet paper in 10 days was worrisome. And this all happened before any noticeable pick in the number of the infected people. This was a reaction to the upcoming “unknown”. Once the number of the infected people really rose, and the medical institutions around the world started to face real issues, we were no longer witnessing such panic overstocking reactions. This may seem like a paradox, but it is not.

Why not? What's different about dealing with something "familiar"?

We normally have the capacity to use current spare resources to deal with situations and threads that are familiar. But this is not true for situations and threads that are completely new for us. Even more so, when someone, who knows, or pretends to know what the upcoming thread is, tries to convince us that a true catastrophe is imminent. Thus during the last year we lived through a crisis that has not ended. However, the initial intense reaction to the unknown has turned to a more moderate vigilance. This vigilance raised the following question in our society - what is more reasonable: to limit our rights, because of the crisis or to pay with our health, even lifes, but keep the freedom intact. The second attitude is typical for times of war. As far as my patients were concerned, with few rare exceptions, I have not witnessed specific new reactions triggered by the Covid situation. More often their existing symptoms might have been exacerbated. At the same time a lot of “publications” appeared that mental disorders have recently become widely spread and affect almost every third person. The anxiety about our life and the emotional reaction to a similar situation is not a mental disorder. This is rather a normal reaction to a threat. The lack of such a reaction would have been “out of order”. So, according to me, such publications and statements are extremely irresponsible.

Quite often we live in isolation in the last year. How does it affect families?

People never feel good in isolation. Especially when it is not their own intrinsic choice. The reason for this is that the isolation takes away the opportunity to decide what to do with one’s own life. It is a hindrance to our personal plans execution. What I see as a main hurdle for my patients is the loss of clear border between the personal and the social space. For example, there are different stereotypical behaviours for our family environment and for our work environment. They shape our overall social behaviour. A lot of my patients, and some of my friends too, find it hard to deal with mixing these environments. My patients share that, even when there is no one else at home to distract them, it is hard to achieve the same level of focus in their work, as they were previously able to in the public environment of their office buildings. This social stereotype is not only psychological, but also physical and is related with increasing our vigilance in order to focus on work. This process is not happening at home, or at least is not that routine and automated. Of course, this depends on the specific person and his/her ability to switch between behaviours.

We normally have the capacity to use current spare resources to deal with situations and threads that are familiar.

And when you add children to the situation it becomes even more messy, because the remotely working parents need to deal with even more conflicting behavioural stereotypes in the same physical space, which makes switching from one to the other even harder. This situation seems to be most difficult for each of the family members living in the household and it leads to decompensations. Or in other words -- things tend to break, where there is already a crack: if you were anxious, you may now become even more anxious; if you were prone to depression, you are now even more so. The behaviour in such situations becomes more evasive or more aggressive, depending on the specific deficits of the person. We all have a lot of weaknesses that we normally overcome thanks to our social experience and our ability to control ourselves. However, when we are seriously frustrated, our weaknesses can come up and can manifest in dysfunctional behaviour and destructive reactions.

How do individuals deal with the crisis?

In a pandemic situation we must think about what we can control and what we cannot. There is a common attitude, that everything is under our control, that we can do anything, that all depends on us. In the long run this may be true, but we should also realise that things cannot always be changed overnight. That is why it is very important to be aware which are the things that we can control and change today and which are the ones we should leave for a later period. Establishing these personal limits is very important for keeping the structure of our life, especially in times when other limits have been gone. When we lack the structure of our physical reality, we need even more structure in our psychological realm, even if it is imaginary. The exact limits of this psychological structure depend on the specifics of the individual. Sometimes this is the goal of psychotherapy. When the intrinsic limits have been established, but cannot be kept, this may lead to deepening of the conflicts and violence. So in times of crisis, it is crucial that these inner limits are correctly established, even if they are completely new. Otherwise they will most probably be forced upon us as external restrictions.

You talk about limits and control. Can we find them in the society attitudes, not only in the individual?

To some extent, the unrealistic beliefs about “controlling the world”, similar to what is typical for some mental disorders, can be found publicly shared in our society. Statements like: “We will change the climate.”; “We will communicate with extraterrestrials.”; “We will reinvent ourselves, independently of the reality.” are just a few such examples. At the same time we can hardly deal with the global littering of the planet and more people die from starvation than from the pandemic. I think such beliefs spread, because when we meet too many obstacles in our everyday reality, we tend to compensate by seeing our wishes fulfilled in our imagination. These beliefs can also be traced back to the anthropocentric philosophy of the age of the Enlightenment. However, placing human beings in the center of everything is pure fiction. It is true that some fictions become reality because of what we know and can do, but this does not mean we really control the world (whatever that means). Thus, we do not truly believe that we can control the world. What we actually do is to react to the limitations and the control, imposed on us, with creating this fiction about our own control over the world. This resort to a fiction about our own control is likely to continue until the limitations in our everyday life become too repressive. Then we will leave the fantasies behind and will confront the real life limitations.

Control and lack of control during a crisis?

It seems that in times of crisis it is important both for the society and for the individual how big the threat is and what is the potential for counteracting it. However, in the case of society it is all about operational procedures, while on individual level it is about crisis intervention and therapy, if specific symptoms are triggered. This is true for any crisis. But what is specific in the particular current situation is that we are quite limited (yet not repressed) about how to structure our everyday life freely, how to work and organise our personal space. This makes the placing of clear boundaries between us and the others, between our different roles, between our personal and professional environment quite important.

In a pandemic situation we must think about what we can control and what we cannot.

Quite a few of my patients shared that they experience difficulties doing everything at home: work, be a partner, be a parent, rest, have their own space. This situation is hard for the limitations of our physical body and for some people is unbearable. The physical body limits are imperative and since early childhood they have a leading role in the building of our psychological structure. And this can be disturbed, when people cannot establish clear boundaries. There are many different lifestyles: from urban nomads, traveling anywhere alone with their laptops to families where the parents should work and take care of the school-age children. But regardless of the lifestyle, people have to keep their psychical body limitations intact.

Was our attitude towards death changed?

Death is something imaginary. Our fear of it is actually a fear of the way we will live our life. That is why it is sometimes easier to discuss our fear of death, instead of topics like: what will happen tomorrow? How will I live tomorrow? Is my life worth it? The reaction of the toilet paper overstocking is related to this imaginary fear of death. At the beginning of the first lockdown what disappeared from the stores were things that can be used for months to keep the life going. This is unconsciously related with the fear of death. Death has always been present as a topic, but the truly important question is about the quality of life. That is why I do not think that the attitude of the people towards death has changed. In the field of medicine death is referred to and documented as the final stop of a machine that can no longer be repaired. The field of religion goes a little further, offering a concept and some promises for what happens after death. What people know on a personal level about death is the feeling of loss. Our attitudes toward this loss are a whole different story.

What is the reason for the over-desire to return to the old "normalcy", to something from before the covid-19 pandemic?

Going back to a “past normality” is not something we can do. We can only go forward by creating the new normal. The nostalgia towards the past is a trap, preventing us from adapting to the new circumstances. We should face the new things in our life in a creative way with as little confrontation as possible. Of course not all confrontations should be avoided, as some of our inner conflicts result in productive behaviour and even art forms. As for the destructive conflicts, they may result in criminal activity. Not everyone can overcome the unusual situation that what was “before” is no longer here now. But this is the physical chronology of the situation.

In our psyche there is no chronology, there is no “before” or “after”, there is only “here and now”. What we refer to as “the good old times” is actually our current desires, that are not fulfilled here and now. In this time of justified, yet coercive, restrictions by the authorities over our contacts, a lot of people just want to be “somewhere else” and to communicate with other people. So our desire to go back to “normal” is actually a desire to be with the other people.

Going back to a “past normality” is not something we can do. We can only go forward by creating the new normal.

It is striking that even in this collective crisis, it is as if we cannot unite, we cannot stand on one position and overcome everything faster and together. What caused this?

To a great extent since early childhood our psyche is formed by restrictions imposed by the authorities. It starts with the birth itself, which is a restriction for us to continue our current state of comfort in the womb. Then comes the restriction on being breastfed. Then the restriction on using the diapers for our physiological needs. Then comes the restriction to have mom - the most important object for our survival, at our disposal at all times. Then comes the prohibition to fulfill our sexual desires immediately with the first possible object. Our attitude to these restrictions, or these so called “castrations”, forms our psyche together with our coping strategies on how to avoid these restrictions in order to reach a state of comfort. The threshold of our acceptance of the prohibitions is called frustration tolerance. Some people have very low frustration tolerance. They usually engage in more open confrontation with the suppressing authorities, even more so when the restrictions are related to sexuality.

The reaction to wearing masks is especially acute. Even today, a year after the first lockdown and with enough information that the masks protect us.

Currently there are restrictions on certain behaviours, on our free contacts with the other people, as well as on going out without a mask, that covers the nose and the mouth. It seems that masks are not easily accepted. This may be because covering the mouth and the nose is not only physiologically unpleasant, but may also be perceived as preventing us from freely talking and openly expressing ourselves. However, according to me, there is one more important reason why some people do not easily accept the idea of the face masks. I believe masks bring us unconscious memories from our early childhood prohibitions.

Body orifices are erogenous zones. They are deeply related to sexual desires and their first castrations. Having a mask as a physical barrier in front of these erogenous zones can trigger individual primal reactions from early childhood and turn on the so-called “childhood neurosis”. So apart from the conscious reaction towards the epidemic restrictions, we can also witness some individual specific subconscious reactions. Our attitude towards the restrictions and the authorities is in the base of our psychic structure since early childhood and each time there are new restrictions, we react in accordance with this structure and the social skills we have later added on top of this structure. This is what allows us to internalise any new reality and to find our place in it.

To a great extent since early childhood our psyche is formed by restrictions imposed by the authorities.

Do you think that the generation living through this crisis is experiencing a collective trauma?

No, I do not think we are currently witnessing a true collective trauma experience. The collective trauma usually appears after or during a traumatic event that affects equally all members of a certain community. This creates a specific identity for the people that have been through one and the same life threatening event. Such trauma can later be spread over to people, who have not directly participated in the event, but identify with the victims or the perpetrator. For example the Holocaust caused all kinds of such collective trauma experiences in both the Jewish and Gernam community.

The current situation differs in a number of ways from what we usually define as a possible cause of a collective trauma. First, the scale of this pandemic crisis is much bigger and does not affect only one specific group, community or ethnicity. Many different communities are affected. They have different capacities to deal with the situation and the trauma it may create, based on their specific cultural and social background. Second, the perpetrator in this situation cannot be morally accused of coercion and violence, as it is a virus. Third, the governing bodies of the affected countries and communities react with different levels of restrictive measures. (In Bulgaria, so far, measures have been quite mild, as no real lockdown has ever been applied.). Fourth, even in one country, people working in different industries may be affected in dramatically different ways. I would rather expect that some specific sub-groups will be formed, where the specifics of a collective trauma can be discerned. However, it seems unlikely that there will be some kind of global collective trauma created.

Another specific of the current situation is that social survival is now much more at stake, as compared to the life or the dignity of the threatened group. Whether this will lead to display of collective trauma is yet to be seen. Let’s not forget that the trauma is not the same as the event itself, but it is the consequence of the event.

And what comes after this “overview on-the-go” about the crisis and how we live through it?

I honestly do not know what comes next. This is not simply a natural situation in which a new virus appears, causes a pandemic, sickness and death and somehow unites the survivors. The situation is more political, as the authorities try to control and manipulate the situation. The reaction of the society will not be towards the life threat. People will rather react towards the authorities that try to solve the problems of the individuals with the reality. I will say it again -- for the first time the issue with our social survival is so prominent.

 The interview with Alexander Petrow 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.