ZLATKO TEOHAROV

The virus took away our seeming invincibility

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Zlatko Teoharov is psycho drama trainer, group analysis trainer and supervisor. For many years he has maintained individual and group therapy sessions. He also has twenty years experience as a university professor in Bulgaria and Germany. Zlatko Teoharov is co-founder and chairman of the governing body of the Psychology of the Groups Institute. He is a qualified member of the Bulgarian Association for Psychotherapy and a regular member of the Bulgarian Society of Psychodrama and Group Therapy

Where were you and how was your everyday work life structured when the COVID 19 crisis stroke?

Same as many other people, before the crisis stroke, I was dwelling in some relatively well-known and secure realms. The social systems that I was part of, were pretty balanced and this was creating a sense of identity, belonging and the minimum required level of predictability. As a therapist I am often confronted with the unconscious and strange sides of people, with their fears and insecurities. But I have very seldom seen such a radical “strangeness” before, such collective experience of existential threat and uncertainty. The global spread of the crisis made us realise that in this very interrelated and complex world everything that happens concerns us, no matter who we are and what we do. In one of my group sessions in the beginning of the crisis the following metaphor for the current situation was formulated: “It is as if we are in a car, on a highway, where all the road signs have been violently removed. Everything is out of control. In the rear mirror we do not see the real outside world, but our inner world, which is like an endless terrible series named “we are all gonna die!”

What changed in your work?

The chaos and the insecurity changed people’s experiences. We no longer felt “at home”, instead we were thrown into a “no man’s land”. Each of us, as well as the society as a whole, felt lost. We were drawing new directions, to later scratch them; security measures were being imposed, to be later removed. This happened due to our great desire to remove the threat and the insecurity by creating a new status quo. Meanwhile both the biological virus pandemic and the psychological fear pandemic were on the rise. The virus became a metaphor of a threatening foreign entity being infiltrated in both humans and society. It was flourishing in our body and mind, taking over our own space, destroying healthy parts of our structures. As the french philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy puts it: “When the immunity is weakened, the identity is weakened too”. 

The virus became a metaphor of a threatening foreign.

In the first place, our identity as human beings changed. The virus thrives on the close personal contact, and to prevent that we need isolation and distance. This puts us as human beings and highly social creatures, into a paradoxical situation: to stay physically safe, we need to de-socialize. Our socialization is turned into a risk, into something infected and infecting. In the second place our professional identity changed. Keeping the previous setup for therapeutic assistance in the physical space of the therapist’s office was questioned. Using this setup seemed risky and difficult for quite some time, even more for group therapy or training, which practically became impossible. The chaos affected many international therapeutic institutions, which kept silent for a long time and crossed out the group work as temporarily dead, trying to be on the safe side. In Germany, for example, this process continues even now. However, in this situation when we needed group work but it was impossible to do it, there were some institutions that reacted bravely and took the responsibility. This included the Bulgarian Association for Psychotherapy and the Bulgarian Society of Psychodrama and Group Therapy. The war-like situation led to some good ideas like free online consultations, restart of the individual and group sessions with the help of the online tools. This only showed us how important it is to keep the professional identity independent from the physical setting. The classical setup of a physical meeting between the therapist and the patent became impossible. However, the identity was kept, regardless of the different setting, due to the preserved function and meaning of our work.

What changes have you witnessed in the psyche of your clients during the last year?

I would not be able to generalize about what changed for people as a whole. There are some people that changed and learned something and others that did not. And very often the ones that learned something, got different, even opposite lessons. Crises are not like magnets. They do not point social reactions in one and the same directions. In general I have witnessed the following tendencies:

Crises cause transformations in different directions.

Both the patients and the therapists are affected by the same crisis and this changes the base of their interaction. On one hand this increases the solidarity and the symmetry between them, it makes them feel closer. When the outer frame of the patient/therapist relationship is no longer determinant, this relationship starts to have existential meaning. However, there is also a risk that the boundary between the patent and the therapist disappears. The therapists are challenged to ignore their own insecurity, so that they can turn into a safe space for the other. Another tendency is the growing anxiety and panic triggered by the feeling of being under threat, by the anger and by the irreconciliation with the situation. This is our attempt to deal with the frustrations and the fears that seem unbearable.

Bion says there are two things that trigger panic: events for which we are not prepared and the appearance of disparities in a group. Both of these seem to be present in the current situation. First, we were not prepared for the virus. To a great extent because we ignored the warnings and prefered the illusion that it will always remain “there and then” (in the far away China) and will never come “here and now”. Second, the virus creates considerable disparities among people by the extent to which it threatens them.

How is the isolation affecting the families?

There is an African saying that you need a whole village to raise a child. People around us are the social ties that support the process of raising children. These ties are now torn and pronounced dangerous. Thus the families are left alone in a vacuum, where they need to carry alone a burden that was previously socially shared. This situation made us re-evaluate the enormous added value of the togetherness in the communities and the importance of the community meeting places.

 

What changed in people’s professional roles and processes?

Many fundamental things changed. The big losers from the extraordinary limitations were the economic sectors related to physical human interactions. Other sectors went through a transformation (like switching to home office) to keep their existence. This led to mixing professional and personal roles into spaces that were previously dedicated to our intimate life only. Managing this process is not an easy job.

How do individuals deal with the crisis?

People can deal with their fear either by confronting the real threat or by imagining unreal scenarios. I have seen many different reactions. From patients wearing face masks during our online sessions, to one that totally ignored the COVID topic. Some people were denying the reality in a mood swing between panic and indifference. The thread awakes our archaic fears and fantasies about the out and the inner world, and the search for shelter and identity. Other people accepted the reality and worked with it.

Very often such radical reactions come from the feeling that the person does not feel seen and taken into consideration

The radical reactions come from radical alienation. It would be a mistake to simply judge the corona sceptics, the anti vaccers, or the radical fighters for civil rights. Instead we should try to understand their motives. Very often such radical reactions come from the feeling that the person does not feel seen and taken into consideration.

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

The collective trauma, as any other trauma is “a small death while we are still alive”. These are pathological social events that leave behind “small concentration camps” in our social spaces, in our bodies, souls and attitudes, even when the events themselves have gone. The current situation will probably make a lot of people feel as if they have been deprived of something of high intrinsic value -- the security of the life before, the independence, the lack of restrictions, the freedom, the closeness. This crisis actually affects several generations, but with a different level of risk. And along with the archaic fears it also brings up the archaic rivalry among us. It will be revealing how tolerant the different generations will be to each other in a situation when they are not threatened at the same levels. How much will we care about the Other and how much we will care about ourselves. The gap between the individual and social interest becomes bigger. The privileged groups seem less willing to keep up with the restrictions.

Was our attitude towards death changed?

People change their attitudes to something only if they go through a prolonged suffering. But this change usually exists only during the period of the suffering. Our attitude towards death is currently changed. The virus took away our seeming invincibility and omnipotence and brought us back to our own mortality. We were faced with our vulnerability, with our ability to both be harmed and to harm on our turn. We are not only threatened, we are ourselves a threat to the others (just think about the worries of the children and adolescents not to infect their parents and grandparents). This is a truly traumatic experience.

What is happening with the physical human contact and closeness?

 Our attitude towards our own body is changing, as it is taken over the invisible and menacing Enemy. We are estranged from our own body. We avoid the physical contact due to fear of the virus being activated. When we meet other people, our body stiffens, we avoid spontaneous greeting gestures like handshake and touch. The virus takes away our intimacy, changes our body and our psyche.

What is your forecast about the development of our mental health and the crisis for the next 10 years?

At the moment the virus is mobilising the power of our basic fears towards itself. This creates the illusion that when we deal with this main enemy, we will have no other issues left to deal with. But there it is not reasonable to think about the future after the crisis as a fully positive utopia. I see several possible consequences of the situation:

Our everyday life that was secure and intelligible for quite a long time has lost these fundamental traits. During the last few years we live in a constant sequence of crises (financial, European, terrorist, refugee, climate, health). It seems that the crisis is becoming the Modus Operandi of our time. This means that the feeling of insecurity is only here to stay and grow. So it is extremely important that we learn how to integrate this insecurity in our life. Our everyday life that was secure and intelligible for quite a long time has lost these fundamental traits. During the last few years we live in a constant sequence of crises (financial, European, terrorist, refugee, climate, health). It seems that the crisis is becoming the Modus Operandi of our time. This means that the feeling of insecurity is only here to stay and grow. So it is extremely important that we learn how to integrate this insecurity in our life.

The fast development of information technologies also has a serious impact on human interactions. The online communication has a very different dynamic between the message sender and the message receiver, putting much more stress on our present experiences and downplaying our past ones. The online environment creates new options for interaction, but it also changes the way we define and present ourselves. The line between the real and the imaginary is getting thinner and they will probably merge into a new reality that will impact our identity and sense of belonging. Living in the imaginary can make us fear and avoid real life contacts and the frustrations they bring. Whether this setting will become a "digital infection" or a "digital Promised Land" remains to be seen.

During the last few years we live in a constant sequence of crises

And what changed for you in a strictly personal aspect?

Mostly, I realised how fragile human existence is. I was faced with the illness and death of close people of mine. I also witnessed my patients being faced with the illness and death of their close people. Many of them were allowed to be around their loved ones to say goodbye. I felt their immense sadness, pain and anger. It is as if I was able to take a look in the “humanity horrible hours”. We have a seminar with one of my colleagues, in which we compared what is happening now to the very personal work by Stefan Zweig “The World of Yesterday: Memories of a European”. In his memoir the author says: “We have buried the world of security and the time of glamour and we now live in the shadow.” This shadow was then above Europe, and is now above the whole world. I can only hope it is temporary.

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

Let’s not forget that each of us lives in a subjective world and no matter how common the crisis is we all live through it in a different way. We always see (even in times of crisis) not what we see, but what we are. At the moment we cannot talk about this crisis through the lens of time, as we are still exposed to it. We lack the save space and the needed distance to make valid conclusions. So right now all attempts to understand the crisis and its effects are temporary and may be later revised. At the end I would like to cite Freud, who says that to keep its civility and maturity, humanity needs to contain its aggression (the drive toward death and destruction). Our drive to self-destruction often takes the form of avoiding reasonable thinking and denying the objective reality. Let’s hope that both as individuals and as a society we will stop doing that.

 The interview with Zlatko Teoharov 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.