Everyday, we hear grim news about the various impacts of COVID-19 on people’s lives. In the midst of this pandemic, we, as narrative therapists have a responsibility to cultivate hope and help people sustain their connections to preferred versions of themselves. If we are to accomplish this purpose, it is useful to recognize three main ways in which this pandemic is affecting people’s narratives.
The first is the extent to which problem stories can be fueled by isolation, stress, and reduced activities. Many people are now living narrow lives where adults are preoccupied by work related concerns, and young people are glued to videogames. The lack of varied interactions, responsibilities, and change of scenery leaves people vulnerable to the voice of problems, which tend to infiltrate free time, boredom, uncertainty, or at the other extreme, busyness. For some people, the absence of a commute, reduced structure around their schedules, and the slowing down of life, can also create some lethargy which can easily be interpreted in a problem saturated way. For example, “I’m feeling sleepy, it must be Depression coming back”.
The second effect is how preferred experiences of selves are significantly deprived of the richness of multiple roles, diverse activities, and most importantly, varied relational experiences. A double negative influence can settle in with problems having more fuel and preferred selves having less.
The third is the influence of dominant culture and the medias, which are cultivating experiences of fear, lack of control, and lack of agency in a world that has become unpredictable. Most of the Western world is under the influence of individualism and capitalism, which have long given people an illusion of control over their lives and their future, and defined happiness as arising from status and material possessions. The crisis is leaving some people feeling confused, and struggling to sustain a sense of self-worth and hope. If one fought Worries before the pandemic, the Internet now provides even more fuel and images to fear throughout the night. If one struggled with Self-Doubt as a mother before the lockdown, being confined with three young kids endowed with an endless amount of energy and a lack of interest in schoolwork, can leave you exhausted and discouraged in the evening, vulnerable to the rampant feelings of inadequacy supported by dominant patriarchal discourses.
How can we most effectively counterbalance these effects from a narrative perspective? The following three stories provide examples.
Children witnessing a parent with COVID -19
Two sisters, Sara and Davia, respectively 9 and 11 years old, had been referred before the confinement because of their Worries and Sadness regarding their parents’ imminent divorce. Within a few days of the confinement, they witnessed their mother becoming increasingly sick, eventually being diagnosed with COVID-19, and confined to live in isolation in her bedroom. They struggled with an even deeper sense of Worries and Sadness with no school, activities, or friends, to occupy their time, and very little fuel for their preferred selves. They cried themselves to sleep every night adding to the fathers’ overwhelm as he needed to work remotely to keep his job, and had unexpectedly become a full-time caregiver to three people in dire need. The girls were unable to complete any chores, cried a lot, and spent most of their time reading articles feeding of Worries and Sadness on the Internet.
Video narrative conversations externalized Sadness and Worries for both girls, and numerous effects were mapped out such as how the Worries made them think that there was nothing they could do except waiting passively, and listening to their mother’s coughs at the door of her bedroom. Sadness created scary images and scenes of their mother’s death in their minds. Worries made them imagine their bleak future life. Most importantly, Worries grew bigger from the conversations they had with each other.
We agreed Sadness and Worries made them live imaginary negative emotions ahead of time, that may never be justified, and were not helpful in the present time. We explored if they could be on a team together to reduce the problem experiences instead of allowing it to swell? How could they keep the Worrying problem as small as it could be, given the situation? We questioned whether searches on the Internet made them feel better or worst. Could they use their time to do something else that could actually be helpful? Slowly we started reducing the power of Worries and Sadness and opening space for other ways of being. In particular, we tried to reclaim special aspects of their relationship with their mother, and how she cared for them when they were sick. When the girls were asked what they most appreciated about her, they answered amongst many things that she took “cool photos” and read them bedtime stories. We explored how these experiences could be reintegrated in the new situation, and if the girls could help resource their family with these contributions. Could they take on some of that family “job” for a short while their mother recovered, and give her back some aspects of these activities? The girls agreed to try taking a few interesting photos, and send them to their mother by email to brighten her days. They were very pleased that their mother did appreciate their photos.
The concept of “social distancing” was also redefined. Physical distancing is needed to protect our health, but it does not have to mean isolation. We can shift this meaning from a metaphor of dis-connection to one of re-connection, and interact in new ways. For these two sisters, since their mother was confined in a bedroom, this meant encouraging brief video calls at lunch and dinner, and the girls taking turns to read a bedtime story to their mother every evening. This practice short-circuited the Worries’ passive waiting state which, as we know from brain research, is so detrimental for people. Being active brought forth preferred selves of having agency and feeling helpful, which was thinly described before COVID-19. We
then explored what it was like to be a Helpful person, what joys did this bring, what difference it made for themselves and both of their parents, and how it contributed to their mother’s ability to fight off the virus. Taking on some of their mother’s contributions such as reading bedtime stories also created a sense of connection to her as they were performing and giving back in the same way she had cared for them. Progressively we incorporated moments of being hopeful in our conversations, and noticing hope promoting moments such as the longer periods of time when they didn’t hear their mother coughing. Worries would still at times, get their hearts to beat too fast and slip into questioning whether she was really getting better or not. Mindfulness practices and quick reset breathing exercises were introduced to calm their bodies and focus on the present time. Reclaiming control over the multiple facets of their preferred selves opened the door to other possibilities of being and acting.
At this time, the mother is improving steadily, and the girls’ experiences of agency and preferred selves as Helpers are even more validated. Therapeutic conversations with the mother have not been possible until now. She was so out of breath, coughing and panting from COVID-19 that it was difficult to comprehend her, and she was easily exhausted. When she’ll be fully recovered, it will be valuable to ask her what she discovered about herself, her daughters and her husband; whether the parents saw each other in a new light, if it highlighted some priorities over others, redefined their relationship, and inquire about moments made better by each other’s choices, and the effects it had on her that her daughters took on the role of reading stories and collecting interesting photos for the family.
“If the worst happened than every thing else imaginable is possible” said the Worries Ben, 12, lost his father to cancer Fall 2019, and struggled with acute Worries making him think that if an inconceivable death happened once, then all other imagined horrors can occur too. Before COVID-19 struck our community , therapeutic conversations were progressing slowly but surely. The Worries convinced Ben that it was better to imagine the worst, and prepare for it. The Worries made him think that the lack of sleep worrying about school assignment, and the terrors that his mother may die during the night was worth imagining.
Worries made him think that its better to be on guard, that an earthquake can strike anytime and that a dark view of the world would always be less painful than being faced suddenly with an unexpected crisis. Ben liked to isolate himself and play a “dark song list”, which sustained what the doctors called Depression. There was no point in living life since we were all going to die anyway, there was no time for enjoyment since all homework had to be triple checked for mistakes, and panicky scenarios had to be reviewed before bedtime.
After several weeks of narrative conversations, a few days prior to the COVID-19 lockdown, Ben finally conceded that maybe Depression was skewing everything. Since Depression was making him focus on all the things he regretted not doing with his father, I had asked, “what is Depression making you miss out on now, that you might regret later?” This triggered a shift. It would have been easy for Ben to slip further into Depression and Worry during the confinement, but he didn’t! The absence of school, the reduced homework load, the longer sleep cycles and the constant presence of his mother and sister at home
allowed for a helpful slowing down of their usually rushed lifestyle. Ben found himself with free time, and as I asked him how he might use this time so that Worries and Depression didn’t fill it up, he declared he wanted to try to do art such as sculpting wood animals and writing poems. We explored what might inspire this art, and he decided to focus his inspiration on what would be hopeful. He stated: “Even if all the big things are negative, maybe it’s worth it to see the little things that are positive, and maybe the little things matter too because they eventually add up into a big thing”. Who would have guessed that narrative conversations during the slower pace of life of this global viral pandemic would allow a young person grieving his father to reclaim his life from Depression and Worries?
Replenishing an Empty life before Anger filled it up
Connecting with a preferred self against all odds is also what happened to Billy, 16, who struggled with intense Anger. Billy had been to countless therapists, had been labeled with many psychiatric disorders, and currently refused to talk to the parent’s family therapist.
Billy usually enjoyed playing football, and in particular, picking up physical fights with strangers on the street or in “boring parties”. Billy had reluctantly accepted to talk to me one month before the confinement, conceding to his mother’s pleas following a physically destructive family fight. During COVID-19, the only thing that occupied his life was shooting videogames, from the time he got up at 1pm to when he went to sleep at 3am, as everything else, including his “special school” and watching or playing sports had been cancelled. If Billy talked very little before the confinement, conversations about his now narrow life, by phone, became laborious. After discussing video games, his other interests (none), values (fairness), his and his parents’ efforts to reduce Anger and violence (avoiding each other), their silent family dinners, and meager interactions with friends, I decided to attempt exploring potential preferred selves that would not be otherwise discovered and that could potentially enrich his life at this time. Since Billy struggled with boredom, which made Anger and annoyance more likely, I asked if he would be willing to do an experiment with me. He agreed. I asked Billy to take three photos before our next session, and I’d do the same. The first was of something outside which could be considered beautiful (Billy did not find anything beautiful except an occasional girl); the second photo would be of something zoomed in so closely that I would probably not be able to guess what it was (!); the third was of something in his home that might be interesting to know how it worked. My hope was to “activate” some aspects of preferred selves that were inaccessible otherwise in this narrow lifestyle and attempt to open up possibilities of experience. I did the same and took photos while wondering if Billy would actually do it. As it turned out, Billy did take the photos! The first was a park bench with a dog graffiti-ed on it, the second was a zoomed photo of a lamp stand, and the third of the dishwasher (he hated doing the dishes). These images provided fruitful sources of conversations and opportunities to describe in greater details un-storied aspects of his preferred self such as “sort of liking dogs”; it offered an opportunity to identify the park bench as a calming place, a way of relating, and an experience of curiosity about how things worked. We attempted to connect this to past experiences of preferred self and were able to tie some
of these with long forgotten childhood memories of caring about a dog they used to have when he was 6 years old, and a previous interest for machines. Infusing therapeutic conversations with an invitation to go outside, to be creative, and curious, enriched an increasingly impoverished experience of his preferred self and allowed us to better tackle the problem afterwards. Unexpectedly, Billy asked to do this again, and eventually shared a photo with his mother, which opened possibilities of interactions in the family outside of problem saturated experiences.
As a final observation, I will acknowledge that while many suffer in this pandemic, some young people have been able to improve their lives. Since my agency offers narrative therapy services to 10 schools (serving about 7,000 families) we noticed a general reduction in 6-12 years old children’s problems. There’s the obvious effects from not being in school such as less: bullying, conflict with peers, conflict with teachers, exclusions at recess, fear, anxiety, criticism, pressure to perform, and overloaded schedules. There’s more free time to play, to “be”, to integrate learning, interact with siblings, pets, and home life. There is also more time for bonding, art, cooking as a family, getting to know each other, and possibilities of expressing different versions of selves that were previously buried. Many people call elder relatives more often and realize they are precious. As extremely painful as COVID-19 is for so many people, we can keep some hope that preferred selves of resiliency, courage and appreciation can emerge triumphant.