Thought Virus?

Although we have yet to see a coronavirus death in Oregon, the threat of an epidemic is looming in the air.  As a wife, parent, and psychology intern I am compelled to recognize that this experience is likely to make people feel a very real threat to their lives and more importantly, their families.  On that note and in my delirious state (after being sick for several days), I decided to write my response to the situation, if for no reason other than to share my experience.

On Thursday, February 27th, at a staff meeting, a supervisor notified us of the impending threat and our role as mental health care providers in supporting clients and modeling self-care if we are feeling ill.  That day, I came home, only to hear Elise’s nasally cough.  I myself, was beginning to feel my usual chronic back pain flare up unlike it had in years.

By Friday morning, I was still in severe pain while my daughter was sick enough to keep home.  She’s the kind of student that actually loves going to school.  In other words, she rarely misses and feels about as disappointed about missing school as I do about missing client sessions. 

The first presumed case of coronavirus in Oregon was diagnosed in an employee at Forest Hills Elementary in Lake Oswego.

By Friday afternoon, I started to feel sick.  At the same time, there was a news report that said they had their first presumptive case of coronavirus in Oregon. It just happened to be an employee of a nearby school in which I have extensive contact with as a therapist. It was a community outbreak – as in they do not know the source.  In other words, “it’s already out there among us.”  The actual horror began to sink in, that I have extensive contact with many people associated with the town, as well as the school, where the first presumptive case is employed (i.e., Lake Oswego).

So here I was, beginning to feel sick, and instead of worrying about me catching a lethal virus, I’m instead worrying about the many people I have been in contact with over the last few weeks; anywhere from teenagers to people with chronic health issues. I was feeling terrible around the idea of having to cancel sessions and postpone my next group for my research workshop, yet the idea that I could spread something that could affect my client’s lives in such horrible ways took significant precedence. In the back of my mind, there was this voice who kept saying, “don’t be a drama queen; it’s no big deal; it’s only 3000 deaths in a megalopolis – it might not look like that here.”

Struggling between rising to action while not making a mountain out of a mole hill, I contacted my dissertation chair and intern director who both said, “it’s your call” and “better safe than sorry”.  I sensed a hint of encouragement to make my own decision as a budding professional and “expert in the field” (a phrase with another set of complicated emotions for me these days).  It was an obvious decision considering what was unfolding around us. My research can wait for the welfare of my participants. At the same time, I was concerned that the workshop I’m currently running won’t count as data.  I felt a little better when I realized that if anything, it might make the workshop that much more significant if I am able to get significant results.  Or, it could invalidate it.  Either way, it would still get me to graduation and a doctorate diploma I have been working on for over a decade and one I never thought I could ever obtain in the first place.

Eventually, I let these dissonant, terrible and pleasant thoughts, go. I began watching the news from all possible sources (even if I couldn’t understand the words – I tried reading the heightened senses behind their expressions). We watched reports from China that showed social unrest. People were being forcefully taken out of their homes against their will while forced quarantines were rampant (i.e. welding doors shut to apartment complexes).  We watched as it spread across the globe like a tsunami that looks non-threatening until it gets too close.

We shared the information with our teenagers; discussing it with as much clarity as we could muster. We laid out what we knew as consistent reports of what was happening in the world already and what was just beginning here in the US.  We realized the inevitability of experiencing a true fear (an actual threat), an event we might actually need to be prepared for (like having enough beans and tortilla mix in the pantry – hah), while not invalidating our experience by telling ourselves over and over, “it’s no big deal! It’s probably only the flu.”

Instead, I told my family, we might feel panicky at times and that’s okay.  It means our instincts to survive are kicking in for an actual possible threat.  We also have to remember the importance of attending to our minds as we attend to our biology.  It’s funny to me that the name of the disease is “corona-virus” – in that corona means “crown”. I contemplated the irony that this could become a “thought virus,” one that could consume or freeze someone in fear from watching it quickly spread across the globe, not realizing that their stress is contributing to weakening their immune system to a level where they might struggle with actually fighting it off. We need to remind each other when we were “supposing” what might happen and return focus to what is actually happening in the community around us, while also validating that this isn’t like the flu. It’s more aggressive than that. People around us might die.

In other words, try to not minimize our own fears – this is scary! Also, don’t get “swept up in our own bullshit” (i.e. – “It’s the apocalypse!”). If it is the apocalypse, remember that the meaning of the word itself means “change” and in that respect, then yes – it’s one of many apocalypses that we have already continually adjusted to (like 911, Hurricane Katrina, Tsunami in Japan, Chernobyl – to name a few).

Abandoned corridor in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, Pripyat, Ukraine.
Credit: Pablo Bonfiglio Getty Images

The other side of the coin, beyond the idea of fear, concern, terror, panic – we had to admit to ourselves that there was a part of us that really enjoys watching the terrible things. We watch it for the same reason many of us watch shows about serial killers – out of morbid fascination.

Twenty One Pilots – Ride

We also had to admit to ourselves that sometimes, fear is fun. Why else would we make such things as rollercoasters? When we recognized and acknowledge our morbid curiosity, we realized how much that could feed into the underlying panicky feeling. Underneath that, we are enjoying the fact that something could drastically change our society and how we relate to each other.

When you add them up: morbid curiosity, a desire for change, and an impending global pandemic, it sounds like the perfect storm for a thought virus. I am reminded of Twenty One Pilots lyrics from the song Ride, “Yeah, I think about the end just way too much. But it’s fun to fantasize,” and “I’ve been thinking too much. Help me!”.

The hubby and I have been catching ourselves and each other supposing how this will all unfold – reminding each other that this isn’t nothing – this is something. At this point the only thing we can really do is acknowledge it, take steps to do better (clean and sanitize – all the things – etc.), and remember what’s important; self-care (physical and mental), family care, community care, and not spreading ‘assumptions and generalizations.’ In other words, don’t be cruel to people of Asian descent because we’re afraid.  On the other hand – every single person within the community is not an asshole – and – sometimes, there’s one in every group. It’s okay to go on with our lives. We know how to take care of ourselves.  Most of the time, we know how to take care of each other too.

As cheesy as it sounds – don’t forget that at the end of Pandora’s box is the white flower, hope.

Before you get to that flower is a lot of chaos and “unknowing”. I know a lot about the place of unknowing – it’s what I call the darkness. To me, the darkness does not hold evil or bad – it holds all possibilities waiting to be selected and brought into reality (i.e. the light).

It’s scary being there, and that’s okay too. I like to share songs instead of memes. In the darkness, when I was alone trudging through an insurmountable graduate degree while in severe poverty, this song used to soothe me. It continues to this day.