Resilience in the Time of COVID-19

I first published these thoughts on 9-11-09. I thought I would share them with you again today in 2020 in a different context that is no less serious, traumatic and important to us and our mental health as Americans. In the first iteration of this column, I reflected on the tragedy of September 11th and how it had affected all of us. In 2001, we suddenly lost our sense of safety on our own soil. We lost two thousand nine hundred seventy seven American lives. My oldest daughter and namesake, now a young woman with five children of her own, rehearsing to perform in a show that did go on in spite of the hate extended to us by our attackers, was to turn seventeen years old the day after the attacks. It was a time of fear, grief, and pain, but also a time that saw Americans rally around and support each other in ways that we are still struggling to regain today.

It was a Tuesday in 2001, late summer/early fall in South Carolina. Bright blue sky, wonderful smells in the air, and just a hint of the changing season. Enough to make you wish for pumpkins and turkey and pan dressing and kicking piles of leaves and smelling smoke. Enough of all this to make you feel safe, free, and wonderful. Enough to make you proud to be an American. This time around, it was early spring of 2020, March, more bright blue skies and warming temperatures and the hope that this season always brings.

I was working in the mental health center that Tuesday morning, doing what I have now done every Tuesday morning for over twenty-nine years. I was talking to people with psychiatric illnesses, some of whom had been hospitalized against their will for reasons of dangerousness or potential for self-harm. In other words, my job that morning involved making sure that the most vulnerable among us were given a fair shake by the mental health system and the court system, and that if they had improved sufficiently, that they would be released from the hospital that day. How American, yes? In 2020, I was working a normal week, using my office in the mental health center to welcome patients, read emails, enjoy my coffee, all the normal things that I had been doing in that very space for years.

After the second interview, if memory still serves, a staffer ran into the room and told us that the patients and hospital staff waiting their turns to see us in the adjoining room were all glued to the television. It seemed that a small plane had just had a terrible accident, crashing into one of the World Trade Center towers in New York City. How terrible and sad, we all thought vaguely, going on about our work for the next few minutes, not thinking more about it at least at that instant. In 2020, we got wind of a viral illness that had originated in China, but that now appeared to be spreading to other countries. We learned that we had a small outbreak of illness caused by this novel coronavirus, way out on the west coast in Washington state, affecting a handful of people. How sad, we thought, not having any idea what was about to happen to us.

Soon, that same staff member came back with astonishing news. It seemed that the plane that had hit one of the twin towers was a much larger plane, maybe even a jet airliner. No, we all thought, at least to ourselves, how could that happen? Huge planes don’t just lose control and crash into skyscrapers. It just doesn’t happen. We soon went from fifteen cases that we were told would go away to dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of cases of the illness that were caused by this new virus, now called COVID-19.

The next few moments, really the next few hours, changed all of our lives forever. When we understood what was happening, as the first tower smoked and burned and helicopters began to buzz as did television commentators, we stood riveted to the floor, all of us standing up, restless and vaguely afraid but not knowing what we were afraid of, not knowing whether we should just go on about our days or wait to see if we were going to get new marching orders. Do we rush out and buy supplies, do we wash our hands, do we wear masks, do we stay at home? The crash of the second plane into the second tower, with the graphic video footage that almost all Americans have seen, was surreal. We were being attacked. The United States was being attacked. The coronavirus began its relentless march across our nation. We were again being attacked by something that we did not fully understand, to an extent that would only become clear later. I have always loved history. I thought to myself, if there had been the real time coverage we have now in 1941, this is what Americans would have felt like as Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. Just like the Gulf War and other incidents in recent years, we were all witnessing history being made, terrible history that would affect everything from how we traveled to how we looked at neighbors who didn’t quite look like “us” any more. This time, we would shelter in place for many weeks, rarely venture out from our safe zones and fear even those who did look exactly like us.

We went through the rest of the morning in a fog. All of us wanted to make sure our families were safe. As crazy as it feels today, I believe that we all thought that attacks could happen anywhere the rest of that day, even in South Carolina. We made plans to attend church services that night, most of which had been cobbled together as prayer services for the victims as well as for the safety of all of us who remained in America that night, shocked, afraid and angry. My family did something else that a lot of other families did. We met for a meal of comfort food, harkening back to that age-old tradition of gathering around a table and breaking bread together, offering solace and strength to each other. In 2020, we gradually began to understand that these ways of comforting and supporting each other were potentially deadly.

One of the most symbolic things we did as the next few days and the real tragedy of it all became so apparent was to display American flags everywhere. We put them on our cars, on our office doors, on our windshields. Today, we wear masks, gloves and protect ourselves and those around us by these outward signs of the current pandemic. We follow arrows on the floor of supermarkets and stand six feet apart in checkout lines.

In 2001, we remembered that tragic day, September 11th, when so many innocent Americans died. We remembered and honored a new crop of American heroes who rose to the occasion in service to their country. We remembered when the American spirit, so often dampened, burned brightly at ground zero in New York City through dark days and even darker nights of digging, searching, rescuing, and recovering. We remembered the fear, the anxiety, the terror, the anger and the relief when we knew that the worst of the initial attacks was over, though the aftermath was just beginning.

In 2020, we remember the day we heard that the virus was coming for us. We honor those men and women who have worked tirelessly on the front lines, caring for the sick and the dying, exposing themselves to the risk of illness and death. We see the American spirit around the country in the nightly banging of pots and pans and ringing of bells that acknowledge healthcare workers. We once again deal with the fear, anxiety, terror, anger, grief and loss that have accompanied the first wave of this pandemic, even as we know that the second wave, the aftermath, may be coming again.

We remembered. We honored. We grieved. We remember. We honor. We grieve.

In 2001, we were not just fighting a war on terror. We were all struggling and fighting to regain a lost sense of humanity and brotherhood and common cause. We were fighting to be a global people who could live together and celebrate our differences as well as our commonalities. We were fighting not to be isolative and separate and exclusive in the global sense, for if we did so, we would all surely die one day, all of us the world over.

Today, we fight not just a war against the invisible enemy that is COVID-19, but against another assault on our humanity, our global brotherhood and our ability to support our survival. We once again see the stark contrast between our differences and our similarities, knowing that attention only to the former will kill us, and nurturing the latter will ensure our continued residence on Earth. We are learning that to live, to defeat this enemy that does not discriminate in its desire to infect and kill us, we must separate from each other. In separating, we bind ourselves tightly together to insure that all get the best chance at life.

I will ask that you take some time to reflect today. Take some time not to grieve just the losses we have endured due to COVID-19, but to consider the loss to humanity as a whole. As I write this, 7.7 million people around the world have been infected with the coronavirus. Four hundred thirty thousand have died. When many of us die, each of us dies just a little right along with them. Be vigilant. Be resilient. Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. Get help for physical symptoms, emotional trauma, sadness and grief. Be strong. Just like September 11th, this is a watershed moment not just for the United States, but for the world. We will survive it, and we will be the stronger for it.

Adversity

I’ve been intrigued by the recent presidential debates and interviews and analyses and pundit commentary.

One of the issues that has come up has been how the candidates handle adversity, even at this very early time in the 2016 race.

They say that Donald Trump is in it for the thrill and the fun and sheer ego-boosting ride that is pre-caucus and pre-primary politics, when the love of the American people can be, all at once, embracing, supportive, petty and fickle. When it is no longer fun, the story goes, he will be gone too.

Ben Carson is too quiet, too low-energy, too easy-going to be the Chief Executive, his detractors say. The man is a trained neurosurgeon, but he is still portrayed by some as soft and weak and not presidential.

Jeb Bush has come across as hurt, frustrated, angry, and apathetic, a candidate whose temperament might have been better suited to 1950s politics than today’s fast-paced, multi-tiered, multi-threat politic landscape. “I have better things to do than…” he said.

The Democrats are not immune from this kind of talk either. Hillary has come out on the  other side of fifteen days of talks, hearings, attacks and smears designed to knock her down and keep her down for the count. She has not ceased to bounce back up and arguably has the Democratic nomination locked up even before the first snowy caucus is held in Iowa.

Adversity comes in many forms for the presidential hopeful. If he or she cannot handle the heat of the pre-primary kitchen, how in the world can they ever be expected to stand the blazing heat of the world stage after victory is won? This part of the process is by design a winnowing, a series of tests to see who has it, and who doesn’t.

I have had some adversity in my own life of late. I’m sure you have too. I sometimes think that I finally have it all figured out, that I have my ducks in a row, that my plans are sound and that my path to success and victory in life is clear and obstacle free.

Then, something happens.

Someone does something that I am not prepared for, pulling the rug out from under me.

Someone says something that makes me wonder about their allegiance, their resolve, their loyalty.

Someone does something that makes me doubt the goodness of man as a whole, frustrating me and making me angry.

It is at these times that I must sit myself down and give myself a pep talk, a gentle chiding.

Sure, I could always take the easy way out, and many times I have been tempted to do so. Stop trying, stop caring, stop being flexible, stop coming up with innovative solutions and new answers.

I could quit because sometimes life is just not fun any more. I could abdicate my responsibility to my coworkers, friends, family, or others who look up to me or count on me to be strong.

Sometimes I simply do not feel that strong.

No matter.

Life goes on, with all its wonderful surprises and deep emotions and withering assaults and twisting, turning, enigmatic shifts of perspective and vision. If we want to live life, really live it, we can’t bow out at the first sign of heartache or trouble or difficulty. Not in the arenas that we hold dear.

We must be steadfast in the face of adversity.

Adversity builds character.

Character holds us up, buoys us in times of great stress and trouble. Without it, we drift and are tossed about like so much chaff on the wind.

Adversity, whether for presidential hopefuls or for you and me, is the crucible in which the ore of resilience is refined.

Embrace it, face it head on, and you will be stronger.

F You

This is a reposting, with slight modifications, of a piece I did not quite four months ago after a tornado touched down just miles from my boyhood home in Georgia. With all the angst surrounding cancer and the destruction of prophylactic treatment, plus the devastating news of the deaths of more children in a monster tornado strike in Moore, Oklahoma, yesterday, I felt the need to repost it. Please bear with me. We’ll get back to the emergency department shortly. For now, let’s support those who labor in the hospitals of Oklahoma, saving lives, comforting families and putting a community back together one stitch at a time. Godspeed, Moore, Oklahoma. 

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F4.
Incredibly strong tornado.
207-260 mph.
Strong frame houses lifted off foundations and carried considerable distances to disintegrate; automobile sized missiles fly through the air in excess of 100 meters; trees debarked; steel re-inforced concrete structures badly damaged.

Devastating damage.

We had a strong storm front come through the midwestern United States yesterday. In the center of the ragged slash of weather on a weather app was the hard, bright-red mark of destruction. Pretty on the screen, destructive on the ground.

Destroyer of worlds.

Reports began to trickle in from a small town in Oklahoma of a monster twister that had descended from the blackness of the cloud bank, a mile-wide kiss on the the ground, crossing the landscape and leveling buildings like they were made of children’s wooden blocks. Not quite an F-4, but terrifying nonetheless. Reports of multiple deaths began to trickle in. Many of the dead were children. Veteran reporters cried giving the details on the ground. It was an emotional nightmare for all.

When I see such destruction I think of my friends, family and aquaintences who struggle with cancer. My aunt who succumbed to ovarian cancer. My mother, who is a breast cancer survivor. My friend, who is more than five years past a diagnosis of testicular cancer. Another friend who lives with metastatic breast cancer. Like an F-4 monster, the disease drops unexpectedly from the sky. Pretty colored X-rays and scans reveal the destructive power underneath. Sirens go off. The mind screams take cover, take cover! The body sometimes is only grazed, shrapnel cutting but not killing. Other times, the impact is devastating. Nothing looks as it did before the storm. The landscape is flattened and only rubble is left.

Is there anything good about F-4s and cancer?

What an odd question, you think.

Not really.

These scourges, while leaving city blocks and body parts in absolute ruin, are often surgical in their devastation. That is, a few hundred yards away, or a few inches outside the margins, the sun is shining, the tissue is healthy and life goes on. Friends rush to help. Prayers go up. Communities, wonderful communities form. Support is not only offered but insisted upon. Rebuilding begins-immediately-in the aftermath of the siren’s wail and the surgeon’s knife.

When the horror and the shock and the denial and the anger and the tears and all of it subsides, victims become empowered survivors.

Strong!

The chorus goes up.

F you, tornadoes. We will rebuild.

F you, cancer. I am scarred, but alive.

We’re still here.

F you.