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After A Surreal Year Like This, How Do We Center Ourselves Again?

For many, Timothy Tate says, gaining '2020 vision' has been traumatic. Let this holiday stretch bring reflection. The best gift you can give: listening

An oil painting by John Felsing. Read more about it at bottom. Image used courtesy of the artist.
An oil painting by John Felsing. Read more about it at bottom. Image used courtesy of the artist.

By Timothy Tate

As a septuagenarian who tries to help people deal with modern existence, the years for me have seemed to pass like episodes in a Greek drama acted out on the stage of our singular lives. We celebrate the departure and arrival of years both collectively and with birthday parties for another one notched on the staff of our earthly story. 

I am among those who will not be sadder to say goodbye to 2020—the year that was supposed to spin around the theme of "2020 vision."

A quarter of a million people are absent from the Thanksgiving table this year due to Covid. There’s no bringing them back. They are the mortal casualties of this annus horribilis but it's taken a toll on all of us. The year, of course, wasn't all bad. My daughter got married, I spent more time outdoors and our country looks like it will survive.

But there's some serious healing that needs to happen.

Since we’re in the American West, allow me to use a regionally-appropriate metaphor.

2020’s downcast infamy is scorched into our collective psyche like a brand on the hide. Like any branding there is an arc in the procedure leading to the red hot iron’s smoking stab and the permanent mark it leaves. How has the arc of 2020 branded our individual and community psyche? Will our mountain towns return "to what they were" or are we now in a permanently different place?

The purpose of branding is to make vivid who owns livestock. The mark can signify the personality of the people who use it, a ranch’s habitat, or a fanciful interpretation of a home on the range. If we were to sear a brand on the wild year of 2020, what would it be? Might it be a symbol of confusion and trauma, a sigh of relief, middle finger salute, or maybe a rose with thorns?

Most of us are tired, many feeling as if in this disrupted year we've aged disproportionately or lost time. While each of us is imprinted by the effects of singular events, together we continue to move through a span of time that has been unlike any other and I imagine younger generations will be dealing with residual effects for decades to come.

As a psychotherapist witnessing the toll that the pandemic’s impact on our mental health has taken, the brand I’d choose to represent what I’ve seen in patients would be a combination of anxiety, dread, loss, depression, and reactivity. It would look like a surreal symbol whose handiwork bore the influences of Hieronymous Bosch, Salvador Dali, Stephen King and Frida Kahlo for her painting representing death by a thousand cuts.

Our modern psyches are geared toward facing unexpected challenges but it fares poorly when the crisis is not situational but chronic. In other columns for Mountain Journal, I have explored how our mind/body vessel is battered when the normal stress of responding to a crisis slips into a distressed state—stressed about stress—and then plunges into a dysregulated state.

There, a toll can be taken on the body and the mind no longer is capable of regulating its emotional states. Think thoughts in the mind that cause us to withdraw, not exercise, eat too much or too little, and internalize stress instead of releasing it.

This somatizing of distress can be converting into emotional trauma that can be evoked by all manner of stimuli: news broadcasts, newspaper articles, inflammatory rhetoric, hearing of local spikes in Covid-19 numbers, family visits featuring divergent views on the seriousness of the pandemic or politics, and most critically our own internal mental fatigue of dealing with real fake news devoid of facts.

Our brain is built with a self-preservation function that assesses and prioritizes signals of perceived threats. Once we subconsciously establish our method of managing our approach to danger, say by wearing masks, social distancing, and refrainining from large gatherings, our brain believes we have taken care of the problem.

That’s like saying I know what a bear looks like, sounds like, and behaves and I have bear spray to protect myself and will be composed enough to pull it out of its holster in time to spray it accurately if a bruin should charge.

The challenges to our mental health in these days are many. We tend to ignore the hundreds of subtle reactions our bodies are registering, not recognizing their impact or how we’ve tried to subdue them until a car cuts us off in traffic and we erupt with exaggerating offense.

In a recent interview, Bruce Springsteen spoke about the “talking cure” being valuable for him. Having someone to whom you can release anxiety through communication is the heart of psychotherapy.

To be heard without judgement is like coming upon a hidden freshwater spring when parched. There are elements in compassionate listening that are transferable beyond the consulting room. As obvious as it might seem, the ability to relax the compulsion to express our personal agenda or defending our ideas in favor of listening to the other’s words/feelings is the core skill of the talking cure. And you don’t need a therapist to be there for someone else or identify a person who will really listen to you.

Another key element is creating an environment that is not hurried or harried. If you are familiar with British television dramas there is a move to the tea kettle in times of a distressed visitor seeking comfort. Assuring the other that you have heard what they have revealed by summarizing what has been spoken confirms compassion. Be wary of giving advice too quickly. Answers, as smart as you think you are, are overrated. The sensation of being seen and heard is often enough medicine.

Let’s return to the branding analogy. One of its primary uses in our interior West is to identify lost or stolen livestock. There are a thousand ways to get lost in the terrain of states like Montana where hidden gullies or unexpected rain turns the path into impassable slick clay gumbo. We’ve all been seared by Covid, some deeper than others, and it’s important that all of us try to be aware of those who feel lost and need help finding their way home again.

EDITOR'S NOTE: About the painting at top titled Strange Procession by John Felsing. The artist writes: 

"Looking at the stars has been a lifelong passion. For in the mystery of the heavens I have discovered so many answers to so many dreams. Of course, the questions remain infinite as I get lost in the depths of the night. Over time I learned that being lost was exactly where I wished to be with my work, for only when lost do I feel I am getting anywhere. You see few stars near the horizon, even on the darkest nights. The few present here were like angels hanging onto the wind. I’m not certain why this atmosphere pulled so hard at my heart, I only know that it did. Perhaps it was my response to walking ‘round midnight, yet again, my home away from home. Another dark painting, rife with cobalt and melancholy - there is no place I would rather be. Allow me to share this poem below that seems to convey what nature offers us as a place to escape.

"There is a pleasure in the pathless woods:
There is a rapture on the lonely shore:
There is society, where none intrudes, 
By the deep sea, and music in its roar:
I love not the man less, but nature more...."
                                   - Lord Byron

Timothy Tate
About Timothy Tate

Community Psyche columnist Timothy J. Tate, who lives in Bozeman, Montana, has been a practicing professional psychotherapist for more than 30 years. For decades, he had an office on Main Street behind The Blue Door. He still works with clients downtown.
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