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Love in the Time of COVID-19

By Michael Pyrgas, licensed clinical psychologist.

COVID-19 pandemic, and the state-imposed quarantine measures to contain it, has caused a disruption of an unprecedented scale to the daily routines and behaviours of millions of people around the globe. Undoubtedly, this drastic alterations in daily routines and the virulence of COVID-19 has engendered anxieties about one’s safety and survival. These anxieties can have a profound effect on intrapsychic reality and reactivate latent traumatic experiences.

These intense mental stressors exposed some of the most primitive defences and deepest
pathogens and distortions both in some people and in family relationships. For example, some citizens do not seem to realise the seriousness of COVID-19 and continue gather with their loved ones. Others, contravene the quarantine measures without having the necessary documents. Others assault police officers who oversee the implementation of the measures. Some take advantage of the relatively empty roads to race with their vehicles. Domestic violence has increased significantly. These behaviours anger and puzzle the state and the public as to why it is happening. Let us attempt to illuminate some of these.

COVID-19 forced people to face their unavoidable frailty and mortality. This painful realisation as well as watching the suffering and death of other people, caused trauma-like emotional reactions, apprehension, and insecurity. It threatened the stability of personality, causing regressive tendencies and activated hibernating archaic mechanisms even in the most well-adjusted personalities. The mind deployed powerful defences to desperately steer away from the unbearable realisation about its own finiteness and the terror and despair in the face of annihilation. These defences include splitting, primitive denial, omnipotence, narcissistic absorption, and idealization-denigration.

Specifically, the mind attempts to rid itself from the fear of annihilation. It evacuates it into others or expels it into the environment. Therefore, other people become “bad” and feared and the loved ones become “good” and soothing, whose idealised protection is sought. Others completely deny reality, believing that there is no such threat while others become enraged and mindlessly attack authorities when they dispel their narcissistic state of mind. Still others become omnipotent and continue the traditional family gatherings with friends, adamant that the virus cannot infect them.

Besides behaviour, mental terrors can also affect cognitive processes, negating common sense and ability to think under pressure. Hence, the mindless actions, the nonsense, and the refracting thinking of, otherwise, well-adjusted and rational people.

The dread caused by the “persecution” of COVID-19, can make some people seek refuge in the regressive comfort of the phantasied adhesive attachment to family. State-imposed curfew can be seen as preventing the harmonious symbiotic oneness with the family and it is fiercely opposed.

When in a symbiotic state of mind, one exists in an undifferentiated bond with the primary
caregiver. Hence, external reality – and viruses – are excluded. This symbiotic state of mind may serve the purpose of shielding the mind from experiencing the terror, persecution, helplessness, despair, separation, loss as well as the painful realisation of one’s one weakness and mortality.

When the blissful enmeshment is ruptured, the mind experiences significant discomfort, terror, disarray, confusion, and narcissistic rage. In addition, restrictions and limited mobility involves renouncing one’s narcissistic view that one is the centre of the universe and one’s needs and wishes are above everybody else’s, including public health.

Some people cannot view the state’s quarantine as a healthy protective measure for their own and loved ones safety. For them, the state-imposed curfew becomes the embodiment of the “all-bad” parental figure that attempts to sadistically impose separateness from the the “all-good” parental figure that one adhesively attaches for nourishment and soothing.

When in a symbiotic state mind, one has not developed the ability to endure being alone. Consequently, he or she cannot retain the comforting parental image in the mind to sooth and help them endure during a period of brief but essential separation. Instead, they might feel rage, neglect, disappointment, sadness, or persecution. Therefore, one might revolt against the state’s authority and seek parental nourishment, love, and comfort.

Taken together, these intense emotions might contribute to the obstinate resistance of curfew, a global phenomenon. This resistance can have deadly consequences both for oneself, the loved ones, and pubic health through the exacerbation of the virus spread and the overload of the healthcare system. The epicentre of the virus and the fight against is also in the deepest layers of the mind, not just in society. People in this state of mind, tend to be amoral, experience no guilt or concern for anybody else besides the self. To remain sane and weather the storm of this pandemic, one needs to be able to renounce one’s narcissism and mourn for its loss, to develop the ability to tolerate the frustration of separation from loved ones, and the ability to collectively work together. Only then one can find meaning in this chaos and enrich oneself.

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