I NEED A GUIDE
by Sandy Silverman
Early in the pandemic, I realized that what I needed was an instruction book that would tell me how to survive. I pictured it, a guide tailored to my personal needs, the first section titled How to be a Psychotherapist During a Pandemic and the second, How to Have a Homeless Brother During a Pandemic, and the last one, How to Not Give Up.
My brother has lived on the street in Miami for the past three years. He is sixty-five. For years before that he lived in his car and in random motels. We communicate via email and Facebook messenger. He posts on Facebook and publishes on Medium, all from the library. I tried to warn him that the library would close. “No, not here, Sand,” he texted in what I could hear as older-brother-to-kid-sister tone. A few days later, it closed. He borrowed someone’s phone to check his mail, and then Google was suspicious of his identity and locked him out of his Gmail account.
“I am spending oodles of (your) money at Staples all the while exposing myself to Corona. I need to get to my email,” he wrote to me via Facebook messenger.
I wanted to help him. “How about I get you a phone?”
“How is that going to help? I need my mail.”
He gave me instructions: “Call Google. Tell them to open my account. TALK to them, Sandy. If they just want to open it for a week that’s fine. I need my information. It’s mine. They can’t just take it.”
I was hellbent on my phone offer. It felt like something I could do, and I was desperate to do something. “If you have a phone, you can get online without paying Staples. We can add you to our family plan.”
I said that as if having a brother who lives on the street in Miami or Chicago or New York had ever been part of a family plan. The only place that has a family plan is the phone company, and I wanted him to join it because that would make me feel better. I couldn’t stand that he was on the street in the midst of a pandemic.
“Is there a place where I can send you a phone?” I typed.
“Maybe the convenience store. The guy is pretty nice,”
I mentioned Suzy, our cousin in Miami. “Maybe I can send it to her and she can get it to you.”
“Ok, but I need a day. I’ll give you my final answer tomorrow,” my brother said.
His final answer? Did he think we were negotiating a corporate deal or something?
The next day I was working on Zoom with only a rudimentary awareness of how Zoom operates. I kept going, trying to figure this out just like everyone else who could have used a guide to living and working during a pandemic.
Several of my patients saw me from their cars because of the lack of privacy in their small New York City apartments. Some expressed fear, others grief, and several were relieved not to have to go out and battle the anxiety of interacting in the world. Two lost close family members and were grieving without having had a funeral or any other ritual to attend.
My patient Jonathan was the most challenging for me to see. He and his wife planned to head to their home in the Hamptons. Jonathan was angry, fuming, because it was difficult to work from home when his children were around. Why couldn’t his wife do a better job of taking care of them, and why couldn’t their nanny, an undocumented woman from Mexico, find a way to come to the Hamptons, instead of staying in the city to care for her children and those of her extended family? I felt irritated with Jonathan, envious of his privilege, put off by his lack of empathy for his wife or their nanny. Jonathan couldn’t see outside of his experience and I could not see outside of mine. I was down a track of inequity and blame. What was I supposed to do next, empathize with his struggles at home or help him to reflect on his privilege and,
I thought, isn’t that just a handy way not to think about my own privilege?
I checked my phone between sessions and saw that my brother had messaged me.
“I only have a little time left and I need to tell you something,” the text said. I felt desperate to be in touch with him, to have some kind of exchange before he signed off. I was scared that I wouldn’t hear from him again, that I would not know where he was.
When we were kids, my brother’s heart was huge and raw and as visible as the freckles on his skin. No one protected him from the taunts and humiliation of other kids and from one sadistic teacher. I remember him crying when my mother picked him up from school, sobbing as soon as he got in the car, he in seventh grade, me in first. He suffered but he was kind to me, making me surprise desserts, taking me to the store every time I asked, and showing me his magic tricks.
I told him I only had a minute because a patient was waiting in my virtual waiting room. The words virtual waiting room sounded crazy to me. I had no idea that I would be using that waiting room for more than a year.
“I won’t be here much longer,” he wrote back. I froze inside. Every time a few days passed without word I feared he was sick with the virus. He refused to apply for social security benefits and told me that he sleeps in a field near a freight station. “It’s working out pretty well,” he said in a text.
“That’s good,” I said. I felt crazy for responding as if that were a reasonable thing for him to say.
“I’ll check back in forty–five minutes,” I wrote.
“Ok,” he wrote back.
In forty-five minutes, he was gone.
At the end of the day, I checked Facebook. My brother had posted twice. “I am getting chased off public benches. I’m well beyond ‘six feet.’ That does not matter. They now target those who are ‘different.’ This is the virus of hate.”
My chest felt like it cracked inside, the image of a bench, my brother, and the police came to mind. I wondered, for the thousandth time, why he won’t apply for benefits.
His next post read, “Still cut off from Gmail and dealing with Kafka for all the help I get.” I laughed. I could picture him saying that.
That night he sent a Facebook message saying he didn’t want a phone. “Who am I going to call?”
I wrote back. “It was so you could go on the web without going to Staples.”
“Nah,” he responded.
Sandy Silverman, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Manhattan. She is on the faculty of the Institute for Contemporary Psychotherapy, the National Institute for the Psychotherapies, and the Stephen Mitchell Relational Study Center. She writes about analytic vulnerability, gender, and trauma and has been published in Psychoanalytic Dialogues and Studies in Gender and Sexuality.
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