I became aware of a fault line forming in my mind as reports of a spreading viral infection appeared in the news. I was on vacation in Guatemala in February 2020, a welcome break from my busy psychoanalytic practice in Calgary. I arrived eager to study a new language and explore the colonial city of Antigua. I also happened to be vacationing in a country balanced on a fault line and ravaged by forces of nature as well as politics. Antigua bore the mark of disasters in its ruined but atmospheric facades. It was in this most vulnerable of locales that I felt the shifting of tectonic plates in my mind as COVID-19 went viral in the space of only a few weeks.
The tremors in my psyche were signaled by a strange aversion to reading. I was perplexed, as I am a voracious reader while on vacation, reveling in the opportunity to escape into thrillers or to delve into the next picks for my book club. However, to my astonishment, linking words together on the page became arduous. My paperbacks languished. In retrospect, my mind was starting to alter, under pressure from a world of stealth particles that had become threats to my thinking.
My sense of disorientation was no doubt magnified by being far from home and immersed in novelty. My crisp, early-morning walks to the language school couldn’t have been more different from my daily trips to my office in winter-clad, resource-rich Calgary. I passed through cobblestone streets vivid with purple jacaranda blossoms and ruined facades of earthquake-torn buildings, all overseen by volcanoes keeping a rumbling watch over the city. The smell of tortillas frying in hole-in-the-wall shops filled the air, as bevies of uniformed children chattered on their way to school. My husband and I met daily with our Spanish tutor, Anna, under leafy trees in a little park full of international students sitting at tables with their local teachers. The chirp of Spanish words rose to join the chorus of birds above us. Anna not only introduced us to Spanish but provided an intimate window into daily life in Antigua, so distinct from ours.
Through my Spanish lessons, I was discovering words rich with history, linking them together to connect to the people around me and to make deeper meaning of my experience in this fascinating culture. This was one side, the creative side, of the mental fault line that was opening up in me. On the other side of the crevice, my mind felt fractured and estranged. My access to news was digital and disembodied, as my rudimentary Spanish was not up to the task of speaking to locals about the impending viral storm. My cell phone became an extension of my arm as I was driven to try to make sense of what was happening. I, like so many of us, had no frame of reference for this invisible COVID threat. As with the smoke and ash rising daily from nearby Mount Fuego, were these viral signals merely foreboding or imminently dangerous?
When the Canadian government announced a mandatory fourteen-day quarantine for anyone entering Canada, beginning on the very day of our return from Guatemala in mid-March, my fear ignited. The feel of the world had altered so radically in the space of only a few weeks. How had we traveler citizens so rapidly transformed into pariahs, outsiders potentially carrying pathogens into our own country? We had become dangerous “others” alongside the COVID virus. My only experience of quarantine was when I had red measles at age six, more than fifty years previously. I remembered lying in bed in the dark, with cool cloths on my feverish forehead, covered in a spreading red rash, and attended to by my anxious mother. She was anxious because she was no stranger to the ravages of infectious disease. My mother was born during the Spanish flu pandemic, and her cohort, unlike mine, bore the impact of disabling infections such as polio. No doubt my associations to this early childhood quarantine contributed to forces pulling my mind to a more primitive, and divided, mental space.
The early days of the pandemic created a miasma of vast uncertainty in the world that seeped into our collective minds. Mental fault lines throughout the population manifested in paranoia and a preoccupation with scarcity, along with polarization of the world into “good” and “bad” people, places, and countries. My own anxieties were fueled by surreal photos of empty shelves in our local grocery store, forwarded by our son as he attempted to fill our larder in anticipation of our arrival home. A powerful wave of annihilation anxiety was sweeping through the population, leading to panicked stockpiling of toilet paper and canned goods, betraying a regressive focus on basic bodily needs. As my mind fractured, so did the minds around me.
To my puzzlement, into the vacuum created by my failing ability to read and think plummeted a mindless word game called Wordscapes. I downloaded this digital game onto my cell phone for reasons that I could not explain at the time. It appeared harmless. The game involved moving six or seven letters around on the screen to create as many words as possible in a limited time. I later realized that Wordscapes really means “word escapes,” and escape into this strange virtual space I did, compulsively, without awareness that this “symptom” that I developed in Guatemala would flare during my quarantine and inflame me for almost two years during the pandemic.
My digital compulsion was astonishing to me, as I was not really into screens. I had never played a game on my phone before, had not watched television in years, and video games held little appeal. I preferred paper books with pages to e-readers. Yet I spent more and more time engaged in a consuming arranging of letters, losing sleep, and rationalizing that it was “good brain exercise.” This was very strange behavior, and I now attribute it almost entirely to COVID regression and the resulting fault line that opened in my mind.
As a psychoanalyst dedicated to and fascinated by words, it is not surprising that I was drawn to words while under duress. However, in my professional work, I use words connected to the body through emotion and metaphors, words used creatively and symbolically. In contrast, my escape game involved manipulating words in a concrete rather than a symbolic way, as collections of disparate letters. The meaning of the words was irrelevant to the game. But crucially, unlike COVID-19, this word puzzle could be solved. I was attempting to self-soothe through an action symptom. And as with addictions in general, one can never get enough of what does not satisfy. My own experience of mental fracturing has helped me comprehend the tidal wave of addictions and mental health problems that struck alongside the viral pandemic and which I have lived through with my patients. While my fracturing was delimited and without serious consequences, my experience was humbling, then and now.
Fortunately, on the other side of my mental fault line, across the chasm from “word escapes,” I maintained what I now think of as a nourishing “mind glue.” During my quarantine, I continued with my Spanish lessons online and signed up for Duolingo. “Duo” is two, a dyad, a relationship with language that I continued almost daily throughout the pandemic. My Spanish words connected me to my tutor, Anna, and to all those who speak Spanish as their mother tongue, people I wanted to converse with and learn about. These lively words are imbued with relationships and bodies. They are words that touch, in contrast to the lifeless, random letters of my game. My early Spanish lessons were all about “¿Como te llamas?” and “¿Que haces?” Who are you? What do you do? How are you? How do you feel? Relationally infused words helped me to stay alive and connected with myself and others, particularly when my mind was under attack.
The concept of autoerotic capability has been helpful to me in considering the impact of quarantines, lockdowns, and isolation on the minds of myself and others. Autoerotic capacities are the grown-up equivalent of the infant sucking her thumb. These capacities allow us to have a fantasy life, to imagine being with others, and to be alone in a creative space. Such capacity is crucial to keeping one’s mind intact when under strain. As I understand it now, my Spanish lessons were an autoerotic wellspring that helped me counter the eroto-sensory deprivation of isolation and virtual work. In contrast, my addictive symptom was a stimulating but poor facsimile. Given that autoerotic capacities vary greatly between individuals, I wonder if those who managed COVID-19 lockdowns and restrictions most successfully were those best equipped to maintain and develop their autoerotic capacities. Music, art, storytelling, learning, baking sourdough are not just hobbies but an exercise of autoerotic capability.
Charles Darwin tells us that it is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent; it is the one most adaptable to change. Eventually, fully vaccinated and less preoccupied with the viral invasion, I lost interest in playing my word game without even noticing it. I found it hard to imagine what had driven me. And I had accumulated streaks of hundreds of days on Duolingo. My mind had imperceptibly healed, as I adapted enough to this strange new world to mend my mental fault line. I was relieved when I was able to enjoy books again, savoring the turning of pages rather than the driven flicking of my fingers across a screen.
When the viral catastrophe is behind us, I wonder how I, and we, will carry not only the antibodies but the psychic fault lines inscribed in us by living through a pandemic. Will our minds smolder and smoke like Mount Fuego, forever vulnerable? Or will we emerge essentially strengthened?
Elizabeth Wallace, MD, FRCPC, is a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst living in Calgary, Canada. She maintains a private practice of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis, and teaches and supervises psychotherapy in the Department of Psychiatry, University of Calgary. She is president of the Western Canada Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and a training and supervising analyst with the Canadian Institute of Psychoanalysis. She is a graduate of the New Directions program in psychoanalytic writing and enjoys writing creative nonfiction with a psychoanalytic bent.
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