Letter from New York
by Joseph A. Cancelmo
New York, New York, USA
The coronavirus pandemic has rocked our world as we knew it, bringing visceral waves of anxiety and fear and unspeakable, unbearable loss in its wake.
For many of us, our way of life, our livelihood, our intimacies, and our social connections have been relegated to the phone and the internet—digital lifelines
of virtual contact in which the very medium of connection can accentuate the distance, the loneliness.
Existential fear and dread have imploded our waking lives and our sleep. There will likely be no degrees of separation or insulation for any of us from the loss: from deaths distant and close, from reduced incomes and jobs lost, from our ways of life altered, now, and in the foreseeable future in ways we know, at our core, that we cannot fully know.
One young adult patient of mine described a sensation of being “suspended midair,” at once fearful of falling yet frozen in time and space, his past and future collapsed into now. For another patient with a traumatic past increasingly managed over years of painstaking psychanalytic work, her now is an inescapable presence forcing itself into a hard-won absence. And for yet another there is a sense of relief that his worst fears about the world’s hidden dangers have finally been realized.
I navigate familiar NYC streets, at once known and bizarrely foreign, empty: to exercise and shop, all masked up and hypervigilant of my social distance, walking with a quick step to avoid an invisible attacker. The relentless wails of EMT and police sirens signal warning and portend mourning with no time to spare. Multitasking with my patients’ experiences, I toggle emotionally between resolve and resignation, hope and despair, in touch with the fragility of existence I often kept at bay, a necessary illusion of modern life and of professional work. And I try to hold the mind-bending contortion of keeping my distance and reaching out, greeting people who risk making eye contact with a nod or hello or a wave. For we are surely “all in this together,” as the saying goes; but truth be told, life in the time of COVID-19 is not the equalizer we imagine—not the pain or the loss or the economic fallout.
The communal outbursts of solidarity each evening to honor the sacrifice of medical, public service, and service industry personnel who work the background to make modern life possible is our daily antidote to despair and isolation here in NYC and around the world. Like an unconscious alarm clock set each evening to 7:00 p.m. sharp, it also is a tribal expression of our interdependent existence as citizens of the planet. Perhaps, too, it is a marker of the growing awareness that this crisis has exposed deep societal fissures of inequity and injustice. And perhaps, a nascent plea and hope for a sea change in humanity.
Joseph A. Cancelmo
Joseph A. Cancelmo, PsyD, FIPA, is past president, training/supervising analyst, and co-chair of the Gould Center at the Institute for Psychoanalytic Training and Research (IPTAR).
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