Notes from therapy: Scatterlings, egg-tray farming, abandoned dogs, insomnia & the pandemic
Recently, I have taken to growing coriander and mint in discarded egg-trays. It is interesting how almost all of 90s sci-fi films imagined 2020 to be the year of inter-galactic time travel and flying cars and here we are in the throes of a pandemic, sewing face-masks from our grandmother’s handkerchiefs. In any case, my own mini parsely farms are partly an extension to my window gardening experiments and partly a delicate process of staying tangibly connected to some semblance of nature during the lockdown; a desire to remain embedded, even peripherally, in the hope for healing once all this is over. The process is simple and perspicuous. The gentle sprouting renders a certain optimism to my days at a time where the field of sanguinity is considerably shorn.
It this love of labour that introduced me to a newly abandoned dog outside my apartment complex. Irresponsible PSAs have led to quite a few domestic animals being discarded as roadside objects in sordid weather. It is deplorable and heartbreaking. I heard this one’s bereaved howling while watering the plants in my living room window because insomnia and chronic pain keep sleep at an arm’s length from me. The source of the sound was mostly invisible but the sadness cut through the silence of the early morning air like an ambulance’s siren. I debated the prospect of a wild-goose chase because it is not uncommon for folks to abandon dogs and cats in the mangroves adjoining our locality. Human beings are reliably trustless during calamities. Finding a stray animal in the thick, uncharted vegetation is often an exercise in futility owing to its severe expanse. Nevertheless, I ventured out, masked-up against the invisible thread looming outside in the form of a testy virus. Half an hour later, I found the dog faint from exhaustion and the summer’s unforgivable scorch. I managed to direct him back to a parked and temporarily abandoned truck visible from my apartment. It became a makeshift safe space in which he could live and I could keep an eye on him from my window directly gazing at the vehicle. He relented, grudgingly, to his austere living quarters. I parked 2 large popcorn bowls filled with water and food in front of him. He was well-versed with basic commands and famished to the bone. He has been living there for 3 days now and the somewhat dour and dreadful routine of waking up to another day of shelter-in-place has suddenly become a little less of an exertion to me because now it is punctuated with routine visits to see and feed him.
COVID-19 has changed us all in both manifest and opaque ways. Human resilience is surprisingly elastic and yet as this pandemic accidentally institutes itself as the lens through which we can closely observe the pervasive social injustices of our time, the question I struggle with most is — what will life look like on the other side?
In every conversation I have these days, this question fragments itself and jumps about like a cluster of mercury droplets from a broken thermometer. My therapy sessions with clients are rife with a mix of hopelessness and a sense of inevitability. The feeling of being stuck in something half way between quicksand and fast-setting concrete. “How do you feel better?” — asks a young journalist who has been furloughed recently. All the responses I can summon seem ambiguous and floundering in the moment. How do we decide what better means these days? Is my better the same as your better?
I don’t think it is fair to insinuate that we are all in this together. A singular line runs through us but we are dots placed at different ebbs and surges of that line.
Social media is teeming with scenes of migrant workers and marginalized communities strapped to a vicious wheel of collateral damage. The inequities of our social hierarchies are impossible to dismiss. No matter how far in the sand you choose to bury your head, you know that the sea’s rage will make headway into your burrow sooner than later. No shore is safe when water decides to unravel the land’s shallow indulgences.
Because I am a trivia-dabbler, I have been trying to usher in some tutoring from history as an anchor. It is noted that the most fatal pandemic recorded in human history thus far, Black Death, wrung the knell on feudalism and was possibly incidental in ushering in the Renaissance period. This is a meek consolation that carries its own guilt because as the poet Seamus Heaney once wrote — History is as instructional as an abbatoir. We are seeing the inadvertent collapse of capitalism and the obvious impact this has on our collective survival. Even then, the instruments of control continue to be adapted in wormlike tunneling to ensure that we still feel a sense of obligation to production and serviceability even when quarantined. The whole motivational slant to “free time” during this period is a farce. A significant percentage of working class people are struggling to stay afloat and are dreading the incoming months. Entire industries have been obliterated and we are being handed spades instead of lifejackets.
‘Precarity’ is central to our experience during this crisis. Precarity is a state of patterned insecurity or as Barthes would say — an ordeal of abandonment. We, on the other hand, are creatures of reliable patterns. We aim to make sense of our ecological and psychological states by looking for some form of anchoring through reliable schemas or mental models of our external and internal environments. At the present moment, most of our anchoring has either between uprooted or rendered completely meaningless. This precarity keeps us locked in a state of self-erasure and disposability. One of the most widely referenced diagnostic criteria for mental health is generalized anxiety. We have seen sharp spikes in levels of anxiety globally. Heightened anxiety is our body’s signal fire. It floods us with strenuous excitation as awareness that we are uncomfortable and must act on the source of this anxiety. However, in our current scenario, we have sparse options for release for this excitation. This is a culmination of our persistent medicalizing of alienation and its aftershocks as opposed to assessing the socio-cultural realities that induce such drastic crashes.
Precarity defines our state of collective anxiety and anticipatory grief. Capitalist frenzy has championed contingent labour via hustle economics (aka gig economy). This means most of us are always teetering at the edge of insecurity vis-a-vis job and health safety & community integration. It is like a videogame except at every level, you are made to realise that you are worse off even though you are supposedly climbing higher. Even the term social distancing is paradoxical in how we actually need more social engagement and support now than ever before.
Spouting science in therapy is not enough. Someone posted an open letter in a therapist’s collective I am a part of which served an intimation to our own trajectories as wounded healers. Sometimes within the unsettled premise of remedy, you must accede to the inevitability of loss, to the unknowable and the unshaped understanding akin the journey of light through space; it shows up when it is ready and what you see is only a matter of reflection.
In ‘Conversations with Bruno Latour’, an erratic book flickering with patches of brilliance, Michel Serres states — “Knowledge is based on this mourning. Our capacities come from our weaknesses, and our effectiveness from our fragilities. Our science has no other foundation than this permanent collapse…”
In a happy coincidence, Jessica Dore’s May offering visits a similar sentiment when she writes that ‘“But it’s harder for an ambivalent heart to do miracles.” It rings through me like wind pealing through a bamboo flute. I have rarely ever imagined our hearts to be ambivalent. The romanticization of courage always rests on attributing certitude to the heart’s direction whether misery or majesty. However, as I pack food and water for the new resident marking his territory under a parked truck, I recognize that it is this prolonged ambivalence that I am witnessing within me and in my therapy clients. The true devastation is not in the actuality of loss but in its interim. This dog is living through his own uncertainty. His past clings to his memory, perhaps, and he chases after random vehicles in hope of finding a way back. But, as difficult as it is to admit, there is no way back. There is only this, here and now.
I have lived with clinical depression for nearly 2 decades and it is ironic that one of the most inescapable facts underlining depressive phases is the inability to engage with the world at large. Yet, here I am, missing the minuteness of “I” in this roiling flow that has ceased for the time being. I miss the interactions with the ephemera of strange and known places — the freedom to watch a movie alone in a cinema hall, a long, quiet walk through a lane dripping with bougainvillea, becoming an unintentional witness to a congregation of cats during a night run. A lot of my own mooring through these episodes of mourning occurs in the form of remembrances; places and interactions that claimed me as much as I claimed them. In all my 35 years of being alive, the idea of belonging has always been questionable at best. I was raised between countries and conflicts. I have reconciled with the fact that despite being non-nomadic, the Roma in me is very alive and therefore, very averse to a static identity or station in life.
To navigate my depressive phases, I have been turning to folklores and storytelling. One of my favourite folklorists is Dr. Martin Shaw whose book ‘Scatterlings: Getting Claimed in the Age of Amnesia’ has been quite medicinal . Shaw defines ‘scatterlings’ as those who are not of a place but are claimed by places. It is an antithesis because he claims that it is the refuge of those who belong nowhere and everywhere. Shaw’s view of the world is a throwback to the legends and myths of the past; fairytales and fables. He perceives a mineral deposit along a shoal as the flank of an animal sunning. His stories are benedictions; blessings that go beyond the binaries of affirmations and rejections of our modern lives. ‘A courtship with the earth’, he asserts.
This form of storytelling about our own lives breaks open the hold of fear which is especially needed at a time when our bodies & minds feel bound to confusion and disorders. It is a kind of seeking without the perfect form of planning. It is to sit in the shadows of fears and wishes that have existed before us and are imprinted upon us.
This storytelling is saving me right now, whether through a collection of photographs titled ‘The Roma Journeys’ by Joakim Eskildsen which remind me of our peoples’ fortitude and woundings. It is a whole hour of listening to Alfa Mist as a throwback to a bright May morning in London writing poems while listening to the radio and street-side conversations. It is exchanging really silly cat memes with equally burdened and burned out friends. It is making an open-source document for free mental health resources for those who can’t afford the expense of therapy.
When photographer Ansel Adams sunk into a depressive breakdown, he escaped to Yosemite and wrote to Cedric Wright — “Friendship is another form of love — more passive perhaps, but full of the transmitting and acceptance of things like thunderclouds and grass and the clean granite of reality.”
I don’t have anything more nourishing than myself to offer to clients in therapy right now. I remember this little quip that sometimes in therapy it is not what you know but who you are that matters most to the client. Lately, I have been inviting them to tell me their stories as they are and as they would like them to be. A hilarious tumblr post said a writer is a ‘togetherslapper of words’ and thats what we have been doing in therapy theses days — togetherslapping words to make little boats we can set adrift as we did when we were kids. We have been sharing stories without attaching the compulsion of ideal fulfillment to those stories. If they tell me they are scared, I tell them I am scared too because I am. I don’t respond to their emails with some arbitrary greeting about wellness, instead I tell them I am happy to hear from them.
Because I am. I am happy to hear from them because it means they have made it another day and so have I.
Scherezade Siobhan is a psychologist, writer and a community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass — a therapeutic space dedicated to providing mental counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. She is an award-winning author and poet whose work is published or forthocming in Medium, Berfrois, Quint, Vice, HuffPost, Feministing, Jubilat, The London Magazine among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Blues Kali” (Forthcoming, Lithic Press). Find her @zaharaesque on twitter. Send her chocolate and puppies — email@example.com. Tweet at her @zaharaesque.