I feel the fragility of our tiny island home these days. It is not the world as I've always known it; or at least, it's not the world I thought I knew. As I contend with my own existential angst, I hold in mind stories of survivors.*
When I'm not working, or watching documentaries or the PBS News Hour, or otherwise engaged, I've decided to watch the show Survivor. I’ve been a fan for years, but now I’m watching every episode from the beginning. At first I thought, why not! More so, I’ve begun wondering, why? The moral and intellectual me even asks really? This is the thing you're doing?
I've begun to wonder, why do I find myself uniquely drawn to this show, Survivor, in the midst of this time?
The questions continue ...
Why do I seem to have shifted from fan to fiendish fan? Why did I begin keeping color-coded spreadsheets on who outwits, outplays, and outlasts season to season? Why do I consult Google Maps at the start of each season and identify the precise geography of each remote location? Why do I do a quick read about the native peoples and histories of these places? Is my guilty conscience on overdrive? Am I unraveling?
Do I have a new hobby? Do I need an escape? Am I, in fact, suffering some of the chronic trauma of this time? Deprivation? Overstimulation? Constant upheaval? Uncertainty? All of the above?
In a word, Yes.
I now possess the Amazon-recommended The Survivor Manual. It’s a manual "based on U.S. Armed Forces survival techniques.” With an Introduction by Survivor Producer Mark Burnett, the manual is stamped with the badge, "Official Book for the Hit CBS Television Show.”
When the Manual arrived and I began to look through it, I turned first to the section "On the Move.” … feeling a little stagnant are we?
With the flip of a few pages, I went straight to the subsection on "Crossing Quicksand, Bogs, and Quagmires.” Apparently, I did seem to be feeling a little stuck. A little sucked-under. Every now and then I would check my last nerve, and it was frayed. I was restless to move and going nowhere.
I let out a guffaw. "If you cannot detour such obstacles,” the Manual advised, “attempt to bridge them by using logs, branches, or foliage." Bridge the angst? I don’t think so. Not this time.
If no logs, branches, or foliage are available … If you’ve tried everything you know how to do … If you’ve applied every which kind of way of “coping skills” in your repertoire … If no end is in sight and no help is on the way … The Manual says, “Cross the obstacle.”
The editors of the Manual have seen a quagmire or two or twenty. John Boswell and George Reiger are both former Naval officers and graduates of the U.S. Navy’s SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) School. These guys say to fall “face downward with your arms spread. Start swimming or pulling your way through, keeping your body horizontal.” When all else fails, they seem to say, do a face-plant into the quicksand.
I find an answer.
I realize I have planted my face into the thing itself. Survival. I’m doing my best to work with and through it. And maybe, just maybe, I just might move. Perhaps the realm of metaphor is not so opaque.
Of course, my Survivor/survivor experience is not equivalent to the experience of any other person who survives. I don’t mean to cheapen the realities of fractured relationships, what if’s, cancer, death, life, violence, and everything happening at once. I’m fortunate to say I’m surviving.
I do think it’s useful to take a look at and become curious about the things to which we’re drawn. One of my patients disclosed to me her desire to take all of her pills and “go to sleep” in a ball on her bathroom floor. It’s really not a state of affairs that can always be bridged, or avoided. Instead, there are times we've gone headlong into the depths of depression and the terror of uncertainty. Sometimes she and I move just a bit forward or to the side, or along some indiscernible line; every now and then we go backwards. Lately, she’s been bringing-in stories of women not only surviving but transforming their lives. We laugh. She cries. And we breathe. More and more we’re able to look and to wonder and to think.
Space opens up. After analyst D.W. Winnicott, a colleague describes this "potential space." It's a space that can involve "thinking, play, creativity, metaphor, poetry, art, philosophy, and spirituality." It can enlarge the capacity with "which the complex and pardoxical nature of life can best be fathomed." And finally, he says, it is through this space that "surface experience dervies its depth and meaning." Winnicott, also a pediatrician, first articulated this kind of psychologic "space."
It is in this space that psychotherapy - and life - becomes quite evocative. I'm thankful for all of the survivors, and I acknowledge the many who have not made it. People whose lives have been ended. And the people whose lives continue to open, including my own.
* Patient stories are composite and anonymized.