Cinema Therapy, Books and Guided Meditations Finding Some Peace in a Pandemic - theHumm June 2020
Cinema Therapy, Books and Guided Meditations Finding Some Peace in a Pandemic - theHumm June 2020
By John Pigeau
In the midst of this dreadful pandemic, people are having to cope with all manner of new challenges. We’re a resilient bunch though, and so far many of us have improvised rather well. Meeting up for virtual happy hours. Baking loaves of scrumptious sourdough bread. Planting, watering and tending to our gardens, indoors and out. Like characters from a Dickens novel, we’ve taken to sewing, cycling, singing, painting and puzzling, reading and writing, drawing and dancing. To keep busy, yes, but also for comfort, distraction, and relaxation — and sometimes even for the joy it.
With Spring’s sunshiny arrival comes some more (possibly) good news: a few restrictions are lifting, and for most everyone that will likely be a truly welcome relief. But there remains a hard truth, and it is this: many folks — including seniors and people, like me, with underlying medical conditions — will need to remain isolated. And no one can really say for how long.
I know that’s an unpleasant thing to read. But it’s a reality. And please believe me when I say it’s also a very unpleasant reality to accept and endure.
I’m writing this on an overcast Friday in late May — my 81st day in self-isolation. It’s so strange to look out my front windows and think: out there is a deadly virus, and it’s looking for hosts. It feels like wartime. Except, as people have said (our Prime Minister among them), the enemy is invisible, and that’s possibly more frightening than the alternative.
Still, like most everyone, I’ve been trying to keep my chin up and do my best to find, in every day, some measure of contentment. That’s been tricky, I’ll admit. I live in an apartment without a balcony or green space. It gets claustrophobic. And with more folks out and about, especially on sunny days, it’s difficult to navigate the sidewalks, and get to a park or a shady spot by the water. It’s simply too difficult for many seniors and people with disabilities to safely duck and dodge our way about.
So, how to avoid the claustrophobia of “cabin fever”? And at the same time, how to not come to fear open spaces? How to not let loneliness get the best of you, or sink you into a deep depression? How to cope with isolation?
It’s complicated. And I know I’m not alone in this predicament. Others are feeling shut in too, and it can be dreadfully lonely.
“So, how are you managing?” my therapist asked me last we spoke on the phone. (We have a monthly phone appointment now.) “How are you coping?”
My first thought was to tell him that on several occasions I’d had terrifying feelings of unreality. Even during the day. In the mental health field, these frightening episodes of unreality are called “disassociation” or “depersonalization.” Mayoclinic.org describes dissociative episodes alarmingly well: “This involves an ongoing or episodic sense of detachment or being outside yourself — observing your actions, feelings, thoughts and self from a distance as though watching a movie (depersonalization). Other people and things around you may feel detached and foggy or dreamlike, time may be slowed down or sped up, and the world may seem unreal.”
I know very well why I’ve experienced these episodes of late — isolation. It’s that simple. And the spells of unreality are completely terrifying. Quite like the feeling of going mad, I would think. I do sometimes think that. But I’ve gotten through them. With a fast-acting medication (Ativan, that is) and self-talk that has eventually helped ground me. My mantra is fairly simple: “This is merely anxiety. It is harmless. And it will pass. It always passes.”
It’s helped me. So have guided meditations, but I’ll get to those in a bit.
Instead, “I’m watching a lot of movies,” I told my therapist. “Some for entertainment. Others just to pass the time, really. Nothing too intense or violent.”
It felt easier — starting off — to mention movies rather than to talk about feelings of unreality. That could wait.
It was basically “cinema therapy,” I told him. That’s how I thought of it, and that recently I’d been drawn to the smart, gentle, calming films in my collection, like The Accidental Tourist and Big, Mr. Holmes and The Lady in the Van, and a recent iTunes purchase, Knives Out. Every one of those films brings a smile to my face and puts me at ease. Quells my anxiety for a while. And I’m thankful for that.
“That sounds healthy,” my therapist said. (Let’s call him Dr. David.)
“It is, actually,” I said. “It’s sort of a mental rest.”
I told him I wasn’t sure precisely why — perhaps because most are set in space or on another planet — but some sci-fi flicks help quell my anxiety too. And some, a short list, are entertaining and clever: Arrival, The Martian, Prometheus, Contact.
A few disaster flicks do the trick, too, I told him; I’ve watched 2012, Twister, and The Day After Tomorrow numerous times of late. “I think that’s because I often think that right now I’m living in ‘survival mode,’” I said. “It is survival mode,” I added, to highlight the fact. “It’s definitely survival mode.”
“So, yeah …” I went on, “survival movies help me too; good ones, anyway.” I named a few favourites: Gravity, All is Lost, Arctic. “I can only watch Gravity during the day though,” I pointed out. “It’s a bit too intense for pre-bedtime viewing.”
Dr. David laughed. Then he said, “All of that makes perfect sense. It sounds like you know what you’re doing. And why. And that’s important. Both of things are healthy and important.”
“Yes,” I agreed. Then I told him, “At night, I know I need to unwind and quiet my mind. That’s when I’ll watch a good, old-fashioned popcorn flick.” I named a few that came to mind: Super 8, Tomorrowland, The Finest Hours, Jurassic Park.
We both agreed that good entertaining distraction is healthy and necessary, a balm for a busy mind.
“What about reading?” asked Dr. David. He knows me well by now — that I’m a journalist and an author, used to own a bookshop, and that I love to read. He does too, I’ve come to know, so it’s something we enjoy talking about during our sessions.
“Yeah, that’s been a bit tough,” I admitted. “I’ve been reading but finding it difficult to focus. I read a few pages then just lose focus. My mind drifts off. I can’t concentrate.”
“That’s certainly understandable,” Dr. David told me, and then he listened to why I thought so too — that it was often a matter of mental exhaustion, a cumulative fatigue brought on by prolonged anxiety, fear, isolation, loneliness. And he said that, yes, sounded about right.
“I typically shut my eyes then,” I explained, “and if I’m fortunate, I’ll end up drifting off into a restful nap. When I wake up, I normally feel refreshed. It’s weird,” I said.
“Not at all, John,” Dr. David assured me. “That sounds like a very common stress reaction.” After a pause, he asked, “And what sort of stuff are you reading?”
I was happy to tell him I’d purchased a book he had highly recommended, last we’d talked: Erik Larson’s The Splendid and The Vile. “You were right, it’s completely compelling and startlingly well written. It reads like a fine novel, actually.”
“Oh, excellent. And yes, it does, doesn’t it?”
“Yep. Very much so. And because it’s so compelling it holds my attention. I can read about five pages at a time, that is.”
The book, by the way, is an absorbing, intimate account of Winston Churchill’s first year as Prime Minister of England; beginning with the evacuation of British Forces from Dunkirk, after which a Nazi invasion of London seemed imminent. I told Dr. David that I’m not normally one to read long books — at 503 pages, this one’s a heavy hardcover — and that it felt like a small victory, too, that I’d yet to doze off while reading it and have the book bonk me on the head.
He laughed. I did too.
“Hey, it used to happen to me a lot in university,” I told him. “The struggle is real.”
Dr. David laughed again, a little more robustly.
“I’m also reading a book called Journal of a Solitude,” I told him. “I’m reading it for research but also out of interest. It’s not an easy book. It’s a go-to, though, for people wanting to read about solitude.”
It was interesting, I told him, because May Sarton, the book’s author — a poet and a novelist — writes about needing and cherishing her solitude, but at the same time she experiences frequent depressions and bouts of loneliness. “My take on it,” I said, “is that solitude is not so easy, but it can also be quite wonderful. Treasured, even. And right now seems a good time to be reminded of that.”
“Hmm,” Dr. David said thoughtfully, and then we talked about solitude for a while. He asked me the author’s name again, and I told him. He was writing it down, I knew.
“And for pleasure,” I said, “I just finished Anne Tyler’s latest, Redhead by the Side of the Road, and it was beautiful, a delight, as are all her books. Though it was much shorter than most of her work.”
He knows Anne Tyler is my favourite author. I adore her warm, wise, welcoming style, her quirky characters — quirky but very ordinary — and her kind, gentle eye on the world.
“She couldn’t have picked a better time to release a new book,” I told him. “I just wish it wasn’t so short. I’ll have to read it again soon.”
“Sounds like a good idea,” Dr. David said. “Especially since you enjoy her books so much. Finding pleasure in a book is much better for the mind than merely being distracted by one.”
“Big time,” I said. “I think so too, that is.”
Then Dr. David asked me what else I was doing to manage. Was I getting out for walks? Talking to friends at all? And how was I sleeping? He repeated something he normally asks me in every one of our sessions: “Are you protecting your sleep?”
This is where things were particularly tricky, I told him. I talked to friends quite seldom because, frankly, I have a small circle of friends and most of them have families or are coupled off, and they work and they’re generally busy people. They don’t have much time for chats, unfortunately. As for walks, no, not so much. “I do walk to Shoppers Drug Mart to get groceries one morning a week,” I told Dr. David. “Wearing my cotton mask and gloves and all, but other than that, no, I don’t feel particularly safe walking around where I live. And now there are more people about, some people completely unaware of social distancing, so it’s tough — I can’t skip across the street so easily. And honestly, I find it frightening. It makes me really anxious. Other people do, that is. The ones not abiding safety protocols. People sweeping right by me.”
That was unfortunate, Dr. David said, but he understood; he’d certainly had to deal with the same sort of people when he was out. Still, he urged me to try to get out more, maybe early in the morning before too many people were out. And walk on a quiet side street, if possible. “Remember,” he said, “you don’t need to have a destination, John. Just go for a walk. It’s good for the body and the mind.”
“I’ll try,” I said, uneasily. “I am feeling really shut in and cooped up. Some days I don’t talk to anyone, not a soul — except my mom, maybe, on the phone. I typically call her three times a day or more, just to check in and chat. Otherwise, it’s been very, very hard… the lack of human contact and connection.”
“Of course,” Dr. David said. He reminded me that from an early age our minds are wired that way; human beings need those connections, every bit as much as we need food and water and exercise.
I had good news, though: I’d recently discovered a remarkable series of guided meditations on the Calm app on my iPhone, namely ones by an American mindfulness teacher named Shinzen Young. His voice is what drew me to him — it’s warm and warbled and immediately charming. “His voice alone soothes me and could very likely lull me to sleep,” I told Dr. David, and he laughed.
“His teachings are a mix of Buddhist teachings, mindfulness techniques, and neuroscience. Long ago, he was an ordained monk. And I think he worked with Leonard Cohen,” I said. “At any rate, his one guided mediation is called ‘Untangling Physical Pain’ and it not only alleviates my physical pain but quells me anxiety and helps me sleep too. It feels like sort of a miraculous discovery, really.”
“It sounds like one,” said Dr. David. “Good for you. I’m glad that’s helped you.” He sounded genuinely glad.
“And on another level,” I told him, “they sometimes help me feel less alone. Like I’ve a friend I can count on to be there — when the pain in my back and my legs is really awful, when I’m most anxious, and when I desperately need sleep. He’s there. With different meditations, too, not just the one.”
“Excellent,” said Dr. David.
“It is,” I agreed. And I might have teared up then.
Eventually, we turned to the difficult topic of my feelings of unreality. They had terrified me. Dr. David said he could certainly understand why. But medication helped, I told him, and I was able to re-orient and calm myself. The episodes hadn’t lasted too long, thankfully. “But it’s clear,” I said, “this isolation is getting to me. It’s been mentally exhausting.”
Dr. David heard me loud and clear. He then recommended a regimen of things for me to do and practice, every day: get out for a walk, talk to a friend on the phone (no matter how hard that might be), eat nutritiously, rest when I felt the need, keep listening to the guided meditations, protect my sleep, and practice the cognitive behavioural tools and breathing exercises he and I had worked on for the last few years. “Use them every hour,” he said. “Keep ahead of the anxiety. You can do it. Just remind yourself. Every hour. Use the tools,” he said. “They work.”
I nearly teared up then. I said thank you. They did help.
I was grateful we’d had this chat. Grateful to hear Dr. David’s caring voice. Grateful for his expertise and reassurance. And grateful to be heard.
I’d do my best, I told him.
A friend on social media recently wrote: “If one more person tells me to start meditating, I’m going to scream!” I had to laugh at that, as I know the feeling; I don’t like to be preached at either.
So, I will not make any suggestions to you, the good folks reading this.
Movies, books, and meditations are but three very important things that have helped me in these the hardest of days. I’m thankful to have these things in my corner, so to speak; I can count on them. I know that now. And so I’m working, too, to use them when needed, knowing that all I need to do right now is to just be.
And whatever helps you just be, may you also find some peace.
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