A Psychotherapist’s Ruminations in “The Plague Year”

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is…fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.” (Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933, during “The Great Depression.”)

The current Coronavirus pandemic gives us a unique opportunity to reflect upon our existences. It is surely safe to say that no one is unaffected by the germ that has stricken multitudes and proven deadly to others. Those who have contracted the illness may be facing a long period of convalescence, and for all of us, healthy or ill, facing mortality passes into our consciousnesses, whether we choose to acknowledge it or not.

The fact that death will eventually come to each of us is now palpable and immediate. Many of us, perhaps all of us, are afraid.

The words of President Roosevelt quoted above are most apt for these times that we face. Fear paralyzes. The only remedy is to move forward, boldly, in the face of fearsome obstacles.

More than ever, the issue of consciousness is never far from my mind as I continue to do my daily work, both inner and outer, in this year of “The Plague.” For decades I have dedicated myself to increasing my awareness of what lies beneath the thoughts and feelings of everyday existence. Today is no different from any other day as I endeavor to incorporate the reality of ‘The Plague Year” into my life.

Consciousness was most extensively brought to the attention of the world with the publication of Sigmund Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams” at the beginning of the last century. His work has continued to influence the professional life of those of us in the helping professions ever since. It was Freud who noted in that early publication that much of human experience lies hidden in the farthest reaches of the human mind; that aspect of Psyche that he dubbed “the unconscious.” (Freud. 1900 pp. 614-615.)

The term “Psyche” derives from ancient Greek. In Grecian mythology, Psyche was a goddess, most often visually depicted with wings; her image mirrors that of a butterfly. As such, her essence is that of transformation. The butterfly starts as a lowly, rather unattractive crawling object, and eventually transforms through the chrysalis stage into a beautiful winged creature that we regard with awe and pleasure.

As such, Psyche symbolizes human existence. Like her, we all possess the latent ability to grow, change and flourish. It is the task of analytic psychotherapy, the arts and sciences practiced by therapists in the tradition of Freud and his successors, to facilitate the transformation of human existence away from anxiety, depression, frustration and misery into truly flourishing lives. It is what I have learned is my life’s work, within myself and in assisting others who also seek transformation.

Psychoanalyst C.G. Jung referred to this process as “Individuation,” (Jung, 1960. p. 448.) which, in short, refers to each person’s latent ability to grow into the person they were meant to be, their “true selves.” The concept is breathtaking, both in its simplicity and in its far-reaching implications.

The unconscious is a vast storage warehouse of material about which we are unaware until we begin a systematic exploration of its contents. The process of analytic therapy takes us into its dark recesses and slowly, bit by bit, brings into the light vital information that we have long suppressed out of fear, and shame: deliberate obfuscations which Freud referred to as “repression.”

Just because we have repressed so much of our substance doesn’t mean that unconscious psychic contents don’t affect us. On the contrary, like matter and energy, nothing in the mind is ever destroyed; it just takes on another form, a different character. So unconscious contents in the Psyche continue to operate, unbeknown to us, but with powerful, often destructive effects.

It is habitual to be distracted by everyday concerns, many of which have been brought dramatically into focus as a result of the current pandemic.  Many of us are confined to our homes, away from everyday routines, limited to mandated small gatherings with associates, friends, and loved ones, if at all, and even if we are as healthy as ever, the fear of becoming seriously ill pervades the entire planet. We may try to distract ourselves and do our best to live life as normally as possible, but fear remains, beneath the threshold of awareness.

Even in less hazardous times, we tend to dwell on the surface of our consciousnesses, concerned with the routines of daily existence.  When depression and anxiety rear their ugly heads, we try to distract ourselves with customary activities and thoughts, or we may be tempted to indulge in extreme behaviors, such as substance abuse, compulsive sex, overeating, and many other diversions. Doing so frequently brings about temporary relief, but the pathological energies that gave rise to symptoms ceaselessly continue to do their nasty work and will surface at will.

When one’s symptoms get to the point where they seriously interfere with daily activities, a physician may prescribe medications that are designed to relieve the distress. Many people find them helpful, and particularly in the short term, they make it possible to get one with one’s life. However, using palliatives masks those symptoms that are indicators of underlying issues. Depression and anxiety are clarion calls for greater depth, and the exploration leading to the revelation of hidden forces ultimately is the only solution. An analyst who has committed to deep inner work in their own life may serve as a guide to the person who wishes to plummet the depths of their being.

Psychoanalysis is not for the faint of heart. In the process of going into the darkness of the unconscious, one is guaranteed to encounter harsh realities that have long been hidden. But as each ugly demon is outed comes relief, a sense of “aha” that discharges pent-up energies and allows us to slowly become emancipated from the harsh forces that have for so long held us captive.

This time in history appears to be dark. People are ill, some are dying. Fear is rampant.  In many ways, outer existence is a metaphor for everything about the consciousness and the unconscious that I’ve written in the foregoing paragraphs. But like the goddess Psyche herself, this era also represents opportunity. We have the option to choose between anxiety, depression, and fear, or to take the leap into the unconscious contents of our minds and begin the process of becoming ever more conscious, ever more individuated; in short, transformed.

“Modern man has lost his way; but the road which brings salvation to him is a road which leads downwards to a reunion with the unconscious, with the instinctual world of nature and with the ancestors, whose messenger is the shadow. He it is who brings the ‘good news’ of the treasure hidden in the depths, of the herb of healing which grows in the darkness and whose secret power is able to staunch the Amfortas-wound of modern man.” (Erich Neumann, “Depth Psychology and a New Ethic” p. 144)

 Amfortas in the legend of the Holy Grail, was the King whose wound causes him untold agony until at last (as depicted in Wagner’s Opera, “Parsifal,”) he is healed. The myth is a metaphor for the agony we contemporary folk feel when mental and emotional distress strike. The good news is that our pain can be ameliorated by making the unconscious conscious. This process has been my life’s work and that of many others who offer the healing modalities of psychotherapy.

Peter Burmeister is a Clinical Therapist at The Vermont Center for Wellness, a service of the Institute of Professional Practice, in Berlin, VT. pburmeister@ippi.org (802) 595-6444.

Learn more about the Vermont Center for Wellness HERE

Freud, S. 1900/1959. The Interpretation of Dreams. New York. Basic Books.
Jung, C.G. 1960/1974. Depth Psychology and a New Ethic. Princeton, NJ. Princeton University Press.
Neumann, E. 1990.Depth Psychology and a New Ethic. Boston. Shambala.