The doctor wasn’t in his office and wasn’t seeing patients either, but he was talking with them by phone, and trying to be supportive. After all, psychotherapy had to go on, with or without the coronavirus, and the good doctor—an old fashioned shrink—wasn't about to abdicate his responsibilities or renounce the Hippocratic Oath which he had sworn to uphold when he became a doctor more than fifty years ago. Mental health, he insisted, was as vital as physical health. After all, a sick body could lead to a sick mind, and, by the same token, a sick mind could exacerbate a sick body. COVID-19 had the potential to drive some people around the bend.
The book-lined office was too small and too cramped for the good doctor to meet face-to-face with patients, who might have been infected and carrying the pathogen. “My shrink” I’ll call him. He has helped me through divorce, deaths in the family and my own neuroses, though he has told me “You aren’t neurotic.” I hope not, but perhaps I’ve figured out how to turn my neuroses into art.
Not a Jungian, Freudian, or Sullivanian, my shrink takes what he wants and needs from many schools of psychiatry and psychoanalysis. He insists that he’s on the side of his patients, not the drug companies or the medical industry, which demands records. He tells me that he doesn’t keep records on me, and I almost believe him.
Years ago, when I obtained Allen Ginsberg’s medical records as a patient at the New York State Psychiatric Institute, my shrink assured me he would never hand over any records about me to any biographer. Since he aims to protect my anonymity, I’d better protect his.
My shrink seems to keep all the information about my head in his head. He charges $10 a session, which usually lasts an hour. I haven’t yet mailed him a check for our therapy session last Monday, a week or so into my quarantine.
He’s about 80 and not about to retire. He seems to enjoy his work, though I have never met any of his other patients or discussed them with him. Mums the word. Ever since 2000, when I first saw him, he has known that I “catastrophize.”
As a result of my habit of expecting the worst, I have often intensified my anxieties. Oddly enough, during the present crisis my anxiety levels have not ballooned. In fact, I believe I’m less anxious now than I have been for a long time. “Don’t catastrophize,” my shrink tells me. He’s hip to the words that we use and that can either increase or decrease anxiety. Saying one is “concerned” feels different than saying one is “worried.”
My shrink does some catastrophizing of his own. During our last session, his big worry was that the president would declare “victory” over the virus, urge citizens to venture out, go back to work, take up their ordinary pursuits and then there would be “an even bigger spike” than we’ve had so far. His own sister, he said, called from Upstate New York and explained that her friends and neighbors were worried that New Yorkers would flee the city and bring the pathogens with them. In fact, they’ve been doing precisely that for weeks. The Big Apple is one of the least healthy cities in the world right now.
“The virus brings out the best and the worst of people,” my shrink said and went on to wonder if the virus “was drawing people closer together or pushing them further apart.” We both found evidence to support both sides of the argument. He remembered that his own grandfather died in 1918 of the influenza that killed an estimated fifty million people. “Besides war, this is the most disruptive thing we’ve seen in the last hundred or so years,” he said.
During our session, he switch from psychiatry to medicine and suggested that older men like himself and I were at greater risk than younger men because the virus destroyed the lining of the lungs and could lead to pneumonia. ”It’s essential that we cut down the sources of infection,” he said. When I explained that I rarely watched TV news he talked about what he called “the coronavirus syndrome.”
That's when you watch four or five hours a day of TV news about the virus and your brain is adversely affected. There was, he said, “a plague of information.” What we needed, were reality checks to determine accurately the degrees of danger and act appropriately.
“Oddly enough,” he said at the end of our hour on the phone, “people with obsessive compulsive disorders are often ahead of the curve.” Was it obsessive-compulsive behavior to wash my hands with soap and hot water throughout the day? I don't think so, but I’m not washing them continually. Also, I’ve managed to stop touching my face.
Years ago, I learned to refrain from putting my hands on my eyes and lips at the meditation sessions in Berkeley led by Wes Niskar, otherwise known as “Scoop,” who popularized the expression, “If you don’t like the news go out and make some of your own.” Scoop, would urge us meditators not to scratch an itch. When Scoop broadcast on KSAN, it seemed easier than it is now to go out and make news. I don't like the latest broadcasts about the virus any more than anyone else. Also, I don't plan to become another statistic. What do you think, Scoop? Is that a way to make the news in 2020?