One of the features of life under the shadow of the Coronavirus pandemic of 2020 has been the discovery of which things carry on pretty much as before, which things have been in suspension, which things work well as substitutes, and which things don’t. Though most unwelcome, it has provided an opportunity for a controlled experiment: how do things function under new conditions caused by a single variable? We have all been involved in this experiment whether we like it or not. The findings are beginning to appear and be shared. It seems that we have all found how much we miss human touch and hugs, and that there is no substitute for them.
Those who do administrative or clerical work, or study, have found that some tasks can be done effectively from home, but others such as team-building and blue-sky thinking seem to require people being together and sharing the same space. Music and Zoom don’t work without a lot of technical know-how and effort, and even so, something is missing when performers and audiences do not share the same moment and space. One of the surprises for us at Mill Grove has been that consultations and mentoring seem to work a lot better than we thought they might at the outset of lockdown. There are some different dynamics, but consultations of two people, or three at the outside have functioned rather well. For me this has including student supervision, mentoring sessions, and regular times with a consultant psychotherapist.
Meanwhile within households, dynamics have changed, and it has become apparent that there is a range of reactions and effects. Some have thrived and even enjoyed it (although it is not good form, or sensitive to let this be widely known), while others have struggled. The purpose of this piece is to share some experience of, and reflections on dependency and resilience. Lock down interrupted many patterns of life and interactions with those for whom we care, and have supported, long term. We know the importance of these reliable and predictable rhythms. They help to provide secure boundaries, and shape daily life so that there is something to look forward to. Implicit in the relationship is a form of inter-dependence or dependence.
As we began to cancel weekly visits and meals with individuals and families, we became anxious about possible effects. In a few cases we found it hard to imagine what might be going on households, and how long it would be before things exploded or imploded. In some, the dynamics were chronically fraught and dysfunctional. And others, living alone, had come to see their visits to Mill Grove as an extension of family. We were aware of the mounting data indicating growing concerns about mental health and the examples of those close to us was consistent with this.
We immediately adapted to support in other ways. Regular contact by phone and text was one of the key features of this. We organised some Zoom gatherings so that members of the extended family of Mill Grover could connect on special annual occasions such as anniversaries or Christmas. And it was possible at times as guidance and regulations permitted to have times outside with a limited number of children and adults. We purchased a fire pit so that we could have barbecues during the winter. But we still feared that there might be serious deterioration in relationships and the emotional well-being of individuals.
It’ is far too early to draw conclusions about long-term effects, but in the interim, there has been one very significant and reassuring trend emerging. Most of the individuals and families have been more resilient than we had expected. With families living together 24/7, three of four young children in combined spaces, home schooling, no garden and virtually no accessible outside facilities or resources, the prospects seemed bleak. But only this week we had a phone-call from a mother of three (she had lived with us as a child). She rang to tell us that, after months of applications and re-applications, the youngest child had finally been given a place at the school the two others attended. Meanwhile she had been home-schooling him along with his siblings. (For those who are regular readers of these columns, the little boy has figured recently.) We shared our excitement with her and with him. There was no denying the struggles of daily life, but months after the start of lock-down, and the interruption of the regular times of support, the family was intact and even looking ahead purposefully.
When we took some birthday presents and food to another family, socially distanced of course, on one of the children’s seventh birthday, there was a similar sense that somehow things were holding together. Not only had they not given up: there was a sense that things would be OK.
On the single occasion when an individual member of the Mill Grove family came to meet us outside the conversation was animated and positive. Pre-Covid she would have popped in several times a month and spent large parts of the day with us.
I have pondered the nature of resilience over the years, mainly because I have seen it in evidence again and again, but fail to understand it. It is probably a characteristic or quality that will never be adequately analysed, or perhaps even defined. Like a compost heap, it seems to be far too organic and complex. But during a consultation session (yes, you’ve guessed it, by Zoom!) when we mused on these cases, a few common threads emerged. There was in the children an innate looking forward, and hope. They were growing, and in the normal course of events there were things to work towards, to anticipate. The school place for the youngest child in one household was a case in point. But in the other, when we handed over the birthday presents to the girl who was seven that very day, a younger member of the family reminded us that her birthday was next! Such hope is not a sufficient explanation of resilience, but it is necessary.
Then there was the fact that Mill Grove was still there for them, and that we held them in our minds although we were not physically present. What this means and how it works is difficult to fathom, but it involves a two-way process. Resilience somehow recognises and draws sustenance from this reality.
And finally, for now at least, the families had all experienced Mill Grove and its way of living, its patterns of life, and its values. The consultant reminded us that this should not be underestimated, because we had not even considered this element of the process of survival and growth. Whatever else might be said about Mill Grove, after 121 years, it is palpably resilient. Sometimes there have been unexpected and unusual pressures, but despair or giving up have never been options. This is not something talked about: it is embedded in the very nature of things.
As I write there has been another, serious spike in the spread of the Covid 19 virus, and the future is uncertain. We are under no illusions that pressures will mount, and there could still be serious fall-out in the lives of individuals and families. Even so, what we have learned so far, gives us cautious grounds for hope. And meanwhile they know that we are looking forward very, very much to the time when we can be together again.