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27 Aug

The Family – And Now the Nation – That Howls Together

On April 23, while watching the PBS News Hour’s coverage of – what else – our nation’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, I received a delightful surprise at the close of the program. The scene moved to Missoula, Montana, where they filmed local residents on their front porches, all howling in unison. Some families even included their dogs in what has become a daily evening ritual for this town and others throughout the state. According to the news report, it started with the citizens of Missoula gathered together each evening to pay homage to their local health care workers, initially with clapping and banging on pots. One evening, one person suddenly began to howl, to the surprise and delight of the other town residents, who quickly joined in with their own wolf-like cries. Situated in a Western wilderness area not too far from Yellowstone National Park, where such sounds are not foreign to the local ear, the residents took to the habit of howling, as they say, “like a fish to water.” So, listen up!

Reflecting on this earlier news segment today, I am struck by how well these sonic outbursts from the citizens of Missoula fit with what the trauma experts have taught us about the healing power of physical activation and release when threatened with challenges that could otherwise overwhelm us.

Most of us are familiar with the well-known fight-or-flight response that humans and most animals resort to when faced with serious threat. Less well known is our innate tendency to shut down, dissociate, and eventually collapse when trying to cope with chronic, unrelenting stressors. This is what can happen to someone who has been the victim of repeated sexual and/or physical abuse, especially when the abuse takes place during early childhood, when one’s ability to protect oneself from the abuse is quite limited and there is only surrender. Through the same neurological mechanisms, it can happen to those subjected to repeated racial discrimination and who suffer from the chronic stress and hypervigilance that is the inevitable fallout from such encounters.  At other times, environmental factors, such as a prolonged famine, can lead to such helpless resignation. In these dire circumstances, the strategies we use to shut out the noxious effects of continued deprivation cause us to lose touch with the affirmative, life-giving vitality that comes from living in a more fully sentient, embodied state.

One thing is certain and that is the coronavirus is not going away anytime soon. When confronted with the prolonged and very real threat that is COVID-19 – to our health, our livelihoods, and to our accustomed ways of operating in the world – how can we learn to deal with our persistent fear and anxiety and, at times, grief for all that has been lost? Early on, mental health experts warned of a potential increase in deaths of despair as a result of the coronavirus. Here they refer to the alarming incidence of early deaths among the young and those in mid-life, due to suicide, alcoholism, and drug overdoses, and exacerbated by unemployment and social isolation. And for African Americans, in particular, the stress of experiencing and witnessing police brutality, as captured in cell-phone recordings of the recent tragic death of George Floyd, the paralyzing shooting of Jacob Blake, and far too many others before them, only adds to the risk to this community, so disproportionately affected by the virus already.

It is hard to fight a virus head on, despite the abundance of war-time metaphors now circulating to refer to our efforts to develop an effective vaccine. Our knowledge of how to protect ourselves from possible contagion from Sars-CoV-2 is still quite limited, and the information we glean from experts is often confusing and contradictory. Likewise, our attempts to escape from the lethal effects of the virus through flight may prove useless, even with proper social distancing, when its location is largely invisible, and it seems to lurk everywhere.

So how do we not succumb to strategies of surrender and defeat that weaken us and our immunity to the virus further? At the outset of our long quarantine, I was more than a bit concerned with the reinstatement of the cocktail-hour ritual, now updated due to the need for social distance in the form of Zoom get-togethers. It is quite tempting to want to take the emotional edge off the tensions of confinement with the numbing relief that comes with alcohol. Still, we need to be wary about compounding the damaging effects of the virus with a return to the rampant alcoholism of the 1950s and 60s, as so vividly depicted in novels by John Updike and John Cheever, and more recently in the AMC production, “Madmen.”  When we are fearful, anxious, and often bored so much of the time, it is easy to turn to alcohol as an elixir and one that does not stop when we close our Zoom meetings with our friends.

So now, let’s return to the citizens of Missoula and to their evening ritual of howling together. What is so powerful about this ritual is seeing the physical release that accompanies their vocal cries of protest, enlivening their bodies with an energizing force once again. With this seemingly simple and amusing act – and there is, indeed, much blessed laughter amidst the howling – they are able to counteract the unnerving and paralyzing feelings of confinement that plague so many of us during our prolonged confinement to our homes. The fact that it is done in a way that brings citizens together again also counters the social isolation felt by far too many at this time.

Even as our governors have begun to lift restrictions on our comings and goings during the summer, a return to tighter controls have soon followed with the resurgence of viral infection. Therefore, one thing is certain and that is our freedom of movement is bound to be severely curtailed for the foreseeable future. So, we will still need to seek out ways to energize ourselves and our bodies in the coming months, if not years. And we will need opportunities for exercise and physical release even more than before, while still maintaining necessary social distancing. At the outset of our prolonged quarantine, many families seemed to welcome the dinner-time hour together, an almost quaint return to an earlier era. Of late, I am hearing more complaints from friends and clients concerning the yelling and tension-filled arguments that often occur while sharing an evening meal together. Most certainly, these dinner-time skirmishes arise out of our day-long confinement together, where patience has grown thinner with time, to be replaced with irritability and annoyance toward our fellow inmates. How much more pleasant might these dinner-time conversations be if they were preceded by some forms of physical release – an early evening walk together in the neighborhood, a late afternoon bike ride, or by a bit of singing or dancing together before coming to the table?

And now, in response to the horrible brutality seen during the final moments of George Floyd’s life, Americans from every state, as well as people throughout the world, have taken to marching in the streets throughout the summer to demand police reform and racial justice. In doing so, they also surely put their own health and lives at risk, as well as that of others they might come into contact with. Here we see that the need to protest and to take decisive action against such bone-chilling cruelty is still preferable to doing nothing and to be left with a deadening sense of helplessness. Surely, it is no mere coincidence that these spontaneous, worldwide marches are coming after months of confinement, when the pent-up need to take action of some kind is so great, especially among our youth. One hopes that this forceful call for civic engagement under the banner of “Black Lives Matter” will result in real and transformative change to centuries-long racial injustices in our country long after the ill-effects of the coronavirus have finally faded from view. That would, indeed, be an outcome worth howling for!

April Westfall, PhD, is a staff therapist at our University City and Wynnewood offices; she currently sees clients via online therapy. To set up an appointment, you can reach her at awestfall@councilforrelationships.org or 215-382-6680 ext. 3122.

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