Inanition in the liminal stage

Dr Sue Jackson seeks a useful description of where we are up to and what we are currently dealing with in the pandemic.

Lockdown 2.0 feels a lot different to Lockdown One, and I have been wondering why that is. I have heard quite a few people saying that as we have been in lockdown for several months now we should be used to it, with such pronouncements often referencing the ‘new normal’. I also see lots of reports of increasing mental health problems in the form of anxiety and depression, as well many filmed reports on the news documenting people’s frustration and anger. 

Speaking personally, I do not think we are anywhere near the new normal; there are still so many unanswered questions about the virus, and it feels like we are still a way off being able to treat it effectively. Not only that, but if it becomes endemic we are also going to need improved ways of monitoring and diagnosing respiratory infections, and that does not seem to be the focus of anyone’s attention at the moment. 

So, if this isn’t the new normal, then what is it? And what on earth is happening that’s causing the increasing signs of strain? In my experience, naming things helps us to understand what we are dealing with. After much thought, I have a couple of suggestions for where we are up to now and what we are currently dealing with in the pandemic. 

Architecture and liminality

Firstly, some names for the different stages of the pandemic. Purely for neatness and completeness, if we step back in time to when the virus emerged in Wuhan, we could use the suitably dramatic ‘apocalypse’: an event involving destruction and/or damage on a large scale. We could even extend this stage back in time to cover the previous years, which saw the emergence of other coronaviruses in the form of SARS, MERS, and H1N1 ‘bird flu’, making them apocalyptic early warnings. 

To capture what happened during Lockdown One, when normal life in virtually all its forms had to be suspended to create the necessary space for the commencement of the work to both understand what we are dealing with and to stop ever increasing numbers of deaths, I borrow an architectural term describing an unoccupied or maintenance space between floors: ‘Interstitial’. 

As for the stage we are in now, how about ‘liminal’? This is defined variously as a transition time of waiting and not knowing, and a threshold period before the new normal arrives. Unfortunately this liminal stage of the pandemic could last for weeks, months or even (worst case scenario, years), and is likely to be stressful and difficult in a number of ways. I am not convinced that the usual descriptors of mental health are enough to capture what we are struggling with.

Inanition

I have found Charles Dickens and Edgar Allen Poe using the term ‘inanition’ to describe a lack of vigour, vitality or enthusiasm due to a lack of nourishment, be that social, physical, mental, or spiritual in nature. Dickens tends to use it to specifically describe the weakness arising from lack of food, and indeed the word is most often used in relation to literal starvation. In The Pit and the Pendulum, Poe also uses inanition to describe the physical effects of starvation inflicted on a victim of the Spanish Inquisition, but at the point in the story where the word appears the individual has also been stripped of his usual clothes and kept in social isolation in an environment which has been changing in a variety of increasingly unpredictable, unsettling and threatening ways by unseen tormentors. Poe could have used inanition to describe the cumulative psychological impact of the various elements of the torture being meted out. 

Humans tend to be creatures of habits of one sort or another, arranging our lives to meet our various needs without always realising the significance or importance of those actions and choices until they are taken away from us. Like Poe’s victim in The Pit and the Pendulum, lockdown of whatever kind puts us under pressure by disrupting our lives and potentially significantly reducing our opportunities to nourish ourselves in many ways. 

But it is not quite as simple as ‘the more stringent the lockdown, the greater the disruption and related inanition’, because there will always be some individual variation in the extent to which people are affected by the various deprivations. It is worth considering the impact of living more restricted lives. While some effects of it are obvious, there are some subtleties associated with the various forms of nourishment we need that are worth noting. For instance, food is far more than just fuel for physical nourishment, it is an important part of social nurturance within relationships as well as playing an important role in rituals and celebrations. Not all social nourishment involves food, and some social activities meet multiple needs, for example, shopping trips with friends can be both practical and nurturing providing time and space for an enjoyable shared experience as well as the opportunity catch up on news.  

Overlapping boundaries

I think one of the less self-evident but equally troubling aspects of the pandemic is the challenge it can present to the maintenance of some aspects of our identities. Many people’s place of work is outside the home, and going to a particular place dressed appropriately to engage in shared activities with others helps to create, nourish and protect our work personas. Overlapping the boundaries of personal and work space can result in a variety of conflicts, while the compromises we adopt may not fully address or resolve things. For example, wearing your work clothes at home can feel peculiar, but it can be challenging to maintain your professional identity without at least some of them. While smart-on-top might work for Zoom calls it might be difficult maintaining your authority while wearing jeans and penguin slippers! 

More hopeful?

I have been discussing inanition and its role in the pandemic with my friends and colleagues (in an appropriately socially-distanced manner) and we have started using it with our clients, colleagues, staff and students and found it to be very helpful. A discussion of the term and its ramifications can form the basis of a useful review which identifies both where things are OK and those where there is a significant lack of nourishment. We can start to think about how to meet the unmet needs whilst using gratitude practises to acknowledge and benefit from those areas that are still functioning well. As a description, ‘inanition in the liminal stage’ might take a bit of getting used to, but in describing something we can deal with it feels more hopeful and optimistic. It certainly feels like a preferable alternative to that of Poe’s victim, unsure of where we are and being pushed around by faceless tormentors – although I admit that does sound to me like a depressingly accurate description of Lockdown 2.0!

-       Dr Sue Jackson is an independent Chartered Psychologist.

Find more on liminality in our archive, and hundreds of coronavirus perspectives

BPS Members can discuss this article

Already a member? Or Create an account

Not a member? Find out about becoming a member or subscriber