As a psychotherapist, I work with many people who are suspended in -between places. People often embark on the journey of psychotherapy due to rapidly changing external environments in their lives ( e.g. illness, loss of job, or loved ones) and internal changes in the psyche (e.g. depression, anxiety, panic attacks, intrusive recollections of trauma related memories, rumination ) . In-between places are defined by the constant of change, often unsettling turmoil and anguish. Healing from mental health issues are in-between places, where people have to develop coping strategies to manage change and grounding strategies to anchor themselves. People in therapy sometimes say that they see what was before the trauma, but, as healing happens ,they are not sure what the future will look like. In-between places are pathways of moving forward, but, marked by uncertainty and fear due lack of clear vision of what the future might look like. People often report confusion, bewilderment, lack of control, exhaustion, hopelessness due to the frustration of moving forward three steps and sliding back a step. In-between spaces are uncomfortable, bumpy, uneven, and seem directionless. There are few rules in- between spaces as old rules and assumptions have withered and new rules have not yet fully crystallized. People’s identities, attachments and belief systems are changing while in liminal spaces. In between places also are often described as “neither this, nor that”. More like purgatory. We may not often have the language to verbalize our experiences in-between places. The concept of “smooth transition” is an oxymoron. Despite the turbulence of changes, healing happens as people discover loving grounding strategies which anchor them. It can be prayer, spending time with loved ones, chanting, rosary, gardening, cooking meals, sewing, reading, carpentry work, and sitting with a beloved pet in front of a fireplace. Faith in a Higher Power, Universe or God can be a powerful factor in navigating in-between places where the terrain is not visible. The Biblical statement of “walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians, 5:7) is a source of much tranquility with the belief that you will be guided to where you need to be.
I love Betty Harlan’s and Andee Tagle’s (2021) article in the website, npr.org, “Caught in the limbo of the pandemic :rebounding from life’s interruptions”. The authors depict people in the pandemic as suspended in-between worlds. The pandemic is a collective trauma which disrupted so many aspects of daily life that it created in- between space. A recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association reports that about half the adults reported difficulty with daily decision making. People reported feeling as if in limbo in the pandemic, an in-between space, with alterations in eating patterns, physical exercise, sleep, daily routines and excessive uncertainty about the future. Numerous questions loom in the air. Are we ever going back to pre-pandemic days? Is there a new normal? If so, what does the new normal look like? What are the new norms, rules, roles and social scripts in the new normal? Despite the multitude of questions, there are few answers.
Betty Harlan and Andee Tagle (2021) conducted a very thoughtful and insightful interview with Suleika Jaouad. Jaouad knows intimately the murky waters of in-between places before the pandemic. In the book, Between Two Kingdoms: Memoir of a Life Interrupted, Jaouad shares her personal experiences of being diagnosed with leukemia after college, four years of medical treatment and remission. She describes much of this medical treatment requiring her to be in isolation due to her weakened immune system. As a cancer survivor, she discusses with brilliant insight how she navigated this in-between space of diagnosis and treatment, marked by all- consuming uncertainty and fear as she was given a 35 percent chance of long-term survival.
This post is a reflection on some grounding strategies or daily routines, especially creative acts, that might be helpful when suspended in-between places. We have much to learn from the wisdom of Suleika Jaouad about navigating in- between places. She demonstrates sheer resilience, tenacity, and incredible endurance. She reflects on the power of creativity which sustained her, brought her inner stillness and a safe space in the midst of incredibly difficult circumstances. I have also added my own thoughts about navigating the deep, dark and turbulent waters of in-between places. The goal of the post is to inspire readers to find their grounding strategies of generating safe spaces of stillness, anchoring and moments of tranquility while navigating in this pandemic or other in -between places in life.
Finding grounding strategies, especially creative action, and a sense of control
There are many grounding strategies, such as, painting, sculpting, praying, meditation, chanting, mindfulness exercises, reading and listening to motivational speeches. The regularity, consistency and familiarity of love filled and soothing grounding strategies may be key to resiliency in turbulent circumstances. Jaouad discusses the importance of finding a grounding strategy to keep her anchored during her illness, marked by abysmal fear, uncertainty and loneliness. Strategies that helps with gaining a sense of control over certain features of turbulent experiences is powerful, therapeutic and stabilizing in a destabilizing situation. Jaouad discovered the act of journaling as a powerful “creative act for survival”. She described journaling gave her a sense of control in creating a narrative of her experiences. She created a deeper meaning of her experiences through her writing. Creative acts can be powerful in creating meaning in difficult circumstances. Victor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for meaning addresses the relationship between healing and creating meaning regarding adverse experiences. Please see post on Reading Victor Frankl’s Search for Meaning in the Pandemic. Other famous creative acts of survival are Anne Frank’s famous Diary and Cheryl Strayed’s book, “Wild: from lost to found in the Pacific Crest Trail” which describes her healing from grief, loss and a broken heart while trekking.
Uncontrollable factors and Radical Acceptance
There are different ways to address uncontrollable factors. One strategy is radical acceptance of the in -between place. The famous song by Doris Day captures this mindset through her song “Whatever will be will be”. I worked with a young man who wrote rap lyrics with beats and rhythms as part of accepting his difficult circumstances. He was inspired by the brutal honesty of lyrics by the late Tupac-Shakur. He wrote honestly about his depression and loneliness in high school.
I very much agree with Jaouad that honest reflection of experiences is important. Jaouad discussed the balance of looking at silver linings, but, not engaging in toxic positivity. She discovered that writing allows leaning into places of discomfort, unknown territory, suffering without happy endings. Very true. Certain experiences suck. There is no other way to put it. Getting through a difficult experience is an act of survival.
Uncontrollable factors and Radical Surrender
There are often factors beyond our control in between places. As a person of faith, the brave act of radically surrendering uncontrollable factors to the Universe, GOD or Higher Power can be effective at times. The tricky part is there is no manual of surrendering. I find myself surrendering and trying to control and then having to radically re-surrender moment by moment. Creative acts of radical surrender may include mental visualization practices of placing uncontrollable factors in tight boxes and giving them to the Universe. I have heard of other mental visual imageries of surrender, such as, rafting through a river and throwing away burdens. Writing letters and throwing them in the ocean. I knew people who surrendered their burdens to loved ones who passed away, such as, parents and grandparents. They stated they were unsure about God or Universe but had powerful attachments with loved ones and their representation of a loving Universe was the beloved relative who passed away.
In twelve step programs for recovery from addictions, the key steps are the person’s acknowledgement that she or he does not have complete control over the disease and choice to surrender uncontrollable factors to God or Higher Power. The common saying is “Let go and Let God” . Dr. Amy Johnson beautifully and succinctly defines letting go and surrendering (website tinybuddha.com) of factors beyond our control. She defines, ” Surrender = Complete acceptance of what is + Faith that all is well, even without my input”. Dr. Johnson differentiates between energy of control versus surrender when faced with factors beyond our control.. She visualizes the energy of control as rapidly and relentlessly paddling a little boat upstream with minimal progress. She visualizes energy of surrender as letting go of the oars of the boat in uncontrollable circumstances and go with the flow of the Universe. She also articulates that it helps to trust a Universe, which is seen as kind, loving and compassionate.
Isolation as creative solitude
Creative solitude reminds me of practices of stillness in the present moment as critical in- between places. Jaouad reported that she had been in isolation during many years of her medical treatment . She reported being cancer free for five years when the pandemic descended on humanity. She was astonished that the world was isolating, which she already had done. Creative solitude is powerful and can sometimes be described as flow experiences, characterized by total immersion in creative activity, filled with joy, love, and contentment. Creative acts can be like meditation, with immersion in the present moment. Some people view the creative act as communing with the Universe from which material flows to them. Others see creativity as gushing from the depth of their souls. Please see post on art and practice of plok when play and work intersect in the creative act.
Creativity is for everyone and a source of community building.
Jaouad argues that the creative instinct is in everyone, not just in artists. She also very brilliantly notes that creativity does not require perfection. It is a contained safe space of self reflection. Creative spaces can be a source of community. Jaouad established the Isolation Journals, a website of people reflecting on their experiences. I have seen people develop online poetry clubs, weekly bridge (card game ) clubs, family meetings and friendship circles in the pandemic. My father, for example, spends many hours reading books on the complex strategies of bridge as he is part of an online bridge club. Cooking elaborate meals are creative meditative experiences for some people. For example, Julia Child’s passion for the French cuisine and introducing this cuisine to Americans lead to her books, shows, creation of a community of people who follow her recipes. I also love Jaouad’s idea of creative cross training as energizing. This means starting a creative act in some other medium besides the medium one is familiar with.
Leaning into love of a support system is soothing and wonderful. Jaouad described her mother as a critical support person for her. Self compassion is also critical.
Jaouad writes eloquently about her three steps to think about in moving forward from in-between spaces, as reported by Harlan and Tagle (2021) in the npr.org website.
“One is reckoning with the impact of what we’ve all been through.
The second is allowing ourselves the space to reimagine what our lives are going to look like moving forward, because none of us can return to the person or to the lives we had pre-pandemic.
And the third is really identifying what we want to carry forward with us from this experience.”
I will end with Jaouad’s favorite journal prompt for in between places. She states this prompt is from her friend, Hollye Jacobs and it is called “A Day in the Life of my Dreams”.
Imagine yourself at some point in the future — maybe a year from now, maybe five, maybe 10 — living the life of your dreams. This is a normal day, not a holiday or a special day; rather, it is a typical and perfect everyday. What do you see? What do you feel? What do you hear? What do you taste? Who is there with you in your dream day? Describe the day in present tense, from the moment you wake up to the moment that you go to sleep. Creation begins with imagination.
You can find more journaling prompts at The Isolation Journals.
WISHING READERS MANY HOURS OF LOVE, TRANQUILITY AND CONTENTMENT IN CREATIVE ACTS WHILE NAVIGATING IN-BETWEEN SPACES.
NOTE: Please seek professional mental and medical health services ,as needed. This post is not a substitute for professional mental health services.