COVID-19: What might this be?

By Alan Bodnar Ph.D.
August 5th, 2022

All you need for a good projective test is an ambiguous stimulus and a simple question, “What might this be?” If this sounds like the Rorschach, then you’re either an old-school psychologist like me or a student of the history of psychology.

Like the Rorschach, most projective tests use visual stimuli to draw the subject’s attention in two directions at the same time – outward into the real or objective world and inward into the storehouse of memories and images that is uniquely ours, built up from all the details of our lives and what we have made of our personal journeys at each step along the way.

“Why, that one looks just like the Teddy Bears’ picnic. All those colors!” Well, okay then, I think I’m getting an idea about where you’re coming from.

We give projective tests in comfortable offices to people who make appointments to spend a specified amount of time doing a particular task that will provide insight into the way they perceive the world and function in it. It is all safe, controlled and, within limits, more or less predictable.

But what happens when the stimulus changes from an image on a card that we can hold in our hands in a safe place to an invisible pathogen that we can inhale whenever and wherever we are close to someone who has become its host? The COVID-19 pandemic has given us all a chance to find out.

First, the stimulus. Though it has form and structure that are visible only in high-powered microscopes, the COVID-19 virus is not visual in the sense that we can see it in the world around us. We know it only by its effects and those effects took us by surprise when the pandemic broke over the world in the late winter of 2020, wave upon wave of quickly moving respiratory illness and death especially among the elderly and people with compromised immune systems.

The visual part of the stimulus came in the daily news videos of overcrowded hospitals, exhausted medical workers and rows of caskets awaiting burial. It came too in the sight of empty streets and shuttered stores with more and more of the people still out and about wearing masks covering their noses and mouths.

This was a new challenge. In the atmosphere of ignorance about the virus, ambiguity reigned. How does it spread? What precautions should we take? What are its early symptoms? Will there be a vaccine? Can we find an effective treatment?

The following year gave us answers to these questions and raised others as researchers developed effective vaccines and early treatments. Like too many issues in our national dialogue, the COVID threat became politicized with some downplaying the danger and others attempting to follow the guidelines provided by the Centers for Disease Control, guidelines that changed in response to new information about the virus.

So here we were, the entire human race, challenged by an ambiguous stimulus and asked that old question, so familiar to us psychologists, “What might this be?”

Second, the response. The response to a projective test comes from some combination of our attention to the outside world of objective reality and to our private interior lives. In early May of this year, our family was infected with COVID when our granddaughter brought it home from preschool – a three-year-old, her nine-month-old sister, their 30-something parents and two senior citizen grandparents.

Suddenly, the answer to the question “What might this be?” became more important than ever. Over time, we would discover the answer, but we live our lives forward and so all we could do at the start was to follow the advice of the poet Rilke and live the question.

You can live the question passively and take each day as it comes, but COVID calls for a more active response with decisions to be made along the way. Our first decision was to cut our babysitting visit short and come home early so as not to burden our children with two more sick people.

Next, we asked our friends who had had COVID what to expect. We were surprised by the number of people our age that we knew who had already been infected. Eight of our friends had had COVID and their experiences were varied.

One man said, “It is not just a bad cold. When you get it, you will know. It is not like anything else.”

Another replied that he didn’t even know he was sick but found out he had COVID only after taking a home test.

A woman was bed-ridden for five days and lost her sense of smell and taste for two. Her husband had a cough that persisted in the morning even after he was otherwise feeling better.

Another friend took the antiviral drug, Paxlovid, recovered quickly and then relapsed as has been known to happen in a small percentage of cases.

That news presented us with another decision about whether or not to take the drug, and the clock had already started ticking. The drug works only if you take it within the first five days of testing positive.

Like the Rorschach, COVID was drawing our attention in two different directions at once – outward to the objective reality of the virus itself and inward to our interior lives, and with COVID, to the strength of our immune response. Taken together, these factors would tell us what this might be.

As with any good projective test, the way you respond to the COVID question provides some insight into the way you perceive the world and function in it. If you believe COVID is a serious illness and you’re the sort who relies on the advice of doctors, then you may take the antiviral drug, but if you need certainty, then even the doctors won’t be able to provide it.

You’ll get the factors to weigh in making your decision based on your age and health status and maybe some data on outcomes for people in your situation and, based on all of that, a recommendation for a course of action.

If you tend to be skeptical of medical advice and rely on the reports of others who have had an easy course through the illness, you may decide to go it alone.

If you have trouble tolerating uncertainty, then even a mild case of COVID can be challenging. Mild symptoms can intensify, disappear and return either in the same form or as something completely different. One day you think you’re better because you’re coughing less and the next you’ve lost your sense of smell and taste.

Are you the sort who gets anxious about bodily discomforts or do you tend to soldier on and ignore anything that doesn’t outright prevent you from going about your usual routine? Not sure? The COVID projective test will tell you, but I hope you don’t have to take it.

Everyone in our family recovered and while there were many similarities in our symptoms, there were also important differences. Thanks to effective vaccines and new treatments, COVID is not the death sentence that it was to so many at the beginning of the pandemic. For that we should all be grateful, but take it from one who’s been there, it’s no Teddy Bears’ picnic either.

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