The Missing Years
Posted on 30th July 2022 at 10:41
It is a curiosity of late, how the pandemic years are being referred to by some as ‘the missing years.’ It is as if life disappeared, a bit like the five year ‘blip’ in Marvel's Infinity War or at the very least, was suspended in some way. True, much of life as we knew it did get put on hold and if you look at the demise of businesses, that became permanent for those involved. There was tremendous gief at the loss of loved ones and not being able assist mourning with customary rituals, so grieving may have been suspended. For the most part, people found some positivity or advantage in the suspension of life as we knew it, not least to take stock of where their life was at. I have already talked about various aspects of the pandemic over six other blog articles. We are also seeing an extension of some of the efficiencies and better work life balance discoveries of that time. So what is it that people mean by 'the missing years'?
I guess it depends on what constitutes as living for an individual. Amongst those I have heard expressing it, have been those stuck in relationships that had run aground long before the pandemic lockdowns but the couple had not got around to acknowleding and were then stuck, living in the same home. I have also heard it expressed by those whose work life pretty much evaporated during this time. If your whole life revolves around that work, then its sudden disappearance can leave you in a numbing shock. And there are those words: shock; numbing. Typical trauma responses. I am reminding clients that we have lived through a collective trauma and like all trauma, it can hit off previous, unresolved trauma. It’s as though everyone just wants to skip over and ignore, not just the ‘missing years’ referees. Many are very much present with what has happened; “it’s great to be able to hug again” is a frequent expression of gratitude for that choice being restored, highlighting the importance of physical connection. The disconnect of not being in the physical presence of the other. Technology was a godsend in keeping in touch and providing a platform through which businesses could continue but “it’s no substitute” most people seem to agree.
Perhaps ‘the missing years' refers to a life perceived as unlived, generating a type of FOMO (fear of missing out) because it is a life we are not living, the life we could be living only for the protracted suspension, the life we were used to or the only life we can relate to? As psychoanalyst Adam Phillips writes in Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life,  “the unexamined life is surely worth living, but is the unlived life worth examining?"
Inherent in the ‘missing’ is the sense of those years being somewhere else, that they may return and we can fill them with normality so that the pandemic did not really exist. The defence of denial. It may also be mourning of the lives not lived, at least not in the desired sense. The opportunities missed through isolation. But as Adams asks:
“how much of our so-called mental life is about the lives we are not living, the lives we are missing out on, the lives we could be leading but for some reason are not. What we fantasize about, what we long for, are the experiences, the things and the people that are absent.”
Of course this was highlighted in the pandemic years because prior to this, we may have been aware of something missing in our lives “even if this often obscures both what we already have and what is actually available.” Along comes the pandemic and removes even the “have” and the “available.” Adams continues: “There is a gap between what we want and what we can have, and that gap … is our link, our connection, to the world.” We couldn’t control the world to be there for our benefit like we used to. We didn’t have the choice of ‘the road not taken.’ We have also been put in our place by a microscopic entity challenging us as to who really is in charge on the Earth? Of course this would also make us not want to acknowledge those years as being part of our lives!
Perhaps there is anger too at the promise of the return to normal not being quite what was expected. We expected it to be like flicking a switch as “we know normal, right?” We did not realise that our body’s nervous system has to re adapt back even to the known. We were, after all, telling it in no uncertain terms, that it was dangerous out there, not safe. The fight, flight or freeze pathway was activated. It takes time to deactivate and internally establish that it is safe again. Trauma resolution. As we get ourselves around that, we realise that some things have changed – new practices have been adapted, the working from home continues, office desks are shared and not exclusive. Those using dating apps report that people seem to have lost confidence in the traditional approach and chat up rituals typical of the social scene. It as though confidence has been lost.
The repeated lockdowns and isolation during the pandemic produced both negative and positive experiences and corresponding emotions. Both have value as no experience is wasted if we view it as an opportunity to learn and develop. Adjusting to ‘the new normal’ brings decreases in the negative effects as well as evidence of post-traumatic growth visible in increased reflection, greater interest in creativity, spirituality and nature as well as deeper relations with others [2,3], harnessing again that sense of reconnection. It will be interesting to observe the persistence (or not) of 'the missing years' references but it certainly is something we need to unpack in the therapy room.
If you feel you are struggling with the impact of the pandemic, a sense of loss or with re entering the ‘new normal’, get in touch with me here.
1. Phillips, A. (2013) Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. New York. Picador.
2. Büssing, A. et al (2021). Dynamics of Perceived Positive Changes and Indicators of Well-Being Within Different Phases of the
COVID-19 Pandemic. Front. Psychiatry, 12: 685975. [CrossRef]
3. Małgorzata Szepietowska, E. et al (2022) Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and the Sense of Gains and Losses during the
COVID-19 Pandemic: An International Study. Int. J. Environ. Res. Public Health 19(6): 3504; https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph19063504
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