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Healing Pandemic Hurt with Therapy and Poetry

An Insider Interview with Dr. Barry Lubetkin



Usually when the words “poetry” and “therapy” are linked together, it’s to describe how gifted but troubled poets have struggled with their sanity. A prime example was Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Robert Lowell, famous in the mid-20th century for his brilliant, groundbreaking confessional poetry. Lowell was also famous in the literary world for his stays at McLean Psychiatric Hospital near Boston. In one of his most famous poems, “Waking in the Blue,” Lowell wryly described himself and his fellow patients at McLean as “thoroughbred mental cases.”


But Dr. Barry Lubetkin, the co-founder and co-director of the Institute for Behavior Therapy in New York City, has succeeded in melding psychology and poetry together during the pandemic. The author of two popular self-help books, Bailing Out and Why Do I Need You to Love Me in Order to Like Myself?, Dr. Lubetkin has written poetry regularly for The Insider during the past year, marked by its wit and honesty.


This week, The Insider spoke with Dr. Lubetkin about his experience during the pandemic treating patients and honing his verse.


The Insider:

How early did the pandemic begin to affect your practice?


Dr. Lubetkin:

‘My last day at work was around March 7, a couple of days before Tom Hanks reported he had gotten the virus and the word was out that there was going to be a lockdown.”


The Insider:

Did you immediately shift to remote sessions?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“Yes. I immediately took a taxi home, called my remaining patients and told them we would have to work remotely.”


The Insider:

Had you ever done remote sessions before that?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“Never before as far as I can recollect. If I was ill, I would simply cancel or postpone the patient.”


The Insider:

Did all your patients agree to switch over, or was there initially some resistance?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“There was no resistance at all. I think people understood almost immediately what the dangers were. The only problem was with my technological ignorance in setting things up.”


The Insider:

Have you found remote therapy satisfactory?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“Very, very satisfying in many ways. I do not believe that for most cases it has interfered with the effectiveness of the therapy. There have been a few, though, where in-person would have been more effective.”


The Insider:

Did you start writing poetry during the pandemic?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“The first poem I ever wrote was for my parents when I was five years old. I printed out a weekly newspaper called The Lubetkin Times, which cost each parent one penny. Then in college, I wrote some poetry but nothing was ever published because I never submitted anything. These poems during the pandemic have been the first real exposure of my work to the public.”


My Year In Poems


The Insider:

What about the pandemic brought out the impulse to write poetry?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“At first, it was the deep fear and anxiety I felt for myself, my family and of course for the nation. I could not express my fear very much to my already frightened patients, so I decided that another true expression of deep feelings was through articles and poetry.”


The Insider:

So have you also written journalistic articles during this period?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“Yes, I submitted several to Psychology Today magazine under the heading ‘The Wise Therapist.’ They were a way of expressing myself as a therapist to the readers of the magazine’s blog.”


Coronavirus Crisis: The Unexpected Gift to Narcissists | Psychology Today

The Curious Case of the Disappearing Patient | Psychology Today

How to Disrupt the Dream-Disruptor, COVID-19 | Psychology Today


The Insider:

How have your patients, on the whole, responded to the pandemic? Has it set people back in their lives, or have some people found silver linings?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“That is complex. In the beginning, fear, anxiety and worry about their own risk. Once our office closed, people began to feel a deeper sense of loss. I would say that loss is the single most powerful emotion that individuals have felt: a loss of freedom, loss of friendships and relationships, and loss of money as the pandemic deepened. A few people may have felt exuberance during the pandemic, in as much as they did not have to go into work, could roll out of bed and make money online. But that was the deep minority.”


The Insider:

For readers of The Insider who are experiencing pandemic fatigue now, and are just sick of being distant from the world, what advice would you give them?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“I would tell them that even though they may feel distant from the world, this has been an extraordinary opportunity for them to become much more intimate with themselves, to understand their own ability to deal with loss, their own sense of resilience in the face of trouble, their own ability to find purpose in life without work and without close friendships.”


The Insider:

You often write about politics in your poetry. It seems that a lot of people feel psychologically better without Trump in the White House, in that it was a very turbulent presidency. Has that been your experience therapeutically?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“Absolutely! The vast majority of my patients, including some conservatives, were regularly troubled by what the past administration did. The main complaints were about the slowness of the vaccine production, the lack of empathy of the President and his allies to the economic and the psychological pain that the nation was experiencing.”


The Insider:

Are people reporting that they feel significant better psychologically after having had their vaccines?


Dr. Lubetkin:

“Most are reporting feeling psychologically improved. However, many are also feeling anger and rage about the year lost, about the disruption of their daily lives, with worry about whether they can reclaim those lives. When I got my own vaccines, I traveled home feeling like Superman, but slowly the deeper sense of loss of a whole year, as a senior citizen with so many plans having to be put off. Many of my patients have shared that same anger and sadness, even after getting two shots, so it has not been overall exuberance at all.”


“I should add that some of that pain has softened with Biden’s administration. A sense of empathy, caring, sensitivity to the downtrodden is becoming more and more pervasive but it is still mixed. Trump did a great deal of damage that Biden will have to repair carefully and slowly.”


“Perhaps the people who have had the most relief after the vaccines are of the children of elderly parents, the kids who felt guilty and helpless about finding appointment for their parents. They feel just as relieved as the elderly parents.”


The Insider:

It’s so interesting that you’re a psychologist who writes poetry! Many famous poets have needed therapy themselves, have been institutionalized, or have committed suicide. Any thoughts about why many poets have been so troubled?


Dr. Lubetkin:

Just as many comedians have grown up with dysfunction in their homes and periods of deep depression and find expression on stage making people laugh, so do poets who have deeper perspectives on life and meaning than many of us do. Those perspectives have developed from early problems in childhood and adolescence, or from disturbed parenting or from various traumatic incidents in their lives which have forced them to dig deep to understand their underlying feelings and then to find their only expression through poetry. The disturbance precedes the poetic ability. Often the poems are simply a mirror or microscope into their troubled deeper lives.


Read Dr. Lubetkin's latest poem:


Love Song for an Everyday Joe






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