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How the COVID-19 Pandemic Is Triggering My Complex PTSD

Due to panic around the coronavirus (COVID-19) — the new viral strain in the coronavirus family that affects causes symptoms like fever, dry cough and shortness of breath — I don’t know what will happen next. The feeling of imminent danger is a constant for me. On my best days, I still feel like something is just around the corner ready to crush any sense of stability I’ve managed to carve out. Everything feels so fragile.

I grieve things before there is need to grieve. I expect the worse and so I fight to take control, over my body, my environment and the future. It’s a battle I can’t win. Eventually my system becomes overloaded because living on the edge is exhausting, mentally and physically. And then I dissociate, freeze or fall apart. And the cycle of hypervigilance starts all over. This is the impact that trauma has had on me and a taste of what it’s like to have complex PTSD (C-PTSD). Unlike classic PTSD, which occurs in people who have lived through a specific traumatic event or series of events that have a definitive time limit, complex PTSD survivors are exposed to prolonged trauma over long periods of time, often during childhood.

Because of C-PTSD, I go through the world expecting threats to my stability and survival. My brain is finely tuned to it and my body responds, sending me signals that things are not OK, even when they are. Complex PTSD and dissociative identity disorder (DID) both are impacting how I experience and respond to the coronavirus pandemic in complicated ways.

From the start, I recognized I was having a trauma response to the current situation and experiencing complex PTSD symptoms. I know I’ve made progress in therapy because a year ago I might not have recognized what I’m experiencing, but awareness doesn’t make any of the symptoms go away. My brain stem is firing as though a tiger is about to pounce on me and my nervous system is flooded.

Why though? Some of it is obvious like the fear of getting sick and being unable to breathe. I had severe asthma as a child which felt very isolating since I was frequently bedridden and fighting to breathe. My lungs hurt, days and nights spent coughing up mucus. Vaporizers, oxygen tents, eucalyptus, inhalers, hot packs, piles of pillows to keep me propped up all provided some relief but didn’t take it away. Whenever I get a cold now, my lungs get affected. It takes me back to that time. The coronavirus scares me. I’ve convinced myself that if I get it, I will die from it. I won’t just die, I’ll die alone in my apartment gasping for air. The constant panic attacks I’m having lately play into this as these days my chest constantly feels tight and I find it hard to take a deep breath. My brain won’t stop looking for clues that something is wrong which only makes the symptoms I’m experiencing get worse. Symptoms of complex PTSD often include having intrusive worst-case scenario thoughts.

But there are other things too, not as obvious but just as triggering, if not more so. I feel helpless, uncertain, terrified and lonely — just like I did as a child living in a volatile environment where I never knew what to expect from my caregivers. I constantly had to assess people and situations from a very young age, trying to determine moods and anticipating responses; perpetually caught between wanting to run towards a parent for help, longing for a hug, the need to run away from them and the urge to freeze. I desperately wanted to be seen but most times felt I needed to be invisible or not be myself in order to survive. I mastered dissociation when I was very small, a necessary survival strategy and a creative coping mechanism.

I’m trying to take things day by day during this coronavirus pandemic, but the day-to-day news updates are frightening and confusing. I don’t know which way to turn, what to believe. Part of me keeps saying this will all be over soon, it has to be while another part feels this will go on forever. Living in New York City, currently the epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, is surreal and jarring. I’m finding it hard to simultaneously hold onto hope and reality because of the lens through which I’m experiencing all this. And I don’t know how to calm younger parts of myself stuck in trauma time. It’s hard for me to reach them right now as the dissociative barriers between parts has increased in the midst of this crisis. I want to let them know we’ll be alright but how do I tell them that when I don’t know if it’s true. How can I expect younger parts to self-soothe when I’m struggling to regulate my emotions and stay present?

My mom had me when she was 21, about a year after she was married. My father worked on the ships and was away for months at a time. Although I know my mom felt overwhelmed and alone, having my father away was better because already early into the marriage he was abusive. My mom has her own trauma history, so it’s not surprising that she often dissociated. Of course at the time I didn’t know or couldn’t understand any of this, I just knew my mother felt unreachable at times. I couldn’t seem to connect to her in the way I needed and her responses to me were not consistent even as I grew older. My mother also had a lot of health issues which sent her to the hospital for weeks at a time. I never knew what was happening and I was always worried about her, often screaming, crying and acting out anytime she left out of fear she wouldn’t come back.  I had to stay at different relatives homes while she was away, frequently my grandparents place and I never knew how long I’d be there or when I’d hear from my mom again. Relatives told me different information when I asked them what was going on. If my father happened to be home, he would torment me by saying, “She’s gone shopping” and I would check out the window compulsively, desperately hoping to see her. I don’t remember if I ever got to visit her in the hospital. I think my mom didn’t want me to visit because she was worried it would be too much for me or I would catch something. Not knowing whether I would ever see her again every time she went away filled me with anguish.

My whole life my mother has either kept information from me for as long as she could in order to “protect” me, such as the death of a relative or pet. Sometimes she shared scary information with me at an age where I couldn’t fully understand and was powerless to do anything about it. I witnessed domestic violence firsthand for many years growing up and also experienced abuse of all types. I lived in terror and shame, never believing I would make it out alive. In many ways I feel people turned a blind eye to my suffering because I did try to communicate with all the methods at my disposal that I was not OK. After a while though, I came to the conclusion that no one could help me, it was all up to me. I didn’t know at the time that I had several parts doing their very best to take care of me, even if not always in the most ideal ways.

As an adult, the accumulation of these past experiences leaves me feeling unsafe and alone at the best of times even when I’m not. I’m constantly on alert for something terrible to happen because in the past it did, many times over. I cannot let my guard down because something or someone “out there” is waiting to ruin me. Right now, the thing out there is the coronavirus.

Will I get sick and die? Will people I love and care for die? Will I remain in isolation indefinitely? Will I lose my job? My response to all the fears and unknowns is to go into overdrive, to do the almost impossible task of trying to mitigate what could happen. Sure social distancing, washing hands frequently and staying busy are all important, but as my thoughts become more obsessive, my fear amps up and my amnesia steps in. I find myself panicking at the thought of even stepping out for a breath of air, forgetting that I just washed my hands. So I wash my hands several more times. I’m constantly checking the pantry and fridge and keeping inventory of supplies, as well as asking people again and again if they are OK. I take my temperature repeatedly and work all hours of the day to prove my worth. Being in isolation is exhausting.

The hardest part of all this right now is not seeing my therapist in person. There are many parts of me who view her as a mother figure, and the separation is incredibly painful. We’re worried about her getting sick. We’re worried about getting sick and dying and never being hugged by her again. Some parts even feel she has abandoned us despite the fact that we continue to connect with her online. As someone with adverse childhood experiences, attachment trauma is something I grapple with constantly and something I must face and am learning to recognize in therapy. Past traumatic attachment relationships with caregivers have had a significant impact on me, evoking extreme distress and unbearably painful emotional states, difficulty regulating emotions and mistrust of others intentions towards me. The coronavirus virus pandemic leverages all of this, intensifying symptoms that already make things difficult.

It might surprise you to know, however, that complex PTSD has its benefits in times of stress. Hypervigilance can a blessing during times of crisis, albeit a taxing one that takes its toll. When crisis hits I eventually swing into action, my brain stem keeps firing and my focus turns to what I need to survive as well as anything that might get in the way of surviving. In the case of the coronavirus pandemic, this means obsessive organization and preparedness, structure and routine and a never-ending list of things I must do because if I don’t chaos will seep in. I find myself calmly supporting friends and offering advice from a place inside me that seems quietly in control. In this mode there is no room for emotion, only action.

Here are some things that are helping me during the COVID-19 pandemic:

1. Giving myself permission and space to dissociate.

Yes, you read that correctly. Allowing and even planning for dissociation. The thing some people don’t realize is that dissociation isn’t a bad thing and it can be a gift when managed. During this coronavirus pandemic, dissociation helps me to escape a little and gives my adrenal fatigued body a break. What does this look like? At the end of the work day when my responsibilities for the day are taken care of, I might lose myself in collage making, letting parts of myself who may have felt silenced all day out to communicate, create and play. 

2. Checking in with myself and other parts of me.

Being in isolation it’s really easy to either shut down or become overly preoccupied by distractions. After all, both can take you away from what is going on in the world. But doing that, besides reinforcing feelings of hopelessness and aloneness, can also cause abandonment of self or other parts. I find myself talking internally to myself and other parts of me more right now, sometimes even out loud because the feeling of speaking aloud restores a little calmness to me. Writing is another way I do this, giving space for reflection and processing so that everything doesn’t build up inside. And while the distress I’m feeling lately is making it harder to have co-consciousness with other parts, it doesn’t mean they are unreachable. I’m going to try leaving little messages for parts around my apartment and in our planner so that we can all stay in communication with one another and get through this together. If this all sounds strange to you, consider how good it feels when someone reaches out to you and asks how you’re doing. It doesn’t hurt to extend the same kindness to yourself.

3. Separating feelings from facts while still accepting different emotional states.

I’m sitting at my desk working on something and suddenly I am hit with a feeling of terror that grips my body. I can’t think past the terror. My brain has been hijacked. It’s easy to give into the sensation because what I’m physically feeling is real. I have to pull back and ask myself, “Is there anything in this moment, inside my apartment, to feel terrified about?” I scan the room and notice that there is nothing dangerous or threatening. Nothing has changed in here from 10 minutes ago when I was feeling much calmer. Sometimes I pause and describe three to five objects in the room with as much detail as I can to get orientated to the current moment. Other times I might move around purposefully, feeling my feet sink into the carpet, going deeper into the floor. I might even splash cold water on my face to force myself back into the present. I might do all of these things combined and more, whatever it takes to get present. I’m not banishing difficult emotions because that simply doesn’t work and I realize they all have a role to play. I’m just making sure that I recognize what I’m feeling and not give those feelings all the power.

4. Maintaining self-care.

When it comes to self-care right now, I have thoughts such as why bother. Why bother showering or dressing if no one is going to see me? Why bother eating if all I’m doing is staying in my apartment? Why bother taking my medication if I’m just going to get sick from coronavirus anyways? But how I treat myself directly impacts my emotions, how well I’m able to function and how much I’m able to be there for others. Everyday, regardless of urges to do otherwise, I get up, eat breakfast, brush my teeth, shower, get dressed and make my bed. A simple morning routine that makes the difference between me being able to tackle the day or not. This is a difficult time and if there’s anything I can do to make it even a little more tolerable I’m going to do it.

5. Connecting with others.

I’m craving in-person contact with friends, colleagues, my therapist and the rest of my treatment team, but with the lockdown, it’s not possible. I want everyone to be well and I want to help bring this pandemic to an end as soon as possible so I’m complying with social distancing and isolating. But I can still connect to people through emails, online videos, texts, letters and more. In the first week of  isolation it was hard to muster up the energy to reach out, I felt so depressed and I needed to sit with that for awhile. But I couldn’t allow myself to stay there. I’m trying to pay attention to the ebbs and flows of my energy, connecting with myself and and my system as well as with others.

When the coronavirus pandemic is over and things slowly but surely return to something close to normal, many people without trauma histories will be able to put this episode behind them. Their bodies will tell them that the danger has passed and they will be able to feel at ease as they step back into their lives. My therapist and I have already discussed that for me, and others with complex PTSD and/or unresolved trauma histories, it’s very likely I won’t recognize the danger has passed. From past experience I know that as scared and stressed as I feel now, I might very well feel worse when this all comes to a close. My brain will keep looking for the threat to our survival because that’s what it has been primed to do.

Ask yourself, what will you need when this is over? What are you missing right now? We are collectively experiencing a crisis and yet our current situations and histories impact how we are experiencing everything and how we will feel when the coronavirus pandemic is over. Some people will be able to move on quickly and others will take longer. I believe the desire to unify and celebrate will mix with the need to grieve and reflect.

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Getty Images photo via marzacz