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What PTSD Can Teach Us All About Dealing With the COVID-19 Pandemic

The other day, I realized people have suddenly joined me in getting a taste of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) life. It suddenly made sense why I seem to have adjusted so quickly, despite the first couple of days of jaw-clenching, constant every-nerve-tingling hyperarousal and fretful sleeplessness. While I am emotionally adjusted now, and finding upsides amidst the collective reset, the sadness and grief for humanity remains. This is a tragedy of epic proportions, with hospitals growing overloaded, supplies lacking, healthcare workers struggling to endure and so many senseless deaths. There is great, horrific suffering in the world, and it is not ending any time soon. For many, this coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic — the new-to humans virus that causes respiratory infection and can lead to serious or fatal health complications — and its far-reaching effects may be their first real taste of intense, unrelenting emotional pain. Not so for myself or others with PTSD.

Mental anguish due to horrific, out-of-your-control situations is a reality that most people — busy living their lives, reaching their goals, planning vacations, holidays and reunions — have actively tried to avoid acknowledging, consciously or not. It’s the kind of suffering you can’t turn your eyes from when you watch shows like “The Keepers,” “Unbelievable,” “Leaving Neverland” and even “Tiger King.” Exciting chatter for the water-cooler, but not something most want to think about for any great length of time, let alone see and read and hear about it day and night, for weeks on end.

Trauma is a part of human existence, but fortunately it doesn’t affect everyone.

Thanks to the global pandemic, no one can turn their attention away from a stark, relentless reality that no amount of work, fun or entertainment can take away. There is a sense of “nowhere is safe,” and we even worry when we step outside of our homes, keeping six feet away. We can’t help but wonder: Will I get sick? Will I die? When will my life be “normal” again?

The truth is, your life and mine will never be “normal” again. This pandemic has entered our lives, like it or not, and it will change us. The way we change, for better or worse, is up to us. By the way, not changing and refusing to change is a choice, a form of anti-growth. This is a lesson I learned from years of battling complex PTSD. At the beginning of trauma showing up in your life, unwelcome, bringing emotional pain, confusion and surprise bursts of terror, you think: “let’s get this over with,” because you want to go back to “normal.” You want back what you had — that life “before,” the you who went around the world innocently, happily ignorant of such devastating pain.

In my case, the “before” was a “me” who was actively suppressing the truth of a childhood of abuse and neglect, blissfully amnesiac to anything but a few happy memories and physically dissociating her way through life using perfectionism, overachievement, fitness and nonstop activity. It turns out a large part of me, subconsciously, knew just how dangerous the world really was. I had confronted it as a small child, in terror, intense fear of impending death, but rather than acknowledge it because I was so young and so instinctively intent on survival, I found a way to make what was real “not be real.” It worked. I survived, and from the outside thrived, even.

Until my body broke down, and my defense mechanisms were useless. And then, there it was: deathly real, ugly, aloneness.

It took four years to go from that place of active suffering, when trauma first showed itself in 2015, to what I could call an “after,” a place of healing and acceptance. It is a process known as “trauma recovery,” and it is something we must go through, in a way, if we are to come out of this thing, this pandemic and quarantine nightmare, on the other side of it, intact.

For those of us who survive, what parts of ourselves will not if we don’t confront the horrors head-on? Trust me, I tried that suppress-deny-stay busy way, and it didn’t work. If anything, the denial of truth only killed pieces of me on cellular levels to where there can be no healing to a certain degree. Chronic illness, especially autoimmune and inflammatory conditions, is often related to such tiny denials, repeated over and over again during a lifetime.

So what are we to do? How do we get through this?

First of all, accept what is. Do not try to change it. Embrace whatever you feel, your emotions, fear, anger, sadness, as they come. Ride them like waves; don’t be afraid of what comes up. Feelings can’t hurt you, but suppressing them can. If you have ever boogie boarded, you know what I mean. If the wave is coming, you need to just go for it. Ride it out, all the way ’til it comes to a slow, bumping halt at the shoreline. And then sit there with it for a while, waves slowly lapping at your feet, amazed, exhilarated and relieved at what you just experienced. Don’t be surprised if old feelings are wrapped up in these current feelings of helplessness, defeat, despair. Anger is often a coverup of other, more painful emotions we may be trying to hide. But anger is a good place to start exploring — what’s below this? What am I trying to avoid? What wave can I ride? The end of the ride through grief is the beginning of getting to that place of “after,” which is called acceptance. Here you can start to uncover a new reality, a new you in the world, in harmony inside with the reality that is happening around you (the reality which you cannot change). The only mindset you can change is the one inside you, the inner weather, not the outer.

Our outside environment is the most unpredictable many of us have ever encountered. Most of us are not used to living in a world of daily upheaval, chaos, fear and, perhaps worst of all for humans, the unknown future. What I offer to you is the insight of someone who has lived through a childhood that could only be described as a nightmare. Imagine being trapped inside a vehicle hurtling toward danger with no way of controlling anything, no way of escape, of relief. I believe childhood abuse is the most devastating thing that can happen to an individual, though it is often minimized. The reason? Because children have no control over their environment, and thus the wound is far greater than if similar abuses occurred to an adult. Children also often lack the vocabulary to understand what is happening to them; there is no way to make sense of what is happening. What I feel is worse is when horrors are inflicted by a parent or trusting adult, as in the case of me, the victims of church abuse and more.

We carry our invisible wounds on the inside, and watch as the world out there — your world, if you were not abused and traumatized young — goes on as if everything is fine, everything is good. Christmases, Mother’s Day, Father’s day, year after year, the celebrating and praising of “family!” “Home for the holidays!” “All come together!” Those very ideas send us reeling into the blackest places of self-loathing, emptiness, abandonment. Year after year, avoiding stores at holidays, winning private battles of finding the strength to shop for our children, wanting more than anything to make it special for them in a way we never had, but finding the nightmares are worse, the anxiety unbearable, all in a climate of “Joy to the World!” when it feels like anything but joy. Imagine Christmas, right now, in this pandemic. Imagine the songs, the merriment, the photos of happy people gathering around warm candlelit tables while you are suffering, alone and afraid.

This is like PTSD. The trauma? It is the sudden removal of a world we took for granted, a world that made sense, that had safety, purpose, a way to move within it that had meaning. Where you had a job to drive to, bus drop-offs to drive kids to, dry cleaning to pick up, trips to plan. That world was one I never knew, and never will. Those of us with PTSD live with this kind of unsettling, ground-fell-out reality already, every day. Our reality, and now yours, is this: there is only true safety when we give it to ourselves, when we surround ourselves with those who love us and make us feel wanted, safe and secure; when we find joy in the little things: the birds singing in the trees, the butterfly pollinating the flowers, the smile of child, whether yours or anyone’s. The simple things. Let the small joys, the small happinesses, grow big in your heart like little seeds you choose to plant there. That is the way out. The only way out. It’s love.

When I was in the worst of my PTSD depression, I felt I was filled with complete blackness. Like the inside of my body was poisoned, through and through, and there would never be light in me again. I could not shake it, not for any amount of therapy — I was in eye-movement desensitization and reprogramming (EMDR) therapy for years. Journaling, talking, even being with my family didn’t help. It was in me, like a black smoke monster. I could feel it in my veins, like the rush of IV fluids: cold, but self-destroying, evil. But I knew, thankfully, that as real as it felt — and it WAS real, it was the shame and evil that was deposited in me by my abusers, by the act of being traumatized, over and over — I also had control of it. Because now — now, finally! — I was an adult. I could make my own choices. I had the power now, all to myself. This truth was a seed I deliberately planted, repeatedly, until it took, in my heart and returned to, had to tell myself, over and over. “I am an adult now,” which sounds silly but it was necessary. And because the darkness in me made it so very hard to believe, I had to prove it to myself over and over.

One day, bleak as could be, I decided to hang reminders where I could see them every day upon waking, a reason to get up, to keep going. I pulled out from drawers various homemade cards, drawings and photos from and of my children, with rainbows, hearts, and over and over “I love you, Mom.” I hung them, a memorial to my mothering, across from my bed, and I would read them, absorb them, make them be true even though every cell in my body told me it wasn’t. How unbelievable and silly it sounds now; of course my kids (now teens) love me. But still, there are days when the traumatized little girl in me does not believe for a second that anyone does, or could, because that is a wound that will never heal. But the reminders of being loved are everywhere, and the choice is always mine, to believe them or not.

So my offering to you, from one person to another, is this: hold onto your truth. If you aren’t sure of it, find it. Make that your job right now. Acknowledge your feelings and let them be what they are. Don’t judge them. Ride the wave, and when it’s done, have a drink of water, relax, move when you are ready to do whatever feels good to you. Learn to listen to the subtle internal shifts that are your emotions, your body’s signal that something needs to be expressed, needs a release. If you are tired, rest; if you are sad, cry; if you are lonely, text a friend. Do not judge these things. The best thing about this pandemic is that we have freedom — all the time in the world to learn to go inward into our bodies, our first best friend, and be kind to it. Tell yourself good things. Remind yourself of what matters to you, over and over again, until you believe it. Be gracious. Be slow and gentle as you learn to love yourself for perhaps the first time.

The world outside has fallen to pieces; it is crumbling before our eyes. Our collective world “before the pandemic” is gone and it is scary as hell. It is. We don’t know what a “post-pandemic world” will look like, but there will be one. We will be OK. We have to sit with the threat, yes. We have to make smart choices for our health. We must practice physical distancing and quarantine if necessary. We take it incredibly seriously, but we do not need to go about our days drowning in fear. Fear is death, fear is the blackness that spreads like ice in the veins. Acknowledge the fear; call it by it’s name, label it “I’m afraid of ___.” Ride the wave of whatever it brings up, and let it go. This is where your mind power comes in, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and all of that — but tell yourself, “it will be OK,” and then do what needs to be done. If nothing needs to be done, then rest, relax, enjoy your family or pets, read a book, walk outside in the trees. Just be present. Just be.

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Photo by Thought Catalog on Unsplash