What The Covid-19 Pandemic Taught Me About My PTSD
When the pandemic hit the U.S. and we all went into lockdown, I was calm at first. As a complex trauma survivor, I know how to stay calm in a crisis — “survival mode” is familiar to me.
• What is PTSD?
I knew the little boost of adrenaline due to such a big upheaval would hold me over for a couple weeks. At the time a couple of weeks was how long schools intended to be closed for my three children. A couple of weeks was the timeline for risk of exposure for my husband, a critical care nurse. I felt I had this. After all, I’m pretty far down the road in my recovery from complex PTSD. I know my pitfalls and triggers, and I’ve created quite a large bag of tricks, which keeps me grounded under normal circumstances. But as we all know now, the circumstances of the last year were anything but “normal,” and they lasted way longer than a couple of weeks.
After a month of quarantine, I was beyond exhausted. I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t sleep. These symptoms are typical for me in times of stress, but it seemed millions of other people were also experiencing these symptoms for the first time, as the collective trauma of the pandemic took hold. I felt bad about not getting any work done, but I also knew from experience that self-care took precedence.
By the end of the second month, it seemed most people had returned to work and adapted to the “new normal.” However anxiety dominated my life. I couldn’t stop thinking about all of the ways my husband was in danger, from direct exposure to the virus to the swirling echo chambers of misinformation. I also couldn’t stop the feelings of grief, panic and dread as I thought about his patients who had passed away due to coronavirus. At night, I would wake up from nightmares that I was hooked up to tubes down my throat, and no one could hear me as I called for help. During the day, I was haunted by the knowledge that my nightmares were playing out in real life for thousands of people. By the end of the third month, I was so far down the rabbit hole of trauma that none of my usual tricks worked anymore. A new symptom — suicidal thoughts — prodded me. I knew I needed help, and fast.
As the months dragged on, I eventually did get the help I needed and began the arduous climb out of depression and anxiety. After a variety of new treatments and medication, I’m not yet fully recovered, but I am starting to feel more optimistic about the future, which is significant. I’m also back to a place where I can practice self-care and other techniques that keep me grounded.
I was disappointed in myself that I crashed to the extent I did. However, it’s also humbling to know this about myself after years of forward progress. Looking back the experience taught me several things about my journey with complex PTSD:
- Regression is common and to be expected under prolonged stress.
All the PTSD symptoms I thought I had under control had returned, plus a few new ones, and I felt deep shame (another symptom) about it. It was no fun at all, but it helped me better understand and advocate for what I needed. For me, a large part of healing from complex PTSD is acknowledging the thoughts and feelings that I’m not enough, didn’t do enough or that I can’t control every circumstance. Then I let those thoughts and feelings go. Healing comes from admitting my vulnerabilities and asking for help when I need it. As someone who had to be über-independent as a child in order to survive, this is harder than it may seem.
- Feeling safe is central to recovery.
Much of my social anxiety was rooted in not feeling safe. No matter how much I washed my own hands or wore high-quality masks, I could not control the cavalier attitudes and opinions of others. During a pandemic, when my husband was in constant risk while caring for people who were dying, it was especially distressing for me to see people minimizing public health issues. In order to feel safe, I had to let go of the opinions of others. If a situation didn’t feel safe to me, for any reason, I needed to honor that. As a recovering people pleaser, it’s a major hurdle to shut out all opinions but my own. Respecting my own need to feel safe is a non-negotiable boundary I must set with others, at all costs, as someone who lives with complex trauma.
- Keep trying until you find what works.
Healing trauma can be elusive. What works for some doesn’t work for others. Also what works sometimes doesn’t work all the time. What worked in the past may not work in the future, and vice versa. Over the years I’ve tried just about everything, including several medications, talk therapy, EMDR therapy, meditation, yoga, massage, tension release exercises, polyvagal theory, attachment theory, diet changes, lifestyle changes — to name a few. I’ve read countless books, taken seminars and attended summits. I have seen shamans and psychiatrists. Finding what works takes an incredible amount of time, energy and perseverance. It also requires financial alchemy, which is particularly difficult since many of us need the health benefits of full-time work, but we may burn out quickly in full-time jobs. Finding what works is full of sacrifice and dedication. Hardest of all? It also requires me to believe that I am worth it.
- Have compassion for yourself.
Compassion for myself seems to be something I am constantly relearning. In my earlier years of trauma recovery work, I equated self-compassion with self-pity. After all, that was what I had been taught by my abusers. I had to break the cycle of being my own worst critic and holding myself to impossible standards. As someone who was shamed for having any needs as a child, I didn’t learn until I was much older how to validate my feelings. I have since learned how to nurture myself through an emotional flashback and allow myself to feel my feelings without shame. Self-compassion releases me of the need to be perfect or even good, and it allows me to be open to love, as I am, wherever I am.
Lastly I needed to remember that I was not alone during the pandemic. For many trauma survivors, the compound effect of one trauma leading to another is a universal experience. The last year has been challenging for many of us, and in supporting one another, we can regroup and reclaim our lives.