I’m watching the news constantly, like so many of us. It’s a perverse pleasure and pain, to constantly tune in. It’s also an anxiety inducing onslaught, reminding me how little in this life is truly within my control.
We are living in a time of trauma. Now is the time to attend to our suffering.
I feel inundated by best practices about the virus, as we all have.
Take care of the elderly.
Take care of the vulnerable.
Stay the f**k home.
I see the ideas circulate and recirculate as the president issues a call to arms.
We are fighting an “invisible enemy” the President says, relishing the opportunity, as he always does, to be on the offensive. Governor Cuomo of New York tells us we are at war. I am in the familiar territory where our bodies are mobilized in an invisible fight against illness. Rather than telling us we must take care of ourselves and others we are positioned as soldiers in a fight. The enemy is illness, and the battle is individual. The systematic and structural inequality of the way resources, access, healthcare and illness target the vulnerable erased quickly and sweepingly with an admonition that control lies with us, as individuals. So, if we fail in our battle against this virus, we have no one to blame but ourselves.
This is not a new message. Sick people have often heard this message and have been positioning themselves against this message for a long time. Sick people have been articulating themselves against the narrative of battle for a long time, trying to let people know that illness is not an individual fight, it is a social reality.
I know this not only because of the brain tumor I spent the better part of five years “battling” but because I study trauma, and the media, and the ways we make sense of traumatic moments using digital tech.
After a decade of study, what I can tell you is that traumas are those things that undo our meaning making schema, or the frameworks we use to make sense of our day to day, the assumptions we carry that guide us through the world. Trauma unmakes the world.
When a traumatic rupture occurs, we are marginalized, unable to exist in our world as we know it.
Trauma unmakes the world, and nothing has so effectively unmade the world in so many ways and for so many people in my lifetime as this virus. The routines and assumptions that we have that structure our lives and give it meaning suddenly vanished. Many attempted to push the reality of this trauma away by persistently sticking to routines, to leisure time activities, rejecting the call for social distancing to perhaps stem the feelings a massive traumatic upheaval like this can cause.
It’s been more than three weeks since I’ve truly left my house. I’ve gone out twice, once in pursuit of toilet paper and once in pursuit of food. I was diligent about disinfecting everything I touched and sanitizing my hands before getting into and out of my car.
In these three weeks, I also bore witness to the progression of friends cavalierly joking about the situation and then slowly realizing that this wasn’t a “them” problem, this was an everyone problem. I quietly awaited guidance from local, state and federal authorities, wondering when the rhetoric of battle and protecting the weak would stop erasing vulnerable and weak bodies and take concrete, material action. That day still hasn’t come.
So now, as we face down the consequences of a collective trauma, I ask where those vulnerable bodies are? I know they are speaking, as I am speaking, but why is that narrative not taking hold? Why instead do we cling to illusions of a return to normal and continue to erase sick vulnerable bodies, and absolve our societies of responsibility for those bodies?
Even as illness takes hold in the national conversation, we are not confronting sickness in a productive way. We cope instead by clinging to the illusion that this virus is somehow sent here to teach us some grand lesson. This virus is not a gift. It is not here to teach our kids humility, or compassion, it may do those things, but this happened because things happen. Because viruses spread. And if I get it, or you get it, we do not become fighters in a war against an invisible enemy. We simply remain human, doing our best to get by in a tough situation. And if, and I hope it doesn’t happen, some of our bodies cannot wage battle against this invisible enemy, we did not die because we did not battle bravely. We died because we got a disease and perhaps, we could not have gotten better, or perhaps we couldn’t receive the care that would help us get better. These issues are either beyond our control or steeped in a politics of class, race, and ability, but they are not, in any way, about individual failing.
The thing is, when we are traumatized, we are told to overcome. To not only go back to normal but to go beyond normal and to tap into the pain of our traumas and use them to ignite our superpowers. To become what disability studies calls, the “super-crip”.
This isolating and insurmountable pressure comes from lessons learned early. Not to stare at those who are different than us or those who are sick or suffering. And in telling traumatized people to overcome, and looking away, we tell them, and in fact you tell me, that the burden of my health, my recovery, my trauma lies solely in my hands. And yes, this is lonely.
It is my responsibility to triumph over my circumstance, so that I can inspire the well. If not, the well will simply not look at me. The reason we look away from traumatized, disabled or sick bodies is because they remind us of what we don’t want to become. Of what we will all become if we live long enough to feel the ravages of age and the social world
So we look away.
I fear now, with the president vacillating between issuing preemptive calls to reopen businesses and that to stay home, and a general disavowal of the coronavirus from those at the top, that we are calling upon our citizenry to look away from the sick in favor of a return to normal. While I recognize many in leadership doing there best, particularly at the state level, true collective action needs true collective buy in. And I don’t think we can go back to normal, this trauma has changed all of us, whether we realize it or not.
I fear that if we do not look directly at this crisis, to name that recovery is a fraught concept because once a trauma of this scale occurs there can be no real return to normal, we will not only fail the sick and vulnerable we claim to protect, but we will fail everybody. Every single body.
There was a point after my 4th brain surgery where I badly wanted to go back to normal. In fact, I wanted to prove to the world around me that I was as inspiring as everyone seemed to want me to be. They wanted a story of triumph? I’d give it to them. So, against doctor’s orders and my parents’ pleas, I went back to work and the routine of life just 2 and a half weeks after being discharged from the hospital. That fateful decision led to my 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, and yes, tenth brain surgery.
There are real consequences in failing to look at trauma with a clear recognition that it has undone the world as we knew it, but if we can, we may be able to emerge from that trauma in new ways. We may not “recover” as that implies a return to normal, but we might be able to make a new world. A capacious world where we learn along side all kind of bodies.
Suffering is not about the individual. Suffering is not even contained in the individual body of the person who comes down with COVID19. Suffering is social. Like all the things we experience, it is felt socially. We love socially. We feel joy socially. We feel pain socially. And like all things we feel socially, there’s a politics to it and power involved in who we see, who we refuse to see, who we look away from and who we help.
All of this matters to our suffering.
So, I believe we can choose to see one another and look directly at one another’s pain, instead of looking away. But first, we must stop isolating the vulnerable as individual fighters in their own battle against an invisible enemy. While we may think that the rhetoric of war is binding us to our collective man, as long as people are left to suffer alone, we have not faced our collective trauma. As long as there are people left without healthcare, access, and allowed to know that their voice matter, we have not come together to undo structural inequality.
We must acknowledge that a return to normal is not a possible outcome. We must grieve the world we once knew. Then, we must recognize ourselves as builders of worlds, find what worked from before, and what left so many voices out of the conversation. Then we must ask, what kind of world do we want to rebuild?