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On Self-Quarantine and Coalescing Personal and Generational Trauma

Rachel Presser
Mar 20 · 9 min read

Many of us are reliving nightmares of our ancestry, if not our own traumatic experiences.

Black and white pencil drawing of a young woman in Victorian dress talking on a vintage telephone on a large desk
Black and white pencil drawing of a young woman in Victorian dress talking on a vintage telephone on a large desk
“English Bunker Bean” by Harry Leon Wilson ca. 1913, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. Apparently, she’s saying “Every time I get alone I just giggle myself into spasms. Isn’t it the funniest?”

I started renting an office in December as I suddenly needed reliable and quiet recording and meeting space, plus proximity to my healthcare provider. I even detailed this adventure for freelancers and entrepreneurial sorts at a similar place in life.

As I pored over my commercial landlord’s website looking for something, anything, about how we could freeze or cancel our leases during this protracted period of bunkering in, my tired and screen-worn eyes met my prior bookings in plain tiny font matching the realty company’s logo. March 12, 2020 was the last time I recorded in the private room at my new HQ.

It’s this very banality that felt like being hit in the face with a shovel even harder than when the mayor announced the first series of lockdowns. Even as I grieved that GDC (Game Developers’ Conference) wasn’t taking place and just got news that last morning I rode the bus into the city that Raleigh-based East Coast Game Developers’ Conference was cancelled next, March 12th was just another uneventful weekday in Midtown Manhattan. It was another day in the routine I’d gotten used to between starting physical therapy and commencing my business lease that I received medical care, worked, and enjoyed a light dinner at Simit Sarayi before catching the bus home.

But as I stared at the March 2020 calendar splayed out with “available bookings” as empty as Fifth Avenue itself right now, I saw only a week had passed since. Normally, a week would fly right by as I juggled clients, working on my game, post-op care, and trying to rebuild my social life given that I was homebound for months after a major foot surgery. But it felt like a year passed since I last unpacked my recording gear, poked down an Aldi protein bar in the blue room upon skipping lunch and waiting for my files to upload, then said good-bye to the receptionist.

As millions adapt to telework, I’m no stranger to working at home. That’s old hat to me. I snub my nose at those annoying thinkpieces about how the rise of freelancing and working at home will make us too antisocial when no, owning your time and better yet, owning your labor, is AWESOME. Not barring a disability or caring for young kids, never leaving the house is a choice. Fuck that, our worlds are more closed in when we have to sit in a cubicle all day. But all of this is far different in a pandemic we’ve never seen the likes of before.

All of that autonomy and ability to travel near and far that many freelancers, creatives, and solopreneurs hold dear? It must come to a halt for the public good so we reduce the risk of becoming carriers and spreading COVID-19 further. As we scathingly look at airlines and hotels getting billion-dollar bailouts while they won’t even give us refunds for trips we can’t take because of borders closing? The rage broils that last frozen pizza on the shelf until it blackens while Congressional leadership decides now is a great time to do some Rube Goldbergian means testing instead of giving us a basic income. Meantime, the Titanic hit the iceberg and Mr. Andrews drowned with the ship 45 minutes ago.

I am no stranger to trauma on individual and collective levels. I’m a child abuse survivor. Shortly after my abusive mother passed away in 2000, the world stopped on 9/11 and my dad and I worried that my grandmother, who was walking distance from the Twin Towers, went to her bank in Tower 1. She was fine, but had smoke coming in through her windows and stayed inside while the pandemonium erupted down below. On a more lateral level, I then watched the genuine pain and shock of people in the tristate area become exploited to turn the US into a surveillance state.

When a close friend and mentor in the punk scene passed away a few years later, although it felt like a lifetime later to me, my community was shaken to its core and we knew things wouldn’t be the same again. As rabid and rapid gentrification in the city continued to push out friends and neighbors while the end of an era was clear, it felt like I was experiencing multiple deaths but that I knew he’d want me to carry on. To keep going to shows and find salvation in punk and hardcore music, have my own band soon enough, and focus on returning to college so I could get my shit together. How many hardcore songs were written about staying positive and getting back up again, even after coming to terms with trauma and losing someone you love has completely fucking torn you apart?

But while the world ground to a halt on 9/11 and it was likely more palpable because of where I am and come from? Trauma on the individual, household, and community levels is still atomized from the world at large. While I told my professors I needed time off to attend my friend’s funeral and to grieve in private, most people at my primarily working class commuter college had no idea what the hell I was going through. People who patronized the stores, clubs, and restaurants on the same blocks as the rotating venues that hosted underground bands had no idea how many of us were grieving someone so close to us.

This time? It’s happening all over the world. Literally.

People are having a hard time grasping not only the severity of the situation, but also the sheer enormity of it. How when I log into Discord servers and stay glued to Twitter, people all over the world are either bunkered indoors or reasonably scared and angry about how their employers are still forcing to them to come to work even if their jobs are nonessential.

The pandemic has opened Americans’ eyes not only to how many things were complete bullshit along — like the very concept of being forced to go to an office every day for white-collar work you can easily do at home, why were people being held in jails for misdemeanors, and why haven’t all the private health insurance companies had Viking funerals yet? — but proving that workers are at the forefront of crisis mode, not capital. Oh, and we’re watching the Roman Empire burn in real time now. Live from Periscope, Discord, Hangouts, or your tech of choice. Because things just won’t be the same again after this, no matter how many of us survive.

People are losing their minds adjusting to having be confined mostly to home, unable to have to beautiful edition of working at home that us seasoned freelancers, solopreneurs, and telecommuters enjoyed before that fateful day. Healthcare workers, delivery drivers, and grocery stockists are risking their lives to keep us healthy and fed. Communities attempt to regroup online, while some of us ponder how these orders not to see our friends are actually changing our day-to-day routines at all since sorry, it’s capitalism and work culture that make us antisocial, NOT working at home. An atomized social life with friends dispersed all over the country is simply a fact of life in this day and age!

But what about those of us who are reliving generational trauma?

Trauma that we remember on personal, familial, community, and historical levels is one thing. But while some of us may feel depressed or angry at the lack of control we have over the present situation, some of us are reliving trauma that our ancestors may have left with us.

That very year my friend died and I resumed classes, I recall discussing “inherited archetypes” in psychology class. How you can inherit subconscious thoughts through DNA, although I think the appropriate term the professor should’ve used was “inherited trauma”.

Speaking for my own ancestry, I come from a long line of Galician Jews who pretty much did whatever they had to do to escape pogroms. While the Holocaust and World War II are temporally closer in terms of living memory, although the last group of people to remember these events are fading fast, we’re a group of people who are a popular scapegoat. Running from people who want us dead has been virtually a constant throughout history and as antisemitism has ratcheted up in recent years, many of us can’t help but relive trauma of the Pale of Settlement or our grandparents being asked for papers if they escaped the ghettos in Lwow and Lublin. Something about being bunkered in feels incredibly salient to me, having had relatives who needed to do this for survival. I tell myself that it’s 2020, I just got tacos delivered and I merely had to request contactless dropoff, and it’s not in the same universe as antisemites coming to kill me then ransack my apartment with torches and pitchforks. But our lizard brains like to play tricks on us using this inherited trauma, even though we consciously know everybody has to bunker in and protect ourselves and the public right now.

Many Millennials recall our grandparents telling us about protracted timeframes of little or no income, Hoovervilles, and other hallmarks of the Great Depression. Bare shelves staring them in the face while trying to stretch canned goods as much as possible. My grandmother would tell us about how she’d rescue nail scissors from the garbage for the scrap metal, my sister and I put those same skills to work cutting toiletry tubes open so we could replace these items less frequently during the 2008 financial meltdown.

There’s nothing like this pandemic in living memory. Our governments utterly failed us by not taking it seriously and making adequate efforts to contain it, and a bloodbath is inevitable because HMOs do not give a shit if you die. The CEO of Blue Cross is probably in a sterile private bunker off the coast of the Cayman Islands as I write this, greedily slavering over a black market ventilator while I watch in horror as my state and city hold the highest number of confirmed cases. But even if they did give a shit, we simply don’t have enough healthcare workers and hospital beds for all afflicted patients. So we must bunker for the greater good: for ourselves, and the people most likely to require ICU care if they get infected.

Generational traumas may be relived and manifest differently. As long-term self-quarantine takes a toll on collective mental health, some people may be reliving bad memories of social isolation in childhood or perhaps their ancestors’ of having to make do with bare shelves and trying to avoid infecting family members with typhus in closed quarters. Maybe I’m not the group being targeted by the secret police roaming empty streets as we hunker down trying to stay at least six apart and limiting our risk exposure. But that feeling of dread persists not knowing how long this is going to take.

Millennials as a whole were already told all their lives to wait for things. Child abuse survivors like myself have also been conditioned to wait terrible things out, and returning to this coping strategy can be triggering. So what can we do?

Grieve. Grieve for what you just lost right now. Your immediate future plans. Cry. Swear. Tell those airlines to go fuck themselves for not giving you a refund while they got a bailout and you lost your job or your clients. Anger and depression are totally valid right now.

Grieve for your lost childhood, if you lost it like us survivors did. Grieve for your twenties that may have been lost to things like bad relationships, being in school forever, the ravages of capitalism, and/or coming to terms with childhood trauma. Grieve for what all of these forces stole from you.

Grieve for the atrocities your ancestors went through. Think about what their stories and sacrifices have taught you and how they’re making you into the stronger person you are today. I come from a long line of people who made daring escapes and defied death, and started communities, careers, and families despite bigots’ efforts to end them at every turn. How fucking metal is that?

It takes time to grieve. Waiting things out is painful and a new source of trauma has formed before our eyes. You may be ready to come out swinging tomorrow upon coming to terms with the enormity of the situation. Just be mindful that some deeply-traumatized people may need more time and to be checked on more.

Rachel Presser

Written by

Game dev, writer, small biz & tax consultant to indie devs. Above all, socialist childfree shitposting crazy toad lady from The Fucking Bronx www.sonictoad.com

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