Experts at the End of the World
This article contains detailed descriptions of PTSD and C-PTSD, and briefly references interpersonal violence. Please be gentle with yourself, and mindful of your spoons, before you read on.
All of us experience some kind of trauma. While it’s important to avoid the oppression olympics — that is, the act of competing with each other to determine who has suffered the most — it’s also true that not all trauma is created equal. A cancelled college graduation ceremony is different from the death of a parent. The loss of a limb is different from a lifetime of poverty. It’s not for me to say which of these experiences is more painful, or which does greater psychological damage. Only a person who has lived through multiple kinds of trauma can accurately compare them.
Those of us living with PTSD and C-PTSD carry our trauma differently. Some of us avoid all contact with triggers, even if doing so cuts us off from support. Some of us experience daily flashbacks to the worst moments of our lives. Some of us are insomniacs, and some of us are unable to get out of bed for days in a row. We struggle with emotion regulation, and we often lash out when we feel threatened. We feel threatened all the time. We are hypervigilant, constantly looking for danger, making escape plans before we enter any room. For years, I couldn’t sleep unless there was a clear path between my bed and the door. In college, that often meant piles of books and laundry would amass like snowbanks in my dorm, guarding a trail of imaginary breadcrumbs to an equally imaginary safety.
When you’re used to being afraid, the most dangerous situations can feel like home. Survivors of interpersonal violence, for example, often find themselves in abusive relationships again and again, repeating cycles they learned in the past. Our intimate knowledge of trauma can be very damaging. But it can also be a superpower.
Some events leave a global mark. Where were you when Kennedy was shot? What were you doing when the Berlin Wall fell? How did you spend the day on 9/11? People who are old enough to remember these events will almost certainly be able to tell you.
The coronavirus pandemic is another such event. Where are you right now? Who are you with? What are you doing? We will remember the spring of 2020 for the rest of our lives. Some of us may even develop PTSD. Years from now, those people will experience flashbacks to what is now the present. No matter where you are, no matter what you’re doing, this is a defining moment of your life.
There is no clear path forward right now. My laundry is folded and put away; my books are neatly stored on shelves. I can easily walk to my front door — but I don’t. There is nowhere to go. All we can do is wait.
In this global crisis, many people with PTSD and C-PTSD are reporting a sense of calm. We feel like we’ve been here before. Perhaps we were once isolated from our loved ones, or forbidden from going outside. Perhaps we were threatened with death because of disease or violent relationships. Whatever our history, we survived it long enough to get here. That means we have the skills to survive this, too.
Strangely — and for the first time, for many of us — we are the leaders now. That is not to say we’re having an easy time. This kind of isolation can be extremely triggering. Nevertheless, we are the ones who have been forced to navigate crises like this in the past. Even if our trauma happened on a much smaller scale, it made us feel like the world was ending. Now, everyone in America and across the globe faces that same feeling.
This pandemic is harmful and frightening. Within this vortex of destruction, though, there is a spark of opportunity. In our shared trauma, we can learn from each other. People who do not (yet) have PTSD can benefit from the skills that trauma survivors have been developing for years. And perhaps, through that most painful and necessary education, we can end some of the stigma against mental illness.
Trust the Process
As Octavia Butler once wrote, “God is Change.” In the post-apocalyptic world of her book, Parable of the Sower, a young woman survives the loss of her entire family by developing a new faith based on this precept. With or without following any religion, this is a time for us to have faith. But faith in what?
Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) works from the premise that by living in accordance with our unique values, we give our lives meaning. For trauma survivors, this is both essential and extremely challenging. Many of us have a hard time trusting our instincts. Because our past experiences have caused so much damage, we can’t easily tell whether we’re working toward a better life or falling into old patterns. This is true whether or not we are in any way responsible for our trauma. Even someone who experienced abuse as a small child, and was in no way to blame for the actions of the adults around them, may grow up to blame themselves for what happened. Just as we learn to mistrust other people who do us harm, we also learn to doubt ourselves.
As we live through quarantine, it is similarly hard to trust our instincts. Much as we want to, we shouldn’t seek out in-person support from family and friends; we shouldn’t commune with nature by spending hours outside. But we can still have faith in certain undeniable facts. In times of acute distress, I find it helpful to simply list true things. For example: time passes. The sun will rise tomorrow. The ground supports my feet. I have ten toes. These things are inarguable, and perhaps more importantly, they have simple emotional connotations. When I engage in this exercise, I am careful not to list any relationships with other people, even reliable ones. This is a way to ground oneself in unchanging, permanent facts.
Once you are reassured of these undeniable truths, if you’re feeling emotionally ambitious, the next step is to practice radical acceptance. It is true that we are living through a pandemic. It is true that our healthcare system is failing us. It is true that we do not know how long this quarantine will last. These facts are changeable and impermanent. They are not grounding or comforting, but they are still true. Try to acknowledge them without focusing on your emotional reactions. Accept that the world is as it is. By accepting our uncertain reality, we can begin to make peace with our grief.
As you grieve, make room for the unique freedom of isolation. In solitude, we are obligated to no one but ourselves. Without regular daily commitments, we can follow our own rhythms. If you sleep better during the daytime, you can do so without missing work. Eat when you’re hungry, not when you agreed to meet a friend for dinner. Go for a walk at 2 am without worrying about who might approach you on the street. Learn to trust your own instincts.
Of course, these exercises are much easier said than done. Work toward having faith in yourself, and understand that it may take time to learn how. Until then, have faith in the fact that you are learning. You are changing. That too, is a constant. As Butler reminds us, “The only lasting truth is Change.”
Emotional trauma lives in the body. We are fortunately emerging from an era in which Western medicine did its best to divorce ailments of the body and mind. Although this stark separation made it possible to define more specific diagnoses for mental and physical illnesses, it has also stood in the way of healing many serious conditions, including PTSD and C-PTSD.
The paradigm is shifting. Besser van der Kolk’s immensely popular book, The Body Keeps The Score, asserts that the link between body and mind “is transforming our understanding of trauma and recovery.” Prominent psychoneuroimmunologist Andy Bernay-Roman has pioneered a style of therapy in which clients revisit the physical experience of past trauma, releasing pain and tension that have been stored in the body for years.
The first step in healing any ailment is the act of acknowledging its existence. As we live through trauma, it’s essential to connect with the physical manifestations of our emotional wounds. In my own practice as a massage therapist, I work with a number of trauma survivors. At the beginning of each session, I ask: how does your body feel? I watch my clients settle into themselves a little more deeply, wiggling their shoulders and stretching their arms before answering. Our current pain does not always fit with our narrative of “what hurts.” By staying present and building body awareness, we make it possible for healing to begin.
Whether or not you are ill, the emotional trauma of this pandemic will manifest in your body. Recognize this without judgement. If you can, take a few minutes each day to focus on your own body awareness. Simply noticing how you feel can be an immensely powerful experience.
How does trauma live within your body? Some of us carry tightness in our shoulders; some of us hold our breath when we’re stressed. You may furrow your brow, clench your stomach, or curl your toes. Perhaps you find yourself constantly fatigued. As you take stock of these sensations, resist the urge to chide yourself for any tightness or pain. Just feel your feelings. The existence of your body, in any state, is one more fact you can rely on.
In this era of political and emotional upheaval, we have to learn new skills and strategies if we want to survive. This is clearly true on an international level: our economies and healthcare systems are changing quickly and drastically in response to COVID-19. These changes are also needed on a much smaller and more personal scale. Difficult though this learning process may be, it is an opportunity for creativity. As you learn more about yourself, you may also want to consider your attitude toward mental illness. Strangely, beautifully, those of us with the most painful histories are in a position to act as guides. Trauma survivors, this is the moment to step into your power. Although none of us know what the future holds, we can navigate toward it with compassion for each other and for ourselves.