The following is adapted from a bonus Truth & Consequences podcast episode recorded during the Covid-19 quarantine. I post it here because it addresses retraumatization and the resurfacing of past trauma and loss.
If you have a few extra minutes this week, I’d like to share a story and some thoughts with you in the hopes that you’ll find it useful. It’s a story about going to the grocery store. Something that used to be an annoyingly frequent chore, at least to me, but has now become a whole different experience for a lot of us…of course, that’s IF you’re actually still venturing out to buy food in person.
Because our world has changed.
That’s what hit me that first time I loaded up my Lysol wipes and gloves into the car and stuffed a ridiculously long shopping list into my purse. This was probably a month ago and it was my first time going grocery shopping since my state issued a stay at home order. That day, the neighborhood grocery store, my all-too-frequent stomping ground felt eerily different from the moment I walked through the automatic doors. The store was relatively empty and patrons and employees were wearing masks. It was a shocking visual that threw me off-kilter from the start.
I felt like I was living in a dystopian movie. My stomach tightened and my heart sped up because I was legit scared…it all felt so alien and threatening. Of course, I wondered if I was putting myself in danger of touching or breathing in the virus. But I had so much to buy for my family. The shelves all looked different too. The canned food aisle was clearly thinned out and the paper goods items were all gone. A note in the meat section said limit 2 per customer.
After about half an hour of picking out items that I thought would serve me best in case it ended up being a long time before we could shop again, canned fruit and power bars and the like, I realized I had to use the bathroom. This felt like a whole other level of danger, but I had no choice. So I braced myself and went into the ladies’ room. At the sinks, I stood next to a woman I recognized from the deli counter and watched as she spent the full recommended 20 seconds washing her hands, front and back. That was comforting, at least. I was reminded of the risks she and other essential workers are taking and the fear they must live with every day, and I had a sharper appreciation for them all.
I emerged from the bathroom and looked around from my new vantage point. And suddenly I was stopped by my own emotional reaction and the unexpected thoughts that entered my brain. I saw in my mind all these points on the timeline of my life, each one punctuated by a distinct memory of being in the grocery store. They hit me thas I stood near the bacon, my gloved hands resting on my disinfected cart handle…all the pivotal events, crises really, that I have, over the years, felt to my core while food shopping. This string of grocery store moments I’ve lived. Tragedies, losses, and traumas.
The first memory was from September 11th, 2001. That terrible morning, when the first plane hit the world trade center, I was in my car in the grocery store parking lot. I remember the news anchors trying to figure out what had led the plane to crash, and their descriptions of the fires and the attempts by survivors to escape the building. I was pregnant with my third child then, and as we waited for her debut in our family during the following days and months, I began to understand how different the world would be for my daughter. From grounded airlines and anthrax scares to suspicion and surveillance that we live with to this day. We are not the same as we were before 9/11.
Then, of course, was the event in my town that changed everything. The Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting on December 12, 2014. Twenty children and six educators were murdered and their loved ones were left utterly devastated. Virtually our whole community was mired in shock and sadness in varying levels. The pain was inescapable and it hung over every gathering spot and public place.
Being in the grocery store in the aftermath meant running into people I knew. That often led to hugs and tears and shared emotions, and not just with friends but acquaintances too. A neighbor, my kids’ teacher, the store owner who knew my face but not my name. Stories were told and mutual friends were worried over. We were all in it together in some form or another. And each of us was forever changed in some way. And not just in Newtown.
On that recent day in the grocery store, which I traversed while the unseen virus may or may not have lurked somewhere nearby, a more recent and acute memory began to surface next. Two years ago, I was standing in those same aisles when my cousin, Sarah called to break some terrible news to me. Our mutual cousin, Michael was dead. He had been battling a virulent strain of the flu virus. We had known he was in ICU on a ventilator and we were waiting to find out if he had turned the corner. He’d been stricken by this flu a week or two earlier, and he’d fared poorly due to weakened lungs from a genetic lung disease he only recently discovered he had inherited, the same disease that had taken his mother’s life the year before.
But until that point when Sarah called me, I couldn’t admit to myself that Michael really might die. He had fought so hard to become the beloved, huge-hearted, hard-working man we all adored. He must have been desperate not to leave his young family behind. To me, Michael was a dear friend who stood up for me when I needed it most. He and I had comforted each other through darkness and loss. And Michael had lived through some of the worst loss imaginable.
Shocked and devastated, I told Sarah I loved her and hung up. Then I headed straight to the self-checkout, swiped my card, and pushed my cart as fast as I could to the exit, my fresh grief in full display as I failed to hold back my tears. I was reminded of the post-Sandy Hook days when everyone understood if you looked like hell in public because we were in collective grief. But on that day, people just watched from a distance and I felt alone and miserable. Michael was gone and I’d never get to say goodbye. The world had been forever altered again.
All these collective and personal losses welled up inside me at once while I moved through the store, in this formerly mind-numbingly familiar environment that had somehow turned into a creepy, surreal sci-fi situation. All the loss, the fear, the shock, and worry of these life events mixed up together in my body and my mind.
I also felt the sadness of missing another friend who died just a year ago. My grief over his loss was suddenly acute again. I thought about how funny it was that our families used to enjoy playing the board game Pandemic together, the goal of which is to work together to save the human race from a spreading global…well, pandemic obviously. And I wondered what my smart, funny, scientist friend would have said about this situation if he were still here with us.
I was overwhelmed and exhausted. I needed to go back and lie down and maybe have a good, long cry. I drove home and my family met me in the driveway. Together, we proceeded to wipe down every grocery item before bringing it in the house. I showered and washed my hair and changed into fresh clothes. The whole process, from composing my shopping list to that moment had taken a total of five hours. That was it, I was completely drained and done for the day.
I share this experience with you because I think it illustrates how naturally our past traumas, and our past losses, can resurface for us in times of stress and uncertainty.
For all of us, each of the hardest things we go through in life alters our world, and us, forever. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But it’s important to understand that our current responses are not just about what’s happening right now. We have a lifetime of experiences shaping our feelings and behaviors as well. Lessons learned for better and for worse. Fear, abandonment, worry, we have all come by these emotions honestly one way or another. Just knowing that these wounds are still inside of us in some form can be immensely helpful when they make themselves known and we feel their power as we face the day’s challenges.
Our experiences also provide us with emotional muscles that we have built up to help steer us through adversity. We’ve been here before. In fact, some people who grew up in chaotic or abusive households who had to be on a high state of alert are reporting feeling strangely calm in the midst of the pandemic–because they know how to live in crisis situations. It’s familiar, and even kind of comfortable to have a known cause for the fight/flight/freeze/or fawn response they live with normally, despite the lack of an actual threat most of the time.
Another reaction is for this threat to bring up past trauma in a way that just completely throws us off our game. This can take the form of a whole list of issues. For example; fear of abandonment, the compulsion to control others, a fear response to being controlled by the very fact that we cannot move about freely or breathe the air in public, and panic at the loss of autonomy that comes from being unable to work or earn a living.
I have to wonder when I see those small bands of protestors shouting about their right to move about freely if that isn’t in part a trauma response just manifesting as a political stance.
Some of my listeners may have loved ones working on the front lines of the healthcare system or in public in other ways and you’re scared for them. Most of us know people who are older or more at risk from the virus for other reasons and we’re worried. Many people are facing serious financial struggles and fears. Some of you may have lost a friend or relative who died from Covid-19 and you’re in mourning for them.
I also need to point out that the uncertainty of this pandemic situation is enormously significant. It’s unprecedented for my life, at least. As my guest, La Shanda Sugg pointed out a few episodes back, we have no reference point for this, no book in our mental library for an experience called global pandemic.
In my case, I was born toward the end of the civil rights era, marked by assassinations and protests, marches, and the Vietnam War. I was too young to consciously feel the effects of that national period of grief and unrest. But my generation did grow up with the looming threat of cold war, the ozone layer in danger, and more recently we watched 2 wars rage on for years, but far from our shores or our daily engagement. Unlike most generations, mine has never had to worry about a military draft or prolonged economic depression. This massive, global situation is like nothing I’ve ever known, and perhaps for that reason, the uncertainty it brings makes it that much more unsettling. Not knowing how it will play out and what the effects will make it so much harder to get a handle on how to deal with it, both practically and emotionally. And that is incredibly draining.
But LIKE all those other events that flashed through my brain in the grocery store, the dramatic shakeup that’s due to Covid-19, in a way I HAVE lived through that experience through each of these life events. And each of you has your own timeline too. That means we have tools in our belt that we can adapt to use on this new problem. It also means we have strengths we may not even realize.
Earlier today, I had to take a drive across town to drop off some sewing supplies I’d borrowed to help make face masks. I don’t get out much anymore, obviously, and I tried to make the best of it. I put on some music and as I wove through the back roads of the town I’ve called home for my entire adult life, I grieved the changes that I could feel under the surface. Because even though it looked a lot like a quiet day in the country, I knew I couldn’t stop off at any shops to grab a sandwich or decide to pop into the library. No games would be played on the soccer field and the schools were empty. It’s been a while since I’ve run into a friend in town and had a friendly chat.
And then I noticed the hearts. First, a lawn sign that thanked our health providers with hearts drawn in magic marker. Then I saw a similar sign, and another and another. In one window, a big red paper heart sat, offering a form of the warmth we’re all missing from each other. It reminded me of the signs that were ubiquitous in the wake of the tragedy seven years ago. They read Pray for Newtown and We Choose Love. Our town has been through the worst already. Life was never the same afterward, but we are still here.
We learned lessons about ourselves. I became far more connected to my community after 12/14. I pushed myself outside my comfort zone as I dove into activism, and came to know grieving families, like the Wheelers, parents of 6-year-old Ben, who have both been my guests. I made mistakes that I regretted, and I learned from them, painful as that was. I felt like I was breaking in half at times, and through it all, I grew as a person. Of course, I would trade all these lessons in a split second if it could give one Sandy Hook victim back their life. But I don’t have that power. Just like we can’t stop this virus right now, even as we do whatever we can to keep ourselves safe and hopefully make our voices heard to decision-makers.
Which brings me to another story I want to leave you with. It takes place right after the 2016 election. Yeah, that one. Like most of my family and friends, I was badly shaken by the results. Those early days left me in a state of extreme concern for my country and the future.
I was walking my dogs one day soon after and I noticed a big, old tree next to the road. And that got me thinking. It had to be at least 75 years old, maybe older. And this tree had been standing there, quietly photosynthesizing and growing ring by ring, launching green leaves every spring and dropping them again in the fall. Year after year, through countless historical events like this one that brought turmoil and tears, knowledge, and progress. Thinking of that tree, I felt suddenly comforted. It had seen so much, and here it was, strong and straight and still going. I told myself I was like that tree, and so is my community and my country. And I knew we would get through this, a little more weathered and at least a bit wiser and stronger.
This global pandemic/lockdown situation we’re living through right now is an enormous challenge. It’s emotionally draining for all the reasons you know already. So we need to be kind to ourselves, to remember that this too shall pass and that with every one of life’s challenges, we have the opportunity to learn about ourselves and our fellow humans, to become wiser, stronger, more connected, and in some sense, better. Like that tree, we all have nicks in our trunk and missing bark that add to our character and helps make each of us the unique individual we are.
What if this is an opportunity to take a pause and address our personal challenges in a way we never have before…to examine and work through our issues, some for the first time? We can build on our previous internal work and explore parts of ourselves we still need to heal or improve. Parts we’re discovering and better understanding under lockdown. Being closed in with loved ones or following the trend of reaching out over video chat to people we haven’t connected with in a while can mean we have a chance to interact differently, to think about how we want to drop unhealthy patterns and form new and improved ones. Interestingly, many therapists have reported that business is really doing well because people actually are taking this time to work on themselves and their relationships.
This thing is going to go on for a while and no matter what, it’s going to be difficult and messy. I’m just figuring it out as I go along too, and I have my own struggles that are real and require attention.
I vote for embracing the mess and doing whatever we can to get through this intact, maybe even stronger than ever.
The best way to process adversity is not to avoid it, but to ride the wave of emotions. Let’s feel our feelings, reach out for help when we need it, find ways to connect to our community, and take good care of ourselves and each other.
The only way around our pain is through it. And we’ll get through it together.