Last week, I posted a photo of myself that I took right after an epic quarantine cry-session, and talked about how triggering all this shit is right now. I’ve been having trauma flashbacks to a particularly difficult time of my life and mental health, and it’s very unpleasant.
I found there to be something eerily familiar about this whole thing, the isolation and the fear and the claustrophobia.
New, of course. Nobody has ever done this before.
But also old, somehow.
The thing is, humans are wired to have a fight, flight, or freeze response to danger, and not only has my body been (accurately) saying there is Big Danger happening lately, but it’s also been telling me to fucking run.
This is an extremely inconvenient response to stress in a global pandemic.
There have been times, while sitting on the phone with a boy who loves me, when I’ve had to literally use every ounce of willpower to not get up and bolt out into the night. There have also been times I’ve escaped my body entirely; watching myself start a fight because somehow burning something to the ground would be more tolerable than staying there and tending to it.
This is old trauma being invigorated by fresh trauma. It’s what’s happening right now, everywhere.
My boyfriend, who has graciously been supporting me as I sort through my own mental health the last few weeks, recently pointed out that it’s been six weeks since he touched another person. While having generally handled quarantine pretty well, he observed a fear that a part of him would shut down, that a part of him was already shutting down, and that it might not be so easy to return to himself (and me) when this was over.
While I am smothered with human contact here among family, I understood how easy it would be to sink back into oneself during this time if traversing it alone; to build walls you don’t even mean to build, just to keep out the lack of people.
I wonder what it will be like when we’re together again, after months apart; how we’ll stay present and show up in our bodies without fear. How I’ll keep from running or attacking, and how he’ll keep from disappearing.
The truth is we barely knew each other when this started.
The truth is COVID has changed things.
A client recently told me that weeks of staying at home with her partner was making her feel panicky and claustrophobic. Having been married to an abusive man for many years, she said the feeling of being trapped inside her house all day reminded her so much of the years she spent with him, unable to leave and living in fear, that she was responding to her new, (wonderful, non-abusive) partner as if he was trying to control and hurt her.
“I slammed the door in his face and screamed at him that he can’t tell me what to do,” she told me through tears. “I don’t even know why. I know he’s not keeping me here. I know there’s a global pandemic. I don’t know why I’m acting like this is his fault.”
It’s getting ugly out here.
There are all these memes out there about not cutting bangs in quarantine. Where are the memes about not exploding your relationship because you’re in a trigger tornado?
Another client told me that being quarantined with her critical parents was making her feel a lot of familiar old stuff she used to feel as a kid– like she was completely invisible, and everything she felt and wanted and did was wrong. She said over the weeks she’s found herself talking less, walking on eggshells, and falling back into the habit of monitoring what everyone is feeling, trying to please them.
She said it clicked for her what was happening after she cleaned the bathroom and then went and found her mother to show her how clean it was. Hoping for praise, she was crestfallen that her mother just looked around, nodded, and then asked why she hadn’t used a different type of cleaner.
“I was just standing there, wondering why at 38 years old I so desperately needed my mom’s approval for how I clean a fucking bathroom,” she said, laughing.
Even if our best selves went into quarantine, it’s not likely that our best selves will come out. There will be so much to process and heal. There will be so much to apologize for, so much trust to rebuild, so many bad habits to climb back out of.
My friend Erin Elizabeth Brown recently mused about what will happen when this is all over; what the shift back will be like. How long will the fear of strangers and bare faces and six feet of distance stay with us?
I wonder how much fresh trauma we’ll all need to process when this is done; what kind of damage we’ll discover when we unfreeze our bodies and look around.
“I’m sorry for what I said during the pandemic,”
Erin writes. I feel that in my bones.
I hope desperately that we don’t all poison ourselves beyond recognition; that our hearts remain intact, our souls firmly planted in our bodies.
I worry about us.
I love us.
This will be quite a mess to clean up when it’s over.