Content note: trauma, illness, global climate change, anxiety, quarantine
On page 37 of Your Healing is Killing Me, Virginia Grise lists ten characteristics of PTSD. Number six is, “A sense that time is short and there is no future.”
I became very sick on February 15th, 2020. It took me a month to recover and my lung capacity is still, 39 days later, 5% below my pre-illness SATs. The first week was brutal and I nearly went to the emergency room the 8th night of illness. (In retrospect, I probably should have. I have a stubborn resistance to handing my body over to the care of professionals.) That illness triggered past medical traumas and I experienced a full-blown manifestation of Grise’s characteristic six.
A sense that time is short and there is no future.
I had a regular therapy appointment two days after that crisis night of chest pain. I came in exhausted, weak, still reeling and smelling of the fear of death. The morning of therapy was the first day I could stand up long enough to shower. I spent the entire session, to paraphrase my therapist a week later, airing an expanding spiral of grievances that began with being sick and ended with the destruction of the planet. I remember ending the session by telling her I felt the predictions of the end of Earth’s habitability were too generous by two decades.
A sense that time is short and there is no future.
When Italy quarantined the entire peninsula, I knew we were watching our future. I was still so triggered by my own illness and vulnerability that I got swept into extreme anxiety. I was surely unpleasant to be around, especially since most people around me at that point were still thinking of it as a problem over there, not a problem fast on its way here. When the numbers began mounting our roles flipped: people around me became more and more anxious, while the moment my city announced social distancing and closed bars and restaurants my anxiety tumbled off my shoulders and I felt a deep sense of calm for the first time in weeks.
The more things tighten down here and the more cities and counties all over the U.S. and our neighbors on this continent close everything down and go into quarantine, the less anxious I feel. I was watching a train barreling down on us and feeling helpless and exposed. Now life is very different and much harder for many people, but I feel relieved that people here are finally taking the novel coronavirus seriously and taking action.
The reason I got caught on characteristic number six when I was re-reading Griece this morning is that I believe so many people with residual trauma (which is probably the majority of all humans) are responding to current events through lenses created by their personal traumas. Like me. And I just wanted to remind us all that this is not the way life will be forever. Right now many of us are struggling with a sense that time is short and there is no future. But this moment is not our forever. There is more future to come. Life will not always be this way.
The pandemic is teaching us things about ourselves as people and as a nation that we needed to know. So much denial. The intensity of our thoughts and experiences is cutting through things we used to think or things we never paused to think about at all. We will come out the other side changed. May that be a change for the better.
May we become a more compassionate people. May we pay closer attention to the ways we are connected. May we no longer take so many everyday miracles for granted. May we gain confidence in our ability to take collective action for greater good. When these times in which we are living become history, may we apply our new strengths and increased wisdom to tackling other problems that seem too big. May this time of separation be the seed for a future flowering of community, connection, and courage.
Time is short, true. (though it seems longer during quarantine, yes). But there is a future. Not only is there life beyond the pandemic, but we also have the chance to shape a future we barely dared to dream before we went through this social winter in early spring.
I am taking this trauma-triggering time and leaning into it. (note: I feel safe and supported right now. Be mindful of your own choices, depending on what your current life situation is.) Every feeling I have about quarantine is a chance to follow that hint back to earlier feelings I have squashed down and out of sight for years — in some cases for decades — but I need to finally allow myself to feel those feelings so they will stop haunting me. I am using the time I used to spend driving to class, to therapy, to jam sessions, to social time to deepen my practices, including journaling. A friend in a Zoom meeting said he was afraid to journal during an anxiety spiral because he was afraid he would just write an anxiety spiral. I said he knows himself best, but to consider allowing himself to write his anxiety out and see where it leads.
When I am feeling particularly anxious, my journal is a crucial tool for holding myself together. During those times I often carry my journal with me everywhere I go. When the spiral starts, I open to the next page and just start writing it all down instead of thinking it. Often my writing is so frenetic I couldn’t read it if I wanted to, but that’s not what matters. Almost never do I go back and read stress journaling. I leave it on the page. Better there than banging around in my head. When I hit the page in distress I just keep writing until I feel better. Often it hits in the middle of a sentence. “I’m done.” I don’t even finish the sentence. I just stop and close the book and go back to whatever I was doing when the anxiety hit.
I have learned that the page is the safest place to bring my mind. Even therapy is not completely safe. There are things you can’t say in therapy unless you are ready to be locked up for a while. I can give everything to the page. If I’m worried about someone else reading it, I can even burn it or shred it after I write it, making great ceremony of releasing my anxiety through destroying the pages of weighty thoughts that might unjustly incriminate me if the wrong person saw what I really feel and think about.
Okay, I’m not the monster that last paragraph makes me out to be. Neither are you. But we all have some territory on our interior maps filled with fear of the consequences if others knew what really goes on inside our heads. Even those people who seem fearless from the outside have just learned how to live with that territory. If you have wanted to journal but find yourself holding back or facing writing block when you meet the page, try a week of journaling with the intention of ritually destroying your writing afterward and see if that frees you from the internal censor fighting against you with its outdated methods, originally developed to protect you.
Because these times call for self-honesty. It’s scary to allow ourselves to see ourselves from the inside. But befriending yourself with honesty and acceptance will go a long way toward holding yourself together while we’re all holding ourselves apart.