Healing the Collective Trauma of COVID-19

The world is going through a collective trauma.  The first collective trauma in my lifetime was the Challenger explosion.  I remember sitting in my 5th grade classroom watching the news footage of the space shuttle exploding over and over and over.  It’s burned into my brain with complete precision, along with the details of the little classroom, and my desk and my teacher, Mr. Pike.

The second collective trauma of my lifetime was September 11th.  That morning, I was listening to music on my little clock radio while I got dressed to go to my Shakespeare class at San Diego State University, when the DJ announced the attack.  At first I didn’t believe it.  I thought someone was doing an Orson Welles, War of the Worlds, impression.  Every detail of my tiny bedroom in the first apartment that I ever rented on my own is perfectly recorded, including the black and white graphic printed bedspread and the framed Ikea print on the wall, and the words, “A plane has crashed into one of the Twin Towers.”  Perfect recall is often a symptom of trauma.

After the Challenger, the space program and NASA were never the same.  After September 11th, the whole world was different, including a war  and a death toll that still continues to rise.  More than that, the people were different; more suspicious, more on edge.  In psychological terms, this is known as hypervigilance, and it’s a common result of a trauma.  It means always looking over your shoulder to make sure you’re safe because you never know when the next attack might occur.  Since September 11th, the world, and especially the United States, have been perpetually looking over our collective shoulders, trying to identify and root out the threat before it strikes.  This is an extremely stressful state of being.

And just when we thought it might be safe to take a breath and rest, we find ourselves in a pandemic, with thousands sick, and thousands more losing their livelihoods overnight. The well are staying in their homes to shelter from an invisible enemy that kills, and in a time when comfort is the thing that we all need most, nobody is allowed to touch each other, let alone get within 6 feet of each other.  I, myself, am dying for a hug, and a whispered “It’s going to be OK.”  I know that I’m not alone.

Last weekend I went to the grocery store for supplies, and had to wait for an hour in a line that was two blocks long with marks taped onto the ground to help us to stay 6 feet apart.  A woman gave me a dirty look as I passed her to take my place in line, and I felt the fear and rage in her that I might be infected and get her sick.  Traumatized people often lash out without reason in an attempt to keep themselves safe.  Without a visible enemy, they often lash out at each other, somehow feeling safer as they push others away.  We’ve all seen the rage-a-holics in the world, angry with everyone as a way to protect their own deep and repressed wounds from growing any bigger.  It doesn’t work.  Wounds need tenderness to heal.

Yesterday I spoke with a friend in the nursing field, and she told me about the COVID-19 patients that she’s working with in a local hospital.  She told me that she saw a woman who had been unconscious wake up intubated and strapped down to keep her from pulling out her tubing.  My friend told me that the wild terror in the woman’s eyes brought her to tears.  I feel this story.  It hurts me deeply.  And I think that we’re all feeling it on one level or another.  We’ve all lost some agency over our own lives, and we’re all afraid.

In a traumatic world there is always ugliness, and we’ve seen our fair share of it already. There have been hate crimes against Asian Americans, and people hoarding supplies in extreme acts of selfishness.  However, there has also been beauty.  I just spent all day watching an online benefit concert with big name artists donating their time in order to raise money to help people that have lost their jobs due to COVID 19.  I’ve also seen stories of people buying groceries for those who can’t afford them.  I, myself, recently paid the difference when the woman ahead of me in line at the grocery store couldn’t afford her total bill.

My hope is that if you feel the desire to lash out, to hoard, or to protect yourself at the expense of others, that you remember that this is the trauma speaking.  It’s a natural defense mechanism of the animal brain, yes, but we are not animals.  We have the ability to choose our actions.  Take a breath and choose love, kindness and peace.  These are the qualities that bring healing to the traumatized.  These are the qualities that will allow us to heal ourselves.

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