“It feels like the world is ending,” my partner said to me with a voice softened with grief and love. It’s a sentiment I’ve held in my heart alongside many others, not always said the same way but always speaking in subtly resilient languages of panic and longing. I’ve been reflecting a great deal on the Corona Virus (COVID-19) and this collective sense of panic as an activist, friend and partner, immunocompromised poor person, and nonbinary survivor of polyvictimization. I’m finding the pandemic has much to teach us, and that, as survivors, we have a great deal to contribute to these prolonged moments of struggle. The virus is just beginning to reach my area so I’m certain these reflections will shift and swell with its acuity, but here are my thoughts for now:
As survivors, a lot of us are well versed in isolation. Perhaps our experiences of social isolation were emotional because we believed (or were outright shown) that those around us could not or would not understand what we were going through. Perhaps also our experiences were physical. I know for a fact that being isolated in a secretive house with my abuser prepared me for isolation during Corona, just like years of nutritional neglect may have made us experts at conserving resources and knowing how to respond efficiently to looming scarcity. Many transgender and nonbinary survivors may have felt doubly isolated because of our identities in hostile external or internal environments.
While it is understandable that this new, nationwide, round of isolation can trigger intense feelings of fear, anger, and shame in survivors who are carrying the ghosts of our old interpersonal victimizations to the extent that they can trigger overt flashbacks (see here for help dealing with flashbacks), I also want to explore the possibility that it is these very traumatic experiences that may make us carriers of resilience in the pandemic crisis. Because we know isolation so well, we’re able to access already-learned skills to cope with it, harness our hard-earned adaptability to get our needs met inside it, and even tap into our creativity to transform the difficult feelings that do arise into meaning.
Some of this meaning might be through art made with emotion-rich finger paints, or through writing to other survivors, or by creating new music on that guitar we’d longed to dust off but never had the time for. Meaning can also be made in this moment of protracted isolation by giving us uninterrupted (compared to usual) time to do dedicated therapeutic work. Now is a great time to dig into our workbooks (some of my personal favorites are Becoming Yourself by Alison Miller, Matt Atkinson’s Resurrection After Rape, a free copy of which can be found here, Getting Through The Day by Nancy Napier, and, of course, The Courage To Heal Workbook by Laura Davis), attune to spiritual practices that fulfill us, let loose and play, engage in healing letter writing/creating, explore healing movement, and safely learn what makes our bodies feel good. It’s also an excellent time to do the hard identity work of transforming any biases, opening to new ideas and perspectives, and building bridges. All of these practices make our time spent in isolation meaningful for our unique healing journeys as survivors. They empower us to grow through this crisis that no one was prepared for.
I think that’s an important thing to remember: No one was prepared for this pandemic. Anything we’re feeling now is valid, and, like our traumas, it’s not our fault. Looking online, it can seem like the whole world is panicking, and many survivors may feel burdened by “survivor’s guilt” to help everyone around us even though we’re in the same boat, too. That’s a crucial time to take a breath and put ourselves back on the same playing field as those around us. We can be compassionate with the panic without defining ourselves by the ability to fix or control it.
As a parallel response, many survivors may also feel like they shouldn’t be experiencing heightened emotional responses now because we’ve already been through so much terror- we should know how to cope with it on our own right now. If that’s our body’s natural response, then it can be important to remember that humans are, evolutionarily, pack animals. In order to survive, we are biologically hard wired to attune to the intense emotions of those around us. It is not weakness to panic when surrounded by panic- it’s biology. We have unapologetic permission to let go of the responsibility to feel nothing, or to feel, but not like that. Of course, this can be even harder for survivors who may have grown up in dysfunctional environments.
Adult survivors of childhood dysfunction often historically bore the unfair burden of feeling nothing so they could clean up after people who were supposed to protect them. Some of these messes were truly horrific. The stoicism they required can automatically resurface and make it hard for the survivor to accept the worthiness of their emotional responses to understandably frightening times. This, then, deserves your extra work and attention. You don’t have to carry that burden in this moment. Each time I feel myself denying the right to fear, I make a conscious effort to slow down and soften into the reality that the fear makes sense and has something to teach me, that I can feel it without becoming defined by it, and that the whole range of emotions are my valuable birthright. By doing this work, survivors can bring rich knowledge about how to respond to fear, console others, and balance panic with productivity to the “pack” around us. The wealth of knowledge we gained from trauma about being afraid can serve us now as the whole world faces this big fear. We can break down without breaking. We can know how to comfort friends. We can adapt to rapidly changing situations. We can expertly engage in mutual aid of all kinds, in person or digitally. All of these skills and more bring resilience into our communities.
I know very well the desperate, helpless feeling of wanting to do something in this crisis. I feel it in my bones as a survivor and immunocompromised person. I think, as the news reels continue to roll out increasing numbers and isolating regulations, it’s critical that survivors reach into the spaces of resilience that are always already in us. We can take this time to teach others about feeling fear and doing it anyway, allowing our bodies to rest, seizing creativity from the dark, building resilient (often online) communities across isolating moments, taking time to work deeply on ourselves. There is hope, even here, and we’re helping bring it. We’re growing resilience through the fear, slowly and imperfectly, together.