Navigating PTSD During a Pandemic

I haven’t been to war. I haven’t been in a horrific accident or seen anything too gruesome, even. To that effect, I have had a relatively sheltered life, for which I am incredibly grateful. I’ve had my trauma, though. And I’ve been really struggling lately- anxious, more than usual. Maybe that’s redundant to point out but the truth is, we’re not all having the same experience during this pandemic. And some of my friends and family don’t understand why I’m taking this all so hard.

Unlike some of them, who have spent the last few weeks of quarantine bored and binging Netflix, reading vacation books from their bucket lists and remodeling rooms in their homes, I have vacillated between shopping for a months worth of groceries and supplies, struggling to feed myself amidst the aftershocks of debilitating panic attacks, barely being able to get out of bed to pull it all together to teach my two young children. I have had to become really focused on my mental health in order to not let depression and/or panic disorder set in.

It’s already been a few weeks of this, now. My quarantine started earlier than most. Because I am careful- not just now, always. As soon as the virus showed up in my town, I pretty much shuttered myself and my little family inside, then and there. We’ve already gone through a few rounds of Costco groceries and a bout of sniffles at my house, without the peace of mind to know whether or not it was a mercifully-mild case of this virus, or just your common cold. I wish I could know whether or not to relax about that.
Some of my friends and family members wonder why I am so worried. Some of them even tease me for overreacting. But what most of my sweet, sunny friends don’t know, or fully understand is that while I haven’t been to war, I do have PTSD. I have had to have my life saved; at least three times, actually. I’ve needed emergency medical treatment. I’ve needed the help of a doctor to survive. I’ve experienced infection and disease that would have ended my life had a doctor not given me life-saving treatment. I have had to be away from my newborn baby to be cut open, put on IV antibiotics. I’ve ridden in an ambulance, hemorrhaged on my bathroom floor, been so green with infection- beyond what I thought was possible. I’ve surrendered to God and wept for the end of my life that I was certain was imminent. And then I survived. Profound physical and emotional scars notwithstanding.

It’s been seven years since I’ve been to the hospital, but to say that it’s a long forgotten memory would be a joke. Because if you met me today, or even a few months ago before this pandemic stuff was even a possibility, you would see that I am still effectively a shell-shocked, skiddish wild thing trying so hard just to survive here after all that I’ve been through. My friends know me as an anxious individual. Yes, I’m a worrier. They tease me. But what they don’t realize is that I’m on my second chance. I’m on borrowed time. They don’t know it. They think they’re untouchable, but I know things could take a turn at any moment because they have for me; more than once.

The intensity of my PTSD symptoms waxes and wanes depending on how hard I am looking at them or how hard the environment is triggering old memories to resurface. So, these last few weeks I have seen a strong and substantiated resurgence. I know we’re all anxious and worried on varying levels, for obvious reasons — this is something, the likes of which we’ve never seen, or could have even imagined. I know I’m not the only one that’s scared. And I’m not saying anyone should be morescared. But what I wish my friends understood was that my experience might be a little different. Please have grace for it- for me. I’m not just a worrier. It’s more than that.

When you worry about needing help to breathe, your imagination can only take you so far. And you have a plethora of evidence to pull from that you’ll be alright. You’ve always been alright. And yes, you’re probably going to be just fine now, too. Your brain protects you from the real fear of it.

But when Iimagine battling the decision whether or not it’s time to go to the hospital, all the physical and emotional sensations come rushing back. I remember shivering in my bed, covered in blankets on an 80-degree day wondering why I couldn’t get warm; the fever climbing so rapidly my skin literally turned green. My mother-in-law had to hold my body upright while we waited in the ER. WhenIworry about what would happen to my kids if I needed to stay in the ICU for an extended period of time, I remember what it felt like to write my then-1-year old son a “Goodbye” letter by the dim neon light of the hospital room where I was being cared for; “just in case.” I remember the depth of that sorrow and the immeasurable helplessness. And it still feels real to me. I don’t want to go back there. And maybe I was naïve to think I would never have to. I’m scared. Do you understand why? I’m having a different experience than you.

And to boot, they’re telling us there won’t be enough help when we need it? Sorry. Just ride it out on your own. Hopefully we’ll all make it to the other side.

I don’t know that there is anyone to be mad at. If there were, would that even help?

No matter how hard I try to look for the positive, keep my nose to the grindstone, look for the helpers — no matter how hard I try to shield myself from headlines and harrowing stories of seemingly healthy individuals now in coma’s, fighting sky-high fevers, “drowning on dry land,” it’s happening all around us; our friends, our family, our teachers, our garbage men…There really is nothing else right now.

I don’t want to give more power to the fear. But I actually think part of taking away the power of fear is looking right at it. Telling the truth about it. And acknowledging that it’s fair to feel it; none of this stoic bullshit. That doesn’t work. So much of the grief I’ve given myself over the last seven years has been shame, guilt and disappointment for not being able to shake it. The judgment I give myself for walking around so often feeling like an absolute loser, for being so afraid all the time. Of course, it’s not the way I would choose to live- it’s not the experience I wanted to have. I’m trying to forget what it felt like; honestly I am. I’m trying so hard to chose differently. And sometimes I have a little success. I get little moments of relief. But I think to be fair to myself, I must admit that it’s not realistic to think I’ll get that relief right now. This is scary and there’s no sense in denying it.

If you have peace today, good for you for giving yourself permission to find it and hold onto it. May we all find what you have! But if, on the contrary, you are scared and stuck in a loop of shame, guilt and disappointment, if you are experiencing mental and physical symptoms of anxiety and fear, please know you are not alone. And please know you are entitled to feel the way you do, even though it sucks. You are not overreacting. Honor your experience. It’s okay to feel bad. Those feelings are valid.

If your anxiety symptoms become physical, which they often do for me, here are some things that have helped me in pandemic times and not: mindfulness meditation, therapy, journaling, prayer, exercise, a phone call with a friend, admitting I’m struggling, walking outside, deep breathing, physical touch, a weighted blanket, a pet, singing, crying, laughing, venting without apology. And probably most importantly, try to practice non-judgment for the way you are feeling in these difficult times. Suffering is just a part of this. And it’s not permament.

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