It’s been almost two years since we first started hearing about the coronavirus outbreak, and eighteen months or so since the United States started grappling with the harsh reality that COVID-19 is here to stay. During that time, our daily lives have changed in so many ways, big and small, and while a few of us have fought the restrictions and safety measures, most of us have done the hard work of adhering to the guidelines and making the changes that have kept us relatively safe. We’ve worked from home, we’ve sent our kids to school remotely, we’ve had groceries delivered, we’ve stayed out of restaurants and bars, we’ve endured unexpectedly not seeing or hugging our friends and family for months on end. It all seems like just a part of our new normal now.
But what has become normal isn’t actually normal, is it? Our lives have changed out of so much necessity that it almost happened without us stopping to wonder what it all means for the long-term. And I don’t mean for the economy, or the restaurant industry. What I mean is, have we taken any time, as individuals, to think about how much trauma we’ve experienced without even noticing it?
We have spent the last year and a half watching a literal death counter tick up on the side of our news screens. Every time the number goes up, we feel sad for a moment because we know we’re supposed to. Logically, those numbers are actually people, but there’s dinner to be cooked, there are emails to send, and there are kids to put to bed. We don’t have time to process what the numbers are doing to us as we watch them go up and up each day.
Every day we scroll social media and see friends and family and strangers post that someone they love has tested positive, is in the hospital with COVID, or has died. We read it, we feel the moment of sadness the post rightfully deserves, we click the sad react and we make a supportive comment, and we keep scrolling. Or we put our phones down because there are dogs to take out, phone calls to return, a cup of spilled chocolate milk to clean up. We don’t have time to process what all this bad news is doing to us.
Since March of 2020 we’ve intermittently scraped and searched for basic household needs, like toilet paper and all-purpose cleaner. We have known that every pack of two-ply we buy means someone else’s household won’t have one but we’ve had to buy it anyway. Then vaccines came out, and we all scrambled to get vaccinated, waiting in lines hours long and driving hundreds of miles to vaccination sites to receive inoculations the rest of the world is still only dreaming of. We’ve been in competition for the things we need to survive for almost a year, while simultaneously being forced by societal norms to act like regular, compassionate human beings who are not being reduced to their most basic survival instincts by a literal threat to our lives. But we have appointments, and homework to help with, and deadlines our bosses need us to meet. So we don’t take the time to process what all this Lord of the Flies-esque mental competition has been doing to us as a society.
We have all been very supportive of healthcare workers, lauding their efforts and praising their hard work and all they’ve endured throughout the pandemic. We’ve sent them meals and thank you cards and clapped for them at 7pm throughout major cities. It all feels very good in the moment, and once we’ve done those things we feel a bit better. We feel like we’ve done our part to support them so they can do their jobs. We think we’re being really empathetic when we say things like “I bet these poor healthcare workers can’t wait until this pandemic is over.” While it’s probably true that they can’t wait for COVID to reach “contained” status, we have been so busy trying to get these first responders through each moment of this in real-time that we’ve hardly taken any time to think about the fact that for most of them, this pandemic will never be “over.” Just as combat veterans are often forever haunted by the things they’ve seen, some of the healthcare workers who have been on the front lines throughout this pandemic will forever be dealing with the mental fallout from all the death and loss they’ve witnessed and been a part of this year. But there are birthdays to remember and grocery lists to make, so we haven’t taken any time to think about how we’re going to support the traumatized healthcare workers long-term, and how we’ll help the ones who ended up having to walk away from the profession they love because it’s all been just too much to bear.
Taking control of our childrens’ education in a way we’ve never had to has been a full-time job for parents worldwide. We’ve had to supervise virtual education, juggle a hybrid model, or homeschool our kids, and that’s on top of the million other things we’re trying to accomplish every day. We've been so busy making sure the assignments are logged, the homeschool requirements are being met, and trying to get our kids to sit long enough to get any semblance of education online that we haven’t had the time to think about what this will all mean when the pandemic is contained and we “go back to normal” - whatever that means now. Will our kids remember how to socialize properly? Will they be able to go back to being in a formal learning environment again? Will the ones who are missing kindergarten or first grade ever be able to catch up to where they should have been if the pandemic hadn't brought our entire world to its knees?
This isn’t normal. This isn’t how life is supposed to be. We don’t know how to do this and we don’t know how to stop doing it when it’s over. We aren’t groomed for this world where anxiety surrounds even the most mundane of tasks, like walking your dog and having to worry that passing too close to another dog-walker on the sidewalk will land you - or them - on a ventilator in two weeks. We are living in fear of each other and we are masking it with social pleasantries. We greet each other as we walk our dogs but inside we feel our pulse quicken because we have a fight or flight response to a very real threat, which for the very first time is literally anyone and everyone we come across. How do we reconcile this with everything we’ve ever known and been taught about being nice?
We don’t know the answers, and we haven’t had a moment to consider any of it because we’re spending all our time right now quite literally just trying to survive. Watching the death toll tick up, seeing the food lines in the very cities where we live, watching people we know lose their loved ones and somehow not feeling it enough because our survival instincts are kicked into such high gear that we can’t stop to feel too much, or we’ll never get through this.
Amanda Marsh, a certified child welfare specialist in Orlando, offered her perspective on COVID trauma after working through the pandemic, and has noticed that as a society we have shifted to using humor as a coping mechanism to deal with the global tragedy. “Now, [trauma is] the stuff of memes. We laugh at this shared experience. It’s cliché, but we laugh to stop ourselves from crying. We laugh because it’s absurd, and we are all living through the absurdity together. We laugh because we never had to develop an “appropriate response” to seeing footage of refrigerated trucks holding bodies stacked on top of one another outside of a Miami hospital, or mass graves in New York City. We laugh because we weren’t made to look, straight-faced and sober, at this level of human devastation for this length of time. And there is no end. So, we laugh.”
I read a quote the other day that said something to the effect of “you can’t start healing from trauma while you’re still going through it,” and that hit me hard. I realized that as we all search for some inkling of normalcy and sanity during this global tragedy, we are all just treading water. Until this pandemic is behind us, we will not know how this affects us long-term, even if we never get COVID-19. The truth is this disease is hurting us all. Whether you’ve been personally touched by it or just been living through the era of COVID-19, you’ve been altered somehow. Once we are able to start living life out in the open again, and gathering publicly without risk, and going to school and work like we are used to, we will certainly feel relief, but there’s a strong chance we’ll all experience unexpected anxiety as we re-learn how to stop fearing each other. We are going to have to undo the mindset that getting too close to another human being is inherently dangerous, and get used to living in person again, instead of behind the safety of a computer or phone screen, or six feet of distance.
It will be harder than we think. Going “back to normal” probably isn’t going to feel normal at all. We are going to feel and see the fallout from this pandemic in ways we didn’t think of, and we’re going to have to support each other and lift each other up when it happens. Fear is a hard thing to let go of, and trauma is a lifelong battle. I fear we have reached a point during this pandemic where none of us will be spared the hard work of overcoming the sneaky, quietly insidious trauma we are experiencing as human beings right now because we don’t even know it’s happening.
Kelly Foy, a Clinical Social Worker Intern, MSW, who provides mental health services to primarily marginalized communities in Maryland, confirms “COVID PTSD is a real thing, and regular mindfulness to monitor and self-inventory how this has affected us is one of the best ways to ensure the stress doesn’t turn into a full-blown diagnosis, like PTSD.” Marsh added to Foy’s comments, noting the importance of bringing the lessons COVID taught us into post-pandemic life, and not simply ignoring the changes we endured as a result. “I’m worried that we will be so tired of the word COVID, so tired of regulations and restrictions, so tired of being tired, that we will rush to leave this entire experience behind, lessons and adaptations included,” Marsh said. “We have created a brand new culture and language around self-care, and have discussed broadly a restructuring of American life, which both resulted directly from this pandemic. If we are to heal, as individuals, as communities, as a country, it’s imperative that we remember the lessons and we continue in that direction of self-care and restructuring, even once the death-counter is gone from our TV screens.”
So if you can find the time, sit with it.Think about it. Consider all the things you’re going through every single day and give yourself some credit for how strong you are for getting through eighteen months of this so far. Honor all the sacrifices and hard work you’ve done to create this new normal. At the same time, be aware that there is more hard work ahead to undo the damage being done to us by COVID life. Check in on your friends and family. I mean really check in. Ask them how they really are. I think we’ll find that when it comes to group trauma, group healing is a good start.