I remember the first time I heard about the Coronavirus. I was in my car listening to public radio and the broadcaster was interviewing someone in Wuhan, China. The young man was sharing how he couldn’t leave his apartment and the one time he had to go out to get cat food, he had his temperature checked and was questioned at the location he went to. I remember thinking this sounds terrible and scary and to be honest, I thought I’m really glad it’s not happening here. There was a big part of me that was in denial about the potential of it happening here.
That was January of last year. Here we are after a year of unthinkable hardships and all the things I, and many others, thought could never happen on our soil have come to pass. I have been alongside so many individuals as they struggle with all the hard things in their lives and all those hard things in conjunction with the ongoing stress of living in a pandemic. This has been a shit show. A literal shit show.
I work with people recovering from trauma. Sometimes the trauma is happening simultaneous to the work, but even when that occurs, we are working at getting away from the perpetrator. This last year I’ve worked with traumatized people continuing to be traumatized, without any escape from the perpetrator that is Covid 19. There were times when, week after week, clients would come in and tell me of yet another loss they’d endured. People, jobs, money, home, health, safety. I wasn’t really prepared for the constant hits. It reminded of the boxing style arcade game Punch Out where every time you would land a punch on your opponent, the game would say “body blow.” So, if you were any good at the game you’d hear “body blow, body blow” over and over. The losses have felt like a relentless stream of hits to the body, causing more and more unseen damage.
We aren’t built to be able to thrive under conditions like the ones we’ve been facing for the last year. I read a book when I was a newbie therapist called “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” The basic premise of the book is that zebras don’t get ulcers because the way their brains and nervous systems function is not to consider a threat unless that threat is imminent. The way our brains and nervous systems operate is to not only consider many things threats (bills that are overdue, a messy house when company comes over, running late to work), but to sort of carry those threats with us all the time. We do not settle right back to eating grass after we escape the lion. For some of us we don’t settle back down to eating grass in a peaceful way ever because we remain hypervigilant. I think of hypervigilance in a similar way that I think about something like a muscle tear. Little by little over time when we continue to injure a muscle and it tears and if it doesn’t get an opportunity to heal, it will become a major tear. Major tears need surgery and healing time and physical therapy. When we tear away at our nervous system with constant hypervigilance, ultimately, we will have a major tear to our mental and emotional wellbeing. People are barely hanging on. Again, to use the muscle analogy, it’s like the muscle only has one connecting piece and at any moment it is going to snap.
What’s been hard about watching people impacted by constant stress and trauma this year is watching the people around them not be able, not know how, not provide relief for their drowning family, coworkers, friends and neighbors. Not because they are callous individuals, but because our systems haven’t changed. Our teachers are supposed to teach to the same standards, our mail carriers are supposed to deliver on time, our paramedics are supposed to respond to call after call. We haven’t given people more PTO or offered onsite mental health services. The structures and systems that exist are part of the tear. We keep asking people to perform at a high level and to push themselves to achieve at this this level, which of course is just another stressor.
The language I’ve started to use with the people I work with is radical self-care. I’m sure I didn’t invent the term or the idea, but it came out of my mouth from a place of seeing how scared and shredded people are and trying to get them to see the urgency of taking care of themselves. When I say to someone that they need to engage in radical self-care, what I’m saying is that they have to tend to the needs of their body in a moment-to-moment fashion. If this moment your body needs a nap, give your body the nap. If this moment your body needs a hug, find someone to hug. If this moment your body needs a piece of chocolate, give your body the best darn chocolate you can find. This is the recovery. This is the time in rehab you’d get after that reconstructive surgery on the muscle tear. The world isn’t going to offer it to you, you have to take it.
One of the things I’ve noticed about those of us on the trauma recovery journey is that, for many of us, the trauma story has been written on our bodies and that story includes a lot of worthlessness, or at least not understanding our true worth. Under those circumstances, putting our own needs first isn’t usually a check item on our to-do list. Every hour of every session that you come to see me, I will remind you of your worth and I will encourage you to do the very revolutionary thing of caring for yourself. I hope all therapists are using their influence in this way. I will encourage you to consider the self-care as the primary function of your lives. I will encourage you to find people to support you in this endeavor. And I would say that not only am I encouraging this to my peeps, but I am guiding them towards demanding this of themselves.
We must go on and stress is part of life. We don’t have a choice about those two harsh realities. Where we get to choose is how we approach that stress. If you have signed on to stay on then you owe it to yourself to eat the chocolate!
Lydia Kickliter, LPC
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