Stuck

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[The following blog contains mentions of bullying and other abuse.]

One of the first things you learn in therapy is that painful memories never really go away. If something painful sticks in your head for any reason, it’s practically impossible to get it unstuck. Often times, the most effective coping skill is to develop mental mechanisms to soften the relived traumas of those past memories: Remembering better times, or recalling that you have people who care about you in the present, or just recognizing that you didn’t deserve to go through the event/s that caused the persistent memories. These things can help you deal with flashbacks to past trauma, but they don’t make the trauma, or the memories of that trauma, go away.

Developing these skills has taken me a lot of time, and it was only really when I was a student at the University of Toledo, and I had access to free counseling services, that I was able to really develop the mental frameworks I needed to address all the things I went through in my earlier years. Putting those frameworks into practice after I left there wasn’t easy, though; my father died a little over a year after I graduated, and the resulting family drama (to say nothing of establishing my teaching and writing careers) was often too much for me to handle at any given moment. It was only really when I came to Wisconsin a few years ago, and I finally got to the point where I felt established here, that I was able to put serious effort into proactively using these mental skills to keep myself from slipping too much when I’d invariably be reminded of a trauma from my earlier life.

Even in the first months of the pandemic, I seemed to be doing fairly well; I’ve always had an ability to step up in moments of real crisis, and I realized in those first few days of lockdown that the people around me needed as much support as they could get. As the pandemic has gone on, though, and I’ve had to fight more and more burnout from the additional emotional labour of teaching and taking care of the people around me under these dire circumstances, I’ve noticed that not only am I not coping so well with memories of earlier traumas, but that I’m being reminded of those traumas more and more. It’s likely that all the bad stuff going on in the world is just causing me to have more of these flashbacks, but there’s a part of me that wonders if I’ve just been worn down so much by the past couple of years that a part of my brain is subconsciously looking for reasons to remember when things went really poorly for me, especially with things going really poorly for so many of the people around me. Maybe it’s just trying to prepare me for when things get worse in the present, which it seems like they invariably will.

Everyone deals with bad events in their life, but what often elevates those things into trauma is the sense — whether true or not — that people around you are ignoring your distress. Even though Mom loved me deeply, she couldn’t help me deal with everything I was going through, in part because she was having to fight her own traumas caused by her husband and other people in her life. I really was conditioned to a punching bag (metaphorical and literal) for a lot of people to use, and I still haven’t shared a lot of those stories with anyone else, at least to an appreciable degree. At this point, especially with my closest friends being inundated with the complexities of pandemic life, I don’t know if I’ll ever get the opportunity to share them.

I mention this because there’s a growing part of me that feels, especially at this point of the pandemic, that too many people like me are stuck in that same spot. Despite the rising infection and death rates from COVID-19, despite the increase in new and deadlier mutations being caused by the (often deliberate) lack of caution around the pandemic, there seems to be more and more pressure every day for all of us to, for all intents and purposes, forget about the pandemic, go on with our old daily activities as if there isn’t this serious and growing threat to our health — and out lives — quite literally all around us, and accept debilitating illness, or even death, as a necessary price to pay so the comfortable don’t have to feel any discomfort at the fact that so many of us simply are not okay right now. Even though I haven’t felt individually pressured by any one person to do this, the amount of messages out there right now are so overwhelming that I can’t help feeling high levels of anxiety over them.

If I manage to survive all this — and it’s feeling more and more like we’re all going to be expected to tolerate deadlier and deadlier strains of COVID-19 until we get one that really does wipe out most of the life on earth — then maybe I can get back to a point where I’ve got the time and mental capacity to handle flashbacks to my past traumas in a healthier way. Right now, though, it feels far more likely that I’m going to have to deal with people who want to add new traumas to the ones I already have to cope with. Just like those older traumas, these new ones won’t just disappear from my brain one day, so I can only hope that I can develop the capacity to deal with these new traumas on top of the older ones.

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