Living with Complex PTSD in a Pandemic

I don’t know if I’ve been having more self-doubts than I normally do or if I am simply more aware of the “negative” thoughts I have than I would be were life not impacted by the pandemic. In either case, in the past week, I’ve noticed myself questioning my interpersonal capacity and feeling glum about my limited social life more often than I typically would. I’m both alone and lonely, an unpleasant combination.

The pain and rage I feel from being invalidated or rejected by others is so exquisite that I have spent years cultivating a buffer of self-reliance and self-care through which I can shoulder as much of the emotional burden of being a human on my own as I possibly can. I have a paradoxical capacity to appear vulnerable and open while not actually feeling the emotions that are supposed to go with the intimacy I am able to create; this ends badly when I cut off relationships abruptly when my bullshit capacity is reached while the other person had no idea of the grave threat I viewed them as posing to me. I show up as warm and empathetic without an underlying loyalty or commitment to maintaining the trust I engender, which makes me view myself as manipulative. This has led me to scale back how far I go in engaging with others because I don’t want to hurt them. Their ability to rend my heart has diminished over time as I expect very little good from anyone.

I applied for and was granted ADA accommodations at my job related to having PTSD earlier this year. Something in that experience helped me come to terms with the fact that, although I always hold out hope for healing, I am probably going to be someone with life-long damage and deficiencies due to the childhood trauma I endured. I am disabled and no amount of “trying hard” is going to magically create relationships in which people get my disability and relate to me in a way that works with rather than against my needs. I could be and in fact have been met on a deep level by others, but it takes skill, patience and an unyielding dedication that the vast majority of people I’ve encountered are nowhere near capable of providing to me. People cause me more harm than healing and that isn’t all my fault or all my doing.

Writing out these truths and lessons helps me a little to make peace with the inner judgment and criticism I’ve been feeling. I’m worthy of grace and worthy of effort. I know I lack grace and effort in how I respond to others; I cannot abide relationships that trigger me but I can at least own the reasons why I may need to end them. I did that with a long-standing friendship that had become toxic last year and I feel much more at peace with its devolution than I otherwise would. “It’s not you, it’s me” is ugly, but sometimes ugliness is truth.

It’s been almost six weeks since I had any sort of “normal” in-person human interaction, aside from half-shouted conversations with neighbors at a distance, and I’m not collapsing underneath the isolation and the loneliness because it is not that different from my life before lockdown. I may be disabled by my trauma and my PTSD, but I will make as much of my life as I can. I suspect some people live in terror of my everyday–“what would it be if there was no one there for me”–and yet the adaptability and the persistence of life, of being as a human, of the will to be here, in this moment, fascinates and motivates me to endure.

Witnessing the Cold Waters of Grief and Loss (Today's Daily Remembrance)

I don’t “suffer” from the optimism bias that most non-depressed people enjoy. This means I don’t tend to look the bright side or attend to the positives in tragedy. I spend a good deal of time on this blog making space for my efforts to find that for which I’m grateful; for me, it has to be an intentional and deliberate process or it won’t happen. I firmly believe, though, that finding reasons for joy and laughter need to exist alongside, not in replacement, of the ability to feel sadness as it happens.

My grief at this moment is a witnessed grief more than a personal one; I am not in mourning for the ways in which I’ve been personally impacted by the pandemic, but more for the global losses that have happened and the havoc it is beginning to cause in the lives of people for whom I care. What I lack in “be hopeful” I replace with “be prepared;” I tend to lean too heavily into the idea that, as long as all contingencies are measured and mitigated, true tragedy can be averted.

I’m living in a moment, however, where this can-do attitude is failing as my national leaders prioritize the wealthiest among us over the rest. Horrible, unfathomable and potentially preventable things are starting to happen to good people on a scale I didn’t know could occur, coupled with with no one in leadership providing comfort and guidance. This is both the oldest story of my life and also the one that feels freshly terrifying; I knew this could happen to me (childhood trauma), but I didn’t know it could happen to everyone (save the moneyed).

All I know to do when loss occurs is to make space for it, to honor what is being missed and to mourn with those from whom treasures of love are being pilfered. Grief, in my mind’s eye, is a well of cold water, into which that which we deem precious can sink but from which no reflection gleams. I know that, in due time, some will find renewal there as they reconstruct their lives. Maybe bearing witness to grief is nothing more than keeping a fire going by the depths, allowing for the awareness that rage and fear and all the strong feelings that make us want to flee that place of loss are allowed here and matter here. What are you grieving today? What is fanning the flames of your emotions? What is slipping into the bleakness?

Finding Calm in the Whirlwind (Today’s Moment of Gratitude)

Well, my life turned upside down in the last 24 hours. My job is moving online for two months, a situation which requires a tremendous amount of planning and action all at once. I have over a hundred students depending on me to get it right, so no pressure!

I feel empowered rather than defeated, as I can finally channel my excessive energy into something productive. At the same time, the human element is what scares me in terms of having to navigate competing interests and balance my time. The potential implications for a total lockdown of my area is creeping into my consciousness as well.

As I was thinking of all of this, I ran into a neighbor (from a safe distance!) that I haven’t seen in a while. She offered to help me if I get sick. Having someone who lives so close offer this meant the world to me; I really needed to know that I’m not alone. Again and again, I keep coming to the truth that, as long as I feel connected to a community, my personality and inner world is created for a time like this. I feel galvanized to a degree I thought I’d lost. What’s been your moment of peace today?

“Don’t Worry, Everything Will Be Okay”: An Insidious Form of Denial

I wrote yesterday about feeling that my energy was misdirected by trying to warn people who are complacent about the coming (or already arrived, depending where you live) pandemic. It got me thinking more broadly of how people respond to my fears and ways that I have come to discern between people who listen deeply and honestly and those who deflect. I’ve described both stances below (there are of course way-stops between these approaches and times we might use one or the other depending on our energy level) as well as ideas for self-care if you are an anxious person.

“It’ll be fine”

I have a standard retort for people who tell me my worries are unfounded: how do you know? Unless they are a trained expert in the area, at which time I will defer to their judgment, someone telling me I’m “worrying about nothing” gives me far more insight into the nature of their character than it does into the rationality of my anxiety. I definitely believe that some people operate from a default of denial–nothing is real unless it is affecting them personally. They obfuscate and deflect legitimate concerns because these anxieties hint at the fact that the world can be an unjust, unfair and brutal place. If it isn’t happening to them, it can’t be happening.

Yes, those of us with heightened anxiety can easily overestimate the potential likelihood of a danger occurring, but we can also spot trouble before it arrives. I contingency-plan with the best of them and, because of my efforts, I steer clear of certain issues into which others move without pausing. Holding back “I told you so” strains my throat when I notice my unheeded warnings coming true again and again. Attempting to protect one’s self by denying reality has as many consequences, if not more, than wasted worry.

“I have my doubts, but we’ll face it together”

Responding to someone who lapses into extreme anxiety does not mean engaging in panic yourself or denying your read on the situation. Rather, it is perfectly fine to share fact-based evidence that might help to mitigate some of their concerns, especially if you ask permission first. This is where I have would-be comforters lapped; I can quickly absorb a tremendous amount of factual information, so I am ready to go with the latest scientific statistics and projections while they share three-week old data they heard on a podcast. On the other end of the spectrum, anxieties that have little basis in reality might be easier to counter with science, but the people who struggle with them might also be less receptive to scientific reasoning.

To me, the best way to support someone who you might view as “fear-mongering” or overly worried is to establish what your objective take on the situation is, and to then focus most of your energy on the trust you have in both the other person as well as in your relationship. When I share my pandemic prep with people IRL, I wish at least one person would say something along the lines of “well, I know who to ask if I decide to prepare a list of items.” The most I’ve gotten so far was someone declaring they would come to my place if the shit hit the fan, which only angered me at their callousness. If you can connect to the person and let them know that you appreciate their forward-thinking nature, even if you believe it to be too trigger-happy, as well as let them know you will be there to help them cope if or when the situation fully develops, it may help them come down from flight or fight into a more productive, problem-solving state. Scared people make rash decisions; prep for an event such as a pandemic requires a rational response, not a panic-stricken hoarding of toilet paper.

Mental Self-Care for the anxious

If you are reading this as a highly anxious person yourself, here are some practical steps you can take if you are facing a situation that seems to concern only you and in response to which you are being told you are over-reacting.

1. If possible, consult the experts. Nothing is worse in my mind in regards to anxiety than getting riled up by people who have an agenda to push or those who base their ideas on fantasy. Find the scientifically-accurate experts who do not stand to benefit in a substantial way from peoples’ responses, and listen to them. In regards to the pandemic specifically, this is the person to whom I’m listening (as well as reading research as it is published).

2. Share your concerns judiciously. Even if your anxieties are pushing at you, decide whether the person to whom you want to speak is likely, based on past experiences, to listen carefully or to simply dismiss you. If someone acts as though you are completely irrational, consider whether there might be other people in your life that would be more open to hearing what you have to say.

3. Before taking any practical steps, if possible, make a list of items you might acquire or plans you might enact, and then wait at least 24 hours (or a good night of sleep minimum) before you follow through on what you are considering. I have worked myself up in recent days into wanting to buy an oxygen concentrator and a large solar power station. Because I slowed myself down, I realized the oxygen concentrator’s cons outweighed its possible benefits, and that I would face serious security issues with a solar setup as it would have to be placed in front of my house and would therefore be highly tempting for someone to steal if we actually end up in a situation where it would need to be deployed. By slowing myself down, I resisted panic-buying and have been able to better use my resources.

4. At the end of the day, remember that we all die, some of us in unexpected ways. I keep this truth in my mind not to feel depressed but to boost my feelings of acceptance of my life situation. When we run out of practice steps in handling a crisis, coming to terms with the reality of it can, at least for me, open internal space for contemplation and grace, rather than a raging “there has to be a way” as the elements consume.

5. Remember you are likely not as alone as you might feel you are. There is a limit of rational action that I can take at this point, and, as terrifying as it is to me, I find myself coming to a growing knowledge that I might have to *shudder* cooperate with my neighbors if things go really side-ways. In modern Western societies like the one I inhabit, there is a particular sense of individualism where people may literally never speak with or help out their next-door neighbors, not because they hate each other but because they are able to sort their lives in a way that does not necessitate such interactions. I am not so naive to think that my federal government will do anything useful, but I have a bit of trust in my local officials to try to mitigate disaster and in myself to work with others as needed. Scarcity can promote selfishness but it can also promote sharing; I hope that the latter is what rises to the surface in the areas where people are struggling right now.

In conclusion, a person’s level of anxiety is not the best marker of their capacity for acting in a rational way. People can under-react just as much as they over-react and can respond too slowly to a crisis as well as too early or without justification. If you are highly anxious as I am, my advice is to reserve your time and energy for acting with as much objective reason as you can, with the support of people who know what they are talking about because of their education and experience, as well as those in your life who offer a caring, gentle presence when your anxiety gets the best of you. Please share how you care for yourself as an anxious person!

Energy Drained and Recharged (In the Cards)

I am not someone who thinks of my life experiences as a universal force teaching me lessons, but I do like to reflect on what I encounter and to question my assumptions and the paradigm underneath which I am operating. Several events as of late have left me asking two questions: 1) what’s the best use of my energy if I hope to better the world in my own small way? and 2) what do I do with my anxiety about the current state of affairs? The conclusion I’m coming to is that there are people with whom my interaction is a squandered resource, but also that my anxiety might be useful in directing my energy productively. (Side note: none of my reflection here relates to my blog but rather to IRL conversations as well as posts on other social media sites).

In the past, if someone did not take what I had to say seriously, it would leave me questioning the veracity of the knowledge or experience I was sharing. I’ve come to see, though, that people often dismiss that with which they do not want to grapple. It is much easier to act like someone is over-reacting or too sensitive than it is to take their concerns, even if they do not match what you’ve experienced, as valid.

At the same time, there has to be a common base of knowledge from which everyone is working, or else people are counting in different numerical bases. I work from a scientific perspective and have had it up to here with people who believe, for instance, that drinking bleach (only a slight exaggeration) is a cure-all. It is not worth it, in my personal life, for me to try to convince people to care when we can’t agree on what the basic problems in the world today are.

As I’m living out this awareness, I keep coming to a point where I think “I could respond and explain myself again, but this isn’t worth my energy.” This is a new experience for me as I used to feel like silence was complicity if someone disagreed with me and I didn’t reassert what I know to be true, but I now know that if a person can’t take in what I’ve said, I stand to gain little by continuing to engage with them. The energy I’m bringing feels very masculine, like a “good enough, moving on” rather than a communal, connected “let’s dig in and work through this together” stance. I am tired, though, of giving mental space to people who create actual harm in the world through their anti-science and ill-informed actions. I’d rather focus on those who can be convinced to care and to act, who are open to listening and exploring their biases, as I am with them.

I’m currently convinced we are facing a global pandemic, and I don’t know what to do with the hours of research I’ve accumulated on the topic. The few people IRL to which I’ve spoken don’t even know what I’m referencing and I got no response when I sounded the warning on social media. Either I’m too anxious and I will have wasted some money stocking up on supplies, or, more or less, my worst fears will come true and “I told you so” will be a sentiment I’ll need to work on squashing. I want to have grace for people who come late to acknowledging danger and harm; I think this is where the energy reserves I withhold from them when they ignore science initially need to be used. I also need to focus on self-care and self-sufficiency in a sustainable way so that I am there for those who might panic as reality sets in.

I have never seen the evolutionary quandary anxiety disorders present so clearly as I do now. Were I living in a small group of hunter/gatherers, I’d be the person constantly testing the wind and sensing the slightest tremor in the earth. Most of my warnings wouldn’t bear out, so people might tune me out. But, when true danger arrived, I’d be the person packed and ready to go while others danced. Constant anxiety does have a survival benefit, but it alienates as much as it helps. By redirecting my energy away from people who will ignore potential calamity until death is at their doorstep, I can improve my contribution to society.

What behaviors in others tempt you into squandering your energy? Where do you fall on the “we’re all going to die now” to “everything is okay, forever” scale of anxiety? Do you see any advantages to your anxiety, if you are a highly anxious person?