Living with trauma in times of a pandemic

The pandemic has caused mental health problems for many people. But for those of us who were already living with trauma before the pandemic, it has been and is proving to be an especially difficult and often painful challenge.

Even in 'normal' times, living with trauma is often not easy. I speak from experience, as I live with complex trauma. This means that I am still struggling to recognise my patterns of trauma, my automatic survival mechanisms, which allowed me to survive a traumatic childhood and adolescence, but which now often prevent me from being aware of my emotions, from setting limits, from trusting friends.

Already at the end of 2019 I had a crisis - now I know that it was an emotional flashback. Then in January I had another downturn, going through the pain of accepting that one of my networks I had built in Sevilla was no longer what I needed. It was a painful process to accept. I recovered, and was working to make 2020 the year of the climate uprising. In fact, the weekend before the beginning of the State of Alarm in Spain I was in Brussels at a European meeting to make plans for this uprising.

And came the pandemic, and it was all over. We had to cancel our plans for climate camps, for non-violent direct action training and for civil disobedience actions. There was no longer a climate uprising. Nor were there any more meetings, (face-to-face) assemblies - nothing. At least during the first months.

At the beginning my trauma response was to pretend that this did not impact me. But this didn't work, and I experienced a first crash of perhaps a week, unable to work or do anything. I spent a lot of time in my room crying, and I permitted myself to escape and sit by the Guadalquivir River in Sevilla, sometimes to cry, many times to try and calm down by looking at the water. I had fallen into despair over my powerlessness - the impotence I felt during my childhood and adolescence. At this point I was not able to name it. I wrote on 22 March:

“I'm thinking about my childhood and adolescence, and about the trauma I carry with me from this part of my life. The feeling of isolation, the lack of affection, the lack of physical contact (except for my mother, from whom I could not tolerate any physical contact. I hated her and still do). I understand now that I quickly enter the pattern of fear of abandonment, of being abandoned (I lived it strongly last Christmas), but this time it is not this. I understand that no one is abandoning me, that it is the circumstances.”

“I feel despair. Perhaps this despair has something to do with the despair of my childhood and adolescence, when I had no hope and simply tried to survive? Surviving in the context of a toxic family, unable to see me, to understand me, to respond to my emotional needs, and instead threatening me with abandonment. Some "friends" who became my worst bullies when we were in a group, bullying me for not complying with male norms. For many years I didn't see any way out, and I was simply surviving, without hope, and trying not to feel anything. I survived, but I was severely traumatized.

After one or two weeks another pattern of my trauma was triggered: dissociation. I felt supposedly 'good', until I realised that I didn't feel, that I wasn't able to write almost anything in my diary, as I was completely disconnected from my emotions. Dissociation has been my main survival mechanism for the first 20 years of my life, and it is not surprising that it was activated when my emotions overwhelmed me.

Supposedly better, I went back to work. I thought I had already gone through the worst of my crisis. I thought that focusing on my friendships, on my support networks had stabilised me enough to cope with living with the restrictions of the State of Alarm (skipping some). But I was wrong. Another, much deeper, crash came, which lasted almost until the end of the State of Alarm - two months.

On 13 April I launched a cry of despair on my blog:

“I can't take it anymore! I can't take it anymore without seeing my friends! I can't take it anymore without hugging my friends! I'm crying. Out of sadness. Out of pain. I can't take it anymore! I'm at my limit, or rather, I've already passed my limit. I can't take it anymore!

I have thoughts of suicide, stronger than ever. They scare me. In the bathroom I thought of breaking the wine glass to cut my veins. I didn't (obviously). Last night I thought of cutting my veins with a razor. I can't take it anymore!”

Only once before in my life had I experienced such strong, real thoughts of suicide. And I was afraid. Luckily some of my friends responded to my cry. My flatmate supported me, and other friends called me to make sure I was well supported.

I found some ways to escape, or to get some strength: I went out several times a day to take a walk ("shopping") or to sit by the river (the latter until one day the police threatened to take me to the police station for breaking the total confinement), I met some friends at least once a week, to eat together and have a good time (and to hug each other), calls (by mobile phone, without video) with friends who lived in neighbourhoods further away in Sevilla or outside Sevilla. I also wrote a lot, these days mainly in my blog. I needed to let go of my anger, let go of my pain, my sadness.

Luckily, my psychologist continued to attend to me in person even during total confinement, and for a while I had sessions with her every week. I don't know where I would be today without this.

With de-escalation came new challenges. For me it was not so much the fear of meeting people again - I had none of this. In fact, I needed to meet more friends again, and with the advancement of de-escalation and fewer restrictions - and more meetings, more hugs - I started to feel better, I started to get out of this very long emotional flashback.

But then came the norm of the facemask. With de-escalation they made the facemask mandatory initially in enclosed spaces and on the street when you couldn't keep a safe distance. For me, it was another trigger. I wrote on 19 May:

“Every time, when I see news about making the use of face masks mandatory in more and more spaces, I panic, and I get anxious. I instinctively feel that wearing a mask whenever I want to go out would be a trigger for my own traumatic reactions. (...) With the mask the health crisis comes to my body, that is, the crisis (and the state) impose something on me that has to do with my body. A body not respected with its limits in my childhood and adolescence, that is, during the first 20 years of my life. A body, which has suffered repeated invasions into its intimate space for 20 years, and possibly abuse. A violated body. For me, the masks feel like an invasion, a violation of my body, and not a protection. Again, no respect for my body, no respect for my intimate space, no respect for me.”

Although I understood the reason behind the rule, it sent me back into a downward spiral. I wrote: "The mask leads me directly to the trauma of my childhood and adolescence, as it enters my intimate space." I think that for some weeks I avoided going to supermarkets or other shops where it was not possible to enter without a facemask, and continued to shop mostly in the shops nearby where I was not forced to wear one. It took me weeks to work on it and feel able to put on a facemask in a situation where it really makes sense - in a shop or on public transport, for example.

During this period of confinement, I also discovered, through a nonbinary friend, Meg-John Barker's blog, which may have saved my life. It has helped me a lot to learn about and understand my complex trauma, and what was happening to me. That Meg-John Barker is a nonbinary person like me surely helped me a lot, as it allowed me a certain level of identification. Although I had read Anabel Gonzalez's book No soy yo (That's not me), which also deals with the issue of complex trauma, shortly before the beginning of the State of Alarm, I did not identify at this time with this diagnosis. I recognised myself in some aspects, but the book touched me little. It was very different when I read Meg-John Barker's blog about complex trauma. At the beginning of May I read their text on complex PTSD, and it was almost a revelation. In this text they refer to Pete Walker's book on complex trauma, and they say: "OMG, Pete, it's like you've seen into my soul!" I wrote then:

“Looking at this now, I feel I have been pretty much in an emotional flashback since confinement started. According to Meg-John, “Emotional flashbacks are like standard flashbacks – where people respond as if they’re right back in a traumatic memory – but without the clear memory of what is being replayed: just the emotions and bodily responses.

Emotional flashbacks involve sudden drops into debilitating fear and shame. It’s like we’re right back in the overwhelming feelings that we experienced as a child, and we are: our nervous system has literally been put right back there. We often feel small, fragile, young, desperate and helpless in these moments. We may panic and flail or we may shut down and give up. We generally feel like we’re unacceptable and bad. Everything feels way too hard, being seen feels excruciating, and it feels like a matter of life and death. We go into survival mode and fear we will not survive.” That’s a very good description of the place where I have been the last weeks, and I’m still in this place."

And: “Coming back to confinement and the “new normal” awaiting us after the de-escalation of confinement from the end of June on, I feel scared. I also recognise now that I will remain in a very vulnerable place probably during a lot of the time of “new normal”, prone to emotional flashbacks, if in the end I manage to get out of the one I’m in right now. Just writing this, I feel the pain in my chest, I feel at the edge of crying. It has been hard writing this, and I’m not yet done.”

I bought Pete Walker's book (in English), and reading it also helped me a lot to understand myself. It was not easy to read, and many times I had to stop as it touched me too much, caused me too many emotions and I started to cry. But at the same time it was different: I was beginning to understand what I had been living all my life, and what I was living at this moment.

I believe that Meg-John Barker's texts and Pete Walker's book managed to touch me for two reasons: Meg-John Barker because they are also a nonbinary person, and because they write about their own experience as a person living with complex trauma. And Pete Walker, although he is a rather heteronormative person, also because he talks about his own experience, and not only about his clients as a psychologist. I was able to identify with him mostly when he was talking about himself, although my experience is different in many ways.

The summer was a respite for me, although I could not afford a holiday, after having been off work for almost three months due to my emotional turmoil. Nevertheless I made plans to visit friends, to travel. But before my first trip came another trigger: they made the facemask obligatory 'almost always' in Andalusia (in almost all the autonomous communities, with the exception of the Canary Islands). I wrote:

“Now, the situation is different. The new rule is meaningless, it's arbitrary, and I don't see myself overcoming the feeling of my body being violated because of a meaningless rule. This morning, just thinking about this rule and having to leave the house with a mask on, I started crying.”

“Then I had to go out, although only about 100m to a copy shop. I put my mask on when I left the building's entrance, and I almost panicked. When I left the copy shop, I took off my mask and carried it in my hand until I got home. Since my return home, I haven't been able to work. I'm in a state of panic, I feel like I'm collaborating with the violation of my body. I'm trying not to think about this, I'm trying not to feel too much. I'm on the verge of crying. It is clear to me that I cannot and will not comply with this order. I cannot obey an order that requires me to collaborate with my own violation. I had to do it too much in my youth, do things that didn't make sense, violate my own body, follow orders from my parents that seemed like a violation to me. Never again!”

My first trip was to Berlin, to visit a long time friend (about 25 years). It was a relief to walk around the streets of Berlin without a facemask, and it was a relief to reconnect with my friend and spend some time together chatting, drinking wine, and strolling around Berlin.

In Berlin I took the decision that the Andalusian norm on facemasks is beyond my limits, and that there is no way for me to comply with it. This decision gave me back a sense of agency, that I can make my own decisions, and that not just any crazy rule in the name of the pandemic should be followed. Since then, I always go out with my facemask in hand, in case I run into a crowd of people, a police patrol, and if I want to go into a shop or a bar. But I don't put my facemask on in the street, and I don't care about the norm.

I went back to Sevilla for a few days, and left for another trip, to visit friends on the Canary Islands (where the facemask was not obligatory 'almost always' either, but only when it makes sense). Although on the Canaries I still worked in the mornings, it was another respite. I realised that after so many months confined to Sevilla I needed to get out and travel, and above all to see my friends.

I made other trips: to Galicia and to Lisbon.

On none of my trips did I follow the recommendations for the summer, such as those published by El País on 25 July: not to stay with friends (sorry, I don't have money for hotels, and, moreover, visiting friends is what I needed), hugs "fast, sideways and with a facemask", and other absurdities. As I wrote in my blog, these are politics of fear in times of a pandemic, or a dictatorship of public health, with a very high emotional and psychological price tag.

The beginning of the second wave from the end of August and the imposition of new restrictions were again triggers for a trauma response. I felt again that I needed to get out of Sevilla, out of this atmosphere of fear, panic, and repression and a public health fascism. At the beginning of October I went to Lisbon to participate in a civil disobedience action for climate justice. It was very important especially for my mental health. In the Spanish state nobody was considering a mass action, and there in Lisbon they organized a civil disobedience action with 150 people - and it was successful.

I went back to Sevilla, and with the new restrictions I crashed again. In the middle of October I felt so bad that I needed to escape again, this time in order to be alone and have time for myself. I went to Lisbon again, but this time I rented an apartment in the centre for about 6 days. It was good to escape from Sevilla, but this does not mean that I had a good time. Again I worked in the mornings, but in the afternoons I was with my emotions, and some nights I had to cry. Again I felt this impotence of my childhood and youth in the face of this second wave and the new restrictions.

Finally, another state of alarm arrived and the second confinement, this time not at home but "only" one perimetral confinement of each municipality, a nighttime curfew and the closure of the bars at 6pm. They took away "our life", and I wrote:

“But they forget one important aspect. We are neither machines nor slaves. To produce, we also need reproduction, we need to recuperate energy, we need to regenerate ourselves. We cannot work day after day without not only a rest (which we are allowed), but also a life beyond work that allows us to recharge our batteries. How do you think we do this? Watching TV? Playing video games? Consuming pornography online (pornography consumption has increased a lot since the beginning of confinement)? Drugging ourselves with alcohol or other drugs?”

I had times of great despair, of great pain, and then a pattern of my trauma was activated: the disconnection from my emotions. I supposedly felt a little better during November, but it was only supposedly. In reality, I was feeling emotionally blocked. I knew there was something, but I was not able to connect with my emotions. I felt like crying many times, but I was not able to cry either.

Reading in Staci K. Haines's book on trauma and shame caused a lot of emotions in my stomach, and I knew I was touching something. I had read about trauma and shame before - in the books of Anabel Gonzalez and Pete Walker, and the texts of Meg-John Barker - but at the time I didn't feel much. In fact, I felt that this did not apply to me. This time it was very different. My body reacted to what I was reading about trauma and shame. Finally, during the Constitution holiday in December, I touched my emotions, the pain of the shame of the child who thought they were bad. I cried a lot this weekend, and again I had thoughts of suicide that were out of the ordinary and scary, so scary that I took a bath with some wine in a plastic glass. But I also felt the support, and I looked for support. I called a friend the first day, and we met for a walk, and when we met and hugged I started to cry. The next day I saw another friend by chance, and again I started crying while hugging. I think that these hugs were the best remedy against this childhood shame.

Since a little more than a week I feel a little better, I am not so much with the pain of shame anymore, but I do not feel emotionally blocked either. Now, when I read some of the new recommendations for Christmas dinners, I can only laugh. I wonder what kind of world these people live in who make such impossible recommendations. But since they are recommendations, I don't care. I am going to live my life and make my decisions, aware of the risks, but also aware of my need to live, to be with people, to hug each other.

What did I learn in this year of pandemic, and not of the climate uprising? First, I have learned (and am still learning) a lot about complex trauma in general, and my own complex trauma in particular. I have become aware of aspects of my trauma that I was not aware of before, such as the impotence that I felt during my adolescence. I used to think more about my childhood (which I have no memory of) when I thought about my trauma, but now I understand that all the first 20 years of my life have contributed to my complex trauma.

I've learned about emotional flashbacks, and to some extent to realise when I enter into a flashback and manage it better, for example by trying to think of the 13 steps to manage flashbacks by Pete Walker. I have them printed in my room, and next to my bed. I don't always manage to apply them, but even though I sometimes find it difficult, these 13 steps are very helpful.

I have also learned about the importance of self-care. In the spring I had to withdraw from almost all activism (for climate justice and other causes), and so far I have returned to very little. Understanding self-care with Audre Lorde also as a "political battle" has helped me a lot to accept this need.

I am aware that while the pandemic continues, I will be living in a potentially triggering situation almost permanently. Moreover, a trigger situation from which I cannot escape - as I did during my childhood and adolescence. In this context, understanding self-care also as a political act helps me not to push myself back into climate justice activism, to listen to myself and to make decisions based on my needs and my mental health.

What has helped me in these difficult times? First and foremost my friends! I believe that I have achieved safe and intimate relationships, which have sustained me throughout this time. Although I entered the year with the pain of the loss of one of my affective networks - my first network in Sevilla, the network that had sustained me when I had an emotional breakdown 4 ½ years ago - during these months of the pandemic I have built new affective networks with new people.

The blog and some of Meg-John Barker's zines, and Pete Walker's and later Staci K. Haines's books have also helped me a lot. I think that above all Meg-John Barker's blog has opened a door for me to understand my complex trauma, and I have no doubt that it helped a lot that Meg-John Barker is also a nonbinary person. At least it made the whole theme more accessible to me.

Perhaps the most important learning for me is to trust myself, my capabilities and needs, and to make my own decisions. The truth is that I don't know where I would be today if I had followed the rules and restrictions imposed by our governments with the justification of the pandemic. I don't know if I would be alive now - I have serious doubts about that. Making my own decisions and breaking the rules and restrictions has allowed me to continue to live, and to face my trauma with the necessary supports (and hugs).