The “new normal” and complex trauma

Caring for myself
is not
it is
and that is an act of

political warfare
Audre Lorde


Note: this text is an exception from the rule. It has been written first in English (not in Spanish, as usual), and then it has been translated into Spanish, and (later, possibly) German. This is because I’m referring mostly to English language material that has helped me, which made it easier to write in English. I’m still struggling with the terms in Spanish (not to mention German, my ‘mother-tongue’).


Yesterday, I downloaded some of the zines by Meg-John Barker, which I encountered due to a link to a blog post on boundaries I was sent by a nonbinary friend. Until now, I only knew them as co-author of the book Queer: a graphic history. I had no idea about their other work – until now.

I went to Tramallol, where I usually work, to print out some of the zines, went back home, and started to read some of them. I started with Hell Yeah Self Care, where I found the quote above by Audre Lorde (thanks, Meg-John). It was good and re-affirming, and I think I’m in self-care mode pretty much since about four weeks ago, and have already accepted that this has to be my focus for now. Besides Meg-John’s really good zine, reading pattrice jones’ Aftershock a few months ago has helped me to accept that there are times when self-care has to be a priority, and that there is nothing wrong or self-indulgant with this.

I then moved on to just read the zine Staying with our Feelings, and was in for a surprise. While reading it, I felt my chest being compressed like by a corsett or something, accompanied by almost physicial pain in the centre of my chest. I was just reading this fucking zine, not even working through it! I decided to take a long and hot bath (even though it was a hot day in Sevilla), and – maybe that’s something positive – didn’t take a glass of wine with me as usual, as I simply didn’t feel like it. In the bath, I returned to what I felt when reading the zine, and I almost had to cry. Almost, as crying doesn’t come easily to me. It was too much, and I pushed the feeling aside, and started to rationalise. Two days ago I wrote that I recognise myself quite well in descriptions of complex trauma or Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and that it is true that confinement has triggered a retraumatisation in recent weeks.

Later, still in the bath, I returned again to the feeling, and tried to welcome it. I felt the pain in the chest, but also my breathing becoming very shallow and my stomach contracting – fear. I’m not sure the fear was accompanying the pain, or a reaction to the feeling of pain. I finished my bath and as it was close to 20:00h – the beginning of the allowed time slot for taking a walk or doing exercise outside – I went for a walk to the river. At the river, I sat down close to the water (you are not supposed to stop anywhere – you should keep walking or exercising, but I needed to sit and stare at the water), and I still felt the pain, and again almost had to cry. I sat there for a while, but there where too many people walking or cycling by, and also I felt nervous about the police again causing me trouble. I got up and walked slowly along the river, still almost crying, very much on edge, and then returned home. At home, I ate some dinner and settled to listen to music and had a few glasses of wine which helped me to relax.


In recent months, I had read first pattrice jones’ Aftershock, which deals a lot with activism and trauma, written by an anarco-feminist, lesbian, animal rights activist, and later Anabel Gonzalez’s No soy yo (That’s not me), which is about understanding complex trauma, and dealing with it. I recognised myself in a lot of it, but at the same time often found it hard to relate, as it seems written from a heteronormative, privileged position in our society, by someone who feels comfortable within and with our society. I tried to square the privileged perspective of Anabel Gonzalez with the anarchist perspective of pattrice jones, but still felt I was not getting anywhere.

That’s where Meg-John Barker has been an inspiration, and not only because they are a nonbinary person as well. They coined the phrase ‘anti self-help’ to describe self-help materials which locate the struggles that people have in their wider societal structures and cultural messages rather than in them as individuals – something I also found in pattrice jones. Meg-John's anti self-help books aim to help people to navigate their relationship with wider sociocultural understandings, rather than viewing themselves as a problem that needs fixing. Yes! This makes sense.


Later yesterday evening I read Meg-John’s blog post on Trauma and cPTSD 101, which I found incredibly useful. In this post, they refer to Pete Walker’s book on complex PTSD, and summarise the symptoms as follows:

  • Emotional flashbacks

  • Being highly critical of ourselves and/or others

  • Toxic shame

  • Abandoning ourselves

  • Anxiety and/or struggles around social situations or relationships

  • Loneliness and/or feeling abandoned

  • Dissociation (feeling checked out and/or distracting yourself/numbing with food, drink, worrying, working, social media, TV, etc.)

  • Feeling bad about ourselves from low self-esteem to self-loathing

  • Big mood changes and struggles with feelings

  • Difficulties with relationships

  • Being easily triggered into the 4Fs


According to Meg-John summarising Pete, the following kinds of somatic (bodily) experiences are also common:

  • Hypervigilance, constantly scanning our lives and worlds for any sign of danger, convinced it will happen again, trying to figure out how to avoid it

  • Shallow breathing

  • Feeling adrenaline a lot of the time

  • Feeling physically ‘armoured up’ and braced for trouble: muscle tightening, back pain, etc.

  • Wear and tear from how much we’ve rushed at everything and/or armoured up

  • Struggling to be fully present, relaxed, and grounded in our bodies

  • Sleep problems

  • Startle responses, twitches, etc.

  • Digestive problems

  • Forms of self harm which jolt the body out of the painful panicked desperate out-of-touch with self place that trauma puts us in

As Meg-John says in their post, “OMG Pete, it’s like you’ve seen into my soul!” Yes, absolutely! Not all of it, but I can see myself in a lot of it, and the more I try to reflect on it, the more I recognise myself.

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.

It has been interesting to look at “the 4Fs”. Meg-John says:

The 4 Fs are the four different responses that all animals go into when something traumatic happens: fight, flight, freeze, and fawn. Fight is when we attack back. Flight is when we try to escape. Freeze is when we go still and frozen. Fawn is when we try to appease our attacker to get out of the situation.

In cPTSD one or more of these generally become our entrenched survival strategies: the ways we learn to relate to ourselves, others, and the world. We use these strategies to try to meet our yearning to experience the kind of love we always wanted, to avoid getting abandoned, and to try not to feel the overwhelming feelings. Needless to say they are not helpful strategies for achieving these aims, but even pretty smart people will continue to employ them regardless…

According to Meg-John:

  • Fight involves learning to control others and to demand things from them, to blame others for any relationship problems rather than ourselves, to try to fix them and/or to criticise or attack them.

  • Flight involves perfecting ourselves, trying to make ourselves worthy of love, and/or working very hard.

  • Freeze involves hiding, retreating, keeping intimacy at a distance, dissociating and distracting.

  • Fawn involves people-pleasing, focusing on others’ needs rather than our own, trying to make ourselves into what we think others want us to be.

Meg-John writes:

Pete suggests that they can be best seen as spectrums: Fawn to Fight, and Freeze to Flight. If we’re at one end of the spectrum we need to cultivate the capacity to be at the other end. For example as a fawn/flight my tendency is to do whatever it takes to keep people happy with me, and to go into ‘doing’ mode (for example writing long blog posts about cPTSD). I need to work harder on fight (assertively holding my boundaries) and freeze (valuing just being and not always needing to be productive). For other people it would be the opposite. A good balance is to be able to be vulnerable/open and assertive/boundaried; to be able to do and to be.

Reflecting on this this morning in bed, I clearly recognise the patterns, and a complete imbalance. I tend to fawn, that is I try to fit in in groups, not asserting my needs, until I can’t any more, and explode into the fight pattern, or leave the group. I am thinking of several things that happened in recent years in several of my groups, where I first and for a long time tried to fit in, not even becoming aware of my own needs, or how my boundaries had been overstepped, until it got too much and I started to fight. Some of the groups I then abandoned.


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.


What does this mean?

First of all, it means I need to put self-care at the centre for the time being, and probably for months to come, if not years. Someone commented to me a few months ago that the world is a mess of course, and that “feeling better is an act of defiance. So too is self-care.” I’m not feeling better. I’m certainly not feeling good. I’m not capable of this act of defiance right now. I rather need to stay with Audre Lorde for the time being: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgance, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.

I’m not yet sure what this will mean in practice. I have no idea when and how I will be able to return to work (I have been off work since Easter), and what that will mean for my involvement in the climate justice movement (I have withdrawn from a lot of it since a few weeks ago). I’m sure that I will not be able to just return to what I did before – I just won’t have the energy, as self-care will need to occupy a lot of my energy in the months to come.

I also feel I need to learn more about complex trauma and complex PTSD to understand better what’s happening to me. I have been working on my trauma on and off for almost four years now, been in therapy, and certainly made huge progress, but at the same time I now feel I have only been scratching at the surface so far. Just writing this one sentence brings a lot of pain in my chest again…

I’m on a journey. A long journey probably. A difficult and painful one. A necessary one. A scary one. And I will need help. I trust I can sustain this journey. I trust I get out of it stronger, more in contact with myself, better able to sustain myself in the struggle for social and climate justice. But right now, my priority struggle is with my trauma.