When the pandemic first started, and we were asked to stay home, some people ran into the ring of the suffering Olympics and held up their tiny internet signs scrawled with, It's not like you have to ___, you just have to sit on your couch!
They were really saying, you're not suffering a trauma, just an inconvenience. So we didn’t qualify it as a trauma at that point. But then summer came, and the body bags piled up in the parking lots of New York City hospitals, and young, healthy people were felled by this virus, and it started to sink in that this was a trauma.
Soon though, we grew accustomed to that reality. And once we all got used to the idea that we were running a marathon, we took out our stopwatches and sought to measure whose pace was most gruelling. Working parents homeschooling their kids? Those who live alone, yearning for the touch of another? Those working on the front lines? Those who are immunocompromised and scared? Those who lost their jobs? Those who lost someone and can’t grieve in community with others? And what if you tick several of those boxes?
We wrote articles acknowledging the collective grief we’re suffering. And we understood our sense of malaise. And recently, the New York Times figured it out for us: we are languishing. Not thriving, but not depressed. And we jabbed our hands in the air at each other, figuratively of course, because no one is ever really there to see you as you doomscroll, and we exclaimed Yes, thank you! This is what I’m feeling!
But this week, things got worse. At least for me and most of the people who communicate with me. For context, the third wave has been in full force in Canada for several weeks. We are locked in and isolated again.
I went from doing things, and mostly loathing the silly mundane things I do, to not really being able to do things. I could imagine an activity that I might do - go for a walk or change the water in the tulip vase or eat some soup - but it seemed far away, as if I was seeing it in the small hole created when you tape together a few empty paper towel rolls and pretend you’re yodelling. My thoughts pulled on each other, each of them wearing a sweater that the other wanted, and would take, with sheer force.
The air felt scarce, and I realized that I was no longer breathing as I had been for the last few decades. I kept catching myself holding my breath while working, and Google told me this is a common phenomenon amongst women, while emailing. Yes, while emailing.
One morning, I answered the phone with Hi, sorry, I was just lying here thinking about how I’m a waste of space, and thankfully, the person calling was self-aware enough to say, Oh that’s what I was just doing too!
I heard myself say to a friend I’m so glad you can’t pay attention either, and then made a half-hearted attempt to claim that I wasn’t actually happy for their inattention. But we both knew I was buoyed by having found companionship for my skittering brain.
During a video call, I explained to my husband that a shirt he has seen on me 87 times is a shirt that I have, as if maybe he didn’t know me and my things. As if maybe I had faded so far into myself that I needed to describe my outsides.
I attempted to grip myself by my shell, and just get a hold of all the slippery, useless parts of myself that don't seem to want to stand, but it was like trying to lift up an overflowing handful of dead jellyfish. I did this once as a kid - I spent a whole day collecting dismembered pieces of jellyfish on a beach in Greece. I’d run in from the water to show my mom, and she would look up from her Dickens book to marvel at the clear liquid slop I’d collected in my pail. I remember her tan legs in her Birkenstocks, and when I think of it now, I think of a doctor in Vienna telling her - without consulting any medical records - that she’d never had skin cancer, because of her olive complexion. And then it occurs to me that this is the most egregious form of mansplaining: to tell a woman, simply on the basis of a hunch, that she has not had the cancer that, by that point, she had already had, and that she would go on to have two more times, and that would eventually kill her. And when I consider his existence head-on, I want to dig my fingers into the jellyfish of my eye sockets.
When a friend texted this week asking if I could talk about trauma for a project, I didn’t know what I’d say about it, but I knew I’d experienced it watching my mom die. I couldn’t put my finger on how we define trauma though. There are so many events that are obvious traumas, but what counts as a loss versus a trauma?
I was joking to this friend that I’ve stopped breathing and wrote, I thought that was a non-negotiable?!
And there it was:
Trauma is the non-negotiable becoming negotiable, without our consent.
To be clear, my strange non-breathing isn’t a trauma, by any means. It’s likely just poor posture and stress.
And losing my mom isn’t a trauma, to me. It is a cavernous loss. But not a trauma, because it had been conceivable to me that my mom could die.
But watching her die was a trauma. I had not imagined that she could die in the way that she did. And I couldn’t imagine it because I didn’t know what happens when a person dies from brain tumours.
But the non-negotiable for me - that her body would cease to harbour any human quality and that she would breathe at a robotic, rapid rate for days on end, with her eyes and mouth open - had suddenly become negotiable. As it was happening, I tried to negotiate some control, to push her experience back into the realm of what I could handle. But already, the thing that I didn’t think could happen, had happened. And I had seen it.
And that’s the trauma. Just like the freezers and body bags in New York City hospital parking lots. Or the drone footage of parking lots in India, where bodies are being burned in crowded rows. Or hearing that this virus is getting more aggressive and causing teenagers to fall over dead, 24 hours after contracting it. We didn’t think these things could happen.
But once we know it’s possible, does is stop being a trauma? When does a trauma turn into an unwanted, but conceivable, loss?
I went for a run to sort my breathing, and wondered if hurling myself down the hill, in repeating somersaults, would fix me. As the cars drove by I scanned them by size, thinking, If that small one hit me, it might thwack me back into being myself.
I ran fast, and conjured my mom’s voice cheering me on, and the way I heard her voice reminded me of the time she intervened as I was painting a cup at a Christmas fair in Vienna. The person running the craft fair was bent over my table, telling me that I had to paint the cup properly, like the other kids. And to my small child shock I looked up to see my mom waving wildly over the partition between the kids’ craft section and the parents’ waiting section, whisper-yelling my name to get my attention. Using a combination of gestures and more whisper-yelling, she instructed me to ignore this craft person’s common sensibilities and continue painting the cup exactly as I had been. The Viennese mothers glared at her North American belief in something, even if they couldn’t understand what she was saying.
I didn’t want to go back inside when I rounded the corner from my run. Pre-pandemic, we lived inside and outside, and the front door was just a partition between many parts of ourselves. Now, very little of us lives outside, so we get to visit an oft-overlooked side of ourselves when we venture out.
A friend suggested I do some jumping jacks while I was out there, but I couldn’t do those. I pulled my pelvic floor lifting my mom every day for two months, from the bed to the toilet to the shower to the couch to the table. After she died, I saw a physiotherapist, who prescribed pelvic floor exercises: holding for 10 seconds, in reps of 10.
The exercises are incredibly difficult to do, and getting through them is like being asked to lift and hold the heaviest weight you could possibly ever imagine holding. Trying to maintain the hold quickly becomes impossible, and while you can certainly visualize what doing another repetition would feel like, your body simply refuses to perform the movement.
What always strikes me about them is the fact that no one can see that you’re doing any work, because it’s all happening on the inside.