A ten-step guide to living in a pandemic
What my trauma taught me about purpose, autonomy, and living
I once spent three days berating myself for adding five too many u’s to “i love youuu.” Three u’s is normal, eight u’s is not. Maybe this is familiar to you, maybe it’s not. At one point I realized that maybe analysing the number of u’s in the “love you too” text I received isn’t healthy.
The point is this: I went to VPR to ask about something that was bothering me about my relationship. I ended up talking about my past.
Three years prior to that, my ex-girlfriend and I were threatened with suspension for holding hands at school. My VPR advocate described my trauma with an analogy:
You walk into a grocery store. You look up from the canned tomatoes and find yourself looking straight into the face of a tiger. You run out of the grocery store.
Maybe, you return to the store a year later. You stare at the aisle you saw the tiger in, feeling crazy for thinking there was ever a wild animal there. Look at how normal the grocery store is. You keep searching for tigers, every time you return.
Somewhere, a missing puzzle piece clicked in place.
I began to check myself routinely. How many u’s does it take for someone to realize that I’m gay and not just friendly?
The relationship that I didn’t bring up at the meeting turned toxic for me. I felt myself disappearing when I was with my partner, and found that my decisions and autonomy were being taken from me. Later, I would get comfortable using the words “sexual assault” and “manipulation” to describe what happened.
Very quickly, I began to see how it had affected me. I was unable to make decisions altogether. I would wake up in the morning and feel my body shake with anxiety. I asked my friends for their opinions on everything, berated myself when my intuition didn’t line up with theirs. I told my dean at S3 that I just didn’t know how to choose anymore. Every choice felt like a misstep. Every decision felt life or death.
I thought about the deaths of the people that I love, and how anyone can be hurt. I was always aware of the sexual assault statistics, knew that usually women are raped by people that are close to them. I became very aware of this in my own life and hated this intrusive part of my thoughts.
How do you deal when your life has become a statistic? How do you cope with the ever growing numbers?
When we were kicked off campus, I saw a reflection of my trauma in the actions of other people. I thought, again, about the tiger in the grocery store. I reassured my friend when she worried about whether she should buy gluten-free cookies or if she was taking them from someone else. I listened to another talk about the anxiety of facing decisions that felt life or death.
I read a confession that said we shouldn’t use MIT resources during the pandemic because other people needed it more, because everyone was sad. I’d experienced that too, felt unjustified in going to VPR because, surely, what happened to me wasn’t that bad.
People are struggling more than me. People are struggling less than me.
This is true of my first and second traumatic events, but it doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t have reached out to get help. It doesn’t mean that I don’t deserve the help I got.
My trauma changed my life — for the worse, in most aspects. There are some buildings I still don’t want to walk into. I have an increased awareness of who is touching me. There are times I am faced with unsolvable choices, and I spend a lot of time aware that my life is not the way that I imagined.
But the one rhetoric I always hated was the implication that I was somehow surviving something. I wrote to my friend, I am not surviving, I am living. I stand by those words.
Trauma took away my purpose and certainty. Initially, I was anxious to get back to “normal,” as if I had ever felt that. The more I look back now, the more ridiculous it seems. Of course a traumatic experience was going to change me. I was never going to “fix” the harm that was done to me, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t regain what I had lost.
Over the course of last semester, my main goal was to regain a sense of autonomy, which I hoped would give me what I was missing. Here are some changes I made, when things were the worst:
Lessen the amount of decisions I had to make.
At one point in the semester, I spent a week debating if I made the right choice when picking breakfast. When I grew tired of debating, I decided if I only have eggs in the fridge, I can no longer have yogurt. I grew accustomed to eating the same thing every day: two eggs, sunny side up, with three tortillas. The first two tortillas were to break the yolk, the third was to wrap up my egg in a taco and finish. When I’m better, I add back choices — yogurt, coffee, bread instead of tortilla, maybe a mandarin? But when I just can’t choose, I eat eggs and tortillas.
Spend time with my friends, but don’t always talk about my trauma.
At best, I dwelled on the past. At worst, I fell into a spiral of doubt again. I asked my friends to hold me accountable to not discussing trauma, even when I brought them up casually. When I felt ready to talk and process feelings, I would say them in private, intentionally and purposefully.
Know when to entertain thoughts, and when to save them for later.
I told my VPR advocate, at the very beginning, that I have trouble sleeping because I keep thinking ~cursed thoughts~. When I thought something I didn’t want, she said, visualize putting it in a box that I could open later. I thought it was slightly absurd until I tried it. It doesn’t always work, but sometimes reassuring myself that I’ll deal with it, just not now, soothes my initial anxiety.
Give myself the space to process feelings.
Every week for the past year and a half, I have gone to talk to a professional about my problems. There I found a time and space to think about the thoughts I had been avoiding. I learned how to acknowledge my thoughts without giving them the space to consume my mind.
I know this is not a possibility for most people right now. I have not been able to talk to a therapist since I left campus, but giving myself a non-judgemental space can be helpful too. I’ve always found this through writing, so I’ve blocked out a part of my day to journal about the thoughts that linger in my head.
Accept that I care about myself.
I told my therapist, once, that I was never enough. I wasn’t smart enough, good enough, or kind enough. She told me to close my eyes and think about someone that I love, really imagine it. Then, she asked me to imagine telling my friend that she wasn’t enough. Repeat it out loud, she said. I thought about my friend standing in front of me, holding my hand with an open expression on her face. I couldn’t say it.
It’s a common piece of advice. If you can’t say it to others, then why say it to yourself? I never followed it. My therapist told me, “You wouldn’t be here without caring about yourself. Allow yourself to feel that care.”
Figure out what it means to care for myself.
I think most people understand that there’s a difference between commercial self-care and actual self-care. When I first attempted to figure it out, sleep and food were my top priority. These were gradual changes: cooking with my friends, giving myself stricter bedtime rituals, etc.
Eventually, I realized that understanding my feelings was possibly more important. My therapist had a card with different feeling words, grouped into types. It was easy for me to identify the broad feeling — sad, stressed, angry, happy — more difficult to learn the specifics — powerless, lost, dejected, secure.
But figuring out these differences helped me understand what I needed to do to help myself. When I felt powerless, I needed to reassure myself of my autonomy. When I felt lost, I needed to ask for help with the things I didn’t understand. Even acknowledging the how and why of emotions made me feel in control of the feelings that felt the most uncontrollable.
Self soothe, when I need it.
I wrote in my high school journal that I felt ashamed for kissing the top part of my knee when I was overwhelmed. I no longer feel this shame. It is no longer kissing, because I can’t always do that subtly, but I stroke my arms. In my very worst, what I am missing is always kindness. It is necessary, then, to remind myself how to be kind with my body.
I’m sedentary by nature and don’t like exercising. I also get waves of anxiety for seemingly no reason sometimes. My hands get jittery, my brain starts whirring. When this happens, I put on a song, dance awkwardly and laugh when I see my reflection trying to twerk. More often than not, I discover that the jitters were from being too stationary, and can be resolved easily. It was important to realize that my mind and body are not as separate as I thought, and that helping one helps the other.
Tell myself that the solution isn’t apathy.
Every once in a while, I would over-correct and my problems would swing to the other extreme. Suddenly, my actions were meaningless. It was freeing, at first. I need to send an email? I no longer needed to think about the appropriate phrasing for words. I need to talk to my TA? I no longer wonder if they secretly resent me. It was an easy trap to fall into. For once, my decisions were easy. I picked arbitrarily and purposelessly. And when I inevitably emerged from that hole, I would be left with the fallout: dropping grades, food spoiling in the fridge, and a number of concerned friends.
I love existentialism. I find something oddly inspiring about finding value in the meaningless. But the only thing nihilism gave me was a disillusion with living; this is why it’s the most important philosophical problem. It fit right into my sense of purposelessness. It is more difficult for me to care, but I have to believe it is worth it.
Find a goal.
My therapist asked me close to the beginning, “What does recovery look like?” I didn’t have an answer. I was throwing myself into recovery without even really knowing what it meant. I have learned that what recovery means to me is picking myself up when I feel helpless. It’s not about perfection on the first try, but gradual improvement.
I extend the same questions that I asked myself to you. How should you take care of yourself? What does recovery from this pandemic look like to you? What feelings do you have that you feel like you shouldn’t, or haven’t properly looked at?
Especially during this pandemic, I have to redefine what it means for me to be doing well. I can no longer say that it means going to the gym, or therapy, because I am limited to my house. Here’s what I’ve found it means for me: walking with my parents, feeling confident enough to reach out to my friends, and waking up to make breakfast.
I do not have all of the answers to how to heal from this. Even now, there is that helpless feeling in my stomach. Even now, there are seeds of doubt regarding my value and worth. But it’s helped to know where I’m going. And, eventually, I know I will get there.