Trauma, COVID-19, and Birthdays

It’s 5am MDT and I’m struck by song of the birds who have nested in the wreath on my door. The song is constant and far lower in pitch than it has been for the last several weeks, as the five baby birds in the nest grew from hardly functional to fairly independent. What’s striking me about the song is how often I really listen to it now that I’m here all the time.

There’s a joy in realizing how nature moves on even in the midst of COVID-19.

I’ve been seeing several posts on Facebook and Twitter about how COVID-19 isolation has been traumatic, and the posts resonate somehow. Trauma is literally Greek for “wound” and when we talk about it medicinally, we mean physical injury. But in psychiatry, trauma can encompass the “emotional shock following a stressful event or a physical injury, which may be associated with physical shock and sometimes leads to long-term neurosis” (from Lexico.com). A stressful event like being isolated for a month (with no definite end timeframe) to combat a virus that no one clearly has a handle on? Yep, COVID-19 definitely fits the bill on this one.

But I’m no stranger to trauma.

2018 was not the best year of my life. July brought an 11-day hospital stay and the worst pain I’ve ever lived through. October brought the an appendectomy (and a surprise colectomy) and another 5-day hospital stay. December brought a radical hysterectomy and the shortest hospital stay yet (overnight).

I could spend hours waxing rhapsodic about the amazing health care workers I met and appreciated throughout that timeframe. But that’s for another blog.

The recovery from the repeated trauma of 2018 has been long. And hard. And I am only regaining the physical strength and fitness right now that I had before all of this happened. During a COVID-19 isolation that I didn’t plan on and didn’t plan for.

And this juxtaposition – being able to regain my physical health, and being able to spend time with my family in a rhythm that is unique to COVID-19 isolation, and connecting with my students in the midst of a pandemic – forces me to wonder if sometimes trauma is a transformative gift.

Veronika Tait, in her Psychology Today article from July, 2019, details five common ways people grow from trauma. These five ways include a (re-)newed appreciation for life, strengthened personal relationships, higher self-efficacy and an openness to the possibilities life has to offer, amplified self-reliance, and a better understanding of their own spirituality. I certainly experienced several of these after my 2018 trauma, especially a renewed appreciation for life and strengthened personal relationships. The latter was particularly transformative since I had to rely on my wife and son during that time more than I ever had before. And, yet, from the trauma came renewed perspective. I was kinder, gentler, more thankful, and more compassionate, especially to myself. I emerged from the trauma with the recognition that the trauma itself, and the time it took to recover, were gifts.

Trauma as transformation. As a major growth opportunity.

Trauma, or, as I’m coming to understand it – being thrown into the crucible of life – starts from the very beginning of our lives. Certainly being born must count as one of the most traumatic events we experience. And yet, it’s also a gift. Having experienced both the trauma of being born and of giving birth, I can definitely say that the day I was born was more traumatic for my mother than me (at least in terms of what I can remember). The trauma of being born is essential and life-giving, but it’s also transformative, in that a new being has entered the world, and that entrance is transformative for all who experience it and all who are involved in the upbringing of that child.

Obviously death is also trauma – for both the dying and those who surround them. COVID-19 is certainly bringing this trauma to the forefront of our collective conscience. And yet, death is transformative as well. It is also often a gift to the dying in that pain is relieved, peace is achieved, and perspectives are transformed. Sometimes I wonder if having looked death in the eye was what made me more compassionate, kind, and thankful.

Trauma as essential. Trauma as life-giving. Trauma as a gift.

Trauma as an essential human experience that can be transformational is nothing new. Knowing that the 2018 trauma I experienced is foundational to my emphasis on kindness, gentleness, compassion, and thankfulness now, I wonder how we all will emerge from the trauma of COVID-19. Will we once again realize that using trauma to transform our individual and collective lives is a uniquely human experience and one that permeates our very existence? Will we be kinder, more thankful, more compassionate, less divisive as a society? Will we see the systems that breed racism and inequality more clearly since these systems have been problematic for decades? Will we actually try to fix these systems at last? Will we take the time now to catalyze transformation at many levels of society?

Or will we do nothing?

Maybe now is the time to realize that returning to normal was always a pipe dream – we can never exist the way we were. Maybe now is the time to embrace the possibilities of positive transformation that only trauma can bring. Maybe it’s time to see this COVID-19 isolation trauma as a gift – one we have been given, and one that we should pay forward by working to better the lives of those less fortunate.

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