In late February last year, as the first news of a novel virus arrived, my husband and I had dinner with friends. We joked about stocking up on chocolate, as if this was going to be a snow day. Then, suddenly, what had seemed a distant threat was here.
A psychiatrist, I called my patients to say I would be working from home. Washing groceries and sensing danger in every piece of mail delivered, we watched images of overwhelmed ICUs and exhausted doctors in PPE crying in hallways and bodies stacking up in refrigerator trucks. Those of us lucky enough to have jobs, to work from home, lived in the eye of a constant hurricane, watching the devastation, bodily, emotional and financial, of those in its path. At any moment, it seemed, the winds might shift, and the storm would come for us, for those we loved.
Trauma occurs when events overwhelm us, threatening our lives or the integrity of our selves. The pandemic has been traumatic for us all. Anniversaries of traumatic events, including losses and deaths, reside in our bodies. The same light in the sky, or scent of spring in the air, mark that the earth has been round the sun again.
I once had a patient call, worried that her antidepressant had stopped working. Later, in my office, we reviewed changes in her life, wondering if the cause was new stressors or ineffective medication. Her husband was fine, her son was doing well. Then I asked about work. “It’s going great, but I have a co-worker with cancer.” Her face clouded. “Actually,” she said, “it’s the same kind of cancer my mother died of.” She paused, tears welling up, “The anniversary of her death is next week. It’s been over 20 years. I thought I was over it.” She sobbed quietly; afterwards, her face had lightened. “I don’t think it’s the antidepressant. I feel so much better now.”
Even if we are not fully aware, our bodies remember.
My patients, now heading towards this first anniversary, are suffering. We all are. Graduations and weddings canceled, children always home, jobs gone. The deaths of loved ones, the inability to grieve communally. Living with fear, isolation, with unspeakable sorrow, has worn us down. The outside world has been tumultuous; racial injustice, an inadequate federal response to the pandemic, the storming of the Capitol by a seditious mob. We have little bandwidth for the usual vicissitudes of life: a dreaded diagnosis, an accident, everything. We are fraying, coming apart at the seams.
We are approaching the season when we were hit by the oncoming freight train of Covid. While there may be some new semblance of normalcy, our bodies remember. Difficulty sleeping, nightmares, increased anxiety, irritability or depression are rampant. We have processed so much this past year.
Be kind to yourself and others. Light a candle; say a prayer, bless the memory of those who have died. Allow what time you can to grieve all that has been lost. Have gratitude for those who, in the small space of a year, created vaccines for an unknown virus, for those who cared for us in hospitals and grocery stores, in schools and at home. The crocuses are coming up, as they did a year ago. The winter daphne is about to bloom. Know that your body remembers. Breathe.
Note: This piece first appeared in The News & Observer’s op-ed section on March 8, 2021.