Thoughts on Collective Trauma in the Wake of COVID-19

A profound and meaningful loss of control. I’ve written this definition of trauma on white boards and easels, large post-it paper, and in PowerPoint presentations. I’ve said these words out loud hundreds, probably thousands of times, to audiences ranging from a few middle school students to hundreds of clinicians and medical professionals. But these words felt so different when I said them to my colleagues recently. These words feel different, because all of us – collectively and individually – are experiencing profound and meaningful loss of control.

Jessica Teperow, Director of Prevention Programs

When I worked as a sexual assault advocate years ago, the phrase I heard most commonly from the survivors I met at the hospital was, “I just want to forget about this and move on.” Trauma shatters our reality and we don’t even get to have a say. There’s such a strong desire to resist that shattering, this change forced upon us. We want to turn away, pretend it never happened, go back to the life we had before. In some cases, people are able to push away their traumas for a period of time. Often through behaviors that harm themselves or others – numbing through alcohol and other drugs, distancing or isolating themselves from loved ones, burying themselves in work, diving into new relationships… there are so many ways that are offered to us and so much that explicitly and implicitly encourages us to just ‘get over it’. The thing about trauma is it has a way of catching up with us. Many of the hotline calls I took at the rape crisis center were adult survivors of childhood sexual trauma, who had kept their abuse a secret for years – even decades – and had made the courageous choice of facing into their pain all these years later because it was the root cause of so much other pain they had experienced or inflicted.

This collective trauma we are experiencing is impossible to ignore. We can’t forget about it. We have no idea when ‘moving on’ will even be an option. Since we began social distancing, I’ve gone for a run in my neighborhood every day. Most days, I’ll have a moment when I’ll begin to forget our new reality. But it’s always there. The quiet. That empty, vacant, quiet that lingers in all the places and spaces where people – people sharing affection, laughter, conversation – used to be. And I begin to imagine those people and that laughter being shared in all those places again and my heart just aches for it. I want it back. I want the certainty of knowing when it will be back. I don’t want to feel this loss of control anymore. I just want to forget about this and move on.

And because I can’t move on, I need to move. I’m running outside, going for walks while I have virtual meetings with colleagues, chasing my 3-year-old in circles around our house, carrying endless loads of laundry up and down the stairs. And still there is constant energy pent up in my body – showing up in the tension between my shoulder blades, and my racing thoughts when I’m trying to sleep.

In a discussion with my colleagues recently, others reflected this constant feeling of restlessness. One colleague talked about an exhaustion that lingers regardless of sleep. Many of us talked about the constant feeling of not being able to do enough. One of the hardest parts of feeling so limited in what we can do, is that many of us identify ourselves by what we do. It is hard to not be able to do when the doing we want to do is just to show up and be with people. We know that just being able to look someone in the eye, or drive them to court so they don’t have to navigate where to park or where to go alone, or facilitate a group where they can be supported by other survivors can be life-changing and even life-saving. And it’s not the same over the phone. For some of the survivors we work with, calling isn’t even an option. There’s no safe place in their home to reach out for the support they need and deserve.

There’s a lingering anxiety each of us has right now – for the health and safety of ourselves and our loved ones. Many of us are also holding fear and anxiety of what may happen to the people we work with, and feeling so helpless and powerless to be able to do the work we believe in. At REACH one of our core values is “We care for ourselves and one another. We recognize that survivors, staff and volunteers are more than the trauma they have experienced or the job functions they perform. Wellbeing stems from feeling grounded in our lives and work.” When our identities feel so interconnected to the things we do, this time of limitation and constriction can feel like such overwhelming loss and confusion. We are forced to reexamine who we are and what wellbeing looks and feels like. And in those moments of overwhelm, there are a few things that ground me.

I move my body, and remind myself of where I am and the freedom I still have within me.

I focus on what I have power to do in this moment – for myself, my family, my colleagues, and my community.

And I lean heavily on another core value we have at REACH: We are all in this together.

What a strange phenomenon we are experiencing right now. To be physically distancing and isolating ourselves, while also collectively experiencing something that impacts us all. This is a new reality for all of us. Our worldview is changing, in real time, simultaneously. It will impact all of us in different ways, but there will be this unifying experience of what life was like before, and how different it will always be. How do we support one another to feel the full breadth and depth of this experience, so that we can find our individual and collective strength, and rise out of this more connected rather than apart?