Trauma and reflection

TOWARDS JUSTICE - Emmeline Aglipay-Villar - The Philippine Star

As the middle of March comes around, I’m reminded that not all anniversaries are moments of celebration. And I don’t think I’m alone in that sentiment.

It’s been roughly a year since the imposition of the enhanced community quarantine over much of the Philippines. A year since we began to contend with the COVID-19 pandemic in earnest, since we were last able to freely meet our friends, to take for granted our ability to go out in public with only our bare faces.  Each of us has been affected by the pandemic in different ways – some of us have lost loved ones, others have lost jobs and still others intangible blessings that we only now appreciate. The severity is not equal, yet the past year has been one of trial for all of us, a collective trauma that we have not really begun to process.

I use the word “trauma” intentionally. WHO director general Ghebreyesus said recently that the pandemic has caused more “mass trauma” than World War II. We don’t celebrate the anniversary of traumatic events, but we do remember them. Trauma, almost by definition, is something that leaves its mark on us. And as we cross this unwanted milestone in our battle with COVID-19, I think that it’s important that we take the time to pause and take stock of just how it has affected us on a personal level.

For those who have lost someone or something precious during the last year, whether to COVID or not, the toll of the pandemic can seem obvious, easily measured in the absence of who or what was once such a large part of our lives. But grieving is an important part of recognizing and coming to terms with loss, and the pandemic has shattered our traditional ways of mourning and coping. Gone are the wakes, the funerals, the wordless hugs or the after-dinner drinks to drown our sorrows. We are fortunate that we live in times when remote communication is much easier, yet for many a virtual presence is a poor substitute for the real thing.

Even those who may feel that they have not directly lost anything during the pandemic cannot deny the effect it has had on their lives and well-being. Vicarious trauma is still trauma, and it is those that care the most deeply about the world around them that will seek out and be exposed to the stories of suffering and hardship that inundate the news and social media, or from friends that we have tried to support. It’s also not quite accurate for anyone to say that they have not lost anything this year – while there are those whose circles have been spared from the disease, we have all lost plans, freedoms and routines that we otherwise would have had. These losses too should be mourned.

Trauma has been described as a rupture in “meaning-making,” which is another way of saying that your world is turned upside down. The way you see yourself, other people or the world around you is changed by the event, and things that used to make sense no longer do. It’s one of the reasons why feelings of helplessness are a major part of trauma. It’s no coincidence that helplessness is one of the most common reactions to the pandemic as well. Part of it is because of how abrupt the change was – even for those following the news about COVID-19, the transition from normal to quarantine was almost literally overnight.

This is also why few of us have had the time to process the events of the past year and their effects on our lives and mental health. Some of us grew numb as a way of protecting ourselves, others threw themselves into the work that had to be done – and there was always work to be done, whether it be finding new sources of income, or helping the children adjust to remote schooling, or simply keeping abreast of the latest news.

But now, March has come around again, and we need to make time to reflect. The longer it takes to come to realize how the pandemic has affected our mental health, the more harm they can do, like a wound that festers unattended, or the metaphorical frog boiling slowly in water.

Let’s ask ourselves: How has the past year changed us? What are we most proud of? What do we regret? What has the quarantine taught us about what we take for granted? Which persons in our lives are we most thankful for? When was the last time we really laughed – or cried? How have our relationships changed – to family or friends, to work or play? Have we given ourselves enough time to celebrate or grieve – and if not, when can we make the time to do so? What do we miss the most about our previous routines, and what new routines will we take into the future even after the crisis is over?

Spending so much time with my husband and daughter in the last year has been a very precious gift to me. Pre-COVID, I always wished I could spend more time with them without realizing that I was to blame. I had little time for them because I filled my schedule with so many unnecessary activities. It took this reset caused by COVID for me to realize that.

For most of us, our families and friends helped us face the challenges in the last year. But many of us also survived because of help from people we barely know and even strangers. Despite the sorrows, hardships and cynicism that weighed down the last year, the goodness, courage and strength in all of us keep on shining through. It has allowed us to support and carry each other through the hard times.

The arrival of vaccines gives us hope – but bodies are not the only things we need to protect. On the wider stage, we must continue to push for changes in society and our institutions to better prepare ourselves for future emergencies and in order to finally address long-standing issues that the current pandemic has brought to light. But we must not neglect our own personal lives, our own mental states.

It’s natural not to be OK. But it’s important to know when we’re not, so that we can get the help we need.

The world has changed much in a year. But you’re still here. And you still matter.

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