Prologue: As of this writing, 2.65 million people worldwide have died of Covid-19. Deaths in the United States number more than half a million. There are millions more who survived the virus. And millions more who have lost everything, but their life, to the shutdown. If you’re fortunate enough to be reading this, as I’m fortunate enough to be writing this, honestly … let’s just agree that survival of 2020 is relative.
Well. Here we are. One. Whole. Year.
March 6, 2020, was my birthday. I celebrated with a trip to the Buffalo and Erie County Botanical Gardens and a decadent dinner out at REDD Rochester. There were rumblings of some new virus, but the United States government at that point was already deep in ‘misdirect’-mode, pinioned by and full of more agencies-as-gutted-carcasses than a Chicago slaughterhouse circa 1905. But I digress.
After ten more days of news stories about how to wash your hands, New York state began a shutdown and social distancing measures. This blog post is not about what happened during the pandemic and when. It’s about something much more personal, and subtle. And, maybe, a little bit helpful to you, gentle reader.
To simplify a heavy subject — it’s about how surviving One Bad Thing can help you weather Another Bad Thing.
Rewind to 2014
In January of 2014 I was diagnosed with Stage 3 melanoma and slogged through a year of painful treatment in a clinical trial. It was both physical and emotional pain; you can read more about that experience here. This post isn’t about what happened and when on that topic, either.
That year being sick was one of deep trauma for me. Ask anyone who has faced a life-threatening illness and I’d wager they would agree that this type of trauma continues to reverberate and unfold for years after, no matter how resilient you are. I suspect it will for me for the rest of my life.
By December 2014 I had endured enough rounds of treatment to correctly conclude that my body had had enough and I elected to stop treatment. Dealing with the toxic side effects of this otherwise effective treatment would stretch to September of 2015. Around this time I began to understand that while I survived, I had lost an entire year-plus of my life to cancer.
Even though the days continued to tick by, so much was uncertain for me. Would I live? Would I get sicker? Would I completely recover? There were so many bouts of losses, including losing the ability to eat too many things for a few months and experiencing, to this day, holes in my typically sharp memory. During that time I even lost my desire to write anything for myself.
If enduring these losses meant prevailing over a grim cancer diagnosis, then I guess that’s the price I paid.
That doesn’t mean I don’t resent losing all that time, and I certainly didn’t want to do that again.
2020 says, “Hold my beer…”
The first weeks of the Covid-19 pandemic were full of uncertainty. How long would life be on-hold? How many would die? Would someone I love get it and die? Would I get it and die?
It was enforced stasis, not entirely bad and a concept I wrote about here at the end of April 2020. Six weeks in felt like a long time and I fancied myself full of insights.
Ha. Ha. Ha.
By June, crippling uncertainty became a universal experience. It wasn’t because I couldn’t handle being in the house so long (Hello! Introvert here! I’ve trained all my life for this). Rather, I had come to understand from reading science and listening to infectious disease experts that our realistic timeline to the easing of social distancing (and the re-opening of, well, everything) was 18 months.
This was infuriating. I had already lost a year of my life in 2014 and had, I thought graciously, made my peace with that. How dare the Universe do this to me again?
The idea that in summer 2020 we had another year-plus to go was … unfathomable.
There were days when I wanted to smash everything in sight. (A space I visited frequently in 2014, unsurprisingly.)
Eventually, I allowed myself to read the trauma for what it was: Another loss of a year-plus of my life to something I cannot control but had no alternative but to endure.
“If you’re going through hell, keep going.” — Winston Churchill
I never thought I would thank cancer for anything. Yet, despite my resistance and resentment, because of it I already knew how to lose a year of my life. It may have been a silver lining moment for me, that realization.
So, what does this “know-how” entail? A couple tips:
TIP #1: Go dormant in the name of self-preservation.
Just pack up your hopes and plans like ribbon-wrapped letters tucked into a cedar chest. Out of sight, out of mind until … someday. In the spirit of “just do today.” Then doing that every day. For 365 days.
And now, for about 180 more days. We’re past the shock-followed-by-frustrated tears. This is classic SSDD. (same sh!t, different day.)
Why torment ourselves with all the anguished rehashing of cancelled plans? It’s bad enough enduring the fact that 535,000 people have died nationwide.
The Trauma-Resilience Study
To be clear, I’m no expert. But it’s obvious that we are experiencing a collective, prolonged trauma with each of our own variables. The depth of any trauma experience will shape our future coping skills, for better or for worse. This New Yorker article takes a deep-dive into what researchers identify as resilience, or a lack of it.
The short answer from the resilience research points to the idea of an “internal locus of control.” I.e., whether you see yourself as ultimately in control of a stressful/traumatic situation. This is going to set you up for how you synthesize stress.
Back to trauma. Does it become “crippling trauma”? Or can you manage a figurative hard eye-roll thinking, “this is kinda terrible, but won’t last forever.” Yeah, we’re all scratching our heads wondering where we fall on that spectrum after 365 days of a pandemic. Good news is, if you’re not sure you have resilience, you can learn it.
Even those with a resilience skillset are still suffering. So my tip to “go dormant” is less about the resilience part (which happens in the future) and more about the trauma period (which we’re in the thick of).
TIP #2: Indulge in your guilty-pleasures as much as possible.
Keep those endorphins up, and don’t underestimate the power of guilty-pleasures in food and entertainment. Maybe there’s no concerts or family reunions, but is there a fresh can of spray-cheese in the pantry? When you’re living in the moment, just make the moment tolerable.
I Know How to Do This
Because I had experienced my 2014, I found some comfort in realizing I had what it takes to endure losing a year or more of my life. Do other survivors of serious illness or injury feel the same? Have they also therefore been psychologically weathering the pandemic better because of their experience?
Even so, I bet they would agree it still sucks.
After months of pondering it and at the close of the year 2020, I was able to say that for me 2020 was worse than 2014.
That’s right, a year when I nearly died from cancer, when every last bit of energy had to go into survival, was not as bad as this last one. At least in 2014/15 I could hug people and go places, even if my personal hopes and plans were sidelined.
Am I sad that I’ve lost more time from my life? Hell yes. We should all be furious. At who or what is debatable. That way lies madness. Just know that it’s okay to get angry, but don’t live there. Be pissed, then open another Twinkie and binge another show.
Bonus Tip: Keep doing whatever you’ve been doing.
Guess what? If you’re reading this, you lost your year your way and don’t need my tips.
But do remember that trauma can stay with you, so in the future allow yourself space to recognize when something feels a little too much like 2020. My early feelings of doom a year ago were definitely echoes of my 2014. Naming it helped a bit.
May you never, ever experience the realization I did that you already know how to do this. May this new resilience skillset go untested. Or at least not be called upon for 365 consecutive days.