In It Together
I am at the dentist’s office, reclined in a dental chair, about to get my teeth cleaned. She leans over my face with her arms at the ready and starts talking. I look into her eyes, through the face shield, picturing her whole face under the mask from her freckles to her smile lines; all the unique features of her face as far as I can remember them.
She is telling me about pandemic life.
“...and while we waited for my daughter’s COVID test results I started spiraling. I started thinking we were going to have to quarantine in the house again and I just lost it. I can’t do that again. I have PTSD from when the country shut down in March,” she tells me.
I’ve never been so grateful to have her hands in my mouth during a conversation before because I don’t know what to say. Hearing people talk about their experiences with the pandemic and its effects on our lives feels surreal to me.
Time and again I am struck speechless to someone’s COVID revelation. There are just so many parallels between the emotional responses people are having to the pandemic and my life with chronic illness.
The reality is, I am not experiencing some of the emotions that others are right now because I was already experiencing them before the pandemic hit. Like the shutdown. It was a huge shock to a lot of people’s lives, just like it was for my hygienist. But I’ve been living a mostly “stay-home” life for years. The bigger adjustment for me was having other people home all the time too.
My dental hygienist is an extrovert. I am fully aware that pandemic life has been extra hard on extroverts. People like to move and be active and keep busy. They need to be around other people. I may not be an extrovert but I am not immune to wanting these same things, including personal interaction with others. Having to change so many things about your life all of a sudden and for reasons you are not exactly okay with is hard. This is something I have a visceral understanding of.
While she scrapes at my teeth, I wonder what my dental hygienist’s PTSD looks like, how it manifests. I start to think about my own PTSD and how it shows up in my life. Just passively recalling certain events can set a range of physical responses in motion inside my body. And then my physical responses begin to act as triggers as well. I wonder if right now, while she’s talking to me, she’s having to also spend energy on managing her emotions in order to prevent panic.
We are collectively experiencing a sense of loss of control in our daily lives and that isn’t something a person can get over in just 10 months. I’ve been experiencing this phenomenon for the last 10 years and it’s only gotten marginally easier. I continually have to combat my internal instinct to resist. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that resistance, “fighting against” something you have no control over, only causes more suffering.
It’s like the Buddhist story of The Second Arrow.
The Buddha once asked a student,
‘If a person is struck by an arrow, is it painful? If the person is struck by a second arrow, is it even more painful?’
He then explained,
‘In life, we can’t always control the first arrow. However, the second arrow is our reaction to the first. The second arrow is optional.’
In other words: suffering = pain x resistance
Over the last decade, I’ve been continually challenged to learn not to send the second arrow. And now we’re all collectively being challenged in the same way, together. It might sound a little bit odd but I find comfort in this. For so long, I’ve felt like I’ve been on this journey alone. The arrival of COVID-19 has changed this.
Many people now understand how hard isolation is.
Many people now understand how important it is to try to limit germ spread.
Everyone has now experienced life-altering lack of control.
We are all experiencing trauma.
And we’ve all learned some powerful truths:
We are resilient.
We can find a way.
We need each other.
It's given me hope that maybe it’s not that hard for others to relate to me afterall.
Read more on this month's theme, hope, written by other illuminate members: