For Those Folks Don’t Think the COVID Pandemic Is Traumatic, Here’s My Response

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Is There Really Trauma?

I want to start with a quote by the author, educator and speaker Annette Breaux. I think it’s accurate to say that I haven’t used a quote to start an article or blog since, well, maybe college. But, this particular quote seems apt, particularly as I attempt to convince those who don’t believe that the pandemic of 2020 is traumatic and produces trauma symptomology for most individuals across America, indeed the world.

Maybe someone else’s words will add heft.

Here’s the quote to launch this essay: “Remember: Everyone in the classroom has a story that leads to misbehavior or defiance. Nine times out of ten, the story behind the misbehavior won’t make you angry. It will break your heart.” How true, sadly. And, I hope this reality speaks to the realities of trauma which I am addressing specifically to the many naysayers out there.

To my surprise, I have met up with strong resistance with respect to my assertions that the pandemic is traumatic for the vast majority of our students across the educational pipeline. I have also added that it is traumatic for educators, who experience both primary trauma and secondary and/or vicarious trauma (the latter are not the same). I have suggested concrete strategies for helping individuals and organizations deal with this trauma in the past and am doing so in the present and will continue to do so on a go-forward basis. I’ve written articles galore and have done podcasts and a radio show focused on the pandemic’s ability to hit the trauma button with force.

My efforts to change the minds of those who don’t see trauma occurring now has not succeeded in the least, although my work is supported by scientific and psychological data and research. And I have tried. Indeed, the responses I have received are nothing short of snarky much of the time and that’s a pleasant characterization. My rational responses (abundant) arguing in favor of the presence of trauma and its symptomology are like those proverbial philosophical trees falling in forests where no one is there. I think the crasser statement is that I have been pissing in the wind.

The surprise here is in not the disagreement per se; I do not get personally upset as a generalizable matter in the presence of disagreements with my views and have a high tolerance for those who express even outsized views. I have experienced disagreements with my viewpoints for decades and I almost always managed this phenomena without my blood pressure hitting the roof. Perhaps that’s not a good things at some psychological level (perhaps I should let it rip) but it is true. And this is important: until recently, I have not taken these comments to reflect poorly on the people uttering them; I may not like the statements but they don’t damn the person.

Anger isn’t Usually in My Repertoire:

Some examples of non-angry moments:

As a practicing lawyer, lots of other lawyers with clients on the other side of transactions or lawsuits had different views of the legal issues. I saw these differences as part of the job and not upsetting personally. Yes, it was frustrating at times but at the end of the day, some of my best friends to this day were and are people on the other side of litigated matters. I was on the phone with one just last week. I take that as a good sign in terms of dealing with those with whom I have disagreed on content.

As an academic at a law school for two plus decades, there were always disagreements with other academics within and outside my own institution about ideas I espoused — in meetings, at conferences, in written articles, in books. While I bristled at the personal attacks as unnecessary (just attack the ideas not the person), I got and get that disagreement is part and parcel of academic life. It is, in fact, in the air.

As a college president, I was at the center of more disagreements than I can count and I didn’t get frenzied when people yelled at me, sent me horrible notes and screamed into phones: students, parents, faculty, staff, trustees. Yet, I think people noticed that I never ever yelled back (with two notable exceptions — one related to a Dean who made a student cry and another involving a Dean who failed to treat others in and outside his office with needed respect). A student once remarked upon seeing me: “Everything must be perfect at this college because the president is always smiling and upbeat.”

Why Am I so Mad Now?

Here is what is so different now: when folks do not see the reality of this moment — when they do not see the pandemic as trauma inducing and producing trauma symptomology — I have zero tolerance. I get angry; I get upset; I am fuming; I am offended. I take it personally. Someone actually wrote in an email that he thought trauma was a trend and without meaning in the present pandemic situation. He said trauma was trendy — as a concept. An educator said that. Let me repeat: an educator said that. I am shocked you could not see the steam rising from my apartment in DC where I am quarantined. I thought they might need to call in the fire department.

Now, I know from my work as a leader and my personal life experiences over six decades that when one is overly angry — disproportionately angry — the real cause is something deeper. In other words, my current high levels of anger are not tied just to current events; they are tied to some deeper feelings and experiences that get tripped off by the pandemic. When I have oversized responses, I know enough to know — when I am calm enough to reflect — that that’s a signal to step back and ask the question, “Why am I so mad now?”

What am I really angry about when people don’t believe in trauma or its presence (omnipresence?) in our COVID-19 world?

What’s at the root cause of my anger? The answer may be surprising to many.

Smoking and Ex-Smokers:

The best way to understand my level of anger is to begin by reflecting reflect on how ex-smokers, those who have kicked the addiction, respond to current smokers. They are, for the most part, totally intolerant. This I know from having tried to get a smoker to quit and he then became an anti-smoking zealot. They are more upset at those who smoke than those who never smoked in the first instance. They have harsh words for smokers, saying or feeling things like: I kicked the habit; why can’t you? Don’t you see that you are endangering your family and the larger community through your second hand smoke? You may not care about yourself and the lung cancer you will get but think about others and their getting deathly ill.

These ex-smokers actually look down on smokers as if these smoking folks have failed to show enough personal stamina, courage and effort to kick the habit.

Here’s the point: the now non-smokers had been doing something “bad” for many decades (smoking) and then they stopped; and it is as if they became anti-smoking evangelists when they kicked the habit. Now, I have not seen, for the record, similar behavior among former alcoholics or drug addicts. They seem intensively understanding and sympathetic to those who have not yet “kicked” the addictions that haunt them; indeed, they often become supportive counselors and mentors, including employment in addiction centers. And, I recognize that there are those for whom these descriptors are not apt; I get homogenization risks.

What accounts for these differences?

I suspect there’s no simple explanation. But, generally, I think the differences have to do with how we think about personal agency and responsibility. If you are addicted to alcohol and drugs, it is something outside your control. It is a biological addiction, generated in part by genetics and the environment. Most people recognize that these two types of addictions are not ones that can be stopped on a dime either, most particularly when one is actually under the influence — as in inebriated or drugged out. Stopping is a long process. And, once an addict, always an addict — even in periods of cessation. “I will always have the disease” is how some refer to their alcoholism.

And, we are aware of the altered and dangerous states one is in when addicted to alcohol and drugs. Folks are not themselves. They become louder or quieter. They focus intently or can’t focus at all. Some can barely stand up or walk in a straight line; others can be remarkably physically together. These folks lack control, which is why they should not be driving vehicles (a choice they can make to be sure unless there’s a special lock on the car); they risk injury or death to themselves, those in the car with them, or in nearby cars or walking in a street.

Keep the idea of control and changed mental states in the forefront of your thinking.

Now, generally speaking, we view smoking as something totally different from alcohol and drug addictions even though nicotine is actually more addictive than drugs and alcohol as a matter of science. We don’t even see smoking as the same kind of addiction. For starters, those who smoke can do their daily tasks; they can drive and work and cook and converse. They can be the life of the party in a good way; they are not in an altered mental state in ways that resemble drug or alcohol addictive states.

Perhaps this is why — this normal-like behavior — we take the position that if someone can’t stop smoking then there is something wrong with him or her as an individual. The person lacks tenacity; lacks commitment; lacks caring for others; lacks backbone. We want to say to these folks: You need to step it up and accept your smoking as a weakness and address it now by ceasing the behavior. For those of us who have pushed smokers to stop, none of the literature on nicotine addiction holds sway nor does the literature on the social and cultural reasons for smoking, let alone the psychological needs it satisfies that enable the smoker to perform normally in social and work and familial contexts (for the most part). We become pests.

Karen and Trauma:

Now, stay with me here. We are veering off but not as far off as you might suspect. When I was growing up, if you had suggested I was abused and traumatized, I would have told you that you were misguided and wrong. I’d even be indignant. I grew up in an affluent family. My father was a famous professor of medicine at a prestigious university. My mother was college educated and had worked for bits of time here and there.

But, privilege does not create immunity from abuse and trauma. My mother was, by all accounts, truly mentally ill. Even psychopharmacology is little to help. She was also mean (those are not the same thing). She yelled and screamed with regularity. She hit people. She threw things. She was inconsistent in her reactions to identical events, even something as trivial as spilling a glass of milk. Irrationality reigned through our house (unless guests were present which is why I always wanted friends over). And while I’ll spare you the details of what she did to my way younger half siblings to protect their privacy and because to this day some or all of them remain unaware of their or unwilling to admit what happened to and around them, let’s just say that it is no wonder they exhibited behaviors in childhood and in later life that can only be explained by trauma.

Leave it at that but I can certainly speak to what happened to me.

My mother once threw a frying pan across the kitchen (a flying pan so to speak) that hit the top of my head and broke the plastic white headband I was wearing. Yipes. On many occasions, I’d come home from school and my bed was piled high with all the things from my drawers dumped there. Apparently, I wasn’t keeping the bureau drawers organized and ordered enough for her taste. She didn’t care that what she did was invasive and outsized. I must have refolded my clothes 40 times over my childhood and that’s no exaggeration. No wonder I have Fibber McGee’s closets and drawers now!

Now, fast forward four decades (and lots that happened in between that is vastly too personal to share in this forum and is unknown by many as it shall remain), my brilliant Renaissance-like husband of then 30 plus years developed Alzheimer’s disease; in his case, it has been a disease of slow progression. It is actually why I left my college presidency if the truth be told and likely that observation will be to the surprise of some readers who know me well. I saw his mental decline coming earlier than many.

At first, my husband was just forgetful and generally out of sorts. But then, his behavior — consistently directed at and to me — became abusive and hostile and downright dangerous. We can laugh when he thought I was having an affair with his male caregiver but trust me, sleeping with that caregiver was not high on my priority list.

My husband hit me during a nightmare caused by a medication he was taking for dementia and did such damage that I needed wrist surgery. He barricaded my exiting from our kitchen because he was mad at me and I then literally ran off to another area and barricaded myself in to prevent being hit — although his banging on that door was so forceful that I felt I still wasn’t safe. I thought of calling the police many times; I had to leave the premise other times. I called the Alzheimer’s hotline to get strategies. My husband chopped part of his finger off using an electric saw (some members of the family believed he should do what he adored like woodworking despite obvious risks in his ability to focus), and two friends saw my interaction with him upon my return home. His recovery was so filled with screaming and yelling that the hand surgeon was forced to use approaches I suspect that one would use for someone who had an amputated arm or leg.

These behaviors were, on occasion, seen by others — caregivers and friends and family. And, lest there be even an ounce of a question, I was tolerating abuse. My husband’s abusive actions (outside his control) were re-triggering my childhood trauma. And yet, but for the words of a therapist who was helping me deal with this difficult situation and who participated in one phone call with my husband and me (he was on the line listening), I would have continued to tolerate the abuse. I would have accepted being traumatized.

It took me a long time — decades — to say that I had been abused and traumatized as a child and as an adult. And it took me years to realize that the behaviors I was experiencing were not because of things I did or said. I was not responsible for my husband or parents’ behavior, even when I thought I was.

Stated simply, something was done to me; I was not the cause; I was not badly behaved or a bad person. Something happened to me.

Locus of Control and Denial

Stick with me here as I shift, as this will all come back together. Jay Edgar Hoover had an antipathy (oversized reaction) toward individuals who were gay. That was, by all contemporary accounts, his response to being gay himself and not being able to share or come to terms with his sexual orientation. His behavior should have been a message as noted earlier: if you overreact, there is more to the story than appears on the surface.

Hoover needed to feel he had control of his sexual orientation because in truth, he had no such control. A false sense of control is our way of dealing with issues that we can’t own, that we don’t like and won’t accept. So, we in essence, perform mental gymnastics so we end up believing that we are able to change our destiny.

Now, until recently (say the past decade), I haven’t been able to own the abuse and trauma I experienced in my life — from childhood onward. I just soldiered on. I kept moving forward, following the rugged American individualism that invades our psyches. If I just tried harder, if I just got better grades, if I just stayed calm, if I cooked the right food and looked the right way, I would quiet the behavior of my mother and later my husband. I built in amazing behaviors to mask reality. I internalized their abusive behavior as if I could manage it, change it, deal with it. The onus feel on me to adapt to the abusers.

It was hard, and sometimes still is, to accept that I have no blame for what happened to me. I didn’t choose my parents. I didn’t select a mentally ill mother. I didn’t seek a husband who was struck by a disease that led him to treat me horribly. Nope. Outside my control. I just created the illusion that I could control the abuse — because I assumed I was responsible.

COVID-19

Here’s how this all merges together to explain my anger at the trauma deniers. The Covid-19 virus has taken away our sense of control and our actual control, despite best efforts. As Dr. Fauci has explained (repeatedly) when the US President wanted and wants to re-open the economy, we are not in control of that timetable. The virus is. The data on it are.

Shocking thought. We don’t have control; we can’t exercise enough actions to determine outcomes. We have to live with uncertainty. The virus is not listening. It is killing people. We can’t completely manage this virus’ trajectory with drugs or vaccines or stay-at-home orders; it has a life (in part due to its newness) that is beyond our efforts — at least for now.

So, to tie this all together, we don’t want to see COVID-19 as a traumatic event because we don’t want to admit that we have no control and can’t fix the situations. We aren’t keen on the fact that our interventions are not enough. That is too frightening.

Who wants to admit that we have no control?

Were I a guessing person, many of the trauma naysayers are like me: they have had trauma somewhere in their earlier lives (whether or not acknowledged or even recognized). Perhaps they experienced racial discrimination or extensive bullying; perhaps they had dysfunctional families; perhaps they experienced sexual abuse at the hands of a teacher or a coach or a counselor or a priest or other religious leader; perhaps they lost a loved one to illness like cancer or heart attack or even alcoholism or drug overdose. Perhaps they themselves experienced heartbreak or some unspeakable horror over which their best efforts weren’t enough to stop the pain. Maybe they witnessed unspeakable things.

Naysayers

Here’s the bottom line explanation for my anger: My anger at trauma naysayers is so strong because I was one of those naysayers. I never admitted trauma or abuse in my childhood or even my marriage. But, now that I see the trauma in my own life experience and the high price it exacts, I am like the reformed smoker: I am determined to show trauma as it is and for what it can do. Call me the trauma equivalent of the reformed smoker.

I think that, without question, we will have a world filled with a new psychological state: PPTS. That stands for post pandemic trauma syndrome. My own experience (as well as the science) tells me that we need to be aware of and respond to PPTS. And we will handle it way better if we see it, acknowledge it and address it sooner rather than later. Naming it is the first step. PPTS is worth another blog post all of its own.

Denial of trauma is dangerous. I know that from experience. So, all you naysayers out there: take a moment or two or three to self-reflect. And, perhaps if you do, you will see what the future holds in store for so many: trauma, trauma symptomology and all of its sequelle during and post pandemic. And wouldn’t we be wise to address that now — with solutions and strategies that can help millions?

Conclusions

Denial doesn’t make awful or uncomfortable or unpleasant things go away; it just makes it seem as if the bad things don’t exist. Anger isn’t an answer either, even if well explained. It doesn’t seem to work to change hearts and minds, although it may make us feel better in the near term.

What we need is an understanding of ourselves and the world in which we are now living. That’s a challenge for sure. And, that world — with the pandemic — isn’t beautiful. Sure, we can find spots of beauty in nature and in the profound human caregiving but we are confronting times of uncertainty, sadness, grief, mourning, loss, separation and death.

And here’s the trauma kicker: none of this is ending soon. The persistence of threats is omnipresent, and we need to cease pretending that all will be well quickly and we will be moving back to “normal.” That normal is gone forever; once traumatized, always traumatized — even with remarkable amelioration.

Those of us for whom normal has not been normal over prolonged periods know how hard this last observation is — even as we want to wish it all away through elaborate mental machinations. Long story short: naysaying doesn’t work.

Author, Educator & Commentator; Former President, Southern Vermont College; Former Senior Policy Advisor, US Dept. of Education; Former Law Professor

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