I wake on a Saturday morning to the sound of my husband putting the coffee on. From the bedroom upstairs, I hear the gentle din of water dripping into the carafe mingled with muffled snippets of conversation between him and our 3-year old son. I can’t make out what they’re saying, but I presume the boy is making his best case for a trip to our favorite donut shop for some chocolate cream-filled long johns. His wide eyes peek through the wild, unkempt hair that tumbles across his forehead as he searches for the most persuasive words.
This is quarantine day #70 in Illinois. Despite having slept through the night, I am exhausted. That’s just how it is now.
My mind and body are tired in a way that has nothing to do with the hours of sleep I’ve logged. Perhaps “tired” doesn’t capture the weariness that hangs in the air these days. I’m drained. Tapped out. Spent.
And I’m angry.
What Went Wrong
My dinner went cold as I sat at my kitchen table watching the five o’clock news. Footage of an unarmed, restrained black man being choked to death on a Minneapolis street by a white police officer sent chills down my spine. Bystanders begged for mercy. The man in handcuffs pleaded for his life and said he couldn’t breathe. But the officer whose knee pinned the man’s throat to the pavement and the three officers standing next to him appeared unfazed at the sight of the man’s life draining from his body.
This was not the first heart-wrenching story to stop me dead in my tracks, either. The past six months have been a torrent of bad news. I feel like I’m stranded in the middle of Atlantic in a dinghy while a storm rages. I hold tight to whatever joy I can find, lest I’m flung into the bottomless void. I try to keep my chin up – to search for sunlight peeking through clouds in the distance – but any glimpse of tranquillity has been short-lived.
It started with the fires. My eyes grew wide as I read, in bewildered angst, that millions of acres of bush, forests, and parks in Australia were engulfed in flames. The blaze was killing wildlife, they reported, and filling the lungs of those residing nearby with toxic smoke. Despite living half a world away, the weight of their suffering sat heavily on my heart.
The bad news kept coming. I heard mentions of World War III and watched impeachment hearings for the American president, all while a new respiratory virus terrorized a city in Central China I’d never heard of.
When COVID-19 hit pandemic level, and cases of the illness rose in the U.S., my sense of helplessness and frustration grew. Confined at home with my two sons after their school shut down, I struggled to keep up with a relentless barrage of cleaning and mothering to which I was not accustomed, all while trying desperately to stay informed – and safe – amid the spread of this crudely understood disease.
This is Trauma
We human beings are resilient, armed with brilliant defense mechanisms designed to protect ourselves against emotional turmoil. We’re good at mentally distancing ourselves from the things that stress us out by compartmentalizing – that is, packing bad feelings away into little “boxes” in our minds to keep them organized and prevent them from poisoning the rest of our emotions. But there are limitations to this ability; we simply can’t be exposed to such devastation and atrocity on a near-daily basis – as we have been for the past few months – and remain unaffected.
Make no mistake: What I’m living through – what we are living through – is trauma.
Stress Makes Us Angry
We’re now so inundated with reports of evil and tragedy that we’re fresh out of boxes. And with no free space in which to safely stow the stress of living in an age filled with catastrophes, despair spills into our psyche. According to Mayo Clinic, stress contaminates us in different ways, provoking depression, anxiety, trouble concentrating, mood swings… and anger. For some of us – especially those whose fuse is already short – this stress sparks a rage that simmers below the surface until finally boiling over. Suddenly, we’re snapping at our kids, or drinking too much, or fighting with our partner over whose turn it is to load the dishwasher.
We don’t have the power to change what is happening in the world, at least not in the short term. We must confront the hard truths about our world and our society, however uncomfortable they might feel; there is no escaping that. But we should also acknowledge that facing natural disasters, racism, death, or a devastating pandemic will have a negative effect on our behavior and emotions. After all, we are only human.
If we talk about our feelings with those we cherish – with our kids, our spouse, our friends – we just might emerge from this painful era with a better understanding of ourselves and the people we love.