The lessons I learned in my darkest PTSD days are helping me find equanimity in the tumult of the Coronavirus Pandemic.
“I’m going to shoot you!” were his exact words. It was early 2019 when one of my high school students threatened to shoot a classmate in class. Thankfully, no shots were fired. But, managing that threat left an imprint on my brain that has changed the way I thought, felt and experienced the world ever since.
During a traumatic event we are in grave danger and experience a loss of control. Well aware of the epidemic of school violence, I was on the front line managing a threat of gun violence. I had no control over the student — only the hope that the things I said and did would diffuse the situation. Now, we have no control over the Coronavirus, only the hope that the actions we take individually and collectively will keep us safe, lead to effective treatments and development of a vaccine.
Sometimes when people experience the threat of imminent death or life altering injury their psyche is relatively unscathed. In other cases an acute stress response or even PTSD can develop, as happened in my situation. Many Covid caregivers and survivors will develop PTSD as a result of their experiences. We all are in a difficult situation that is raising stress and anxiety levels.
For months after the incident at school, it seemed unfathomable that I had to convince administrators to take a credible threat of gun violence in an American public high school seriously. Analogously, it seems unfathomable that medical professionals need to work tirelessly to convince elected officials to take the Coronavirus threat seriously.
I knew I needed to accept what happened or I would never move on. Yet, that took me months. People would often say things like, “Everything happens for a reason” and “It will all work out in the end.” Despite their good intentions, I always actually heard, “Just toughen up and deal. Everyone goes through stuff.” And, I thought things like, “You’ve got to be kidding?! You have no idea how miserable PTSD has made me!”
Eventually, after lots of hard work, I managed to stop fighting with the memories. I got to a point where I didn’t wake up every single day surprised and thinking: “Did that really happen?” It did. My focus shifted to: What’s my plan? And, what part of that plan can I work on today?
Photographing something beautiful everyday helped me focus during my toughest days.
It is a strange twist of fate that a global pandemic hit as I was coming out of the dark fog of PTSD. After a year in therapy, I no longer met the criteria for PTSD and was digging into other career options. Then, schools closed to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Within a week, it was clear that my husband and I would be home with our four children for weeks to come. I was relieved to be safe at home with my family close by 24/7, especially since PTSD had enhanced every introverted tendency within me.
At the same time, I could feel my all-too-familiar emergency alert system revving (Will we have enough food?); my tendency to catastrophize kicking in (What if we all get sick at the same time?!) and I was afraid I would share too many adult pandemic worries with my little ones. But, I soon realized that the self-care tools I used to recover from my traumatic experiences would actually help me handle life’s next challenges. I am sharing my experiences in the hope that others might benefit. (I guess I’m still a teacher at heart!)
This pandemic is hard for everyone in unique ways. No matter how well equipped we might be, it is scary and stressful. We all have tough days. Finding the good that follows a difficult situation does not mean that we are glad for the difficult situation. Life can end up being okay, even if the road to that place was travelled unwillingly and filled with potholes, steep hills and detours.
As I advocated for a threat assessment and disciplinary action at school, I kept a notebook handy and jotted down thoughts about the situation whenever they came to me. In the margin of some pre-meeting notes, I scrawled, “I am deserving of a safe working environment.” I started a “Five Minute Journal” that I still use each morning and evening to jot down a few points of gratitude — a bike ride with a friend (pre-Covid), jokes shared with my husband, the first crocuses. At the suggestion of a few friends, I began a near daily journaling practice. It immediately felt right and I poured my thoughts and worries into notebook after notebook. At the time, I had no idea that writing can help integrate the right and left sides of the brain which literally helps us “come to terms” with a situation.
Eventually the student was moved to a therapeutic situation and it was time to take care of myself. I took a medical leave from teaching to deal with symptoms that were quickly developing from an acute stress response into PTSD. Even with weekly therapy, I was struggling just to get through my days and I wanted an epidural for my soul. I often reminded myself that dark chocolate, which always feels soothing yet energizing, is loaded with antioxidants. So how, I reasoned, could I eat too much? More importantly though, I embraced my lifelong love of endurance sports and the outdoors. I quickly fell into a routine of going out to exercise after my kids were off to school.
I’ve been an endurance athlete for over 30 years. On and off for 25 years, I’d let myself feel guilty about all the time I spent pedaling my bike, skiing, hiking and running: Shouldn’t I be working more on my career or caring for someone else or cleaning my house (gasp!)?
During my foggy PTSD days, were it not for the release I found in my daily workouts, I probably would have turned to other less healthy means to dull my pain. Instead, I got full value out of my pass to the local Nordic ski center that winter. The woods in winter did their magic and let me feel like my life was like it used to be while I was skiing. When spring came with its cool and rainy days, I often found myself running on wooded dirt roads letting worries come and go in my mind. When the weather warmed, I found comfort pedaling through Vermont’s mix of pastoral and forested lands, often with a friend. I’ve since learned that bilateral stimulation which could come from running or cycling actually helps decrease worry. Beyond my workouts, I found comfort in the rhythm of our days which was still dictated by school. I drove my kids to school and picked them up each day (something I was unable to do when I was teaching). We had dinner together and after the kids and my husband were asleep, I would write until I felt settled enough to sleep.
Now during the blur of pandemic days, a loose routine continues to provide healing stability and rhythm. This summer, my pattern has been to do some work and connect with each child before heading out on my bike. My workout time remains a chance to maintain my physical health while actively working through the issues of the day or leaving them behind for a while. I’m proud to have laid a guilt-free claim to this self-care time and thankful for my husband who supports my efforts. He has a similar slot later in the day and I’ve been embracing it as a chance to do extra reading aloud with the kids. We have fun joking about where we’ll “go” while Daddy’s away. We enjoy dinner together each evening, especially homemade pizza on Fridays when my youngest pulls her stool to the kitchen counter to help me cook.
My difficult PTSD days were also filled with family moments I wanted to enjoy. Often, however, I was a numb observer. Intrusive memories of the event at school would tumble through my mind making it nearly impossible for me to focus on conversations about anything but “the event” and its sequelae in my life. Would I ever teach again? Were people safe at the school? Did I do enough? What more could I do? If I can’t teach again, what will I do? How will we support our family if we go down to one income? Will I ever be a good mom again?
It felt as though the color had been drained from my once vibrant life as a mother of four, wife, science teacher, athlete and photographer. Now during the pandemic, I am troubled by rising case counts, nearly full ICUs and the mounting death toll. I wonder if I am doing enough to keep my family safe. Or am I being too careful? How would I know?
The world’s leading trauma expert, Bessel van der Kolk, writes:
“We have learned that trauma is not just an event that took place sometime in the past; it is also the imprint left by that experience on mind, brain, and body. This imprint has ongoing consequences for how the human organism manages to survive in the present. Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way mind and brain manage perceptions. It changes not only how we think and what we think about, but also our very capacity to think.” ― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
My experiences on the darker side of life changed me. For over a year, I assiduously avoided the school and activities or people that might remind me of it. The word “gun” was all but banished from our home. Falling asleep was nearly impossible and I rarely woke without a deep sense of fear and dread. Often, I could not stop myself from replaying the threat and subsequent events in my mind. Yet these tumbling intrusive memories made me feel so disconnected from those around me that I often described myself as a broken dial up modem. I was so jumpy that a faulty smoke detector or dropped kitchen utensil would cause me to panic. We told the kids that my “fun button was broken,” being sure they knew it was not their fault. At times, I had such a hard time concentrating that I could not even help my fourth grader with math. I could scarcely believe that I had ever enjoyed leading discussions about physics problems with a classroom full of teenagers, changing up the numbers from class to class to keep my day fun! While these symptoms have largely resolved, the post-PTSD me is different, as though a scar has been left on my soul. My confidence has been rocked — I never even thought of myself as having high self confidence until that changed — and my perception of danger is forever altered.
Yet, then as now, when I look through the lens of my camera, I can tune out my fears and worries. In those dark and scary PTSD days, my daily photography practice literally helped me focus on the stories, connections and seasons that I did want to remember. I’ve left many of the images in black and white to illustrate how I perceived the world back then. My camera still beckons me to enjoy the moment in front of me rather than letting “what if…” and “what about…” questions spin in my head.
Yet, sometimes those wonderings are important. My frequent journaling practice helps me come to terms with the challenges and worries of pandemic living just as it helped me along the twisted path toward recovery from PTSD.
While weekly sessions with a trained trauma specialist helped me make steady progress, for most of 2019 I was far from thriving. Writing, regular exercise, photography and a stable routine helped me manage my anxiety on a day to day basis. Even so, I was still feeling revved, worried and bitter much of the time. My therapist urged me to try yoga because studies show that it helps calm the mind and ease the misery of PTSD.
For decades, I had done post-workout stretching and various core exercises. I used to stretch while checking the news, social media or my to do list. I had a hard time imagining how yoga could be much different, except that I wouldn’t be getting anything done. But, after a soggy fall trail run, I decided to give it a try anyway. I hoped it might help my sore hips and figured it couldn’t make my uninspired mood any worse. I googled “yoga” and settled on a beginner video from Yoga with Adriene.
Rather than checking off major muscle groups in my mind, I focused on my breath doing one pose at a time. That felt good so I tried a few more sessions. I began to notice that standing tall can feel empowering. Moving with the breath helps calm my nerves. A deep lower back and hip stretch makes me feel ready for anything. Thinking about each stretch helps me notice and appreciate how my body changes from day to day — or even from the right to the left shoulder. As a former teacher, I love having someone else make the plan!
I’ve since done many sessions “with” Adrien. Toward the end of my workout, I typically take a moment to notice how I’m feeling (tight neck, tight hips, head still spinning?) so that I can pick or create a yoga sequence that will help me feel comfortable, confident and relaxed. I’ve also learned that sometimes my mind and body need a yoga reset even more than another sweaty hour powering over hill and dale.
I was beginning to feel like a normal version of me by late 2019. But, I was still constantly exhausted. Even after a good day, I would often find myself unable to mentally log-off from worries about how I had handled things at school, the future of my career and my kids. The sleep that followed was often not restorative even though my little one was finally sleeping through the night.
My therapist encouraged me to incorporate meditation in my bedtime routine. Mountain and stream meditations would help for a few days but the habit wasn’t sticking. It felt like a class I had to teach to myself and that was the last thing I wanted. Then a friend suggested the “Insight Timer” app which has lots of options. Suddenly I was off the hook for planning and I loved it! I often pick a short meditation to do in bed when I’m the only one still awake in my house.
Of course, meditation doesn’t make my kids’ meltdowns, the pandemic or my career woes go away. But, it helps me reach a balanced and present state of mind that enables me to bring my best self to these challenges. The Anxiety Release app by clinical psychologist Mark Grant uses bilateral sound stimulation and has become my go-to meditation when something specific is stressing me out. The impact on day-to-day anxiety and stressors is similar to exercise or meditation. Rather than let my brain run wild, I can give it a chance to be restored for the day ahead.
For years, I found joy sharing my love of science with teens and felt a deep conviction that I was making the world a better place by doing that work with compassion and professionalism. I can no longer imagine even being comfortable in a classroom. Despite the progress I made, I decided to leave teaching to pursue photography and writing. I want to photograph the stuff I live for and the kinds of moments that got me through PTSD: my 10 year old holding her very own chicks, my 8 year old showing off his latest marble run, my 7 year old’s last baby-toothed grin, my 3 year old beaming and giggling on a swing, my peonies popping. And, I need to tell my story to advocate for safer schools everywhere and for everyone.
I remain horrified that as a country we have normalized having kids and teachers practice hiding from armed shooters once a month. Now, some are attempting to normalize rising Covid-19 case counts and deaths as though it were just seasonal flu suggesting we should just get back to our old way of life immediately with apparent disregard for the virus.
Anxiety exists for a very good reason: to warn us of danger. I was raised to think that it is bad to worry and that we should let those in power worry while we go on our merry way following their advice. In my pre-PTSD days, I let that voice make me feel weak when I worried about my kids’ fevers, juggling teaching and mothering, safety at school or my husband driving home on icy roads. But, we can’t just “not worry” or trust those in power to make safe choices for us. We need to listen to our own inner siren, acknowledge the danger and make a plan that, to the best of our ability, meets our needs.
In early 2020, the PTSD haze finally lifted. Sticking faithfully, yet flexibly, to my self-care plan as well as weekly sessions with a trained trauma therapist helped me recover to the point where I no longer meet the criteria for PTSD!
Yet, the world outside our home has felt (and in Vermont often looks) like a swirling snow globe. This spring my husband repurposed the kids’ art table as his desk, then taught his university classes from our basement guest/workout room while I tried to quietly (ha!) manage remote schooling. There have been meltdowns, disagreements about screen time, school work struggles, chores left undone and pandemic worries aplenty. Having self-care strategies to return to has helped us find equanimity more often than not this year, just as it helped on the toughest of my PTSD days.
Recently I was checking in on my sister who was recovering from COVID-19. Thankfully she’s on the mend and after updating me felt up to asking, “How r u.” Taking a break from stirring dinner, I replied “Ironically all the stuff at school left me in a great place to deal with this.” It was the first time I had actually put that to words as it just came together in my mind at that moment. When she replied, “That’s so amazing when the timing works out!!!” I loved the comment and called my family to dinner, feeling grateful that a quick text from my sister had transformed the way I looked back on such a difficult year and inspired me to finally share my experience, insights and perspective.
This article was originally published in Medium on August 17, 2020.
Kate Farrell is a photographer, writer, endurance athlete and former science teacher. She and her husband live with their four children in Vermont.