“This Will Last Forever”: What the Pandemic Teaches Us About Living With Trauma By Preston Hill

Trauma is an overused and misunderstood concept. On the one hand, it seems obvious enough that we live now more than ever in a trauma-aware society. One war veteran puts it this way in his biography The Evil Hours: “Over the past four decades, post-traumatic stress disorder has permeated every corner of our culture.”[1] But on the other hand, it is common for those who use the term “trauma” to have little to no idea what they mean by the word. If you were to ask someone what they mean when they say, “this or that thing was traumatic,” they will probably respond with a shoulder-shrug, and say something like, “it was really intense.” When we talk about “trauma” we know we mean something, but we aren’t quite sure exactly what.

This ambiguity is understandable. Psychiatrists only started studying trauma about 100 years ago. We know so much more now than we did then, but we still have a long ways to go. For simplicity’s sake, trauma is an inescapably stressful state of affairs that overwhelms normal adaptations or coping mechanisms. Notice the two key elements here: the presence of a threat (stress) and the absence of power (overwhelming). The end result of this dark combination of threat and powerlessness is that the survivor keeps trying to escape, even after the threat is over.

Its like “a broken record”: precisely because it is broken, the player keeps trying to process the record. The brokenness consists in an impotently endless attempt to process data that the system cannot handle. To switch metaphors, it’s like the common picture we all have of a malfunctioning robot who stops mid-sentence and, without shutting down, keeps repeating the same phrase over and over again. The robot is the survivor, the syllables are the stress, and the repeated phrase is the particular terror one feels during a threatening event. Like the robot frozen mid-sentence, the survivor is bombarded daily with sensual reminders of a threat that is in the past for everyone else. But for the survivor, the threat is felt “as contemporary experience.”[2]

I don’t think anyone today has better expressed the horror of trauma than psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk in his book The Body Keeps the Score. I read this book last year, long before hearing of “COVID-19” on BBC radio during my dark morning walks to the office. But thumbing through the book again, I was struck by how many phrases describing trauma sound a lot like how I imagine many of us are feeling during a global pandemic.

Van der Kolk writes that “Trauma is the ultimate experience of ‘this will last forever’…Immobilization is at the root of most traumas…traumatized people chronically feel unsafe inside their bodies…Their bodies are constantly bombarded by visceral warning signs.”[3] As I record these words, I sit restless in a house whose walls feel like they are closing in tighter and tighter with each passing week. “This will last forever.” Most of us are literally immobilized, trapped inside, a striking picture of how traumatized people feel in their chronically over-stressed and fatigued bodies. When I walk to the grocery store, I no longer see friendly faces. I see humanoids stumbling around with white masks plastered over their heads. Each a reminder that disease is rampant. And then when I do see faces, all I can see are people who are potential risks for infecting me or my family. Threats all around. That is a great summary of what life is like for those with a history of trauma.

Last year I was able to host a conference at St Andrews on Theology and Trauma. Among our guests were trauma specialists from the Allender Center in Seattle. One of their recent blog posts reflected on the global pandemic with this striking question: “When in history have we all globally felt our vulnerability at the same time?”[4]

That question haunts me. There is something beautiful about the invitation within this question. In a globalized world that is suffering the same fate, we recognize now more than ever that we are in this together. In the midst of so much loss that can only be mourned, I think this pandemic can also teach us what life is like after trauma. Immediate threat. Unexpected adaptation. Resources are pulled in, life comes to a halt, and for a long time, things feel frozen, suspended, like life will never be the same again. There is no assurance for normalcy’s return. And then, slowly, in time, we can learn to recover, to bless our fragility and our resilience. We can learn to recognize our contingency as mortal creatures and our share in mortal weakness, which unites us in sympathy and compassion (Hebrews 5:1–3).[5] But for now, it’s okay to be immobilized, to feel frozen in time, to feel bombarded with the sense of threat. In time, and in our bodies, we can learn to walk again after the paralysis. But first, we have to feel our vulnerability. Perhaps a pandemic gives us an opportunity to empathize with each other and those who need it most.[6]

[1] David J. Morris, The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (New York: Harcourt, 2015), 1.

[2] Freud, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, quoted in Bessel van der Kolk, “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder and the Nature of Trauma,” Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience 2, no. 1 (2000): 7–22.

[3] Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Transformation of Trauma (New York: Penguin, 2014), 70, 84, 96.

[4] Heather Stringer, “Let the Lament Come,” The Allender Center, April 16, 2020, https://theallendercenter.org/2020/04/let-lament-come/.

[5] I owe the Hebrews reference to Justin Duff, one of our Logos Research Fellows.

[6] For an introduction to trauma studies, see Judith Herman, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence—From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror (New York: Basic, 1992); Serene Jones, Trauma and Grace: Theology in a Ruptured World (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).

 

Preston Hill

PhD Candidate, Logos Institute, St. Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews (pmh8@st-andrews.ac.uk)

Preston Hill is a PhD Candidate in Theology at St Mary’s College, University of St. Andrews, having previously completed an MLitt degree in Analytic and Exegetical Theology at the Logos Institute. He is researching Christ’s descent into hell in the theology of John Calvin. Preston served as director of the 2019 Theology and Trauma Conference at the University of St Andrews. Preston is discerning a call to ordination in the ACNA and is currently on the teaching faculty at Richmont Graduate University.

 

Photo by James Barnett on Unsplash