Cynthia Degnan, PhD, MSW, LCSW
Intake and Trauma Therapist
There is a common metaphor in mental health circles for understanding our emotional capacity. Imagine a bucket. That bucket can only hold a certain amount of water. Now imagine that each stressor in our lives is water in the bucket. There is only so much water we can ask that bucket to carry before it overflows.
I’ll be honest. My bucket is near capacity the last couple of weeks. And from what I’ve observed, I am not alone. Many of us have been feeling that way since at least last March. We have all been carrying more water in our buckets than usual in the last year. And we have been doing it long enough that we might have normalized it and even have a hard time remembering how much we have been impacted by this pandemic. So, let me first take a moment to remind all of us that it is not normal and that we are carrying much, much more than we should have to.
When I think about this time from a trauma-informed perspective, it makes sense to me that mid-winter 2021 might be even harder, or at least different than usual. This year, there are two major events happening in the US that I suspect are contributing to feelings of overwhelm, or numbness, or a vacillation between the two. One is behind us—the end of the Trump administration—and the other is yet to come—the one-year anniversary of the pandemic really hitting home.
Let’s talk about these two highly affecting events one at a time.
In the first case—the end of the Trump administration—we as a country have just started to see the end (I hope) of a national abusive relationship. As my colleague Melanie Marklein articulated so well, Trump has all of the affect and behaviors of a narcissistic abuser. How does one heal from this kind of abuse?
Judith Herman’s Trauma and Recovery is a foundational book for those who work with trauma. In it, she outlines three phases of recovery that a trauma survivor must move through:
Safety and stabilization
Remembrance and mourning
One way I understand how these phases work is that we have to 1) deal with the present impact of trauma before 2) processing past experiences so that we can 3) think about how to move forward from those experiences.
The important piece here is that we cannot truly begin to process the ways we have been impacted by trauma until that trauma is over and we are safe. Regarding the Trump administration, many of us may be near the end of phase one and occasionally able to dip a toe into phase two, meaning that our brains and bodies are only just beginning to process all of the ways that we have been impacted by the last four years. This is not easy work and we are bound to feel drained, triggered, overwhelmed, and a whole host of other things as we move more into processing the past. If you are feeling any or all of these things, it might be because you are finally starting to feel safe enough to reflect on what these years have been like for you.
As uncomfortable as this second phase can be, if we can stay with that discomfort we might find a way to move forward toward a world that works better for everyone. The power that Trump wielded stems from long histories of white supremacy, cisheteropatriarchy, and anti-Semitism—just as all gender-based abuse and violence is a product of an oppressive culture. As author and professor Kiese Laymon suggests in this interview about the trauma of this time, mourning and reflection are necessary steps in understanding how a Trump presidency came to be in the first place and then building a future that centers justice for everyone.
The second major event we are dealing with is that it will soon be one year since our daily lives were ripped out from under us. In most places, mid-March marks the time when we first tried to hunker down, to stop the spread of a virus that has killed, at the date of this writing 464,779 people, in the United States alone.
If you feel like you can tolerate it, stop reading for a minute and look at that number. Take a breath. Take several.
If you cannot tolerate that, notice how that is too much and let yourself keep reading, or take a break and do something caring for yourself.
I ask you to reflect in this way because I believe the difficulty of taking in the reality of four hundred, sixty-four thousand, seven hundred and seventy-nine preventable deaths is a trauma response. Even those of us who have lost loved ones in the last 11 months can have trouble wrapping our minds around this collective loss. We cannot carry this grief and keep going. How could we? It is too much. I am not asking you to carry it. But I do think we (and I am very intentionally including myself in that “we”) would benefit from a pause to reflect on the fact that one of the things that has been required of us in order to emotionally survive this year is that we cut ourselves off from our ability to feel this weight. And that is effectively what trauma does: it disconnects us from the most vulnerable (and I would argue, most powerful) parts of ourselves.
As a therapist, I keep an eye on anniversaries of trauma. Even if we are not consciously aware of it, our bodies know that this anniversary is coming. Just like last year, the light is starting to change, the weather might start giving us hints of spring, and we might crave more movement and activity in our bodies as that happens. Our bodies carry the memory of mid-March last year and all the change that comes with spring combined with the changes we made to try to ensure our collective survival. And that might make us feel more of the weight of the last year and all the ways that our lives and sense of safety have changed.
Anniversaries can bring our bodies back into an experience of trauma and make us feel as if nothing has changed. So if, as you approach mid-March, you find yourself caught in thoughts about how long this has been going on, or you feel less able to tolerate social distancing and related changes, see if you can give yourself space to grieve all that you’ve lost in the last year. And see too if you can notice what has changed since March 2020 in either positive or neutral ways along with all the badness. This can help remind your brain and your body that this is not the same year, even if you feel like you are stuck in an endless loop of sameness. If you cannot see those changes—either because you are emotionally unable to take them in or because there have been no positive or neutral changes to recognize—please consider ways you might reach out for support. You deserve that.
Above all else let’s try to remember how full all our buckets already are and release judgement when they overflow. If we cause harm with the overflow, let’s give ourselves the gifts of self-forgiveness and accountability. And let’s try to engage in mutual care and advocacy to find a place of collective safety where we can begin to process what we’ve been through.