The Only Thing I Know About Pandemic Trauma

*I wrote this back in May 2020.

Quarantine life feels strangely familiar to any pregnant person who’s ever been on high-risk, mandated hospital bed rest for more than a few weeks. The specifics are quite different, of course, but there are many similarities. For starters, there’s that rattling feeling of the rug being pulled out from under one’s life, along with the dread before bed, and when waking up.

While pregnant with my now six-year-old, I spent two months on lockdown in the hospital, awaiting her arrival. Or her and my death. I had a rare condition called vasa previa in which part of the blood vessels on my daughter’s cord were not adequately protected, risking a bleed out for both of us if labor started. Possibly losing my baby and dying in an ambulance didn’t sound appealing to me or my doctors, so there I found myself, living in a hospital. Getting her as cooked as possible but without risking contractions was our goal.

But my personal goal was coping with having been extracted from my previous life (with my husband and then six-year-old son at home), to this new one inside a tiny room, alone, taking things day by day. Not unlike all of us right now, I distracted myself with puzzles, Words With Friends, an online childbirth educator certification I was close to finishing, and uploading years-worth of photos online. Netflix streaming didn’t yet exist.

The first few weeks were, dare I say, a relief, and a welcomed break from constant Momming. Kind of like how we all felt the first few weeks of slowing down during the shelter-in-place, except for the non-consensual homeschooling part. That felt like the opposite of a break for most moms. When in the hospital, my friends were somewhat jealous of me. “So in the morning, someone brings you food and you eat it in bed??” I’d reply with, “Yes, and then in the afternoon, I take a nap on the spot where the sun shines in through the window, like a cat.” Some mom friends considered throwing themselves in front of traffic to live my new life.

But after a few weeks of rotating through the hospital food menu and nurses and doctors who kindly and also not so kindly invaded what little space I had, the novelty of a slow-paced life on the inside wore off. Sounds familiar if you replace the hospital food with freezer food, and nurses and doctors with kids and spouses, right? And just like now, back then, summer was on its way. I longed to feel the warm sidewalk under my feet. My muscles started to ache from not being used. Even though the daily visits from my husband and son were the highlight of my day, watching them from my window while they crossed the parking lot and then stopped at their special spot where they would wave to me from afar, broke me. My son loved this ritual so I participated each time by smiling and waving back amid tears he was too far away to see. I imagined that this is what it would look like if they were visiting my grave.

Part of finalizing my childbirth certification included some intense training around trauma, but the case studies I was reading paled in comparison to my immediate and real life education on the subject. My overthinking brain, bless its heart, tricked me into thinking that because I was aware that I was in a sustained fight or flight survival mode, that maybe I could bypass the actual suffering. Like how when I read articles today that correlate our pandemic exhaustion with a constantly tripped nervous system, I feel like because I know that tidbit, maybe I can outfox it.

I was actually able to sidestep some of the pregnancy trauma by advocating for myself when necessary, taking action instead of freezing or fawning, like when the residents would make their rounds every morning at 6am, waking me up from the only peaceful part of my day to basically ask me if I was alive or not. Finally, a stern, doctor-approved note went up on my door, fixing things. My advocacy also helped in less practical but just as meaningful ways like when the cafeteria phone attendant told me they were out of the daily special, chimichangas. I sensed his dirty lie through the phone. You don’t mess with a hungry pregnant lady who’s been living for new food choices. I snuck out of my room to go downstairs and call their bluff, and I nearly cut someone when I saw a full tray of chimichangas. Mama ate well that day.   

My brain also wanted to jump ahead and predict how this experience would change me, just like I find myself doing now. My mind ran different scenarios based on a happy or not happy ending. I was essentially trying to make meaning of the crisis while experiencing the crisis, which I found out doesn’t work. Of course, there were certain things I could’ve predicted, such as the grocery store feeling like such a loud, bright circus after being away from it for so long. Or the way I appreciated simple things such as cooking my own food, washing my own dishes, and touching nature. I sometimes convinced the head nurse to let me go for short walks with my family. One day, we had all stopped to each lunch at a picnic table in the grass on the hospital grounds. While sitting there, the sprinklers popped on around us. Everyone fled to the sidewalk except me. They called out, “Come on, you’re getting wet!” I paid no attention and walked straight into the sprinkler’s spray, trading soaked clothes for one spontaneous summer moment among so many that had been taken from me.

My final effort to bypass trauma was proudly walking into my Cesarean birth rather than being wheeled in. A small detail, but one that my certification books had mentioned would put me in a place of power, like a warrior showing up to a battle rather than a slab of meat being carted in for the butcher. But what I didn’t know is that despite my best efforts, trauma had silently made itself cozy in my cells and would stretch out into my everyday interactions, changing me in ways I could never have predicted. Just like it’s doing again now during this global crisis, imprinting me with sights, sounds, smells, and tastes, commemorating this specific moment in time. The scent of Trader Joe’s coconut body lotion still brings me back to that hospital room. I religiously oiled my belly with it, and the nurses would remark on how they always liked coming in my room because of that lovely smell. One whiff takes me back there, to the pink calendar I would X off every night, and the shower with the broken hot water regulator. And I know that the smell of fresh banana bread baking in the oven will someday bring me right back to this pandemic moment too. That, and the sound of my teen son slurping his new obsession, Cup of Noodles.

After making it out alive and arriving home from the hospital with my prize baby and armfuls of Shutterfly albums, I began to prepare for the worst. I found myself buying pepper spray, imagining being on the nightly news as a victim of a car-jacking, my kids being kidnapped, and other things most people don’t think will happen to them. It wasn’t until a year or so later when I realized that I had made a subconscious, trauma-informed agreement throughout all this: rare things happen to me. It had to be true because something that happens in less than 1% of pregnancies happened to me. I now saw myself – and my kids – as a possible statistic. I’d been in the minority once, why wouldn’t it happen again? I was clearly cursed.

I can’t remember when it struck me that I was living out this agreement, but I do recall crying in the shower, on my hands and knees when I did finally realize it. And I still fight myself on this idea. I worry that the same thing that tried to take my daughter from me all those years ago is still trying, like we’re in the movie Final Destination. I have to talk myself down when she gets a high fever or an unexplainable stomachache, and remember that living through one rare thing doesn’t guarantee another.

And here’s where this comes back to the coronavirus. My brain – and maybe yours – wants to skip ahead and know how this experience is changing me, and my kids. What will I do differently after this? How will this shape my kids’ future? What agreements have I unknowingly made? What will eventually bring me to my knees in the shower? But, the only thing I know – aside from the fact that life after this will feel alarmingly fast and loud, and that a bra and sharp pants will feel like a whole new kind of prison – is that I can’t know ahead of time what will hit me or my kids deepest. We cannot possibly know how the strain of this ordeal will snake its way into our hearts and minds. And even if we could, we can’t outwit it.

One other thing I do know is that most of us will come out on the other side of this. Yes, there will be residual damage of varying degrees, but there will also be residual strength from being forced to adapt, just like I had to do inside room 362. And this is what life does to us, over and over again. It melts us down, stretches us, and rebuilds us. It’s not a curse – even though it can sure as hell feel like it – but it’s life on Earth. The smelting we’re experiencing right now is not the exception, it’s the norm. (I have to remind myself of this daily.) All the things our grandparents did that made them quirky and other-worldly (and also bat-shit crazy) were for a reason. We are right now living our reason. I’m not saying we have to like the process or how it changes us, but it’s happening regardless of it we consent or not.

One of the upsides to my pregnancy experience was that pink calendar on my wall. I had an end date, a goal. Unfortunately, we don’t have this yet. It’s like the difference between reading a book to your kid or endlessly making figurines talk. I’m pretty sure most of us prefer the one with a clear end point. But, what we do have now that I didn’t back then is that the rest of the world is going through this together. We all understand the weirdness that is celebrating having finally found flour and yeast at the store. Years ago, when I was unleashed into the wild again with my newborn, no one knew what I’d been through. People would say, “Your baby’s so cute. How old is she?” and I would begin to tell them the entire story of those two harrowing months on lockdown and high alert because I felt like the world had stayed normal, but I hadn’t. And people needed to know! (I stopped doing that after about three months.) This pandemic already feels different to me because it’s a communal experience, even though we’re apart. When we eventually do emerge from this, we won’t have to utter more than a few words to each other, or maybe we’ll just flash a knowing look as we hesitate before a hug, or put an extra pack of toilet paper into our cart, just in case. Those of us who went through this humbling experience will understand something that no one else before or after it will. We’ll all have a secret language together. And an entirely new currency: yeast. We are totally becoming the grandparents who tuck a yeast packet in our grandkids birthday cards.

Want to read more from me? Check out my darkly comedic debut book, Adult Conversation: A Novel.