After listening to Dr. Betsy Stone during a community workshop called A Year of Upheaval: What has Trauma Done to our Bodies and our Brains?, I decided to take her advice and tell my story. According to Stone, “Healing requires storytelling … we tell our stories so we’ll understand our experience differently.”
The past 15 months have been a journey for all of us. Some more than others, but no one has not “traveled” during the pandemic. And, by travel, I mean change. Whether we’re brave enough (honest enough?) to admit it or not, we have all been transformed. Call it trauma, call it what you like. It’s all a matter of semantics. Not everyone is as vocal as I am, or as filled with anxiety about COVID, but no one comes out of this horrible shindig unscathed.
Whether your resilience lies in emotional strength or a feeling of invincibility, or whether you’re firmly entrenched in that big river in Egypt (denial), we all cope in our own ways. There is no one right way through this. You can’t go over it, you can’t go under it – you can only go through it. Putting our experience into words brings new life to it, new insights. Speaking it makes it even more real and, maybe, just maybe, easier to cope with.
So, where have I been this year? I wish I could answer that with geographic precision. What comes to mind is: home. And, occasionally, the pharmacy and grocery store, as well as walks close to home. While I hate to say that the pandemic has been my world, it’s hard to escape the reality of that pronouncement. I fully admit my obsession with the pandemic, my fear and my single-minded focus on how to stay healthy. I won’t apologize for it, or feel less-than. It is what it is.
That doesn’t mean to say that my fear has prevented me from seeing silver linings during this unparalleled time. There has definitely been more than one “there-must-be-a-pony” moment. The most important one being that my nephew and his wife had a baby boy near the start of the pandemic. It doesn’t get any better than that. In random order after that, I have thrown myself into the deep end of the pool with Torah classes and other religious learning. Next on my list is that I started on a life-changing medical treatment that makes my life much easier. I have made new friends and acquaintances through the numerous Zoom classes I attend nearly every day. I am exercising 100% more than I did pre-pandemic. I might sleep less, but my brain has expanded. In the good way. And that’s just the beginning.
All this is by way of saying that, while I wouldn’t award COVID first place in a popularity contest, it has had its bright spots. It has impacted my perspective on all things, in a way that nothing else has, to that degree. When I think about what’s important now, my pre-COVID list is almost laughable. I, like many others, have embraced the basics: health and safety, family, faith and trust.
When I think of the trajectory of this past 15 months, it’s hard to articulate. Or, more to the point, what our reactions have been. Have I learned to be more trusting, or more suspicious? Have I expanded my capacity for compassion, or have I become more selfish? Have I anchored my experiences in religious belief, or have I trusted in science? Have I given in to my fears, or have I conquered them? While I’ve always tended to lean towards the black and white, there really are no absolutes right now. There are, however, firm yeses and hard no’s. I am reconsidering everything I once was certain about. The $64,000 question is whether I will be able to integrate what I’ve learned and turn it into something positive when all this is over. Or, better yet, before all this is over. The jury is still out. But I’m hopeful.
I have become exponentially more grateful for the simple things: my devoted husband who is my perfect companion in life; that I have a loving and lovely family; that I have never had to worry about where my next meal will come from; that I live in a part of the world that has great doctors, easy access to medical care and all the outdoor green spaces you could ever ask for; and that I have mentors and friends. I could go on ad infinitum.
Too often, I see the clouds instead of the blue sky that’s right behind it. I see impediments where there don’t have to be any. Positivity is a steep learning curve for me. It’s funny that I used to consider myself an optimist. Since the pandemic, I’ve come to see how maybe-not-true that is. Not that I’m proud of it, it’s just the current reality. But I’m trying pointedly to turn that around. There are days where I see hope staring me in the face everywhere. Literally everywhere. Other days, it’s just fog and darkness. I know I’m hardly unique in this.
So, in truth, I have been lots of places this year. Mostly in my head. But some real places, too. Like a certain street in Shaughnessy that’s filled with huge trees, beautiful homes and no people walking about. A place where it’s safe for me to take off my face mask for a block or two. Until I see someone. I have also been to a place of sheer, unnamable joy, seeing my tiny great-nephew on WhatsApp video. I have discovered flowers I never knew existed, in areas I’d never walked before (despite being a native Vancouverite). I have traveled via Zoom to other countries, for learning and sometimes for pleasure. But pleasures that don’t involve a beach or a buffet. And I travel constantly in my dreams.
Every day of this pandemic, I have learned something. About myself, about others, about faith. That’s got to count for something, right? When we all heal from what Stone calls this “trauma,” we’re definitely going to come out of it changed. Whether that change is positive or negative, or a combination of both, is up to us entirely. My commitment to myself is that I’m going to try and lay the groundwork for an improved Shelley. A less anxious, more trusting, deliberately positive Shelley.
I guarantee you’ll still recognize me, though. I’ll be the one still wearing a facemask a year from now. Or maybe not.
Shelley Civkin is a happily retired librarian and communications officer. For 17 years, she wrote a weekly book review column for the Richmond Review. She’s currently a freelance writer and volunteer.