Navigating trauma, summoning courage during the pandemic

A few days ago, I had a panic attack. It had been building for a couple of weeks, ever since the Coronavirus started spreading in the U.S., leaving everyone—including me, my staff, and most of my friends—wondering whether we’d still have jobs tomorrow. And then there were the other unknowns: Will I get sick? If I do, is there room for me at the hospital? Will I live? Will my parents be okay? 

Eventually the panic subsided, but my anxiety—particularly around my job and income— remained elevated for days. At some point, my boyfriend gently pointed out that the coffee shop I manage is still open for carryout. As of yet, my income is unaffected. Furthermore, I have an amazing support network, a home, an emergency fund, and a good amount of money in my savings account. I manage a store that is part of an established local coffee chain and roaster, where I’ve been in my current role for two years. If we had to close our doors for a while, I would still have a job waiting for me at the end of this. All things considered, I’m actually quite privileged, at least economically speaking.

One lesson that I’ve learned in sobriety is that exaggerated emotional reactions—like my extreme fear of losing my income—are usually linked to trauma. Yes, our current situation is entirely unprecedented, and there is no one on earth who can be asked for advice about how they got through the last global pandemic. However, there is little reason to think that I am going to be destitute, or anything close to it. Something about the current situation is triggering a memory of a time when my safety, my livelihood, my emotional or material security was under attack.

Like so many other trans and queer folx, I have trauma because I live in a world where it’s not safe to be who I am. Most of my trauma responses around money, job security, and unstable living situations stem from early in my gender transition. 

It was the dead of winter, and I had just come out as trans. I was crashing on friends’ couches because I was in the middle of an ugly breakup. I hadn’t started medically transitioning yet, so I was being misgendered 100% of the time, including at my job. I was working in an unsafe, non-affirming environment. I was also a raging drunk, and my restaurant/bar job enabled my alcoholism, which fueled my dysfunction, which fueled my alcoholism, and so on.

Two and a half years sober and five years transitioned, I am a very different person now than I was then. It’s not just that I have more—more credentials, more experience, more coping skills, more support. It’s that I am more—more resourceful, resilient, responsible, confident, competent, trusting, and trustworthy. Furthermore, I got sober and transitioned simultaneously—in Kentucky. If I can survive that, I can survive anything. 

But I didn’t come this far just to survive. I did that—just survived—before I got sober. Which is why I can’t allow myself to indulge in the kind of obsessive worry that keeps me barely functioning, in a vicious cycle of rumination and retraumatization, running either on fumes or on adrenaline, and no in between. 

So my challenge to myself, and to you dear reader, in this time of global and local crisis is to be mindful. Pay attention to your feelings and behaviors. If it seems like you’re reverting back to old unhealthy patterns, simply acknowledge this, and gently remind yourself that things are different now. You are different. Yes, this situation is unprecedented. But we are all in this situation together, and we will get through it. Our collective future literally depends on it. And yes, the effects of trauma are real. But they do not define you in this moment. Take a deep breath and allow space for the feeling. And then allow yourself to let go of it. 

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