Past Traumas Prepared Us for COVID-19’s "Before and After"

Draw from the resilience you already developed to get through this tough time.

Posted Oct 23, 2020

Historians are talking about the COVID-19 pandemic as an event that will prove to be one of the hinges of history, marking a turning point, a moment when there was a “before” and “after.”

Every one living through this moment certainly recalls, wistfully, our “before” lives. For many of us, that was when we had a job or steady work from clients if we were freelance writers or other self-employed members of the workforce. Before meant kids in school and parents at work. It meant drinks after work, working out at the gym, and not thinking twice about passing other shoppers in the grocery store.

 Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash
COVID-19 is already being described as a "hinge of history," a before and after moment.
Source: Kelly Sikkema/Unsplash

For millions of couples and families, "after" means being forced by sheltering-in-place restrictions to test the limits of everyone’s nerves with a whole lot more together time. For more than 220,000 Americans as I write this on October 22, after means grieving loved ones taken by the coronavirus. For all of us, after isn’t clear at all.

I expect we’ll all see the pandemic as a hinge of our personal history. It may be a time when our financial picture changed dramatically. Maybe we finally made time to explore interests we had put aside while we were busy being ambitious. Perhaps we took the chance to call a friend we hadn’t talked to on the phone for much too long.

In my own life, I can point to several distinctive before-and-after hinges of my history, times when there was most definitely a before and an even more definite after. This month I mark the anniversaries of two of those life-changing events.

It was one year ago on October 15 that my beloved mom died at age 84. We shared a home the last 10 years of her life, and I became her primary caregiver as her chronic health conditions became more acute and caused a series of medical crises involving ambulances, hospitalizations, and convalescent homes.

Until the moment I received the phone call that awful morning from the convalescent home, where I’d visited her the night before, and even in what had become her frail state, I realize now in the after of bereavement how much safer the world felt with my mom in it.

A second major hinge in my history took place on October 27, 2005. That was when my doctor in Washington, D.C., told me that I had tested HIV-positive in the routine bloodwork he’d done during my annual checkup the week before.

After writing about HIV-AIDS as a health journalist for 20 years at that point, and as a gay man who had lost so many friends and colleagues to AIDS, I had to figure out what my “after” was going to look like.

Like most HIV-negative gay men, being negative was part of my identity—how I perceived and presented myself among other gay men, particularly where it came to sex. Suddenly and without warning, I had to begin learning as I went what it means to be an HIV-positive gay man, a person living with HIV-AIDS, PLHA for short. I had to figure out whether to be “out” about my status and to whom I would reveal it. I had to scramble to find a clinical trial to be sure I could get the life-saving medication I couldn’t afford on my own. I had to learn to handle the stigma many still attach to this particular virus, the rejection from men who are interested in me until they find out I have HIV.

You can bet that the “after” of these traumatic experiences included seriously wobbly emotional legs. The only way through these “hinges” of my history was to put one foot in front of the other and move forward, one step at a time. As anxious, terrified, and uncertain as I was at times, I drew from my own history of surviving traumatic experiences. I reminded myself that, through and all, I have been resilient—and will continue to choose to be resilient.

It’s my experience that the story we tell ourselves about what our trauma “means” has everything to do with whether we’re able to experience post-traumatic growth and become more resilient or stay stuck in the trauma.

The words and language we use—in our own self-talk and certainly in talking to others about our experience—are hugely important in the story we tell. They can either empower or undermine us.

I chose to model my own story after those of the earliest gay men with HIV-AIDS in the early 1980s. They rejected the “victim” label and insisted on being known as “people with AIDS,” insisted that their humanity came first, not their diagnosis. I looked to those men nearly 40 years ago as role models, embracing their sense of empowerment and their emphasis on the power of information and knowledge in living with their illness. I insisted that I would not be defined by a medical diagnosis.

When I’ve felt discouraged and more anxious than usual in my after time, I remind myself that I am “Anna’s son.” For me, having had a role model as highly resilient as my mom means that I have to find and make ways to persevere, and do whatever has to be done to carry on.

It’s unclear how the COVID-19 hinge will look from history’s vantage point, what kind of permanent changes there will be in the "after." Surely video meetings will save many companies money on travel and spare many employees the travel-related strain on relationships. Doubtless, many people will continue to wear a mask around others even after the virus is finally vanquished because it will be hard to forget all we’ve learned about respiratory droplets. Perhaps a greater unity will prevail among fellow humans.

Even as we go through this historic event, this global trauma, the important thing is to draw from our experiences of surviving other difficult times in our life. I call this “conscious resilience,” as we deliberately recall the things we did, read, and told ourselves to pull ourselves through our earlier challenges.

Thankfully, resilience is a learnable and transferable set of skills. It’s the thing that will help us transition from our own “before” to our “after.”