When people experience intense trauma they never fully recover. The wound, whether physical, emotional, or psychological, stays with them forever. They are never going to heal completely.
In certain instances, the healing process is aborted. People opt for distraction over deliberate engagement with the cause of the hurt. They look to escape its hold, to bury the pain.
The word ‘trauma’ comes from the Greek word for wound. The word is used to refer to physical wounds such as when a person is seriously injured in a motor car accident.
Trauma also refers to the damage inflicted on a person’s psyche. Psychological wounding occurs in adults usually in cases such as combat, rape or other abuse, extreme loss, and threat of personal injury or death. When our psyche has been wounded, we may experience a wide range of feelings and reactions. These include:
- Difficulty in controlling feelings and emotions
- Nightmares or other sleep problems
- Excessive anger
- Psychological numbness, unable to feel or react
- Anxiety, hyper-alertness, or strong reactions to movement, noise, or other stimuli
- Impulsive, out-of-control or addictive behaviors
Australian writer Anna Krien’s debut novel, Act of Grace, explores numerous themes including that of trauma.
Toohey is one of the main characters. He served the Australian war effort in Afghanistan and Iraq. His third deployment was to Bagdad. Four months in a suicide bomber swerved into Toohey’s ASLAV. It was a bit of a fizzer, but Toohey’s neck was dotted with open puncture wounds. The American doctor said it was not essential to remove the shrapnel; it could do more harm than good.
Within 24 hours Toohey was back on patrol. When the street suddenly lit up with headlights, he hoisted his gun and fired. At the Army interview Toohey maintained he heard a warning shot. His kneejerk reaction caused the death of an innocent young girl who was sitting on her mother’s lap. Toohey could hear the woman in the backseat screaming and wondered how that was possible. It wasn’t until he looked that he realised ‘it wasn’t her who was dead, it was the bundle in her arms, a little meat-works of his own making.’
In trying to make sense of the trauma, Toohey was in danger of misinterpreting the facts, of reframing the narrative and forming his own conclusions. He was particularly angered that his government offered the baby’s mother reparations for his actions. The term used is an ‘act of grace.’ It is a type of payment the government can make to someone who has been unfairly and unintentionally harmed because of Australian Army action. Acts of grace are discretionary. Rather than an admission of guilt the payment, in this instance US$2500, sought to conceal the wrong and to bury the pain. It bought silence.
Writer and lawyer, Anna Waldherr says,
In attempting to make sense of things we create beliefs. The beliefs we develop in response to traumatic experiences are called ‘trauma beliefs.’ Because trauma beliefs are disempowering and painful, they become emotional wounds. When a traumatic event is not fully understood, it is difficult for the person to fully process it.
Toohey struggled to cope with post-war life – he was abusive to his family, and shrapnel stayed in his neck.
Post-traumatic stress cannot be contained. Severe prolonged reactions can be disabling and can affect a person’s relationships with family and friends as well their capacity to work. The consequences of post-traumatic stress reverberate through to the next generation.
Toohey’s relationship with his son, Gerry, was coercive and confrontational, forcing Gerry to withdraw from his father both physically and emotionally. Toohey eventually came to understand that his son was ‘lost to him.’
As COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, many politicians and news media have adopted war metaphors to describe the challenges we are facing.
Fighting the COVID-19 pandemic has been likened to fighting a war. In March 2020, Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was quoted as saying,
The conflict has been described as a ‘silent war’ and the enemy as ‘invisible.’
Writing for the Spectator, Australia, Ian Hanke says,
“Framing the virus in this way means governments can rally people to ‘fight the enemy’ and justifies almost anything.”
Using the war metaphor frames the response of governments and it may not be in our best interest.
As Sandra Mathison, a professor of education at the University of British Columbia, wrote in a recent blog “…a pandemic is not a war, a virus has no morality or intention, the virus is not intimidated by force or bombastic rhetoric.”
People die from transmissible diseases. Some people, including the elderly, are more susceptible.
Leaders would do better to promote civil responsibility and global solidarity instead of the idea of warfare. Finding a solution to the pandemic is a shared responsibility, and the solution must be global.
If we continue to talk about the pandemic as being ‘at war,’ battle fatigue may derail our best efforts. People are growing weary. The upheaval to their way of life is taking its toll. There is growing concern among some members of the community that what we are doing to contain the virus is not sustainable. They fear for their families, for their livelihoods, for their future.
Medical experts, politicians, and commentators have said “this pandemic will be a marathon and not a sprint.” But is the public messaging preparing us for the long haul? We are being told that our lives will be altered, and our freedoms curtailed. Some are suggesting that we need to start planning for the new normal, but does anyone know what that might be?
It is only now that we can begin to identify the emotional wounds that we may have to endure post COVID-19, some of which will never heal completely.
Let us consider several examples:
(1) Some families have been denied access to patients dying of COVID-19.
In Australia and internationally, older people are more likely than younger people to die of COVID-19. Some of the most worrying clusters of cases are in residential aged care facilities. To limit the spread of infection many centres have restricted contact between residents and visitors. One of the tragic consequences is that many older people with COVID-19 have died alone.
Being denied access to a dying loved one – a husband of decades, a loving mother, or a favourite aunt – has profound psychological and practical consequences for families.
(2) Many small businesses have never experienced anything like the hardship COVID-19 has caused.
The pandemic has devastated many small businesses, with owners running through personal savings and juggling payments and debt. Businesses are being forced to adapt, to re-invent, to transform. It is not about thriving but surviving. Some do not have the flexibility or the funds to reimagine themselves and have been forced to close. There are many individual stories of stress, anxiety, and anger yet to be told.
(3) Health care workers and nonmedical health care personnel are exhibiting psychological distress during COVID-19.
The COVID-19 pandemic poses an unprecedented public health crisis. Therefore, it is important to acknowledge the psychological impact of this threat on healthcare professionals.
Studies have found that healthcare professionals are reporting feelings of extreme vulnerability, uncertainty, anxiety, and subsequent psychological distress. Frontline doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers fear that they may contract COVID-19 themselves. They worry about bringing the virus home and passing it on their loved ones and family members.
It is incumbent upon everyone to be sensitive to the challenges being faced during the COVID-19 pandemic and the psychological stress may people are experiencing. They need our support.
There is no going back. We cannot distance ourselves from our wounds. We cannot erase the past. But our wounds do not need to dominate our lives. While it is important to acknowledge them, they do not have to define our existence.
Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist, Dr. Victor Frankl, was a Holocaust survivor. Following his release from Auschwitz in 1945, Frankl returned to Vienna only to find that everything that had sustained him had been destroyed. More destruction, more suffering, more despair.
Frankl could have become depressed, questioning what life was all about. Instead he gave a series of public lectures affirming the purpose and sanctity of life. The notes from these lectures have recently been rediscovered and republished under the title ‘Yes to Life: In Spite of Everything.’ Frankl believed: ‘Life is so infinitely meaningful – even in suffering and even in failure there still has to be a meaning.’