The scars of our collective trauma become more visible and more permanent as we enter Year Three of the COVID-19 pandemic. Every failure in leadership and governance and policy abrades what remaining protective shell we have guarding our hope. What we lose in the trauma, and what we can learn, as someone living it for years before.
Content Warning: This post discusses terrorism, PTSD, COVID, racism, and Charlottesville.
I had been seeing a therapist for a few years already when the Summer of Hate came to Charlottesville, my home for nearly a decade. As a specialist in LGBT issues, she naturally also had experience with trauma: queer people are disproportionately affected by traumatic stressors, in particular the kind of hate-based violence brought to our community that summer. That weekend I was part of a group of students and community members beaten by a torch-wielding mob; the next day, I narrowly avoided the terror attack that killed Heather Heyer. My therapist cleared some space in her calendar a few days later.
We think about traumatic stressors as acute events, and of course many are. Terrorism, violence, death of a loved one: these are all things that can happen suddenly and painfully, leaving a deep scar in our psyche. In the narrative arc of trauma, we begin as fulsome if not naïve protagonists against whom some singular horror is befallen, breaking our souls but mostly our innocence, the master reveal in the final act being the demons that we must fight have always been the ones inside of us. I described to my therapist the moments that resonated from that weekend: the citronella and kerosene stench of the tiki torches, the way the scene of the car attack went silent in my mind despite the agonizing screams of the dozens of injured. I asked my therapist if this is what people with PTSD go through. Sometimes, she told me, but you don’t have PTSD yet. The diagnostic criteria of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder often take months to meet. She explained that there was nothing “post” about what I was experiencing, that it was the acute response to one set of events that were more likely than not going to be part of a chain of ongoing stressors. Trauma is often an accumulated harm.
After the hour ended, I walked out to my truck and turned on my phone and saw a text from my wife. If your session went well, she said, don’t look at the news. Donald Trump had just made his “very fine people on both sides” comments. My phone vibrated with an email. The Guardian was asking me to respond to the President’s statement.
The next day, I attended Heather Heyer’s funeral. Upon returning home, I learned that half my team were laid off. A chain of ongoing stressors, indeed.
COVID-19 is a disease that sprung directly from our deepest anxieties: a highly-contagious, lethal, airborne virus capable of killing young, healthy people, with few known effective treatments as it began to circulate the globe. We watched in horror as a Chinese doctor’s wife in a biohazard suit ran wailing after a car carrying his body drove away. We saw convoys of military trucks carrying away bodies in Italy. We witnessed mass graves being dug on an island in New York City. We did not ask for this, we were innocent.
The diagnostic criteria for PTSD do not admit repeated exposure to stressors through electronic media, unless this is related to a necessary work function, such as a law enforcement officer investigating a crime. Nevertheless, these images did traumatize, particularly as they were happening in places we recognized—global north places—and to communities that we didn’t expect to be so powerless. As the virus spread, it began to infect and kill people we knew, friends of friends, or community figures. Regardless of whether the disease affected our family, our friends, or ourselves, our lives were suddenly altered. Work and school shifted to be remote overnight. Lockdowns of varying severity prevented us from eating out or going to the movies or a ball game or a museum. Vacation plans were put on hold, families weren’t even able to attend the funerals of loved ones the virus took away.
Of course, those who experienced the disease firsthand and their loved ones are vulnerable to post-trauma symptoms. Healthcare workers have shown higher vulnerability to mental traumas during this and other pandemics. Secondary effects, such as increased rates of domestic violence, contribute as well. Research from early 2021, one year into the pandemic, shows that even without first- or secondhand exposure to COVID, to the pandemic experience presents like PTSD even though it does not fit perfectly into the diagnostic criteria.
The news cameras left Charlottesville soon after the events of August 2017. The journalists who parachuted into town filed their copy and left just as quickly, the relentless media cycle granting no rest for the wicked. The narrative arcs were clean and simple: an innocent college town was besieged by neo-Nazis from out of state and, having borne witness to a brand of hate long assumed extinct, must now reckon with its own historical legacies cast in bronze and mounted atop pedestals of granite and concrete. Trauma was a thing that happened to Charlottesville.
Most of those cameras weren’t present as the racists kept coming back, flying their banners of hate, harassing townsfolk, marching with tiki torches. They didn’t capture as I was swatted by a neo-Nazi. Few wrote about the death threats the community received. “Charlottesville” stopped being a name for a place, becoming now a name for a moment in time.
Charlottesville was never and has never been about that moment in time. For many of us, what happened in August 2017 is simply one moment in an ongoing chain of events that occurred for centuries before and have continued to occur in the years since. Each of these events, from the car attack to the targeted harassment of a Black candidate for City Council, were traumas borne by our entire community. Community Trauma, as it is called, can have generational effects among those who live there. Even individually traumatic events have a community component: the support structures of the affected help bear the burden of that trauma.
The natural reaction after the events of Unite the Right was to seek justice for the things that were done to our community. Criminal charges were brought, lawsuits were filed, and an entire network of activists nationwide banded together to bring a measure of accountability to the wrongdoers. But this, too, was traumatic. We listened attentively as witnesses recounted the terror of mob violence. We waited with agonizing impatience for juries to deliberate, the anxiety flowing out of our ears at the thought that the assailants might be acquitted. We watched as our grief won all the prestige awards: an Emmy here, a Pulitzer there, mostly given to those same journalists who parachuted in from out of town. I often wake up to an email either thanking me for my work, or telling me I was a Soros-backed shill who should start counting the days until I would be hanged.
I volunteered for this, of course. Fighting back became my way of asserting control over the trauma, an alchemy by which I would imbue my suffering with meaning or value, convinced that if I had to suffer, I didn’t have to suffer for nothing. At times I would see the trauma as a gift, the grinding stone with which I could sharpen my rage, the steel with which I could stiffen the aegis needed to protect my community or another from having to endure this needless horror ever again. I won’t say it wasn’t in vain. But it wasn’t enough.
Rage has become a familiar traveling companion in the second year of the pandemic, a year that brought us the eminently foreseeable mutations of the virus. The latest of these mutations has evolved to sidestep many of the protections offered by COVID vaccines, the one true beacon of hope that helped carry us through the first twelve months of the nightmare. Our rage boils through our trauma, erupting in bursts of anger on social media, or from time to time in actual physical violence. We blame anti-vaxxers for the insufficiently low vaccination rates needed to achieve immunity; anti-vaxxers take to the streets and storm government buildings to protest infection control measures. Those who are not behaving like us, those who do not take this as seriously as we do, become easy targets for our rage. How dare you travel? How dare you eat out? You—you!—you are to blame for our prolonged situation, our collective nightmare could be ended if only you approached this with my selfsame gravitas. Do you not care for the elderly, the children, the immunocompromised?
This alkaline fury is familiar to me in the wake of Unite the Right. How dare you not oppose Nazis? How can you be indifferent to the most serious terror threat of the contemporary era? Your apathy is complicity, after all I almost died trying to stop it. Where were you!?
I still feel this way.
We direct many of our pandemic grievances towards the only institution large to carry them all and slow enough to react with a damped response: our governments. In the early days, we looked to our government centers and agencies to give us direction, seeking public service from those who have dedicated their lives and careers to public service, only to find our trauma compounded by their collapsing integrity. Poor guidance on masks, lack of consistent and timely data on disease dynamics, and ultimately, overwhelming capitulation to corporations whose profit motives point the complete opposite direction from our personal wellbeing have eroded the public trust in the organizations we were supposed to revere. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention were once considered to be the gold standard in infectious disease epidemiology; now they are reduced to the punchline of a lazy meme, their advice no longer trustworthy in a time where uncertainty compels a need for staid leadership.
I can’t remember life before Unite the Right. I recall events, some with great fondness and joy. I remember my wedding, sailing in my childhood best friend’s boat on the lake in my hometown, and every beer league ice hockey goal I’ve ever scored. A few nights ago, I was driving home from running errands in Charlottesville and realized I had no memories of driving home in the winter evening dark. I surely must have; the earth has not changed its axial tilt. I know factually that I shopped at a specific Kroger for several years before my wife and I bought our house, but as I write these words I cannot conjure a single memory of what the store looks like inside.
Trauma robs us of those little pieces that compose our identities. In the pandemic, we talk about the before times, some of us questioning whether they will ever come back, some of us acting as if they have never gone away, and others hoping that they never do. The so-called negative alterations that we see—the anger, the violence, and the outrage against those who dare to experience joy—are traumatic indicators. Maybe we feel like the pandemic is something that is happening to each of us personally because we are accustomed to seeing trauma, even collective trauma, as something that happens to individuals. Perhaps because COVID is something that can be healed from and vaccinated against, we are silently hoping for an inoculation against trauma or a remedy against our mental anguish.
When traumatic events happen to or in communities, we often ask how we can help the community heal. But trauma isn’t a thing that communities or individuals heal from: it’s something they must move beyond. It’s possible that we collectively forget the before times much as I have forgotten the layout of my former local supermarket. To recover, we have to be willing to create the environment where the effects of trauma cannot flourish, and that means that we need to choose the kind of community we want to be. It also requires us to recognize that we have been traumatized and that this is reflected in our behaviors. We can accept those behaviors without guilt: after all, there is nothing wrong with being mad at the government for a failed COVID policy. There is no blame in feeling hopeless.
The pandemic started some two-and-a-half years after Unite the Right. It was a cruel irony that just as I was ready to start defining what my world after trauma would look like, the world itself became incompatible with that joy. What doesn’t kill you doesn’t actually make you stronger; you are not magically more resilient for having survived a traumatic experience. I have, during this pandemic, felt the same anger, hopelessness, resentment, and loss that so many others have felt. But my experience recovering from trauma has given me better tools to manage the stressors, to prevent those responses from flaring up. I have my own version of the before times and I have learned to accept that they are not coming back. I have learned how to recognize my stressors and responses and how to manage them not through avoidance, but by seeking the support of the community around me. Together, we will all have to do that, too.
Estimated Reading Time: 12 minutes