Let me start off by saying this blog is not easy to write. My family and I have been through weeks of crisis, trauma, sadness, heartache, hope, happiness, tears, laughs, the list goes on and on and while most of what has happened in the last few weeks I will keep private (especially since parts of my emotional experience I haven’t even been able to express yet with my partner), I felt the need to share at least a slither of what has happened, in hopes, and I don’t know who, but somewhere out there, there is someone else who needs this help. Not that I wish for anyone to have to deal with a truly traumatic experience while also trying to navigate a global pandemic, but if there is someone, I want you to know you are not alone.
I also felt the need to put some words on paper as a therapeutic part of my personal healing. Maybe it is selfish of me, since I am not the one with double digit broken bones, but I am the one with the broken heart that is slowly being put back together piece by piece and sharing the experience , these words , it makes the trauma real. It helps me process it and hopefully be whole again myself.
So here is what I am willing to share, as we have shared some of it on social media already. On September 13th, the day before our one year wedding anniversary, my husband was in a very serious mountain bike accident. He spent several days in the ICU, suffered multiple broken bones, and a mid to severe brain trauma injury. Thankfully, every day he gets a little healthier, stronger, and better, and we are so lucky for that.
What I am not willing to share, yet is the specific emotional turmoil this has caused, maybe one day but not now. That is not the point of this blog, the point of this blog is some words, I won’t say of wisdom since I am by no means (and hope I never am) an expert in dealing with trauma, but words from first hand experience of trying to navigate a traumatic experience while also trying to navigate a global pandemic, COVID 19.
According to reports, 53% of Americans said their mental health was negatively impacted by COVID 19. The pandemic has caused fear and anxiety over health, loved ones, job loss, the list goes on. According to the CDC, it has caused people to loose sleep, worsen chronic health problems, and worsen pre-existing mental health issues. All of that sounds hard enough right? Well now add another layer of anxiety, of fear, of uncertainty when a loved one is in the hospital.
Some obvious impacts were right on the surface level
Forget the personal, emotional and physical impacts for a moment. Let’s first talk about the actual concrete things we had to deal with. Because of COVID 19, my husband had to be tested when he arrived at the hospital. Until his test results came back, I could only be with him for an hour a day, and I could only visit him through a window. Once his test came back negative, he was allowed one visitor, once a day during a certain time period. That meant once I arrived, I wasn’t allowed to leave his room except to go to the bathroom. I wasn’t allowed to leave the hospital or even have lunch at the cafeteria. So usually I would be in the room for 12 hours a day, just stuck there with my thoughts. No one to talk to, no one to cry with, no one to hug when I started to feel sad. All I could do was watch my loved one, helpless, and in return feel hopeless and heartbroken for 12 hours straight. On top of that you have to wear a mask the entire time, and you are constantly hearing about COVID from doctors and nurses talking to each other. It makes the pandemic so much more real and so so much scarier.
Some of the impacts were a little deeper and harder to express
I count my blessings every day that this is the first truly traumatic experience I have had to go through. In the early days post accident, I could’t eat, I couldn’t sleep, I was just going through the motions but I wasn’t actually here. My body felt numb, it all seemed like a bad nightmare that had to end but no matter how hard I tried, I could’t wake up. The mornings were the worst, I would wake up with such anxiety that every inch of my body was in pain because I didn’t know what new experiences I would have to go through, or what information I would have to try and take in that day. I had to be strong on the outside for him, our family, our friends, but on the inside I was breaking down mentally, physically, emotionally.
How to cope with it all…or at least try to
I need to start off with thanking every single nurse that watched my husband. I wrote down every single one of their names so I can thank them at a later day. Not only were they taking care of my husband, but they also took care of me. Hugged me when I cried, joked with me when I needed a laugh, came running if I heard a beep that scared me (even though the beeps were totally normal and they were on top of everything). They were amazing not just at their jobs, but at supporting us and I am so thankful.
That is the first point I wanted to make, it is ok to not be strong all the time.
As I mentioned, I was trying to be strong for those around me, I was trying to go through the motions, to make sure all tasks were taken care of. I tried to distract myself from the pain, but the moments I actually felt ok, were the moments after a good cry. The moments that I let myself go. The moments that I let myself feel emotions. You don’t have to be strong all the time, and in fact it is import for you to be able to process your feelings to be able to accept what has happened, and be able to heal.
Not only is it ok to breakdown, but it is ok to lean on friends
When I was sad, down, hyperventilating (which happened a lot) I would message a girlfriend or my mom or dad. I know I am very lucky to have such an amazing support group, and some people aren’t in the same position as me, but not holding it all inside and expressing and sharing your feelings will help you cope and help you avoid a complete and utter breakdown when it all eventually does come out.
It’s also ok to reach out to someone outside of your inner circle…
I had never tried therapy before, but a few people recommended seeking some professional help since I was really struggling to with my own mental state I decided to give it a try. It was the best thing that I ever did. Having an opportunity to express my feelings, emotions, and experiences to someone who was on the outside and unbiased and could really share and who could also give professional advice on how to handle my emotions.
It taught me how to cope…
Every day, sitting in the hospital room my mind would always go to the negative, the worst case scenario. In therapy I learned that cortisol is a chemical in your brain that spurs negative thoughts. But what the therapist taught me is that we still have control over where our thoughts go, and that if we are thinking about negative events that could occur down the road, why not instead turn those negative thoughts into positive ones. As hard as it is (and easier to turn to the negative idea) work a little extra harder to turn those thoughts down a positive path.
Writing it down really helped me…
Sometimes there were things I didn’t want to share with friends, family, or even my therapist, so I decided to start a journal. It was the one outlet where I could really express all of my emotions without any judgment or holding back any of my thoughts. Being able to let it all out helped me create a safe outlet. I was able to prioritize my fears and concerns. Writing it down helped me manage my stress levels by clearing my mind.
Take a moment to breathe…
The hospital is a really hard place to be. Especially in the ICU, where families are going through really difficult times. Now put a global pandemic on top of that, where you aren’t allowed to leave the room except to go to the bathroom, so a friend sent me over some breathing techniques for when I was feeling stressed or overwhelmed. Take a minute to yourself and try and clear your mind and just focus on your breathing. It will help calm you down in the moment.
And if you need to, take some real time for yourself…
Everyone kept telling me that it was also important to focus on myself and my wellbeing. In the moment I didn’t understand, I felt I had to be at the hospital all day everyday to be there for my husband. I wasn’t sleeping or eating, or taking any time to myself. It wasn’t helpful. I didn’t have any energy and I wasn’t able to be strong for my husband, or myself. I felt like I was losing my mind, and so one night instead of staying at the hospital for 12 hours, I left a little early, went home, and slept in my own bed and it was the reset I needed. At first leaving him all along, I felt so guilty, but everyone kept reminding me that I needed to also make sure my own bucket was full. Just taking one evening to myself, with a nice glass of wine, and some distracting laughs from friends helped me regroup and refocus.
Try and focus on the positives…
As hard as it can be during one of the most difficult times of your life, trying to look for positive moments and events each day can try and keep your mind from going to a bad space. I decided to write down three things that I am thankful for each day. Focusing on positive moments, no matter how small they were, helped me realize that there were things to be thankful for and reminded me that as hard and dark as the days seemed, that even though this was going to be a long road, there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
These are a few things that helped me get through one of the most difficult times of my life. Leaning on friends, family, outside sources, and just trying to find moments and positivity as hard as it may seem in the moment. I am no expert by any means but I have gone through this first hand. Going through a global pandemic is difficult as is, but add a traumatic experience on top of that and it can be extremely overwhelming and stressful. Everyone kept telling me that it is important to take care of myself as well as my husband, because if I wasn’t taking care of myself, I wouldn’t have the strength or energy to take care of him too. Find the outlet that helps you cope with the situation at hand. And just take it day by day, because focusing your mind on anything outside of the present isn’t going to help you be strong in the moment.