I just put to bed day #40 (April 26, 2020) in this ‘stay at home’ initiative. And about 40 days ago I had written The Shadow of COVID-19: What a Virus Is Really Here To Show Us. So now deeper into the cave of this COVID-19 experience, I’m feeling the need to share some things.
I fully recognize the privilege of my position. And so I know that whatever I share is in no way representative of the collective. It’s my voice, my experience, my insights. And I hold an enormous amount of compassion for those who are really suffering felt losses through this pandemic. But that compassion is born of the intense fires of the destruction of ‘self’, in all the ways in which I’ve been broken, burned down to nothingness. And as a Wounded Healer I often feel compelled to share that with intention to offer connection, to promote authenticity about what it means to be a healer.
When I wrote The Shadow of COVID-19: What a Virus Is Really Here To Show Us I had the learned experience of death initiation, in all the ways that can appear- and there are many different layers and aspects of that, from ego dissolution through transcendental states of consciousness, to dismemberments in shamanic journeys, to literal near death experiences, to living with a chronic terminal illness, to going through ceremonial shamanic death initiations. While none of those experiences were even remotely similar, the culmination of them all lent to a forged friendship with the death deity. And She never lets my heart stray far.
One day in mid-March 2020, maybe a day or two before I began isolating myself by choice (prior to the official local ‘stay at home’ orders), I was enjoying the trees, the sunlight, the bird songs, while doing some light work in my backyard. I suddenly found myself out of breath, which is unusual for me. I struggled for breath for a few hours, unable to even take a drink of water without feeling short of breath. And then of course that real manifest physical symptom caused me to begin to wonder what was going on, to consider if I might have COVID-19, and then to experience anxiety around that idea. I talked myself out of thinking I might have COVID-19, and eventually that symptom went away as fast as it came. I am not by nature an anxious person, and I was not consciously ruminating or fearful at the time. At the onset of this symptom I was actually having a very peaceful moment in my much beloved back yard.
Well, a few days later I circled (in our first online Zoom meeting) with the monthly wise women council I am so grateful to be held in. I mentioned the symptom and how it triggered a concern I might actually have COVID-19. A beloved sister suggested to me that perhaps I had some unconscious stuff bubbling up. Me, The Queen of Shadow Work? Well, I did write about how COVID-19 was going to really trigger us into Shadow work. And here I was finding myself being prompted to explore this for myself yet again.
The mystery to me is that I am pretty adept at knowing myself. Having been introspective my entire life, the concept that I could have something so unconscious and yet so significant that it was manifesting physically as an inability to catch my breath was on the level of getting a stage IIIc inflammatory breast cancer diagnosis when I was thirty. I didn’t even know how to begin to go about digging that out.
A few weeks went by, the symptom again manifesting itself with no trigger I could immediately identify. In fact, a couple times I would wake up at night with shortness of breath. It was enough to make me wonder if there was actually an underlying physical ailment going on, perhaps congestive heart failure caused by the hundreds of gallons of chemotherapy that has infused in my body, damaging my heart. I just noticed, and wondered, minimized my exposure to anxiety-evoking COVID-19 related media, and kept my self-care going, which included, among other things, an increasing amount of time spent outdoors, among nature.
In the meantime our next door neighbor was quarantined and very ill, waiting for corona virus test results. He had apparently been exposed at work. Each day I would go into my front yard and look over at their house to see if there were any signs of life (or death). It was a very long four weeks, and while I can’t even begin to compare my experience of being a neighbor to a family struggling with a COVID-19 infection with their actual direct experience with battling the virus in their own home, and within his own body, it was beginning to weigh on me. I felt helpless. I wanted to do something, but didn’t know what to do. Everything in me wanted to do healing ceremony for them, but my ethics aren’t calibrated to make that ever okay without permission. So I just continued looking over, feeling and wondering what was going on inside, hoping for resurrection to prove it’s power this Holy Season of Lent/Passover/Good Friday/Easter. The magnitude of what was happening within their private cave was speaking deep into me with a familiarity that was much beyond conscious thoughts or words. It was too ancient for that.
And being an outsider, unable to even really look in, to offer my doula services, was really hard for me. We did little things to help, like mow their yard for them. But all those things felt insufficient at the precipice of death.
One thing COVID-19 has given me more of is humility. It’s literally bent my knees and shown me how spiritual posturing has no place in a global pandemic.
So when I finally saw my neighbor emerge from the darkness of this horrible viral attack and back into the light, I was excited to see her, and to know about how her husband was faring. He was still isolated inside, but now on the mend. She talked about the struggle- the four toughest nights she went through so alone, her husband inching closer to death’s door, her conversations with nurses and their firm reality-check with her that if she felt her husband was truly in a dire condition she should call EMS, but that she would not be allowed to accompany him to the hospital, nor visit him there. She talked about making the hard decision to not call EMS and to keep trying other things to support his health and recovery. And about having tried everything, she could only rely on prayer to carry him, her, and the children through this very lonely and scary time. I burst out in tears as she shared. I was overcome with compassion for her, for them. But it was that moment that I also realized what had been causing my breathlessness.
See, this COVID-19 pandemic has not just triggered Shadow work, but trauma too. It’s putting many people into autonomic nervous system (ANS) overload, and for a lot of people with trauma, this is going to manifest in ANS dysregulation. This is a much deeper level of the thing than at the somatic (peripheral) nervous system level. Although for some people this might be triggered too. Any nervous system response is normal within the shadow of this experience. It’s how human beings have been surviving for thousands of years.
I knew immediately when we all became aware of the wave of COVID-19 that was decimating Italy and had now crashed onto American shores, that several members of my family, including myself, are high risk for fatal complications of COVID-19. And I was all too familiar with medically induced coma and intubation with ventilators. So the moment the outbreak in China became apparent and the reports were that people with this virus were needing respiratory intubation, my mind and my ANS already had an entire frame of reference for all that.
My youngest child, whom I’ve written about before and whom I’ve enjoyed sharing some of my conversations with, has autism. As soon as he turned 18 he wanted his dad and I to assume medical power of attorney so that we could advocate for him, help make decisions on his behalf. He’s often overwhelmed by medical conversations and struggles with filling out paperwork. And firsthand experience has shown us that hospitals are not safe places for people with autism. Doctors and nurses rarely have direct experience caring for patients with autism, and the hospital policies and services, and the hospital environment itself is often not flexible enough to accommodate the unique needs of patients with autism. Twice my son has ended up intubated and in medically induced coma in the ICU because of uncontrolled psychogenic non-epileptic seizures (shaman seizures) and paradoxical reactions from benzodiazepines. Both times he nearly died, and the second time if it wasn’t for my strong advocacy he probably would have died from complications of medicines they continued giving him even after I began sounding the alarm about the life-threatening side effects he was experiencing. Both times I had to take him home, straight from the ICU, and against medical advice (without proper physician orders and discharge procedures).
A shamanic individual once told me to never share photos of my son in a sick, weak, or vulnerable state. But I’m sharing them (with his permission) because the visual context holds a power of it’s own, and we are healing and have healed. I’m sharing because I want others who have experienced various traumas, especially medical traumas, to know they’re not alone and they can get through this. I’m sharing them because I want other caretakers of people with extraordinary needs, both physical and developmental/cognitive/behavioral, to know that their fears are valid and go far beyond fearing death for their loved one. One may wonder why I even took pictures in the first place. Because unlike respiratory intubation due to COVID-19, which is caused by a microscopic infectious invader, my son’s intubations were the direct result of medical mismanagement and abuse of power/authority. He did not need to be intubated to save his life, because his lungs were failing, injured, or infected. They refused to listen to me as his mother, they assumed they knew better, and they were unable to manage him
in a more humane way. Some of you reading this may have known me in the midst of all this. You may have seen and responded to my 3am pleas for prayer as we were enduring this. But what you didn’t see or hear was the then unutterable horror of these experiences- they did this to him. And not just once. Both times they intubated him because the drugs they gave him with the intention of chemical restraint (one of them being the same drug that killed Michael Jackson) were such respiratory suppressants that his body could have just stopped breathing. These photos don’t represent life-saving medical interventions. They represent abuse. And I wanted to document that.
So I came into this COVID-19 cave knowing all my children were vulnerable to this virus. I came in knowing my youngest son in particular was most physically vulnerable, at the level of my own vulnerability because of my cancer treatment and side effects of that, but that he also has a special vulnerability that particularly has caused a lot of trauma in the past. It sets him up to be easily victimized. I came in knowing firsthand what intubation and coma and ICU environments are like.
But the part that was unconscious, and poking at me from just below the surface, was the trauma induced fear that my son would become deathly ill and would have to go to the hospital alone, go through his own relived trauma of intubation alone, that he would be terrified and neither the doctors or nurses would be able to communicate or calm him in the ways that I can. In this COVID-19 situation my power of attorney holds no power in the immediate. It no longer guarantees my presence, my oversight of his care. It no longer allows me the right to be by his side, to comfort and soothe him, to speak his language or to translate his needs to those who have no idea how to work with differently wired people, and who operate within a system that’s palpably hostile to individuals that don’t fit in the box. And I didn’t become conscious of this until the moment my neighbor recounted the hard decision she had to face as her husband grew increasingly sick. I had heard and read it in the media– people were dying of COVID-19 alone. I just didn’t connect the dots that this decision to call EMS might come down to weighing all of these factors. As my neighbor talked about her own difficult process in balancing this decision, I realized this was what my breathlessness was about. Medical trauma. Fear of having no control (power) within a medical system that has consistently caused my son more harm than healing.
We’ve gone through a similar healing journey with the police. Bakersfield police beat my son in front of a psychiatric hospital when he was 16 years old because he was suicidal and intent on killing himself. They brutalized him so severely they left him with multiple bruises and cuts, tore the bicep muscle right off his bone, and burst his glenohumeral joint capsule. They tased him multiple times after they had him face down on the sidewalk, hands handcuffed behind his back.
He eventually had to have surgical repair to the damage after months and months of painful physical therapy didn’t resolve the dysfunction or facilitate healing. It was only after moving out of Bakersfield and to central Texas that the kind and understanding police in Texas were able to help my son to trust police again. Through developing relationships with local police he was able to let go of his fear and extreme anger and began healing some of the PTSD from that incident. But the medical trauma all occurred here in Texas and more recently. We really haven’t had an opportunity to reconcile that. I just didn’t realize I was still carrying so much of it.
As soon as that broke through my consciousness I was able to cry for my neighbor in compassion, and also cry for myself, for my son, my husband, and the trauma we experienced. I was able to acknowledge myself in this, feel through that fear, work towards empowerment. My breathlessness resolved.
And then came back again. By this time I knew this was not a physical condition, a side effect of treatments or an underlying condition, but was a side effect, or rather evidence of my unresolved traumas, all being marched forward one by one, demanding acknowledgement and tender medicine. Stuff I thought was sufficiently resolved. I mean, I’ve been at this healing business my entire life. There’s just been so many. So, so many traumas. And it’s not like you get a certificate every time you clear one. You just keep working through, and through, and through.
I have my own medical traumas. So many hospitalizations, complications, so, so many surgeries and emergencies, and nearly dying experiences. And those medical imaging machines. Long, small, confining body tubes. The air is dense. Even with eyes closed I can sense the walls of the machine confining me in. And rather than feel like safety, like containment, it felt like a coffin. Don’t move. Don’t cough or sneeze. Don’t scratch your itchy nose. Barely breathe. For sometimes up to an hour. And then there were those brain MRIs, when your shoulders get strapped down, they put a cage over your entire head and strap that down, and you have to lay completely still while a giant magnet hums and knocks away, creating a powerful magnetic force around you. Add to that the heightened stress anyway, as the context for such imaging studies on cancer patients is always to diagnose the pattern of the cancer growth, and it’s a recipe for post traumatic stress disorder. I had so many botched imaging experiences too. I could rarely get through any of them without a benzo. And so out of that, heavily layered with childhood traumas (complex PTSD), was born an extreme aversion to confinement. Of any kind.
Needless to say that as soon as we were required to wear masks in public, this re-surfaced. It’s actually recently familiar to me, as having to wear a mask in a different context brought this front and center. So I already knew this was going to be a challenge. But I don’t go many places. In 40 days I’ve been inside a store maybe five times. I’ve been to the cancer center twice for infusion and to see the oncology NP. I’ve been to my primary care doctor, and then to the hospital for an echocardiogram. So with all these anxiety-producing medical appointments, and then having to wear a mask now too, it’s no wonder my symptoms of breathlessness have intermittently returned.
Yet I AM the Wounded Healer.
Did you ever notice wound (wow) and wound (woo) are both spelled the same but are pronounced differently and with entirely different meanings? Playing with this homograph will impart some wisdom: the process of becoming the Wounded Healer is to be wound (wownd) up by the wound (woond), and to unwind yourself, actualizing the process itself to become the healer. But those threads that wound (wownd) in the first place never really burn away. There’s no way they can because they are integral to the identity, healed and woven in like a beautiful tapestry. Sometimes a thread comes loose. This too is part of the process- tending it.
Here’s the thing: As I shared, anxiety is not my usual nature. This is probably why the symptoms have been so perplexing for me, because I’m not familiar with them really. Sure, I’ve had moments of anxiety throughout my life, usually spurred on by rumination or having to face something in the immediate future that I felt powerless over. But until COVID-19 I had never had symptoms just manifest with no obvious prompt. And I’ve done an incredible amount of healing work. I’ve tried many things, know what works for me and what doesn’t. I know how to manage myself, to retrieve power, to get grounded. I know how to self-care, and how to have self-compassion. And so my authentically sharing my experience here is not intended to solicit sympathy, advice, or to make it seem like this ‘stay at home’ business is so horrible and I’m suffering. It’s to say that I am healing. Actually, I think it’s good for all of us on some level. It’s forcing a hand that is disrupting all the circuits. We’re all potentially convalescing in ways. And I know many people are suffering real felt losses- of jobs, of lifestyles, of businesses, health insurance, of loved ones. For the most part I am safe, content, and managing life from home. But I am offering my authenticity so that you know you’re not alone. People are triggered. I’ve been triggered. There’s no judgement in that. I expected it actually. And I warned of it. Anxiety may increase. Depression may increase. Dreams might get your attention. Tears might come. Tempers might flare. The existential reality might bring you to your knees. You may develop insomnia, or feel short of breath. You may develop phobias (especially germ or social phobias). You may feel helpless, scared, uncertain, angry. You may be working through a tremendous amount of loss and grief. And maybe you don’t feel or understand any of this. All of that is normal too. But in the time of a pandemic, when the entire human race is holding their breath, feeling breathless seems pretty normal. All of this seems like a pretty normal response to an incredibly stressful situation. But let’s sit with this. Let’s keep healing and appreciate the time to convalesce.
If you want some skills to help you through, if you just need to vent, or make a connection with someone who can hold you in your authentic experience, reach out. Many people have really been preparing for a time such as this, and are ready to receive you exactly where you are. And I AM here, fully. I’m not perfect. I don’t know it all. I am still working, tending to loose threads. But I know some tricks. Maybe those will help you too. And maybe it’s not even about tricks, but just about being witnessed, being held in your authentic experience. That’s a powerful medicine too.
This can be okay. You can be okay. In moments it might not feel like it, but you can get through this, stronger in unity, and wiser with compassion. I know because I am getting through it.