“What If 2020 Was Just a Teaser?”: How to Cope with Trauma that Comes with COVID-19

Runa Mukherjee Parikh
·6-min read

I took the first auto ride in what seemed like a zillion months yesterday. The fresh air did me good for the first two minutes and then I froze. A wedding procession had brought us to a standstill and I couldn’t help but stare at the world outside my exposed little space. Close to 70 people were part of the procession including a poor lanky horse supporting a gaudy chariot. Almost half of the baraatis weren’t wearing masks. They must have had the coronavirus and developed antibodies by now, I convinced myself. The rest of the masked crowd stuck in traffic looked anxious just like me, unsure of what to make of a large wedding procession anymore. A year back, I’d be itching to join the dancers, now all of this is simply stress-inducing.

I still haven’t come to terms with the dystopian hell the months of the lockdown were. With a newborn and a five-year-old in the house and a husband who was just getting used to the idea of regular house work (and not just the occasional dinner making), my world turned upside down. I found myself sleepless, video calling my parents thrice a day, paranoid that they’d get infected, and screaming at a baby for being just that, a baby.

Later, when I caught the virus, it was truly terrifying. The absolute loss of smell and taste was unlike anything I had experienced before. I could have been served a piece of rubber for all I knew. The breathing difficulties came a few days later and it felt as if someone had suddenly compressed my 3-BHK house of a body into a 1-BHK. But all this was nothing compared to the mental stress of maybe passing it on to my tiny one-year-old who breastfed all day long. There were two more children, a set of old parents to worry about. The attention from family and leisurely rest that some people talk about when they get coronavirus... well I got nothing of that. Four months have passed since, but while my body has recovered, my mind keeps reliving the trauma every other day.

Seemingly regular things, like meeting a group of friends, make me nervous. Yet, I try to push myself to adapt to the “new normal” or whatever we are calling this hellish pandemic-filled life these days. A few weeks ago, I found myself reluctantly celebrating Uttarayan on the terrace with a few friends who came with pretty-looking masks only to keep them in their pockets. I did try to tell a few to keep wearing them, but the guests had guests and soon I knew the situation was like preaching to a wall. Inevitably one of my friends tested positive for COVID-19 the next day. And yet everyone seemed unperturbed. “Everyone must have had it by now,” I once again told myself, putting on a brave face but secretly being scared to death, waking up in the middle of the night and checking if I could smell and breathe properly.

I’ve read that this repeated feeling of dread is not uncommon among patients who’ve recovered from coronavirus.

That’s when I realised that the post-Covid world will never be the same again for me. While we may have gladly turned our backs on the year 2020, it may not be the end of the travesty called coronavirus. With exactly a year to the beginning of the pandemic approaching, I am feeling what many of us might be feeling right now – fear, distress, sadness. I’ve read that this repeated feeling of dread is not uncommon among patients who’ve recovered from coronavirus. Could it then be Post Trauma Stress Disorder (PTSD), I wonder.

According to the NHS UK, PTSD can develop after a very stressful, frightening or distressing event, or after a prolonged traumatic experience. It develops in 1 out of 3 people who suffer severe trauma which includes accidents, abuse, childbirth, events or even war. COVID-19, for me, feels a lot like a mishap. From being stuck indoors, cutting all social activity in a snap, to working for the home and being drowned in chores, it all felt like an endless loop; the morbid newness came as a blow alright. Wearing masks, washing hands constantly, fearing proximity to those standing in a queue when buying basic groceries or freaking out on seeing your neighbour petting your dog, none of these were pleasant experiences. Being surrounded by news of rising COVID-19 cases and deaths and the heartbreaking plight of migrants were enough to do us in. Even now, I shudder every time I hear the siren of an ambulance passing by.

I shuttle from thoughts of last March to now. It is much like how Facebook shows us our memories, but while the Zuckerberg brigade only reminds me how thin I used to be, the time hopping I do in my head is a bleak reminder of how things went from bad to worse last year. Of brushes with health emergencies that came and went, of going down the COVID-19 rabbit hole of what ifs. What if the state is casual in its approach the second time round? What if what we went through was only a teaser of the many plagues humanity may have invited? The foreboding never ceases.

I realise it’s one thing to be cautious amid a pandemic and another to live with permanent anxiety.

It doesn’t help that I live in Ahmedabad, a city that throws caution to the wind. It was only last week – on February 24 – when over a lakh spectators gathered at the newly named Narendra Modi stadium. Just the sheer size of the crowd paralysed me. It took me back to the same day last year, when hundreds and thousands gathered to welcome President Trump at the same ground. I had just read about the virus in Wuhan then and I knew bad news was coming. And it did. Seeing people on the street heading back to that stadium with reckless abandon was a trigger. I was in panic mode, again. Today, everything and anything makes me fret – the carpenter fixing the door, talking to an overzealous mama ji who is at a distance but maskless, watching a relative pick up my baby.

I realise it’s one thing to be cautious amid a pandemic and another to live with permanent anxiety. I consulted a practitioner to understand PTSD and how it needs a period of more than 30 days to be called so. It seems like my angst has run a course long enough. But I can’t let it get the better of me.

Each day I take baby steps – to live in the present, to revisit the past only to look at the journey I’ve made since. I’ve learned to cherish the things we would take for granted – like taking off my mask and breathing clean air at a friend’s farm or just being able to hug my mother.