I’m writing this sitting in my best friend’s living room. In the Before Times, I’d make the trip from Eugene to Portland once a month. When I went left PDX in February 2020, I did not know it would be 15 months before I’d return.
Survivor. One says it of those who make it through experiences where the very act of continuing to live is not a guarantee. And for whom the reality of waking up afterward is in and of itself both surprising and problematic.
Wearing/not wearing a mask was oddly politicized during the pandemic. People were murdered after asking someone to wear a mask. More than once. An 80-year-old bar patron who asked another patron to wear a mask. A security guard doing his job at a retail store. Another guard who was stabbed 27 times. A bus driver. A police officer. Many others were beaten. It’s terrifying and led to my silence when in a situation where sharing space with an unmasked person made me uncomfortable. I mostly stayed home as much as possible. Stay home, stay safe.
As a kid who grew up in a violent, abusive family I have more than one well-developed survival skill. In no particular order:
- Laughter as deflection
- Reading a room and adjusting my behavior accordingly
- Becoming invisible
- Making everyone else happy no matter the cost to myself
- Keeping the core of who I am buried deeply
- Spending as much time alone as possible
That’s how I would survive. The lessons I learned early were that I was in constant danger, that the world was unpredictable, and that there was no one I could turn to for absolute safety.
This week the CDC recommended that vaccinated folks no longer need to wear masks, or even socially distance, in most scenarios. My first thought was that maybe fewer people would be murdered now.
I was relieved, however, that masks were still mandated on the bus I took for the trip up this weekend. Although I’m vaccinated and my brain knows that the odds are in my favor and that the CDC knows more than I do, I still paid extra to ensure the seat next to me would be empty.
From restaurants to Costco to work to hanging out with my Portland peeps, the majority of my week, however, has been mask-free. Emotionally, it has ranged from being giddy with the sense of normalcy to leaving work and rushing home during a full-on trembling-sobbing-rapidly-breathing panic attack. My therapist reminds me that the message for the past year has been “stay safe, wear a mask.”
I don’t know anyone who is a survivor that doesn’t have an arsenal of coping mechanisms that kept them safe enough to wake up each day and continue to breathe. While everyone has their own fingerprint of how those mechanisms combine, the methods themselves are not unique. And for each of us, they can be hard to recognize and even harder to choose to let go.
That last trip I took to Portland in 2020 was to celebrate my 49th birthday. I turned 50 during the pandemic. Fifty years has been long enough to outlive all of my abusers, long enough to build some deep soul-level friendships based on respect and love. To build a violence-free life with my wife. Long enough to recognize that I survived the dangers of my childhood. Past tense. Those dangers are gone, even if my body didn’t always believe that.
During the first session with my therapist a few years ago, she asked me what I would consider to be successful in terms of our sessions together. I told her that I could tell that the framework that had gotten me to where I was no longer worked for me and that I needed a new framework, one that fits with who I wanted to become.
What I didn’t say, but felt deeply, was that I was terrified of dismantling the structure that had kept me not entirely safe but at least alive. That would come later. And continues to be a crucial part of the process.
How do I stay safe? How do I survive? How do I let go of the very things that have been the answers to those questions?
I don’t know exactly but I do know that it will take time, a bit of trust in my fellow humans, and a whole lot of grace towards myself.