I was forced to take a long break from everything normal last spring. Before the two concussions that knocked me out for five months, I had never truly felt my brain as a muscle. As a bodyworker and dancer, I have studied the nervous system. I learned about it on a conceptual level and was beginning to understand the experience of nervous system regulation — what it feels like to be safe, what it feels like to be frozen or wanting to flee. Healing from a brain injury taught me so much more about what it means to respond to these messages. What is ‘normal,’ really? What does it mean to pause, to change?
Having resources to pause is a privilege. So many cannot pause right now, either because of lack of essential support (money, food, shelter) or because they are stepping up again and again to the frontlines, often without a safety net or appropriate protection. The labors of care continue to be under-compensated and largely unseen. The ill and disabled are indispensable. Disability justice advocates have long been sharing the wisdom of slowing down, seeking alternative and essential adjustments to the inhumane capitalist norms.
After I hit my head (both times!), a community came together to support me. The generous economic, social and environmental support I received was necessary. I learned that I could not have a concussion and just keep going on my own. I was lucky to be living in a rent-free situation in which I could continue a minimum of manual, screen free labor for housing. After a month I was able to resume seeing bodywork clients, allowing my vulnerable state to teach me more about what it is like to fear and crave a healing process. I was lucky enough to get around on foot for months on end, including to patches of woods. I long for the accessibility of these resources for others.
So what happened to me? There is a panic that grips, biologically, when our bodies sense pain. Something is not right here! I had previously felt the fear that can take over in response to and protection of injury. Never before, though, had I experienced the degree to which my concussed system screamed, ‘Alert, alert!’ Off and on throughout my life, I have struggled with fairly severe depression, anxiety, and related disorders. On the other side of five plus years of healing work, with more access to my power and more availability for intimacy, I can see it all as a gift — a gift that I can now share through empathy and understanding. I thought I was in a pretty practiced place of self-loving. The weeks and months following my concussions, though, were some of the hardest of my life.
I experienced gut-wrenching helplessness as most of my familiar coping mechanisms and strategies for satisfaction, now triggers for concussion symptoms, were stripped from me. Of course screen time was out of the question. As was going anywhere that was not completely silent and mostly dark. Reading, talking, dancing, moving my head (a strategy I often use to shake up my perspective), even thinking would make me dizzy, nauseous and freaked. Added to this mix of symptoms was magnified depression and emotional dysregulation. I spent a fair amount of time in complete panic and resistance. I wanted to be saved. I was terrified to be alone, which I was. I didn’t know what to do with myself or how to calm the terror in my nervous system. Rest is what I needed, but I was ironically buzzing with the response of bruised nerves.
How does this all relate to Covid-19, social distancing protocols and economic collapse? It relates because we are being asked, as a global community, to pause everything familiar. We are being asked to feel the muscle of society, to track the ways we are interrelated and thus affecting one another. We are in a swath of time that will end, of course, but the duration is unknown. It is a moment in which most of the ways that we take care of ourselves are stripped away — social connection, work, leaving the house, and many forms of exercise, with parks and gyms closed. This undeniable need for ‘pause,’ and all of the ways we are each resisting it, feels similar in my body to concussion time. In this case, it is manifesting on a global scale.
I have joked that the concussion literally grounded me. It became clear that not doing all of the things was how I was going to heal. Ultimately, I ended up finding unparalleled contentment and ground in the simplicity of what the moment necessitated. I was forced to take care of myself on a level that I had not yet learned. There was no point in pushing through the parties that I was no longer enjoying, due to noise sensitivity or general overwhelm. I had an excuse for putting myself first and many opportunities to practice it. (Reading Pleasure Activism by Adrienne Maree Brown helped!) I learned how not to do the things that led to more suffering because I was forced to pay attention to what those were and how they affected me long-term.
I sat on a porch swing for hours, letting my attention be fuzzy. I had to soften even my ingrained propensity for making the most of a moment. Just noticing and appreciating details around me would add a tonality of trying, enough to make my brain hurt. So eventually I stopped, figuring out how to soften in response to sensations in the muscle of my brain. Staring at flowers became a favorite form of connection. I imagined the daffodils seeing me. And I rested like that. Lying in the dark and quiet began to feel like intimacy. I surrendered to these new forms of solace only after living through — experiencing — the consequences of resistance and panic.
I have read articles urging academics and the unemployed to let go of perfectionism during this time, to let go of productivity, to surrender expectations for excellence. Even so, most of us are filling our days with screen time. We do this in the absence of physical connection and community, seemingly turning blind eyes to the effects of screen time, even in a normal life, of disconnecting us from our bodies, abstracting our identity, numbing or adrenalizing our nerves. I know this desperation. We can’t help reaching outward, overwhelmed by the abnormalcy of this situation. I have felt the panicked question of what to do with myself in all this space and time, in all this change. ‘If I just take all of the zoom movement classes, I’ll be connected. If I post my meaningful experiences to social media, I will be included!’ Even if all the gatherings occur on isolated computer screens across the nation, I will belong. I know, based on how I feel at the end of a day full of screen time (dull and grumpy), that this moment is asking me to slow down and learn new ways of connection with the world, the world as felt first through my nervous system.
So how do we truly stop? How do we rest within such uncertainty? How do we surrender to what we do and do not have control over right now? How do we connect to ourselves when many of our familiar resources are not currently accessible? And how do we get resources to those who do not have the safety net they need and who deserve to pause in this moment?
In healing from a brain injury, I learned to surrender to and ultimately enjoy the quietness of non-effortful, non-productive alone time by first feeling the pain I caused myself when I was trying — trying to do anything that ran against body signals of alarm. Enough people told me that I wasn’t going to heal if I pushed through symptoms that I began to use them as reliable signals to which I adjusted my state and my choices. Just as now, we are being asked to stay home, to wash hands, to keep each other safe. We are all capable of pushing through symptoms, resisting restrictions, resisting reality. What is harder, and far more rewarding in my experience, is practicing quick responsiveness to our body’s requests — for more or less.
There was a particular moment of desperation last spring in which I had a breakthrough. I realized that I could trust that what felt good in my nervous system was in fact a path toward recovery. It seems obvious, but I realized that if I listened to and responded, as quickly as I could, to what created comfort in my body, I was participating in a process of healing. If doing what felt calming would lead to fewer headaches, it seemed worth trusting the logic. In the woods, I never had headaches, yet I was shaming myself for how desperately resistant I was to being alone. In that moment, I decided to trust that if my body was telling me that time in nature was healing, my desire to be with people might also be part of that same wisdom, and not, in fact, some weakness that I needed to resist. Maybe I am a relational being and others will help me heal! So I let myself reach out. I let myself need people. I wore earplugs and sunglasses and hung out quietly on the sidelines. I soaked in the comfort of being surrounded by others, and I saw my relationships change. Unfortunately we are not able to surround ourselves with others right now, but we can receive (and give) support. What feels good? What are the supports that you need right now, to reach for the new ‘norms’ that this moment calls for?
I was substantially transformed by my concussion. People have reflected a felt difference. Layers I was using to protect myself were stripped away. Because I had to drop out of life as I knew it and was skilled and lucky enough to seek and receive support, more of me is here now. Our lives are being interrupted and disrupted. How will this moment of societal pause teach us more about what our bodies and our cultures are asking for, in order to heal?
I see the dangers and possibilities of these Covid-19 times. The air is literally clearing. At the same time, the federal government is pulling back emission regulations, detaining immigrants and the incarcerated, and deporting children. Profiteers are taking advantage of states, hospitals, and scared people. In this pause, we cannot stop responding — protecting and standing up for the world we want to see. A healthier world, one of safety and responsiveness for all, is made even more clearly necessary by Covid-19 (for those of us fortunate to not have felt it glaringly obvious before). We are interconnected. Capitalism, the separator, is being revealed again as inherently and dangerously flawed. These times are an undeniable reminder of this, and of our true connectedness. For many, ideas that seemed unfathomably radical are now looking possible and even necessary.
The messages are here if we stay sensitive, and change is possible if we act quickly to see that resources are provided to those who need them. In the debate about whether anything will be changed from this experience, I offer this: our willingness to move toward and welcome the sensitivity and interconnectedness of this moment will lead us to more health — for all. I cheer you on in your methods of resting and responding. By resting and responding as we each are able, we can move towards cultures that celebrate interconnectivity, safety, and liberation.