American Dream Shrugged-Corona Virus & Mental Health Trauma
Living in Washington State during Corona is like being ruled by a capricious king who wildly changes the law of the land from one day to the next on a whim. His rules are inconsistent and nonsensical, his subjects nothing more than a faceless crowd to be briefly mentioned in a newsfeed, alongside statistics that vary wildly from one minute to the next. To this mad king, the only thing that matters is the pie chart, the graph, the infographic.
Actual people need not apply.
But the real Covid crisis is the impact the lockdown has had on the lives of working class men and women, many of whom, like me, have small businesses. Our stories are largely left untold amid the ever shifting infection rates and death tolls blasted on the daily news.
We’ve been reduced to a literal faceless crowd, stripped of individual identity. Told we’re selfish to want to open our businesses. If we’re “allowed” to open our businesses, we’re forced to comply with the mad king’s demands as to what we can and can’t do in them, under threat of massive fines.
The psychological effects of the lock down and subsequent trauma suffered by people who’ve shuttered their dreams and lost hope must be shared. Their financial lives are in ruins and many face bankruptcy. You haven’t heard much about these men and women because to highlight their pain would be to recognize them as persons and not numbers.
These steadfast Americans are more than faces covered by masks. Many of them started their businesses as side hustles, as I did, and worked seventy hour weeks for years to grow those businesses, only to now see their efforts destroyed by mandatory lockdowns. Their trauma at watching their dreams disappear like cigarette smoke on the breeze is real.
Their trauma story—my story—deserves to be told.
Merriam Webster’s online defines “trauma” as: “...a disordered psychic or behavioral state resulting from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.” Does this resonate with you during these weird, upside down days of Corona Virus? I mean, it’s been an absolutely surreal, Mad Max from Thunderdome experience, complete with brawls over toilet paper and the rise of feral “Karens” writ large on the nightly news.
Do you feel like screaming at the top of your lungs?
“I can’t take it anymore!”
Yeah, me too.
But let’s talk about mental health and trauma, because "traumatic" is the word I’d use to describe these past several months. Please keep in mind this disclaimer if you read further: I’m a Christian and the point of view expressed herein is mine and is absolutely God centered. Sad I have to say that, but these are the times in which we live.
My “pandemic” experience has been of absolute panic, horror and near despair. Prior to the Corona Virus Meltdown, I actually had a great deal of optimism for the future. This is unusual for me because I’ve struggled quite a lot in my life. But going into 2020, I’d allowed myself to feel hopeful that the future showed signs of promise.
Perhaps, I’d thought prior to Covid, my little photography business which I’d fed and watered with love and sacrifice for several years might just make the leap from survive to thrive. Maybe I’d finally realize my lifelong dream of being a successful creative after all.
Then the Carona Virus Effect happened: life stood still and my entrepreneurial experiment stopped dead in its tracks. A part time job I’d also worked to keep my student loans paid ceased to exist. Like thousands of other unfortunate souls, I wasn’t able to get through to the unemployment department in my state and eventually gave up trying. Words like “stay at home order” and “quarantine” became part of the daily lexicon. The fear I saw all around me was palpable. So much so, that it became a real chore to interact with people at all, because their anxiety was so pronounced, it became their central reference point. And they frequently expected me to absorb their fear and validate it.
That’s not how I’m wired, however. My response to others’ need to deposit their panic at my feet was to seclude myself as much as possible. I’m not particularly timid as a general rule, but it was overwhelming for me to be confronted with all the hysteria.
For the record, I was never afraid of the virus. I was, however, terrified of people’s reaction to it, the loss of liberty because of it and the consequent financial fallout for many Americans, including me. Every minute of every day for months has been extreme anxiety about surviving the lockdown. The idea of my photography business thriving--of realizing my American Dream--seems quaint now.
That’s what this piece is about: the grief and trauma of losing hope and how to come back from that, if even just a little. A word of caution: if you feel the need to argue with me over the politics of this virus, please stop reading now and go elsewhere. I live in a state that is—five months into this thing—still locked down with no end in sight. The noose tightens every day around my neck. And the very real trauma of that, with all the related aftershocks, is, to borrow from the so-called influencers, “my truth.”
It’s clear that my life and my livelihood are of no consequence to those who control the levers of power in my state. Nor do the lives of millions of my countrymen and women who are in similar, or worse, situations than I. My business—my DREAM—is gone. I have to work every part time job I can find just to keep a roof over my head and I’m still short each month. When I finally managed to connect with those in the know about any sort of financial assistance, I learned I don’t qualify for anything because I’m still working, even though I’ve lost thousands of dollars these past months. Debt’s piling up and I’m going to have to relocate in another state and start over, on the off chance that I can salvage my future somehow.
The daily struggle with depression has been the most difficult part of this ordeal. For days at a time, all I could do was sit in my tiny garden and try to assimilate the cheer of the birds and flowers and butterflies around me. Let the sun recharge me somehow and settle my shattered nerves that were on constant alert, like the Starship Enterprise when it encounters a Borg cube, the inside of my head flashing red lights and a computer voice counting down the self-destruct sequence and warning that all personnel must abandon ship:
There must be a way.
Day after day, this scenario played out in my brain. From experience, I’ve learned that trauma begins in the psyche then quickly moves to the spirit. My soul was on fire. But what to do? How was I to cope with my “new normal” of a life without forward movement? Into the garden I’d go and sit for hours, in quiet and stillness, because I was numb and in shock. I didn’t know it then, but I was grieving the loss of a future now in tatters.
And just as in every other time of trauma in my life--the death of my father, the implosion of my family, the loss of children--I instinctively sought out quiet and beauty for refuge. There among the flowers and the birds, I could find a sort of respite, a momentary comfort. I could remember when I felt whole, before all the insanity started. The wholeness existed on the other side of a great canyon, watching me with a familiar face, but at least I could see it from the opposite side of the gulf between us. It hadn’t abandoned me forever. And if I could see it, I could figure out a way to get across the canyon to it.
This time in the garden became my lifeline.
And it saved me.
Trauma tends to bring out the best or the worst in people, depending upon their disposition going into it. Chirpy, happy, happy people who want only to focus on unicorns and fairy dust are truly annoying to be around when you’re faced with terrible circumstances. But so are those who only focus on the negative. The worst are those who take the negative and blow it up like a hot air balloon and send it into your life so it can cast its massive shadow over everything it passes.
Staying level and alert, yet open to feeling better, seems to be the most prudent course of action. But how to achieve that leveled path during traumatic times?
We know that nature is good for your mental health—a walk on the beach or in the woods is wonderfully calming when you face difficult circumstances: https://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/tips-for-everyday-living/nature-and-mental-health/how-nature-benefits-mental-health/
Because I see nature as God’s artwork, being present in the natural world soothes me in several ways: I get the mental health benefits and healing power of nature, as well as its artistry, and enjoy the spiritual refreshment both provide.
This comes in handy as a portrait photographer and visual artist, because I see everyone and everything as a work of art, so I treat nature and the people I photograph respectfully, filled with the wonder appropriate in the presence of such magnificence. In particular, I find my work as a fine art floral photographer invigorates and illuminates at the same time.
It’s an amazing thing being almost inside a flower. A macro lens or a Lensbaby lens (I love the Muse stacked with an 8mm and 16mm macro converters) really lets me see what’s going on in there: bugs on their own little adventures for food; striations of color and textures; the tiniest breeze which flutters the fibers on the petals, and so on. Truly a universe within a very small world.
Shooting flowers always gets me thinking.
Anyone can take a walk in the woods and point out dappled sunlight on the leaves and proclaim, “It’s so pretty!” And it is. But have you ever sat down and really examined all the different hues of green on those leaves?
Could you IMAGINE a color into existence on your own? No, of course not. We didn’t invent color, we discovered it and copied it and use it for our own purposes to beautify our lives. But all color is represented in nature, somewhere. And I believe, by design.
The effects of trauma on the mind, body and soul can to some degree be repaired by exposure to beauty—that’s one of the fundamental reasons it exists, it seems to me. I had a lightbulb moment many years ago: “Aha!” I thought. “Beauty can crack the stone around the human heart.” I thought that brilliant at the time. Maybe it is. But I’ve added to that thought since then, for I’ve come to believe that beauty serves many purposes, and now in this time of trauma, its most important function seems to be to stitch the soul back together and super glue the psyche.
Because beauty, the beauty of nature, in particular, is the closest thing we have to the fingerprint of God. There are many beautiful things in our experience: family, love, friendship, travel, etc. But only the beauty of the natural world is objectively the handiwork of Someone beyond us. We yearn for it and seek it out. Think ocean side or mountain view property, for instance. Even something as mundane as Pinterest is designed to help us find ways to beautify our lives. We’re obsessed with transformations of weight, teeth and bedrooms. Our homes can have better, more beautiful, curb appeal.
You know exactly what I mean when I say we yearn for beauty. It's instinctive to us. Most of us are repelled when surrounded by chaos and tumult in our immediate environment or on a larger scale, like the chaos caused by Corona.
The creative force which makes roses smell good is THE creative force Who has painted the world with such a variety of brushes and colors and themes and imagination, that were we to live ten thousand lives, we couldn’t comprehend it all. For me, this creative force is also a healing force. The beauty of nature, even the irregularities and sometime horror of nature, brings great wisdom and humility. These things help put life into perspective. And where there’s perspective, there’s a sense of tidiness and order. And order manifests a sense of blessed control, which is the key to feeling like you own your life.
But being present in nature is just the first part of the equation. As an artist, I believe that God communicates through beauty and invites me to participate with it and Him by creating something of my own, as a sort of answer to His call. The making of something beautiful is foundational, because it allows me to offer my own work back to God in cooperation with His creative Spirit. It’s a formula for salvation and it goes something like this:
I observe beauty in the natural world and meditate on it. This takes me directly to God. He and I converse about what I can learn about Him from what I’ve seen. I then feel energized, then compelled, to take that energy and create something of my own as a responsive exercise. It’s an act of defiance against the brutality of the world, a light filled moment where art meets faith.
The beauty of nature during and after this lockdown is an invaluable gift. Fresh air, sunshine, woods, flowers, oceans, mountains, desert and plains give most of us in the US an abundance of natural beauty from which we can gain a bit of peace. Even a small pot of flowers on an apartment window sill helps us take a mental and emotional “time out” from the current lunacy. And after the Corona virus passes, there will be more trauma that we each must face in our lives. Such is the nature of being human.
But beauty—the beauty of a single flower or a planet viewed from space—has the power to save, to heal, to shift a debilitating mindset. It’s restorative. Once I was able to recharge, I found a bit of clarity. I was ready to deal with plans for my business, and I was able to pick up my camera again and shoot. I photographed my little garden of salvation and made the images you see here.
As primarily a portrait and headshot photographer, I’m not able to offer the services I did prior to the lockdown. However, as a fine art photographer with a concentration on florals, I have some options. I’m now in the process of shifting my photography business to an online order system with a focus on fine art. Although I’m devastated at the loss of my portrait work, I look forward to spending my time for the foreseeable future among the blossoms. Once I relocate to another state, hopefully within the next eight months, I’ll relaunch the portrait side of my business.
The tiniest spark of hope burns again within me, thankfully. I can trust that to guide my way along this path of uncertainty as we move into fall and 2021. I can give myself permission to imagine a way forward again and pick up the pieces of my American Dream.
The beauty of nature and the act of creating has relieved some of the trauma and lifted the thick fog of daily depression. It’s helped me get to the other side of shock and grief, to the place where the wholeness stood and looked back at me. I can now stand beside that wholeness, instead of across from it, and look back at the spot in which I stood, that’s now empty. I’m not fully healed, there’s much work to do yet, but I have reason for cautious optimism.
The school closures will one day be over, and we'll again celebrate birthdays and bury our dead as we’re accustomed. But until then, remember the positive effects nature can have on your mental well-being and go keep good company with the roses in your garden.
Stop and breathe them in.
And thank them—and God, for He made these lovely things for us to enjoy.
He made them to help us come back from the ledge, to a place of recovery, where hope can build a bridge across the canyon.