I have known trauma most of my life. My official diagnosis is of CPTSD, or Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I have received many therapies over the years, in the forms of medication and talking therapy alike. I have attended group meetings. I have spent time in hospitals, clinics and meeting rooms. I have meditated and medicated and filled out CBT diagrams and gone under hypnosis, regressed and even watched the EMDR pendulum swing.
I know the symptoms, I know the signs and I also know what works.
But for now, let’s talk about Skyrim.
One of the quests in The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim takes place in a remote town called Dawnstar. Cut off from much of the map by icy tundra and sitting on the northern coast, the citizens of Dawnstar are going through their own collective trauma.
Speak with the various inhabitants of this plagued town and you’ll quickly learn that the reason they all have dark circles under their eyes is that every single one of them is plagued with night terrors. Most cope by trying to sleep as little as possible. If you speak with the Jarl, he’ll even offer you a handsome reward for finding and destroying the source of the nightmares.
Of course, Skyrim is a fantasy game and so the source is rightly suspected to be of magical origin.
Completing the Waking Nightmare quest involves travelling to a nearby temple built into the ruins of an old military fort, known to the locals as Nightcaller Temple because the Elder Scrolls is not a series known for its subtlety.
Bear with me.
Here, you’ll learn that a battle took place between worshippers of the Goddess Vaermina and orcish invaders. Vaermina being the daedric prince (aka evil Goddess) of nightmares and omens, her worshippers’ best defence against the invaders is to put all involved – including the worshippers – into a magical sleep.
Falling asleep amidst trauma does not make for restful sleep, even under the influence of magic or medication. The sleepers suffer in sleep just as they would in wakefulness. Their twisted slumber continues over the decades and warps their minds, leaving them husks of their former-selves.
And still they slumber.
Vaermina’s magical staff, which the worshippers were guarding, feeds on the toxic energy of the nightmares and so (and I cannot stress this enough) this being a fantasy game, the inhabitants of the nearby township of Dawnstar begin to experience the same trauma. Despite not directly participating in this never-ending conflict between devotees and invaders, they too begin to develop the trauma symptoms that the slumbering battlers would have experienced.
Of course, completing the quest is as simple as either destroying the staff, or overpowering it and using it to your own end. Day saved, night terrors ended, you are then rewarded for your services to Dawnstar and that’s that.
Nightmares and Dreamscapes
“Has anyone else’s sleep been really fucked up lately?” a friend of mine asked in our group chat, to a chorus of agreement. “I’m actively avoiding sleep because it sucks.”
Those nightmares you’ve been having since the start of the pandemic lockdown? You’re not alone.
Several news sites, papers and channels have run stories on this phenomenon. Why is it that almost all of us are experiencing nightmares and night terrors right now? Is there some Staff of Vaermina out there, spreading the horror to our subconscious minds?
It’s a given fact that, while we are locked in our homes and as much as we might try, most of us are not getting the same levels of sunlight, exercise or social interaction as we were before the pandemic. These are all likely contributors to the increase in nightmares but there’s also an important point to note: nightmares and night terrors are often the first indicator of trauma.
The NHS website defines PTSD as “an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.”
When I was eleven years old, I watched my best friend get hit by a car.
We were walking home from school together and had been arguing over whether or not we should get the bus. I didn’t have any money on me at the time and argued that it was a beautiful summer day, so why shouldn’t we walk?
As the bus left the bus stop, she grumbled something under her breath at me, flipped her long dirty-blonde hair over her shoulder and stepped out onto the road, with me in tow.
She didn’t make it to the other side of the road.
I’d experienced other traumatic events throughout my life, I would later discover but this is the first one I thought I remembered in its entirety.
Later, around the age of 25 or so, I started having frighteningly vivid dreams where an emergency occurred and I would fumble with a big, old-fashioned phone. I would try to dial 999 for help but I always ended up pressing the wrong buttons. Even when I did press the right buttons, the person on the other end of the phone would simply insult me and hang up.
Next, I would find myself bruising my knuckles on a glass door. I was trapped and I would scream myself hoarse, an anger so raw and wild I did not recognise it in myself coursing through me. I scratched at the glass, I growled like an animal. I tasted blood on my teeth.
I am now in my thirties and I still get those nightmares.
I’ve been in and out of the Mental Health Meatgrinder – as I sometimes call it – for most of my life and that’s putting it lightly. I’ve written on the subject but four years ago I made a breakthrough by pushing (again) for some trauma-based therapy.
I was placed on a waiting list and, luckily, eventually got to see a clinical psychologist who specialised in EMDR.
Together, we trawled the depths of my subconscious. That incident which seemed so quick and almost clinical before revealed itself to me as an ordeal which lasted at least an hour or so. From the moment my friend was struck by the vehicle, a series of events took place:
- I shakily crossed the road behind the car and called her name.
- Not getting a response, I fumbled with my mobile phone – an enormous brick of a thing with an aerial that was old-fashioned even for the time.
- I attempted several times to call emergency services. Eventually a kindly bystander gently took the phone from my hands and made the call herself (possibly, or I did get through and she guided me through it. I’m still unsure.)
- People gathered around what I thought was the corpse of my friend. My friend who had been inches from me when she was struck.
- I tried to get through to see if she was alive. I couldn’t make her out but I could see that her legs were all wrong. Her eyelids were closed. Later I would discover that she was moaning my name but I couldn’t hear her over the panicked crowd, who pushed me back, assuming I was some random child rubbernecking.
- A double-decker bus driver pulled up, opened the front doors and shouted at me to demand I get the people off the road.
- We got into an argument. I lost the ability to form words (though I know that other passersby had informed this driver of the situation) went into a blind rage and threw myself at the vehicle.
I was eventually restrained, but not before I’d beaten my fists bloody and bitten my own lip hard enough to draw blood. The bus driver left after the ambulance arrived and my friend was taken away.
I was left on my own by the side of the road.
My new clinical psychologist quickly determined that my real diagnosis should be that of Complex Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome – in other words, my trauma had come from multiple sources including one or two “major events” as well as smaller inescapable traumas.
People tend to get CPTSD after abusive childhoods, long tours in warzones and extended traumatic events like being trapped with an abuser or kidnapper or stuck in a war or famine-torn country for many years.
The key component that turns regular-old PTSD into CPTSD is time. Having your leg caught in a bear trap is traumatic. Surviving for a year in the wilderness with a bear-trap on your leg and no means to remove it leads to some complex trauma.
At Home, Under Seige
Let’s take a look at the symptoms for CPTSD. Mind, the UK’s biggest mental health charity, has a list:
- difficulty controlling your emotions
- feeling very hostile or distrustful towards the world
- constant feelings of emptiness or hopelessness
- feeling as if you are permanently damaged or worthless
- feeling as if you are completely different to other people
- feeling like nobody can understand what happened to you
- avoiding friendships and relationships, or finding them very difficult
- often experiencing dissociative symptoms such as depersonalisation or derealisation
- regular suicidal feelings.
Feeling familiar? Can you relate to any of them?
Now let’s take a look at the symptoms for CPTSD, according to the NHS website:
- feelings of shame or guilt
- difficulty controlling your emotions
- periods of losing attention and concentration (dissociation)
- physical symptoms, such as headaches, dizziness, chest pains and stomach aches
- cutting yourself off from friends and family
- relationship difficulties
- destructive or risky behaviour, such as self-harm, alcohol misuse or drug abuse
- suicidal thoughts
Both sites also take an entire section to discuss the increased risk of nightmares, night terrors and other parasomnias (disturbances of sleep) such as sleep-walking and nocturnal seizures in people with PTSD and CPTSD.
But what does all of this have to do with quarantine?
Friends, I hate to break it to you but right now we are all, as a society, collectively going through trauma. It’s not just the trauma of the nurses on the front line, nor is it the daily death statistics, the impossible-to-ignore information campaigns about hand-washing and social distancing.
It’s a thousand of those little (or not so little) traumas, all amplified a thousandfold by isolation.
Both the NHS and Mind list social isolation as a key contributor to a traumatic event becoming a traumatic syndrome. A person is less likely (but still able) to develop PTSD if they have a large social network and support system in place. If they feel cut off, disbelieved or trapped, the likelihood of a traumatic disorder skyrockets.
Humans are a hyper-social species. We have evolved to crave social interaction. In fact, we’re so determined to befriend everyone and everything that we have developed emotional attachments and connections to other species, even going as far as to domesticate animals like cats and dogs in order to keep us company and help us in our lives.
Many people misinterpret the term “survival of the fittest” as meaning that those who are most physically healthy will survive best on an individual level. In fact, what Darwin meant was that the species who can best adapt to their surroundings and situation will flourish best.
Human beings flourish when we collaborate and interact and now we are being forced to stay away, stay apart. The very civilisation that has resulted from and contributes to our well-being has been taken away from us and that in and of itself is highly traumatic.
Even the staunchest introvert (hello) cannot survive on video calls alone.
We are traumatised as a society and we continue to be more traumatised every day by our enforced isolation, the constant threat of death at our doors and all of the accompanying anxieties that come with a global economic downturn in a time of pandemic.
The constant threat of homelessness is a trauma.
Not knowing whether you’ll be able to get the food or medicine you need is a trauma.
Knowing that, every day, more people are dying from the virus is a trauma.
Constantly changing rules, regulations and laws is a trauma.
Not knowing how long the other traumas will last is a trauma itself.
You’re wondering why you’re having nightmares? Your human mind is being flooded, every hour of every day, with anxiety whether you feel tense or not.
The Good News
Trauma is treatable. I am proof of that. In some cases, the disorders may never be fully cured. We will all have some scars, that is true, but we can fix this.
Politicians and others in power are already acknowledging the mental health impact the quarantine is having on us as a society. As I speak, policies and projects are being put into place to address this.
We know that this quarantine and pandemic won’t last forever. Many countries are taking small steps towards recovery right now and scientists all over the world are coming closer than ever to a vaccine for COVID-19.
As for right now, in the short term? We can look at techniques already used to treat trauma and apply them to our own lives. I will be writing a more in-depth guide to useful techniques but for now, here is some quick advice that you can choose to take if you feel it might help you:
Feeling terrible? Stop and do the HALT check: Am I hungry/hydrated? Am I angry? Am I lonely? Am I tired? Tailor your self-administered treatment to your answers.
Hunger and hydration are relatively simple things to fix if you have the resources. You may not realise that you haven’t eaten enough today. It’s easy to forget your body’s needs when your usual routine is broken.
Anger is understandable and I’ll go over some techniques to identify the root causes but in the meantime, I highly recommend looking into mindfulness techniques. Anger may also be a result of restless energy or a feeling of being trapped. If that’s you, consider going out for a brisk walk if you can manage it. Find ways (note that I do not say that they have to be constructive, just non-destructive) to focus that anger. Paint angrily. Howl at the moon. Headbang and screech to some loud music. Run. Jog. Get that energy out. Greet it. Let it flow through you. Vent. Do whatever it is that brings you catharsis.
Loneliness is a tough one right now. Honestly? I’m struggling with it and I’m quarantining with my partner. I can only imagine how hard it must be for someone on their own. Make sure you keep in contact with your friends. Don’t feel ashamed if you’ve fallen out of contact. Don’t apologise for disappearing. I promise, they understand. Don’t feel bad if they haven’t reached out to you, either because right now many of us are dropping of the grid. Remember those symptoms I listed earlier? That’s trauma, baby. We’re all being bad friends. Do your best to make the connection. Watch some live streams, especially if they’re interactive. Boot up your console and play with friends or complete strangers. Find an anonymous forum and reach out. Tweet. Take one step and the rest will come, I promise.
Tiredness is one we can all relate to right now. Even if you’re getting your sleep, those nightmares are going to really fuck with your cycle. Accept that you’re in survival mode right now. Take what you can get. Don’t beat yourself up if the best you can achieve is 4 hours of sleep. Yes, routine helps a lot of people. It may work for you. If you need rest but you can’t sleep, just lie down in the dark. You don’t have to be asleep to get some rest. If you’re mind’s racing, look into mindfulness techniques but also forgive yourself if they don’t work. It’s okay. We’re all struggling. If you get frustrated, try some of the advice for Anger.
I can’t give you a quest to cure the nightmares. There’s no magical staff, no hidden temple to explore. All I can advise is that we take it one day at a time and stop being so hard on ourselves. I mean it! Stop beating yourself up! It’s something I catch myself doing all the time.
Memorise the mantra: “that’s quarantine, baby!” so when you find yourself exhibiting trauma behaviours, whether that’s eating a pint of ice cream or lying awake in bed, remind yourself: that’s quarantine, baby! and forgive yourself.
It’s not you, it’s the trauma and you’re not alone.
If you liked this, you might be interested in the post where I play an obscure Russian computer game about a plague and relate it to our current pandemic or a lighter musing on the old oak trees I greet during my government mandated solitary day walk™
I pour my heart into these posts because I hope my oversharing can help you. If you want and are able to leave me a tip, you can always buy me a coffee (or tea) here. No pressure. That’s quarantine, baby!