My Trauma Was Unlocked In Lockdown 

Photographed by Anna Jay.
Warning: This article contains descriptions of traumatic events which some readers might find upsetting
"When I was 19 I was physically assaulted by a stranger in a bar," Harriet*, now 23, explains to me. During the coronavirus lockdown, the memory of the assault has returned to her so often that she called an assault helpline. "I can't help but wonder if somehow the isolation of the last few months brought back the isolation I felt in the aftermath of assault," she reflects.
Though Harriet felt alone and isolated in her experience, she’s not the only woman who’s taken the time during lockdown to process trauma – whether from a sexual or a physical assault – which they experienced long before the pandemic struck.
We know that intimate partner violence like domestic abuse has risen during lockdown. However Rape Crisis England and Wales tells Refinery29 that 75% of callers to their helpline – regardless of the pandemic – actually want to address something that happened a year or more ago. 
"We know they might not be living with an abuser, but we are hearing from survivors who are experiencing exacerbated and heightened symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) under lockdown. These include hypervigilance, emotional numbness, vivid dreaming or nightmares and flashbacks," explains Katie Russell, spokesperson for the charity.
"Many survivors have coping strategies that include controlling food, self-harm, OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder) and dissociative disorders," she adds. Dissociation is a common experience for rape and assault survivors. It is when the mind 'disconnects' from what is happening and goes somewhere safe to tap out.

We are hearing from survivors who are experiencing heightened symptoms of PTSD under lockdown. These include hypervigilance, emotional numbness, vivid dreaming or nightmares and flashbacks.

Katie Russell, RAPE CRISIS
The pandemic has created unique and not entirely pleasant conditions for enforced self-reflection. Cancelled plans, social distancing and, potentially, time off or without work mean that many people have spent more time with themselves, their thoughts and their memories than ever before. 
This hasn’t been easy for anyone. One survey from the Office for National Statistics found that half of the British public were anxious about lockdown; another survey, commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation, found that 60% were anxious about coronavirus itself. Meanwhile 43% of mental health doctors have seen a rise in urgent cases. The flip side is that the lockdown-imposed pause on our normal lives has offered some young women a chance to begin dealing with old traumas which they’d previously been able to avoid, bury or distract themselves from through the hectic nature of modern life. 
Harriet was assaulted by a woman and had never processed the specific impact that it had on her. She says that "the internalised homophobia [Harriet is bisexual], the shame and the loneliness of what felt at the time like a rare or even unique experience" made her feel adrift. These feelings returned in lockdown, and she wonders "if somehow the isolation of the last few months" has brought back the isolation she felt in the aftermath of the assault. "Whatever it was, it has been playing on my mind," she explains.  
Talking through the assault with support staff from the LGBT Switchboard, Harriet says, has helped clear her mind a lot. 
Having only their own thoughts for company has also provided others with a similar moment of reckoning.
"I was mugged at knife-point earlier this year outside my home and at the time I was okay," explains Ellie*, 27. Her busy schedule pre-lockdown brimmed with distractions to stem the tide of anxiety. "I would be constantly working, would go out to bars, pubs, clubs, the cinema, theatre, and [spend] every weekend at my boyfriend's."
When lockdown hit, though, she "had to sit alone" with her thoughts "for the first time ever" and, as a result, began to feel anxious. She mentioned this to her GP during an appointment for a separate issue and was fast-tracked immediately for over-the-phone cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). 
Rachel*, 32, also had a busy lifestyle before COVID-19 imposed this strange, limbo-like new normal upon us all. "I convinced myself I didn’t have time to prioritise my mental health," she tells Refinery29. 
Therapy had been on her mind for a while but she’d never taken action. "I came out of an abusive relationship over two years ago and I hadn’t really addressed it," she explains. 
When Rachel was furloughed from her hospitality job in March, she figured there was no time like the present. "I thought, If I don’t do this now, when am I going to do it?" she reflects. "It seemed like a productive use of my time. I live by myself and there’s nothing else going on, so I could actually focus on my mental health."
Time isn’t so readily available to everyone during lockdown. Jenny*, also 32, has a 7-month-old and a 5-year-old, and home-schooling with her husband doesn’t leave much space in the day for her to address her trauma. 
Unprocessed trauma, however, doesn’t always care what else you’ve got going on. Psychologist Dr David Purves explains how lockdown may have disrupted the ways in which people previously distracted themselves from addressing trauma. "Typically, people are driven to seek treatment for mental problems when the problem becomes intolerable, or the solution to the problem stops working," he explains.

Just because things happened a long time ago does not mean they remain in the past. Significant traumatic experience is like putting an anchor down and you're a ship. You can't go far from it because the anchor holds it in place.

Dr DAVID Purves, psychologist
"Socialising, drinking, all that kind of stuff could be thought of as a temporary solution to feeling anxious and depressed," he adds. "But if they’re not available, you may then be hit by memories, thoughts and feelings which prompt you to seek out mental health services."
It’s never too late to seek therapy for past trauma, says Dr Purves. "Just because things happened a long time ago does not mean they remain in the past," he explains. "Significant traumatic experience is like putting an anchor down and you’re a ship. You can’t go far from it because the anchor holds it in place."
"You might feel like you move through time and you do, you get older, but you take this thing with you and it tends to remain as strong and powerful if it’s not emotionally processed."
Jenny’s father is an alcoholic. Despite her childcare commitments, she says that lockdown has helped her to find a way to address her anxiety and tendency to "people-please" which stem from her father's alcoholism and abusive behaviour. "I just thought, During lockdown, I don’t want to watch boxset after boxset every evening, it will eat into my soul," she explains. 
"I’d previously spoken with Al-Anon [a support group for those who’ve been affected by someone else’s drinking] but decided to take it up more routinely during this pandemic. Through a support group I actually found a sponsor in Louisiana," she adds.
Every Thursday evening, when the baby’s in bed, Jenny will speak to this sponsor. "It’s very much my time to work on myself. It’s been a massive breakthrough for me. All the feelings I used to numb with TV and online shopping are coming back."
While lockdown may have impeded people's ability to get literal face time with therapists, Jenny insists that remote phone conversations, which can be had after her kids’ bedtime, have actually improved her experience of therapy. 
"I couldn’t go to meetings in person, I’m such a private person," she says. "Speaking to my sponsor from the comfort of my own home has allowed me to open up a lot more."
Jasmine* also reckons that her therapy, delivered via Zoom, "takes away from the awkwardness". Ellie, meanwhile, enjoys phone calls from her therapist, because she feels "there’s a performative nature to Zoom" which is "inhibiting". 
However not everyone will have been able to access the support they need. NHS mental health provision was far from perfect even before coronavirus changed everything. In January, analysis of NHS statistics by The Observer found that some patients with mental health problems were having to wait over three months to access talking therapies.
Of the women who spoke to Refinery29 for this piece, only Ellie has recently received therapy through the NHS – and that only came from being fast-tracked after spending 18 months on a waiting list after initially reporting anxiety problems and compulsions. Jasmine's therapy is funded privately through her workplace’s insurance scheme.
Underfunding of the NHS has been a key feature in the reporting on coronavirus and discussions about how we move forward. With a surge in mental health issues expected to follow the wave of infections, this is an urgent area of need, and a conversation we must have.

Living in lockdown is experiencing the most intense petri dish version of yourself, your thoughts and emotions. If I can create coping mechanisms now, I'll be equipped to return to my normal life aware of potential triggers." 

ellie*, 27
The government has issued guidance on the mental health and wellbeing aspects of coronavirus, and provided £5 million to mental health charities. Further mental health assistance for the general public is yet to be announced.
In the meantime, individuals are taking it upon themselves, where possible, to improve their mental resilience. Just as we’ve seen new joggers huffing and puffing their way around parks in order to boost their physical health, people are thinking about how to future-proof their mental health. 
It’s a driving factor for Jenny’s commitment to change. She grew up witnessing and experiencing "verbal, physical and financial abuse" at the hands of her father and is resolute that she wants to put a stop to the pattern of mental health issues she experiences as a result. 
"Life goes by so quickly and I want to be the best possible version of myself for my children," she says. Seeking therapy – as well as limiting her breaking news intake to just one half-hour of the BBC a day – has given her "calmness and serenity". 
The experience of past trauma in lockdown will be unique to those individuals affected. Likewise, what works to process it will vary. 
Stephen Buckley, head of information at Mind, tells Refinery29: "There's no wrong order to try things in, different things work for different people at different times." 
"Seeking help isn't always easy, especially when you're not feeling well," he adds. "But it's important to remember that it’s always okay to ask for help. Your GP surgery may be able to offer consultations via phone or online so check to see what they can do." 
Therapy and the time to process it is invaluable. It shouldn't be a luxury; it’s a basic necessity. As Ellie puts it: "Living in lockdown is experiencing the most intense petri dish version of yourself, your thoughts and emotions. If I can create coping mechanisms and ways of dealing with anxieties now, I’ll be equipped to return to my normal life aware of potential triggers." 
Doesn’t everyone deserve to be ready for whatever comes next?
*Names have been changed to protect identities
If you’re worried about your own or someone else’s drinking, please contact Drinkline on 0300 123 1110.
If you have experienced sexual violence of any kind and need help or support, please visit Rape Crisis or call 0808 802 9999.
If you, or someone you know, is experiencing abuse, you can contact the National Domestic Abuse Helpline on 0808 2000 247, which is open 24/7, 365 days per year, or via the website. If you are in immediate danger, call the police on 999.

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