A Time of Collective Trauma

Normalcy appears to be on the horizon, but we would be naive to underestimate the residual damage that COVID-19 may do to our generation.

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digital art by Morgan Nash

The COVID-19 pandemic has deeply affected all of us, leaving scars that may be hard to heal from.

“This is your 9/11.”

Those were the ominous last words I heard my teacher say before I excitedly exited my classroom on March 13, 2020, ready for a two week vacation. My friend and I laughed about what he said, and ran out the doors of NAI, unaware that after this day, our lives would change forever.

It took me another few months or so after that for me to truly understand what he meant, but now I feel it all too well. 

Every generation in history has gone through their own traumatic event that affected their life: The Great Depression, the two World Wars, 9/11, and, now, the COVID-19 Pandemic.

I’m going to be honest here—This has genuinely been the worst year of my entire life. I’m sure that seems like an obvious statement and millions of other people would agree with me, but I truly mean every single word of that.

I have not emerged from this pandemic with a new and improved version of me nor have I used all this down time to develop a great new skill. In fact, I actually believe I’ve become a worse version of myself.

I’ve lost friendships, my motivation to do anything has taken an exponential decay, and let’s just say, it’s getting harder and harder each day to try to put my best effort into school. 

I’m completely burnt out. I’m exhausted. I want to scream and cry and mourn all that was and could have been. 

And I know for a fact that I am not the only one who feels like this. 

Our generation is going through a period of collective trauma, a term referring to the “psychological reactions to a traumatic event that affect an entire society.” 

It is naive to think that life will resume as before just because the pandemic is “over.” The suffering and isolation we faced during this time has left permanent scars on us that will not fade away for a long time.”

Now, I’m writing this article at a point in the pandemic where things are beginning to look very hopeful. Life is not back to “normal” yet, but it seems that it is slowly getting to be. 212 million total vaccines have been administered, and all adults in the U.S. are now eligible for a vaccine. 

We returned to full time school, events like Prom and graduation are happening, people are safely reuniting with loved ones, and more. Things are slowly, but surely, going back to how they used to be.

However, it is naive to think that life will resume as before just because the pandemic is “over.” The suffering and isolation we faced during this time has left permanent scars on us that will not fade away for a long time. We have all changed due to the pandemic, and the pandemic has also opened everyone’s eyes to some deep-rooted issues whether it is personal or societal. The collective trauma we faced is not something we can just brush away.

I feel that, especially as teenagers, since there were efforts all around us by those in charge to get us “back to normal” as soon as possible before we even had the chance to process the life changing event going on around us, we greatly downplayed the effects this pandemic had on us.

Obviously, the pandemic has affected those of all ages. However, I believe going through something like this during our formative years is truly a unique experience. 

Our high school years are the years we have to figure out our next step in life as an adult. This is the time to be trying new things, exploring interests, and experiencing a variety of things. 

This is also the time for us to make memories with friends and go out and just have fun being kids at our last stop before the scary stage of adulthood. 

Then the pandemic hit, and we were all forced into a state of isolation that we’d never dealt with before. We lost connection, not just with our friends, but with ourselves. We lost motivation, work ethic, ambitions, etc. I mean, can you blame us? We sat in our tiny bedrooms all day on a laptop with assignments we don’t understand being piled onto us, while we were also quite literally going through an event straight out of a dystopian movie.

We watched the death tolls go up, we tapped through the hundreds of Instagram stories about the horrible things going on in the country and fought each other over them, all while mourning the loss of our normal lives.

Every aspect of our lives changed. We stopped doing the activities we did, we lost touch with friends who we used to talk to every day, we saw our parents lose their jobs, we saw relatives pass away, and so much more. These events were not a joke. Of course they would leave a lasting impact on us and change us for good. And yet, we were and still are expected to behave as if everything is normal.

We got assigned even more schoolwork because teachers thought since we’re at home we have nothing else to do. We were accused by some of not being as productive or positive when we were watching people die every day. We were prematurely forced back into school where we would be surrounded by literally hundreds of people for the first time in half a year, not knowing if it would be safe or not. 

They told us we had it no different from any other juniors, as if we weren’t trying to survive the hardest year of high school during a pandemic learning through a computer screen. They told us to take a walk or stop going on TikTok so much and all other nonsense mental health “tips” as if we even had the time or energy to take care of ourselves with the amount of workload and stress we were receiving.

Our right to privacy was taken away as we were uncomfortably forced to turn our cameras on for the whole class. Our already-present anxiety spiked when our grades became dependent upon how many times we raised our hands in Blackboard Collaborate since our teachers didn’t trust us to be engaging with the material. The last thing I wanted to do when I just witnessed the crumbling of all life as I knew it was turn on my camera and fake a smile for twenty people who I barely even know. 

All of these events and circumstances fundamentally changed us. We may have lost touch with important relationships, or lost interest in activities we used to love, or discovered something new about ourselves during this time. Just because we go back to “normal” on the outside, doesn’t mean all of these changes inside us will reverse back. 

Will it feel amazing to be able to travel and go to concerts and be close with people again? Yes. Will it feel the same as it did before the pandemic? No.

I don’t think things will ever feel the same again. We have simply witnessed and gone through too much to walk out of this pandemic with the same viewpoint and mindset as we had before. 

Will it feel amazing to be able to travel and go to concerts and be close with people again? Yes. Will it feel the same as it did before the pandemic? No.”

However, it doesn’t mean things will forever be worse than before. It will be different, but different doesn’t necessarily mean bad. 

I don’t love who I have become during this pandemic, but I will have to learn to, because I can’t turn back time. I don’t love the circumstances I am in because of the pandemic, but I will have to learn to, because that is what I have been given.

Recently, I’ve felt my life slowly starting to recover. I got vaccinated, I got to hang out with some friends who I hadn’t hung out with in eight months, and I started to be able to do more of the activities I love again. I finally felt a semblance of peace for the first time in a long time. It seemed all the broken pieces were finally coming back together.

However, I knew deep down that things did not feel the same as before. On the surface, I was doing things I did before the pandemic, but I was not the same person at all. 

Ultimately, I choose to accept this. Trying to force ourselves to push away the hurt from this past year will detriment the healing process. We need to accept all the things that have happened, good and bad, and go into the future owning them. The lessons we learned, the issues exposed, and the progress we made as human beings this year will hopefully serve as a guide for a brighter future.

I’m not saying we should be grateful for the pandemic because it helped us develop as human beings. That is an extremely selfish take, and I sincerely wish the pandemic had never happened at all. However, it did happen, and this is the unfortunate situation we are stuck with. We can either keep denying it or accept it and begin to heal. 

I don’t believe we will ever go back to how things used to be. I believe we will be better.