So there I sat in the passenger side of our car on the parking lot outside Sweden’s largest vaccination center, about to go in and get my first vaccination shot. My body was shaking, I couldn’t see or hear clearly, I was crying, looked at my husband and said: I’m so afraid right now. I’m so afraid, but I’m going to do it anyway. I felt so small, all of a sudden, and totally not in control. It was an overwhelming fear I felt. Like I imagine a cat, suddenly coming face-to-face with a huge tiger.
I stepped out of the car, stood on the pavement, looked up at the building and focused on two things: my feet on the ground and my breathing. When I could feel my feet and notice my breathing, I started to look around and orient myself. I saw signs pointing toward the entrance, people walking to and from the building and I could even hear some music. Slowly I started walking towards the entrance, in my own pace, keeping focus on my feet and my breathing. My crying had stopped and I kept on walking, feeling calmer each step. My body stopped shaking and I started feeling a tiny bit better. Like I had gained a bit more control. My fear still was very much present, but it felt more manageable somehow. Like the cat had managed to create some distance between itself and the tiger.
Inside I went, into this building that usually houses large trade fairs but functions as a vaccination center these days with a capacity to vaccinate 10.000 (!) persons per day. I entered a huge hall with 32 vaccination booths and met a woman in charge of registration. When she saw me, she blurted out: Oh my god, you win the prize of most stylish person today! As it turned out I was wearing a pink t-shirt, pink shoes, had a pink hand bag and my face mask was also pink which she apparently really liked. To meet this woman and make a brief, human connection like this in the midst of this dystopian vaccination-world was so nice! It made me feel connected and seen, and added to my growing sense of feeling safer. Like a tall, brick wall had emerged around the cat, shielding it from attack.
After a few minutes it was my turn to enter a booth and get my vaccination. I sat down on a plastic chair, turned towards the nurse and said: I want to tell you how grateful I am to get this vaccination. I also want to tell you that I’m terrified. I got covid fifteen months ago and it turned into Long Covid which I have been dealing with until today. I hope this vaccination will help my body to get rid of the final symptoms and truly heal, but I’m so scared that it will throw me right into a huge relapse. Thank you for listening, it is important for me to tell you this.
The nurse did not know how to react, I noticed, but that was totally fine. For me, just voicing my truth at that moment felt so good. It made me feel in control and totally calm. I got my vaccination, walked out of the booth towards an adjacent hall that functioned as waiting area where a few hundred people were sitting on chairs waiting the required 15 minutes before they could leave. There was a huge clock hanging from the ceiling, some background music; it would have been a calm environment hadn’t it been for one woman who was frantically walking back and forth, holding her bag and her bicycle helmet, shouting I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe! Clearly she was having a panic attack after getting the vaccination. A nurse tried to calm her down but couldn’t manage so a doctor was called in and she was ushered away. I can only hope she was met by someone with trauma-training because for her, this moment must have felt like being directly attacked and devoured by a tiger. As I sat down on a chair, feeling calm and so happy that I had dared to take the vaccination, I wondered: what happened to this woman in her life, to get stuck in such a huge panic?
Exactly this question: What happened to you? is the title of a new book written by Oprah Winfrey and Dr. Bruce Perry. She is, well, Oprah, and he is a psychiatrist specialized in developmental trauma. They write:
The title What Happened to You? signifies a shift in a perspective that honors the power of the past to shape our current functioning.
It would have been so easy to look at the woman in the waiting area, thinking: what is wrong with her? Or ask myself: what is wrong with me, that I’m so terrified of taking the vaccine? I believe it’s easy for us human beings to react to other people saying (or thinking): what’s wrong with you? But imagine if we collectively could shift and instead ask (or think): what happened to you? That would open up a totally different space between people, where there is opportunity to really connect and gain a deeper understanding of each other and our behaviors.
I don’t know what happened to the woman, but I do know that I have been deeply affected by covid and Long Covid. Not being able to breathe and not getting help in that acute situation, not getting answers as to why I had all these debilitating symptoms, no one who could tell me if they would ever go away, noticing people silently judging me for still being sick and believing that it’s all in my head, living inside a body with a constant ‘alarm’ stuck on ON… All of this has been traumatizing for me. The fear of relapsing back into my deepest, darkest hole and having to go through my symptoms again (and this time possibly dying for real) is so huge inside me, it totally overwhelms me. So I become like a small animal, suddenly coming face-to-face with a huge, terrifying animal with the capacity to kill. I shake, I can’t focus my sight or hearing – I’m totally engrossed in my fear-bubble. The vaccine literally feels like something that could potentially kill me. And even though I KNOW that this is not logical at all, I can’t reason with myself in my mind to calm me down. The fear is total and in the driving seat and no words can make it go away.
Fear really is an interesting thing. It is so individual and oftentimes not ‘logical’ at all. Why? Because fear has its home in a specific (lower) part of our brain which is different from the higher part of our brain where logic lives. Oprah and Dr. Perry explain in their book that the lower part of our brain is where all input is first processed before it goes to our higher brain part. The thing is however, they write, that the lower part of our brain part can’t ‘tell time’. This means that sometimes its interpretation of incoming input is inaccurate. They continue:
If any of the input is a match to a stored memory from a past experience, the lower brain reacts as though the past experience is the one happening now. That’s a problem when the past experience was a trauma.
This is exactly what happened to me. My past experience memory of covid is the following: “This is a virus so strong, it easily could (and almost did) kill me. Covid also turns into Long Covid in my body, which is a horrible and challenging thing to have to experience under a long time.” Having this memory stored inside me, consciously injecting a vaccine that mimics a part of the virus to activate my immune system triggered my fear of dying all over again. Hence the shaking, the crying, the fear-bubble. As I said: not ‘logical’ but it felt extremely real for my whole system. So what to do?
The answer: regulate. Regulate your nervous system. That’s what I did when I stepped out of the car: I felt my feet and focused on my breathing. I started to orient around me and slowly noticing sights and sounds, while at the same time keeping focus on my feet and my breathing. There are many other ways of regulating, this just works for me. If I hadn’t been able to regulate my system, I would probably have stayed stuck in my fear and who knows what would have happened then. Instead, I was able to enter the building, connect with some people inside and gain access again to the higher part of my brain that told me: “The virus is not the same as the vaccine. The vaccine will not kill you. Instead it will hopefully protect you, and the people around you.”
I have read many stories of long haulers negatively affected by the vaccine. Today is day 5 post (Pfizer) vaccine for me, and besides a sore arm for two days and a fever the first night I have not experienced any other side-effects so far. They might still come, but so far so good. The vaccine doesn’t at all feel aggressive inside my body as the virus did. Even so, I constantly check in with myself: what is happening in my body? I have a hard time trusting it, I have noticed. I guess this is pretty normal too after fifteen months of Long Covid.
As I have written before, I need more time. More time to regain trust in my body again and build resilience. On this, Oprah and Dr. Perry write:
It’s kind of like weight-lifting for our stress-response systems; we exercise the system to make it stronger. The more we face moderate challenges and succeed, the more capable we are of facing bigger challenges.
So I continue to exercise my system to make it stronger again, more resilient. For example, just two weeks ago I dared to try to take a walk AND a yoga class on the same day. This was a huge challenge as I was so afraid it would be too much for my body and would trigger a relapse. But it went totally fine! I also have started to meet more people again. Also a huge thing on different levels for me but it turns out to be wonderful, to connect IRL (In Real Life) with people again. Slowly and steadily, one turtle step at the time. Keep on moving, not getting stuck.
Five days ago I got out of my car, dealt with my fear and got the first vaccination shot. This is such a major step for me. Like the beginning of the end, but in a positive way. I long deeply to put covid and Long Covid behind me!
I will end with some words from Oprah that she writes at the end of the book, and that resonate deeply with me:
What I know for sure is that everything that has happened to you was also happening for you.
And all that time, in all of those moments, you were building strength. (…)
What happened to you can be your power.
With love ♥
Photo: Joshua Lee – unsplash.com