Abuse and Covid-19, or How my Childhood Prepared Me for a Pandemic

As I write this, I’m entering my sixth week home with my family: a 2 and 4 year old, my husband, and my grandmother. My husband and I both are working and my grandmother lives for my children, so we’re in a good place. We all like each other and are making the best of this.

It’s been up and down, joy and stress, caring and frustration. Mostly it’s been stable and steady. This got me thinking about how I’m feeling fine enough when others in similar situations are struggling.*

*caveat: those that are unemployed, sick, or otherwise affected directly by this madness are not in my mind at all in this statement. I’m thinking of others who are still gainfully employed and aren’t sick.

*another caveat: I fully acknowledge how lucky I am in my current situation. BUT. We also make our luck, so read on.

Why am I feeling fine?

I’m a planner. I make contingencies on top of contingencies. Before covid was even officially in the US, I had envisioned much of what has transpired as it has affected my life. I had Plans and yet more Plans.

When we all started to stay home, I was like, shrug we got this.

The other reason is I know myself. I hate transitions, I hate uncertainty. I need to keep moving, I need to focus on myself a little bit consistently. Planning helps, exercise helps, and routine. Lots of routine. Meditation and remembering this is temporary are crucial.

So what does this have to do with abuse?

I grew up with two mentally ill parents. As with most childhood abuse victims, my life wasn’t terribly predictable. Nor was it safe, mentally or physically. From a very early age, I took care of my sister, protecting us from my mother’s outbursts. In middle and high school, I tried to be normal in the face of all manner of abuse. My father was controlling and obsessed with me. This required me to construct fully formed lies in order to have a social life and to improvise ways around his surveillance and traps.

After high school, I moved out and never returned. I no longer have a relationship with them and spent much of my 20s dealing with the aftermath in therapy.

What does my childhood have in common with a virus?

The crux. This virus unintentionally sows uncertainty and fear. It causes us to behave irrationally. And it requires flexibility to be able to adapt to changing social situations. Covid itself doesn’t make the chaos, but the societal changes erected to protect us.

So how did a survive my parents? It’s the same!

Calm under pressure

I was 4 years old and calling my father or grandmother to report when my mother flushed her meds or walked off without us. I was 12 when she threatened suicide one morning before school. I packed up all the knives and took them to school with me (!!!).

During these pandemic times, we have to be ready for anything. Shifting the kids out of daycare the Friday before? Done. Making sure to give the kids the sense that everything is okay when it’s so very not okay? Got it.

Able to create routine and predicability

In order to function, I found ways to create routines and occupy my time. Music and sports were my lifeblood at the time. They kept me busy, they kept me focused, and they gave me reasons to keep trying.

In this time, my routines are very similar to before, but they’re more focused. Morning meditation? Not optional. Evening dog walk? Longer than before and decidedly not optional. Time with the kids? Every morning until 9:45. Checkins with everyone around me to be sure they’re okay? Almost every day.


The planner in me. Those layers of lies I constructed to keep that jackass off my back? Yeah.*

Here, I planned and planned and planned. And here’s what I got right:

  • We’d be stuck home with our kids. And still have a job to do.
  • There would be shortages. We stocked up on the important stuff**.
  • Retirement communities and other places where vulnerable people congregate would be the worst place to be.

*thought: those grand stories I had to maintain were most definitely part of why I’m so good at holding the mental models required for software engineering.

**except toilet paper. I failed at toilet paper because what is wrong with you people anyway?

What does this mean for you?

Take away what you learn here. Don’t forget it. One crisis is only somewhat different from the last. Learn, grow, gain flexibility, repeat.

What have you learned from those hard times in your life? What are you taking away from this period?

This is all a mess and we’re all doing our best to muddle through. That doesn’t mean we all shouldn’t learn from this time even as we take it one day, one morning, one hour, or one minute at a time.

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