Major Kopelev, an officer in the Soviet Red Army during World War II wrote about an incident when a screaming Polish woman came running toward him and other officers. Drunken soldiers interested in sex followed her. According to Kopelev, the lieutenant in charge waved his pistol and told the men to go away or he would execute them because of the Rokossovsky Order #006*: “For rape – execution on the spot.” Kopelev drew his pistol, but did not want to shoot one of his own men, this “brave soldier blind- drunk on vodka.” The intoxicated man came at [Kopelev], “hoarse with anger, spraying saliva. ‘You fucking officers, fuck your mothers! You! Fighting the war on our backs! Where were you when my tank was on fire? Where were you, fuck your mother, when I set fire to that Tiger?’”**
Kopelev wrote that he tried to convince the man not to rape by shouting, “Don’t disgrace yourself! Leave the girl alone! She’s Polish. Don’t you have a mother, a sister? Have you thought of them?” but the man yelled back, “and what did the Germans think of? Get out of my way, fuck your mother! I need a woman! I spilled my blood for this!” And other tank men, disgusted with the officers, mumbled comments such as, “some commanders…They’ll shoot their own men over a German bitch.”**
My self analysis and self empathy led me to feel empathy for the rapists
About twenty years ago, when I read this passage from Kopelev’s memoir I was researching sexual violence only because I was angry about my own experiences. Yet through my horror, I felt empathy for the soldiers. I didn’t condone their actions. But I somehow understood why they thought they had a right to take sex from others during the war. I was surprised at my spontaneous reaction, but the moment stuck with me: I knew there was a connection between my pain and the desperation and anger the men expressed, or I wouldn’t have felt the empathy.
* * *
Today there are too many attempts to control other people’s destinies. But if more of us had a greater ability to sympathize with others, policies that ensure people autonomy and self-respect would be more commonplace. Even though we do not all have great trauma and our emotional wounds vary, we can nevertheless build a more empathetic world by taking our own inner growth seriously. Intellectually and emotionally, such examination opens our hearts and minds to sympathy and even empathy. It is as though we were standing in other people’s shoes and seeing the world from their perspective. My experience might seem extreme, but everyone can look inside for insight. Everyone can become more open to others’ experiences, regardless of the level of their trauma.
* * *
For thirty years, I’ve lived with post-traumatic stress disorder while actively trying to grow beyond it. I now understand that it was my determination to face, fight, and heal my emotional wounds that allowed me to understand these soldiers and feel this empathy. In my family of origin, I am the first to break the generations-long cycle of trauma. Instead of passing trauma and subsequent behaviors to my children, I nurtured their self-esteem. I taught them self-care and how to express their emotions.
I believe if we honestly face our demons without numbing the pain, we become stronger and happier. Additionally, we are better able to teach our students to be empathetic. Simply put, self analysis leads to empathy. This emotional work is how we will change our divided world. The current rise of fascism and other forms of hateful politics are possible because individuals fear and see those as “others” despite the many similarities we have. The more we looks inside ourselves, the more we can teach compassion, insight, and empathy to those around us, especially our students and children. Self analysis leads to empathy. This helps stem the tide of hate and fear.
Self analysis and empathy: not condonation
Before seeking help, my despair let me to drink large amounts of alcohol to numb my feelings. I did not rape anyone, but instead turned my anger inward. Still, I too had strong feelings of being out of control and beyond help with anger. I had a scream so loud in my head that I sometimes thought I would have to die. It felt as though I would never be able to live with this much pain inside me. In my anguish, I sought connections with others in ways that were dangerous because of the alcohol and people involved. The wartime rapists also sought connections: sexual connection and release from their desperation. And the motivation for sexual activity fueled the abuse of their physical power, regardless of the female’s desires.
My analysis of why some soldiers rape is not equivalent to condonation. Rape does not have to be a natural part of civilian life or armed conflicts. Individual perpetrators and countries should be prosecuted for all wartime sexual crimes. This attempt to understand wartime trauma, however, helps us understand civilian peacetime struggles.
War time context
How could anyone, let alone a survivor of multiple rapes, feel empathy with these rapists? We must understand both the wartime context for these men and my civilian peacetime context. The eastern front was one of the most brutal areas of warfare during WWII. Soviet soldiers were the most desperate of all soldiers. Often, they did not have adequate training or supplies, including food, water, weapons, and even sufficient clothing and boots. However, the state usually provided plenty of liquor.*** Alcohol helped deaden soldiers’ senses and emotions to the horrors they experienced and perpetrated. This kept them moving, but loosened their inhibitions. Similar to peacetime, alcohol and sexual violence went hand in hand, rendering the nightmare even worse.
Additionally, the Soviet Union lost more of their population during WWII than any other country in the world.**** The desperation men and women felt is something that we can barely begin to understand. Imagine the trauma of seeing Germans carting off women and girls to serve in German military brothels. Or the experience of seeing entire towns disappear to mass graves. Imagine knowing the Germans were attempting to exterminate Slavs through starvation. And you thought about your own malnourished family dying at home because of their policy. As the Soviet soldiers moved west they saw bodies of men, women, and children, murdered, raped, or otherwise violated and mutilated. They also saw carcasses of livestock, cats, and other animals. There were destroyed trees, houses, farmyards, outbuildings, etc.: these soldiers were living a surreal and horrifying existence.
Everything during war was exaggerated, including the drunkenness, filth, and anguish of the rapists, and the size of the rape groups. Even the condition of the girls, women, and men who were raped. In civilian life, historically and currently, much emphasis is put on the rape victim’s appearance and clothing. Similar to countless other examples, the current US president insinuated that one of his accusers wasn’t attractive enough for him to rape. Plus, in the popular press are countless articles about cleanliness and sex.
Yet during wartime, and specifically during WWII, the people were starving, dirty, and often diseased. But in their intoxicated and exhausted states, rapists would attack people they may not have otherwise. The pretense of disease sometimes helped victims deflect unwanted attention from soldiers. Nevertheless, German and Soviet soldiers raped civilians and concentration or POW camp prisoners, regardless of how old or clean their victims were. It was as if many, not all, men turned into frenzied, demonic toddlers who took any toy they saw. They moved in an inebriated, foggy nightmare, their bodies responding to their base instincts of eating, drinking, and fulfilling sexual urges.
Acknowledging the horror of the Soviet WWII experience is only part of the context necessary to explain my reaction to Kopelev’s passage: patriarchal culture was inveterate throughout Russia and Eastern Europe. Centuries of oppression of Slavic women fueled men’s beliefs in their right to sex, whether with their spouse, girlfriend, or stranger. Stalin wasn’t concerned about the mass raping. He is quoted as saying that the men had “earned” the right to sexual release, having fought so hard. These patriarchal beliefs were what some men fell back on in their few moments of respite from seeing blood, entrails, destroyed tanks, corpses, and severed body parts. Having witnessed such monstrosities and many not expecting to survive themselves, in their few hours of reprieve, almost like automatons, some turned to the physical comfort and orgasmic release of sexual activity.
Kopelev’s soldiers dismissed this woman as though she weren’t a sentient being. Despite being a survivor of my own kind of peacetime terror, I understand that because patriarchy told them sex was their right in these extreme circumstances they felt it was somehow a small price for the woman to pay for them to have sexual intercourse with her.
There are obvious problems with thinking that having sex with a soldier was a small price for a person to pay. Often females died from rapes or suffered such physical trauma. Rapists would have to have realized the rapes weren’t a small price to pay. A man at the end of a line of twenty or thirty would have raped someone who was more like a corpse. Her body would have been battered and smeared with blood and sperm. Eventually, she would have stopped screaming and would have passed out from pain and loss of blood. This was a huge price to pay.
Germans raped en masse during the war. They established a system of sexual slavery throughout the entire Reich and occupational territories. They forced thousands of woman of all nationalities, religions, and races to have sex with concentration camp prisoners and their soldiers.
Despite my focus on Red Army rapists, I do not present Kopelev’s testimony to support the long-held view that an eastern horde of rapists exceeded the beastliness of German sexual crimes. Western historians, politicians, and the media have pushed a racist agenda. They have highlighted the image of the lustful, maniacal, and drunken Slav from the east. Yet they have almost never acknowledged the sex crimes of the German Wehrmacht.
But the Germans indeed raped en masse, including females who were racially forbidden. They raped in towns, cities, in workplaces, and after battles. They also established a far-reaching, systematic system of sexual slavery. This consisted of hundreds of brothels all across Europe, the Soviet Union, and Africa. The Germans set up brothels in camps, near battlefields, and in cities and towns. They seized females at gunpoint. They were subjected to up to dozens of rapes a day. Members of the Wehrmacht, SS, mercenary forces, and even concentration camp inmates who had “earned” a brothel visit took part in these rapes. It is paramount that historians and the general public acknowledge these crimes against humanity. It is a kind of racism to only embrace and write about the sexual crimes of the Red Army.
* * *
However, my surprising feeling of empathy, an understanding that went beyond sympathy, was for the Russian rapists in Kopelev’s passage. It wasn’t for the German rapists or for all rapists in general. I am not a saint. Still, I believe I now can better explain how my civilian experience ties to these Soviet soldiers on the eastern front.
I’m a survivor of too many statutory rapes, date rapes, and other assaults, ranging from pinches to rough grabs to tackles, and a couple of narrow escapes from some unknown fate, all before my twenties. The neglect and lack of emotional support in my childhood home, the constant sexual harassment and bullying from grade school through early college years, as well as at one place of employment, added to my PTSD that I still suffer from in various ways today. But my healing began with sharing and self analysis, which led to self empathy and finally to my feeling of empathy for men who committed acts of violence that terrified me to the core.
In 1990 the self analysis that led to greater empathy began
In 1990 my journey to heal began. This meant through the decades having various memories surface and feeling the deep pit of horror in my body. I would often scream out and suddenly jerk to attention if my husband tapped me gently to wake me. It meant hiding myself from all local news, many television shows, and researching before seeing movies because I could not bear to watch or hear about any sexual violence, especially against women. Part of my healing occurred in my forties, when my daughter was a teenager. I finally understood that three of my experiences were in fact statutory rapes, the enormity of which I hadn’t fully grasped before. Somehow I had dismissed my experiences until I saw her and imagined how I would feel if a, for example, thirty-two-year-old man had sex with her.
Even though I have survived such a large number of violations of my body, I cannot imagine the trauma of violent, savage rape by one or many soldiers in wartime. I also cannot imagine having one’s trauma compacted into a few months or years instead of spread over a decade or two. Finally, although I remain silent in many ways, I am eternally grateful that I had the ability to share in so many groups, workshops, and counseling sessions. Without being able to reach out and speak in safe places, I may not have survived. Instead, I sought out and was provided support from countless, loving women and men, who touched me both physically and emotionally, and who helped teach me once again that I was worthy of the space I occupied in this world and that I was more than a sexual entity.
How I can relate to the soldiers’ desperation
As a survivor of patriarchy, male sexual abuse, and childhood neglect, I can relate to the desperation experienced by these soldiers. I can say that growing up and in my early twenties before I sought out professional help and realized what I had survived, I lived in my own kind of desperation despite having been a fairly high achiever. There is a scream in my head that I still hear today, even though it isn’t nearly as loud as it used to be. As a teenager, I used alcohol to quiet the scream and to quash my loneliness and anguish.
Recently someone asked me what the scream said, and the first thing that came to mind was, “get the fuck off me!” Once at a healing workshop, in my mind I went back to feelings of being violated. Nine adults were on top of me trying to hold me down. I pushed them so hard that I they had difficulty holding their positions. I almost succeeded in getting them “the fuck off of me.” I wasn’t overly strong. But somehow the anger I felt gave me superhuman powers to push the men I envisioned in my mind off of me through the act of pushing these nine people holding me down.
* * *
Thirty-five years ago, the scream was mostly an angry roar at the universe, an expression of my cynicism and profound sadness and betrayal. It was a scream that demanded the world or someone pay attention to me. But it also felt sardonic, acerbic, and out-of-control. Sometimes when I was intoxicated, the bitterness felt unmanageable. I was incognizant to any damage I inflicted onto myself as I drank more and more and moved closer and closer to oblivion. I had not been taught self-care and did not understand, in those intoxicated times, how I was dismissing myself as someone who did not matter. It wasn’t at all clear to me how sad it was to think I really did not care what happened to me.
* * *
When I quit drinking as an undergraduate, I fought for my life and sanity as repressed memories began to surface. This was when the pain and depth of my despair felt so crisp and sharp and deep. I often felt such rage, shame, loneliness, and sadness in my stomach, it would force my body to fold in half. Because I was already having black outs from drinking at age thirteen, much of the horror I felt in my sober twenties was from my childhood years. These were feelings I had never processed but had instead drowned in alcohol.
The depth of despair I felt and even once in a great while still feel at age fifty-two, is how I can relate to these soldiers’ despair at the horrors they witnessed, even though their traumatic experiences were different. I cannot begin to compare my peacetime agony with the trauma that tank warfare, genocide, mass starvation, gang rape, and other wartime tragedies caused soldiers and civilians alike during WWII.
But historically I dismissed myself as though I were unworthy to such a degree that I didn’t even recognize some of my assaults as rapes. Nor did I think I had any legitimate reason to be angry. I felt it didn’t matter to me or anyone else that I was raped. So I could understand that these men did not care about someone they intended to rape for their own sexual release. Because I had dismissed myself, I could feel how these soldiers could dismiss women and women’s rights to their bodies after what they had been through.
Trauma is hard to completely beat
Trauma stays with a victim for life. With help and work, though, one can break the cycle so the next generation is healthier. Today it usually feels I was never traumatized. Yet there are still times when it seems the sources of my agony happened yesterday. Even with modern EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) treatments, body work, and group and individual therapies, my trauma will always be a part of me, regardless of my continued self analysis any growing empathy. I will continue to heal to the day I die.
But I can have a positive effect on the world. At twenty-three, when I realized I had been raped as a teenager, I couldn’t say the word. I tried to explain to a friend, but could only mutter, “the R word.” She had to guess what I meant.
Yet I progressed from one extreme to another great limit. At first I couldn’t even say “rape” about one incident and I felt shame about my heavy drinking. Then I learned to sympathize with myself as a young girl who had no reason to be raped by men whether or not I was intoxicated. Finally, I ended up researching and writing about sexual violence and armed conflict. This kind of inner analysis can help us become more tolerant and empathetic toward others. Self analysis leads to empathy. In turn, this will help spread progressive political ideas that stem from an inherent understanding of all kinds of beings.
There is hope…
We can change the next generations and slow the spread of fearful politics. But we need to face our own emotional wounds, no matter how small. My politics as a young person were insensitive, because I was oblivious to my pain. This is partly why many otherwise kind, intelligent people support politicians who spew hatred and dismiss other people’s experiences as trivial. As I faced my anguish, my stance on issues shifted dramatically because I felt the trauma of others, including animals. This self analysis is how I experienced empathy for the rapists, despite my deep fear of angry men. I broke the generational cycle of trauma. I raised my children and encouraged others to not be victims and instead be strong individuals with a strong sense of self-worth and self-awareness.
The more people understand their own issues, the more deeply they can understand the experiences of others. This includes understanding the trauma rapists or mass shooters endure. Facing one’s own pain creates a less divided world. People will embrace candidates who bring us together, not tear us apart. Women will be less likely to dismiss #metoo stories as “this is just how it was back then! Men grabbed us! Big deal!” People will see that we cannot discriminate against Hispanics, Muslims, transgender people, etc.. They will learn to condemn hateful rhetoric mocking equality, women’s reproductive or prisoner rights, environmentalism, or whatever the issue.
In summary, we need to support and teach self-analysis because self analysis leads to empathy. I hope that explaining my empathy with these rapists will help even one person gain the courage to look inside and subsequently gain a greater sense of enlightenment. If that is the case, then I feel that bearing my soul will have been worth the effort.
* * * * * * * * * * *
* During WWII, Marshal Rokossovsky, Commander of the Stalingrad Front, issued Order #006, which became known as the Rokossovsky order. It was an instruction to officers to execute without trial soldiers who raped. It was more of a public relations stunt because in reality, Stalin had given his tacit consent to the soldiers to do what they wanted with civilians (see Milovan Djilas, Conversations with Stalin, trans. Michael B. Petrovich (New York and Lon- don: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1962), 110-111).
** A tiger was a German tank, and it isn’t clear why Kopelev writes that the soldier called the Polish woman a German. Still, I have maintained the nationality didn’t matter because the soldiers just wanted sex with a female. This was also true for the Germans who raped and sexually enslaved Slavs, Jews, and others who were supposed to be off-limits to their race because of their alleged racial inferiority.
*** Soldiers received a daily ration of vodka, and before attacks this apparently was doubled. For one source on this, see Djilas, Conversations, 52-53.
**** According to nationalww2museum.org, “[t]he Soviet Union suffered 21% more casualties than Americans in World War II. Most estimates agree the Soviet Union suffered the highest number of total deaths in World War II, between 22 and 28 million. The population of the Soviet Union was 194,100,000. This represents a total loss of 14.0% of its population.” China lost an approximate twenty million. In my dissertation, I used the estimate “approximately thirty million,” but the figure is inexact and depends on what and who you count. Do we include only deaths caused by the Germans or also deaths caused by the various armed forces fighting on the eastern front? For further discussion see, https://www.rbth.com/history/330625-soviet-citizens-died-world-war-statistics.
This essay about self analysis and empathy came bubbling up one morning in late spring, early summer of 2019. I woke up and suddenly understood and saw the larger picture and explanation of how I felt the empathy with the soldier rapists. I had help from many people who gave me various kinds of feedback. In the fall, I tried to get this essay published in more visible and well-known journals without success. With the pandemic and my subsequent struggles, it wasn’t relevant to what the world was reading at the time. In the later spring, I tried a few other places, but again, without success.
I feel it is an important contribution to the world, because of all the hateful politics now. People on both sides of the political divide can use self analysis and self empathy to become greater stewards of the earth and its inhabitants. I have so many people to thank and especially taiko. In the years since I started playing, I had more memories and realizations surface than I had maybe the decade prior. It has been an incredible journey so far, and I look forward to the next years of healing, joy, compassion, and sharing.
My explanations on self analysis and empathy were inspired because of this memoir: Lev Kopelev, No Jail for Thought, trans. Anthony Austin (London: Secker & Warburg, 1975), 50-51. Lev was a Stalin enthusiast who became an officer in the Red Army. Later he was a victim of Stalin and spent time in the Gulag, and even later a dissident.
Flying to Germany for a long weekend of intensive taiko and late nights with friends would have been enough to wipe me out for weeks. But I wasn’t in Germany a full day before the president announced that he would cancel all flights from Europe to the United States. This would be in effect the very next day and last for thirty days. Trump’s false announcement about flight cancellations caused pandemonium across Europe, and it personally affected me and my well-being.
I heard this Thursday morning, the twelfth of March, having arrived the day before. The stress from this shock, my new isolated pandemic reality at home, my business problems, and pure physical exhaustion was enough for me to slowly – but surely – slide into an anxiety-ridden depression by the first half of May. This happened despite the use of all the tools I learned over the past thirty years to stay grounded and not overly anxious. I did all I could to ward off the darkness, but in the end I lost the struggle. I am forever grateful that I knew how to climb out of the hole fairly rapidly, without too much stress on my family.
Having landed in Frankfurt on Wednesday, I took the train to Duisburg, where my friend picked me up. We went for coffee and then back to her place where she fixed me a nice, vegetarian supper. We had a couple glasses of wine, and I was in bed about 11:00, just hours before Trump’s false announcement.
Waking to havoc
I woke around 8:30 on the twelfth. Still prone, I picked up my phone and was surprised and alarmed at how many messages I had. I cannot remember the first one I saw, but I quickly sat up in alarm, grabbed my computer, and entered multi-tasking mode. Trump had indeed announced he would cancel all flights from Europe to the US.
I read that another American who had also landed the day before had left in the wee hours of the morning. He was already in London! From there he checked in with me since we were to be at the same workshop. His wife had called in the middle of the night to tell him of Trump’s sudden move. A friend in Hamburg wrote saying he could find somewhere for me to live for thirty days if necessary. I didn’t understand yet why I might need to stay in Germany for a whole month. Yet I started to think something was really wrong.
With a little help from a friend
My friend joined me with her computer and phone. I didn’t have phone service, so we used hers to call the American embassy. After several attempts, we gave up because no one was answering. At the same time I was on hold, we googled the news, tried to get into my ticket, and read more messages.
The first time I got into my flight information in the KLM app I saw the same message I had seen for weeks. It said that flight changes were free because of the virus. But with multi-tasking and the app not letting me contact customer service, the second or third time, the message was gone. They rescinded that promise! My friend called KLM but couldn’t get through to them either. We later learned the airlines all over Europe were overwhelmed with thousands of panicked Americans. They price gouged customers for changes and new flights.
More multi-tasking while trying to stay calm with an unstable leader
I continued googling, and we both sat there for a while trying to understand the situation. I tried to stay calm, but it was difficult because of the time, energy, and my husband’s frequent flyer points I had spent to travel. If I had to leave right away all that would be wasted. We found the actual document from the White House and saw that it stated that the decree did not affect American citizens. Trump had misspoke.
However, because the president is unstable, I felt unsure that I could trust the official document, the situation, or him. I wasn’t sure what to do, so we planned to go to the Düsseldorf airport to see about a flight. I had a train ticket for later in the day from Düsseldorf to Hamburg. My friend’s thought was that if there were no flights, at least I would know I had tried different options. Then I could enjoy the weekend playing taiko knowing I couldn’t have done anything else. I would just assume and hope that I would get home to my family without too much hassle.
Tried to get a ticket home, oblivious to the outrage toward Trump across Europe
The airport was surprisingly empty. Later I saw in the news the pandemonium that happened in many airports across Europe. Düsseldorf is a smaller airport, though, and maybe that’s why. Yet it also was already almost 11:00 am, hours after many airports were filled with Trump-caused chaos.
I went to a counter and asked about getting a flight home before the Trump deadline. The attendant said everything was booked, that there were none left. He and the attendant next to him said they had heard I would probably be allowed to go home. They said I might need a health certificate either to get into the US or before I could board the plane…but they were not sure. One of them also mentioned the possibility of a quarantine, but had no further details. They were relying on rumors because of the American president’s unclear declaratives. Basically, it seemed, no one knew what was going on.
So now what?
No flights available and the rumors about maybe needing a health certificate or a possible quarantine had me reeling. In shock, I focused on breathing. I imagined being in quarantine for a couple of weeks with strangers and only cheese and salad for vegetarians. I’ve been through so much during my travels and at home. I sometimes have a hard time being rational about what the future will hold for me. But I know I was among tens of thousands of people the president more than inconvenienced because of what he did and how he did it.
Time for another coffee
Having no more questions, we decided to have a cup of coffee while we thought about all that we knew. My friend still had a little bit of time, so we thought this we thought this was a good plan.
There was a cafe nearby, so I wheeled my bag over, and we ordered a coffee each. I joked that I wanted a glass of wine. She thought I was serious and said as much, but I shook my head, knowing that wouldn’t help me. I got my computer out to do some more research. My husband’s phone still wasn’t letting my calls through.
I could have tried to travel to other airports or call multiple airlines. But I had a feeling this would not get me a flight home before the new policy went into effect. I felt anxious about having maybe missed an opportunity to get on a plane right away like my friend had. This was despite not being sure I wanted to fly home and miss the special taiko weekend I had planned. So, I had mixed feelings. I was excited to still be heading to Hamburg to drum. But a growing sense of dread filled me. I knew I would have to have faith that I would get home safely, without someone putting me into quarantine somewhere.
The panic felt real and was amplified because of my PTSD from complex trauma
My thoughts were running wildly about what would happen. It seemed possible that the system would sweep me up by authorities who didn’t care about me as a person or my rights. When I left, Germany had only approximately ten thousand confirmed cases in a population of eighty-three million. Minnesota was recording its very first cases and had fewer than ten. Despite the extremely low numbers, a friend and my father had hoped I wouldn’t travel. Still, to cancel had seemed nonsensical to me. Now, without the trust of a stable leader, I felt I could be punished for traveling to Europe in the middle of a pandemic.
It felt like I was back in Soviet-run East Germany in the 1980s. The police had taken me aside to a room to search and question me. I had absolutely no clue how things were going to work out, and I was scared. On top of it, this time I was jet-lagged and tired. I could feel the strength of the adrenaline surging through me. I know my PTSD from complex trauma made it even more difficult to stay calm and in the present.
We thought to call the US Embassy again, but had no luck getting through. We also tried the health department. By this time, I was purposefully taking deep breaths and didn’t think I could make that call. I also felt a little shy to admit this to my friend, but she understood. We were talking with another person in Hamburg at the moment. She asked him to call the health department there since that was where I was heading.
He called, but they didn’t know anything definitive. They did say they hadn’t heard about Americans having to have a health certificate. Besides, we reasoned, that would be a long process since I, along with so many others, would have to make an appointment for the next day. It was already Thursday, and my flight home was on Monday.
It was time to leave, so we finished our coffee and left for the train station. I kept taking deep breaths to calm my inner turmoil. It felt surreal on the outside, and on the inside I was fighting this rising sense of panic and fear. By now, I could feel my brain had shifted into PTSD-survivor mode. I was trying to stay focused on not bawling or shriveling up to the mercy of others to help me. I had a train to catch, my friend had an appointment, and I had this!
With the free time I had, I had tried to get a flight home earlier, but couldn’t. I just had to wait to see what would happen and hope for the best. Once I got a hold of my husband, maybe he could find out more information about how and when I was to come home. I needed to put the issue on the shelf and enjoy what I knew was going to be an awesome taiko weekend.
Düsselfdorf Main Train Station
We said good-bye with a corona hug (air hug, a few feet apart). I went into the Düsselfdorf Hauptbahnhof (main train station), which I know so well, despite its many changes since my first visit in 1984. I just had my roller carry-on, a back pack, and a billfold I hung over my shoulder. Because I felt the pervasive fear surrounding the virus, I strategized about when and what I should purchase to eat. Could the virus be on all those sandwiches? I also only wanted to use the bathroom. It was such a the hassle with luggage and digging out coins to get through the gates.
My original plan had been to visit this friend in Duisburg, but stay in the Düsseldorf suburb Unterbach. My Mutti, my German mother from my time as an exchange student in the 1980s, lived there. Because of her age, we canceled my visit for fear of her contracting the virus from me after traveling. With the changed schedule, I now had a couple of hours to spare.
Texting while trying to stay calm
I was very emotional when I arrived in the station. At first I was standing not far from the main entrance and texting with the workshop organizer in Hamburg. He is an extra kind person and considerate toward all people. I confided that I was panicking and feeling like I used to when bad things happened to me when I lived in the GDR. He sent me a comforting emoji. I kept trying to get a hold of my husband, who wasn’t answering.
Upset and worried, I walked a little further into the station and found a place to stop against a railing. I had tears going down my face. Three young police or security officers walked over. At first I thought they were going to ask me if I was okay, but they headed to the same railing where I was leaning. The three of them stood laughing and talking.
I wasn’t in horrible distress, sobbing or anything. Still, it was a little sad that they ignored a person standing right next to them obviously crying. Of course, I knew they couldn’t do anything. Still, it felt a little alienating to have someone whose job it is to provide public safety to not acknowledge me in distress.
On the other hand, maybe they thought I had just gone through a tearful good-bye with my boyfriend. LOL. And it’s true, with all my traveling, I have done a few of those over the years.
Food (for now and in the train) and my one trip to the bathroom
Having composed myself somewhat, I went to buy some food. Because of the pandemic, this felt harder than it normally would, even with little luggage. It felt like the virus could be on everything, including the food. I touched the tongs to grab a sandwich, which caused me great concern. Then, when I paid, it was stressful with my luggage, the European credit card machines I was still (again) getting used to, and the entire time thinking OMG I touched the virus.
The World Health Organization had just declared the coronavirus a pandemic the day before, on the eleventh of March. Most people did not yet understand what was going on yet. Plus, the danger seemed to many to be so far away. Some people weren’t worried, and others, like me, were extremely paranoid. The science hadn’t developed, so I thought the virus was literally everywhere. Even touching it momentarily would bring doom. In my mind, I would come home sick, get my family sick, and one of us would die shortly afterward.
I went to the bathroom, having timed my run perfectly so I only needed to go once. As usual, it was a hassle with luggage and having to deal with the payment machine and the gate. In Hamburg I realized I could pay with credit card, which was much easier than dealing with coins. But in Düsseldorf, it either wasn’t possible or I just didn’t notice the credit card option since I wasn’t expecting that.
Peace in the sun
I finally went out of the back of the station and sat on a bench in the sunshine. The selfie I took showed my face was all scrunched up in worry. I sat, felt the sun, looked at the sky, breathed deeply, and felt lighter. I took another selfie, and my face reflected my lighter emotions.
My chosen spot lost its sun in a bit, so I moved to the fountain area to feel the sun again. I had to move one other time, down a foot or two, to stay in the warmth. A woman asked me a question, and we spoke. She seemed lonely, I remember, but after she went on for quite a while about her life, I was tired of the conversation. I apologized that I needed to do something on my phone. Usually, I would have spent more time with this lady hoping to lift her spirits and feel connected with her. But I just didn’t have the mental strength.
By this time my husband had answered my call. He planned to contact the Minnesota Attorney General to confirm that this new order didn’t affect American citizens. He also tried to figure out my plane ticket, but misread my messages and called the wrong people. Still, over the next few days, it became increasingly clear that my flight would be fine. Plus, the attorney general’s office returned his call and assured him I should be able to come home without incident.
Flashback train ride to the 80s
It was time to leave. I made my way to the platform where I caught the Flexbus train I had booked. This company had refurbished trains after the war. It was a nostalgic trip back to the 1980s, riding in a closed car with up to seven other people. But for the virus and Trump’s false announcement, I was ecstatic to relive the experience. The vintage windows, trash can, ashtray, old hooks where the curtain used to hang, the top luggage straps, and dark green seats brought back many memories.
Traveling by train is one of my favorite ways to travel. I had spent so many hours rocking back and forth, especially while living in East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down. Back then, it took about four hours to get from Jena to Berlin in the old Deutsche Reichsbahn trains. Now it takes a fraction of that. And I’ll never forget the extremely loud, squeaky brakes in East Germany. All conversation ceased when a train arrived in a station.
However, because of the coronavirus I was nervous about being in a closed compartment. Almost no one had masks on in the train, and in my compartment there was an older couple and a middle-aged man, none of whom had masks on. I had a scarf that I kept hitched up over my nose and mouth.
The train was supposed to have wifi, but it didn’t. I couldn’t reach my friend I was to meet at the Hamburg station. She is a scholar who also researched German military brothels during the war. She ended up not feeling well and had left by the time I got there. This was a disappointment, but understandable.
Arrival in Hamburg
At almost eight in the evening, the station in Hamburg was extremely crowded, unlike Frankfurt and Düsseldorf. The majority of COVID cases were in and around Duisburg and Düsselfdorf, with the main nearby cluster in Heinsberg. Therefore, on March tenth, the state of north Rhine-Westphalia banned all gatherings of more than one thousand people. The state had rapidly climbed to 648 cases. The risk to me was still quite small, since the state had more than 17.93 million people, and I wasn’t hanging out in crowded bars or other places. But because of the rapid local rise in cases, more people were home, and the train stations were almost deserted. Hamburg, in contrast, was bustling as usual, and people were not social distancing or wearing masks. It was as if the virus did not exist.
Taking a moment to breathe and have a bite to eat
I needed some food and so sat for a few minutes with German potato salad and a beer. I was exhausted and had a hard time deciding where and what to eat. Again, it was scary because of the virus despite the few cases in this regions. I still felt I had to be careful not to touch anything. Everything just felt surreal to me.
After eating, I made my way to the S-Bahn. I couldn’t find the ticket dispenser, but a kind woman helped me. After checking the arrival time of her train, she even left the crowded platform and walked me back up to the busy street to show me exactly where it was. I got my ticket and rode the packed train, being careful not to touch anything.
Finding the dojo, vacilating between panic and confidence
When I exited the station I was in a residential neighborhood. The area was sparsely lit. I checked to make sure I had gotten out at the correct place. I pulled out the map my friend had provided and figured out which direction to walk. As I turned away from the station, heading toward the sidewalk on the back side, I saw a man in the dark across the narrow street. With my carry-on and back pack, I felt vulnerable and scared. I circled back to the station and tried to figure out if there was another way to go, but there wasn’t. So I headed back out and walked as fast as I could past where he was. The more I walked, the safer I felt, seeing a person or two once in a while.
The way seemed long in the dark, which I made even longer by missing a turn. I had to double back after a gas station attendant helped me figure out where I had gone wrong. I had no phone service, so I just kept telling myself I WOULD find the studio. Plus, I was using google maps that was working intermittently. At the gas station, I used the bathroom and was again nervous about the virus, especially carrying the key to and from the restroom. (Now, having lived with the virus for months, I would not be so scared. We know that if we wash our hands and don’t touch our faces, we should be fine.)
Being lost was another trigger to my PTSD. In and of itself, it would not be a big deal to anyone, but I had so many triggers over the next month that I know they all added up to change the chemistry of my brain.
Flashback to Estonia
Once, I got off the ferry in Estonia in the evening as the sky became dark. Despite having done research, I was not able to find the hotel I had understood as being near the docks. It had looked to be a safe and short distance for me to walk. It was not dumb or naive of me to have arranged my arrival in the near-dark. I was under time pressure to work during the day and travel at night. I was quite aware of the dangers, already eight years into my healing from my own sexual assaults.
The hotel, according to my research, was supposed to be right past the dock. This error in either my reading the 1990s internet information or in the information the hotel provided would not have caused most men the trouble it caused me. The men had cat-called me, which scared me out of my wits since it was getting darker and we were alone. I happened to see a car with a family inside, waved them down, and practically begged them for a ride to the nearest hotel. I ended up paying a lot more for that night’s stay, but I was safe.
When I got to the dojo, two friends were sitting in the lobby. I was exhausted, having walked so far and having had such a day. It was already getting near 10:00 at night. My friend had invited me to come in and watch the local group with the visiting artist rehearse. But I was so spent, when I arrived I collapsed on the first couch I saw. I stayed there until they finished and chatted with the two friends, whom I had met at the fourth European Taiko Conference (ETC4) the year before.
It sounded so wonderful to hear the sounds of Kion Dojo and to know that my friends were just down the hall drumming their hearts out. When they finished I apologized for not having gotten up to watch. People said hi, and I chatted with a few. They were busy moving drums and getting ready to go home. We left soon after for my friend’s (the person had called the health department) place, which was maybe a twenty-five minute drive.
The day ends safe and sound with an exciting three days of drumming ahead
There we sat, talked, had some wine, and checked our phones. I was still quite nervous about my flight home. Rumors were flying around in the press and in messages to me about having to quarantine when I returned home. There were other rumors I cannot remember, but at some point I realized some facts that calmed me down. For example, the U.S. wouldn’t pay for so many thousands Americans to be in a separate quarantine housing after having come from Europe. I realized that the Center for Disease Control (CDC) would just ask travelers to self-quarantine for two weeks upon return.
The last taiko workshop before the world shut down
We rose early to get back to the where the workshop was to be. My friend thought he needed to help unload the drums. It turned out they had already unloaded them prior to our arrival. We just needed to bring them into different rooms for the workshops. It was a fun hour, helping to carry drums and stands while also saying hello to people I hadn’t seen since ETC4. Plus, I got to meet some new drummers.
After the initial welcome session with everyone, we separated into two groups – those newer to the song we planned to perform, ELEVEN, and those who wanted to do polyrhythms.
Polyrhythms in German
I took the polyrhythm class, which was a lot of fun for me because of the material and also because it was my first taiko workshop in German. Since everyone could understand German, it was easiest for the group if the instructor spoke German instead of English. At first, I counted along in German, which came easily to me. But at some point the rhythms became more complex I had to switch to counting in English in my head while focusing on the drumming. It was a lot of fun and challenging for the brain.
After the polyrhythm workshop, the rest of Friday, all of Saturday and Sunday morning until noon or one was with the visiting artist. Physically, her workshops are always challenging. She has so much energy. American taiko artists tend to have the group drum for five minutes or so at a time. Then they talk more. Then we play for a few minutes. This Japanese player has people drum for at least ten minutes, and sometimes up to twenty or longer. It’s also never low-key drumming. She inspires her group to play with full energy because she does herself. After a day or two, when she says we will start again, I feel like, ”oh god, I can’t drum anymore!“
But then we start. The energy is always so amazing I drum again and again with my whole heart, soul, and body. When we stop, I again feel I cannot do anymore, and I must have an extended break. But then I drum some more! And this cycle keeps repeating, for days. It is extremely cleansing for the body and the mind.
The schools were to close that Monday, along with other kinds of businesses. The person who had organized the weekend, said we were at the last taiko workshop before the world shut down. This was a perfect way to describe how we all felt, never before having lived through a global pandemic and not knowing what was in store for us.
Despite the fun, I could feel the worry at the back of my mind…
Saturday evening, the taiko rock star of the workshop, admitted that she had been nervous about coming to do the workshop in a period when the world was starting to shut down. Because of the situation, one of us had departed in the night to make sure he made it home to his family. Two others, one from Spain and one from Italy, did not come. Italy had already shut down, and the situation in Spain was changing rapidly each day (on March 13 the prime minister declared a state of emergency). Europeans didn’t want to chance traveling in case borders closed, which they did on March 17.
For the duration of the workshop, people constantly washed their hands and tried to open and close doors without touching handles. But it was impossible to not be close to people. We didn’t hug or touch, but we sat next to each other and drummed without masks. To pass the popcorn, we used a small dish to scoop it out instead of having people put their hands in the bowl. I felt a little scared. I wondered if I had made a judgement error in not canceling my trip in the first place. One night while trying to sleep I felt congested, which made sleeping even harder! I was fearful I had indeed caught the virus, proving I should not have traveled to Germany.
Rumors and reason
Rumors about how Americans were to get home were still flying also, which didn’t help. I was having so much fun drumming with my European friends, but in moments of reprieve, my angst over how and if I would get home rose up. Friday and Saturday I was still getting messages from friends encouraging me to breathe and enjoy the drumming.
Additionally, Friday evening, a taiko player reasoned with me that it wouldn’t make sense for Germany to pay to screen Americans before I got on the plane, because Germany surely figured that America needs to foot that bill. They would put me on the plane and let the American authorities deal with those returning from Europe. I hadn’t thought of that angle, but this made sense and helped relax me.
The end of an amazing taiko experience
So physically and emotionally, I was exhausted, but the three days of drumming were amazing, thanks to the instructors and all the other wonderful European taiko players. We ended the weekend at an Italian restaurant – sitting closely together (this would end the very next day when schools and restaurants would close). We had walked outside on the docks of Hamburg and had a wonderful meal full of spirited and uplifting conversation.
My German sister came around 9:30 or so to pick me up. The drummers and I said tearful good-byes and a couple of us even gave in and hugged or semi-hugged. My sister and I left for her place. There, her daughter, she, and I stayed up till 2:00 am or so, with my sister and I lasting the longest, trying to get all caught up with our lives before I had to leave in the morning. Unfortunately, my original flight had been canceled because of the slowing of flights around the world due to the virus. So this was the only time I had with them because I left early in the morning.
After intense taiko weekends, there is always a period of emotional exhaustion because of the return to normal. I expected this, along with extra exhaustion because of the travel to Europe. What I didn’t expect was how quickly the changes in the world, the lack of American leadership, and the spread of the virus would affect my mental health.
My flight home
The flight home was stressful, but not horrific. Delta changed my flight at the last minute to fly me through Detroit, because the CDC didn’t have COVID screening in Minneapolis. This added an additional three or more hours of traveling with the added flight and layover time.
The Amsterdam airport was strangely empty, even more so than the Frankfurt one. There were some people with masks, but most people were maskless. Cashiers had gloves and masks, which was a new sight to see for me. A mom in the bathroom was trying to get her kids to wash their hands for a long time and to not touch their faces. Afterwards, the boy touched his face right after washing his hands. The mom, though, looked so tired she left with her kids without making him wash again. In hindsight, it seems that people were mostly focused on the virus being on surfaces, not so much in the air. It felt to me like the virus could be on everything I touched.
The airlines were completely overwhelmed, rerouting thousands of passengers. This was clear by the messages I received. The funniest came when I was already seated in the plane from Detroit to Minneapolis. I was settled in and read an email that the flight I was on was changed to the next day. Because I was so exhausted, I had a moment of panic, thinking, OMG, where will I spent the night? Then I realized, “wait – no! I’m in the plane now and they likely wouldn’t take me off – it’s okay – the airlines are just confused!”
The CDC, blind-sided by Trump’s abrupt announcement about flight cancellations, set up COVID screening in a hurry
The news showed that over the weekend, thousands of panicked Americans and others who lived in the US had filled airports from Thursday morning all through the weekend. So many had had found earlier flights home so there were thousands of people routed through the few CDC screening areas in the country. The problem was that the CDC also didn’t know this was going to happen and so had to set up the COVID screening stations in a hurry. Donald Trump had made his announcement without any preparation, so airports and CDC staff were acting on the fly trying to organize the arrivals, movement of passengers, and the screening. This meant that the screening to help prevent the spread of the virus actually caused it to spread more because thousands of travelers ended up in crowded halls for hours with few masks and no social distancing.
By the day of my flight, the situation was more under control
By Monday evening, they had streamlined the process. Flights were interspersed, and there were no excessively long lines. Because of this, it was actually better for my health that I had stuck with my original travel plans. Still, I had to go through six or seven different checkpoints: passport, two different people to check my papers for the screening, the temperature check, the short verbal CDC presentation, customs, a dog sniffing, an x-ray luggage screening, and then regular security with everything scanned to get onto my next flight. It was more than I had ever had to do even while traveling in the eastern block countries in the 1980s.
It felt like the screening in Detroit was pathetic, and I knew even at this point in the pandemic that it was not really preventing much, though hopefully people would self quarantine just in case they were carrying the virus. The idea of contact tracing was in its infancy in the US. The CDC provided no instructions to contact them in case I did come down with COVID-19, so the process felt incomplete.
I made it!
So, I finally made it home…This felt like a huge feat, but I couldn’t foresee the slide into depression that I would be getting on.
My daughter picked me up at the airport. I texted with my husband while she was on her way. He said she had the van. I thought that was odd because I had so little luggage, and I asked why not the civic. He explained that they had thought that there would be more space between us in the larger vehicle to help prevent the spread of the virus, if I had it. I had already thought to sit in the back of the civic, but with the van there would be even more room. They were scared I was bringing the virus home, as was I.
The first month home
The next days became surreal and stressful, in part because of my physical and mental exhaustion. I had brought a lot of small gifts, each one of which we wiped down with a disinfectant wipe. We made a rule that we couldn’t put our hands into the Haribo candy bags. Instead, we agreed to pour the candy out. This would be the same with other snacks or foods.
Additionally, we agreed to wash our hands before taking something out of the refrigerator. We wiped down all the door handles and didn’t hug. We agreed I would be the only one to use my bathroom (this was mostly the case anyway, but now we emphasized this). The kids had been to Disney on Ice the weekend before, so it occurred to us that they also could have gotten the virus there. We were scared.
In hindsight it seems paranoid, but we wanted to be safe. We even took our temperature a few times! Every night I checked the news. I counted where Minnesota was on the New York Times list of the cases and deaths in each state. We hovered around number twenty. I took screen shots most nights of the world and U.S. tally, as well as the totals for each state from the top and then one that included Minnesota. I waited for the apocalypse to hit us (it’s June, and I still don’t know anyone who has COVID-19 or even a friend of a friend, let alone alone a family member. There still isn’t anyone I knew who has died! Of course, we all realize this is in part because the stay-at-home plan worked well in Minnesota).
Jet lag and the general situation
The first week home, with the surreality of thinking the virus was everywhere, having my husband home working all day in my space, still being jet-lagged and recovering from travel and little sleep for a week, I hardly did anything except some cooking and a little work. I even took a day or two to reopen my online store. I cannot remember actually when I opened it, but I remember thinking it was a new behavior for me to wait. Business was slow the first week home anyway.
The unemployment figures suddenly started skyrocketing. This didn’t affect me except that I felt extra fortunate that we still had much of our combined income. As time passed, though, this only made me feel guilty for being so fortunate, as I slid into feeling like I was a failure. The news out of New York, Italy, Spain, and around the world was horrifying and filled with sadness, sickness, and death. The University of Minnesota shut down, so my daughter prepared to get her belongings to stay home and my husband started working from home, setting his office up in the dining room.
My husband went and bought enough groceries to last about five years during this time. He did two runs and seemingly bought out Costco. It was embarrassing. We had enough for a food shelter and still do, despite the kids and I having donated bags of food when the George Floyd riots started. I couldn’t see anything in the freezers or fridges or shelves because they were too full. The pantry food overflowed to the left side where the water heater is, where now boxes and boxes of food, chips, pre-made Indian dishes, and whatever else there was. The authorities were telling us not to panic buy. He read the news, so why did he do this?
When I was first emerging from my exhaustion and starting to do more than the basics, I wanted to make split pea soup. They were hard to find since people bought out all the beans and dried legumes. He found some, but instead of purchasing a couple of bags, he bought bags and bags of all sorts of legumes! In June, I have only cooked two bags worth. There were other things as well, but it just shows the stress we were all under.
A couple of times my husband acted completely childish, for which I haven’t had tolerance in years. But now it felt even more awful, and I felt trapped with everyone here all the time. I didn’t want to argue in front of the kids, so I texted. Two times he came to the basement where he still acted childish, passive-aggressive, and engaged in gaslighting and sarcasm. Of course, he was also burdened, but that doesn’t mean he can act like he did without me calling out the behavior as hurtful. The second time I pleaded with him to stop these behaviors for the sake of all of us, and especially for the sake of the kids. We were all in this together, having to live 24/7 in the same house. We had to remain positive and could not have sarcasm or overt hostility.
His big sighs and fast, angry movements raised the stress levels in whatever room we were in. He said my complaints were “abuse.” This was especially ridiculous because pointing out hurtful behavior in a respectful way is not a form of abuse. It is a healthy way to set boundaries that took me a long time to learn how to do. I tried to ignore what I could, but two times I raised my voice to him despite the kids being nearby. My inability to not raise my voice those two times showed me how physically and emotionally exhausted I was. But his behavior improved slowly.
Working at home, together
Additionally, it was a transition to have him in the downstairs bathroom all day long, leaving the sink and toilet dirty. I was rarely in this bathroom because of our agreement that I just use the upstairs one), so it didn’t affect me too much. But it was just another change to accept. At first I would come down to work on my computer in the kitchen or front room for part of the day as I usually did before heading to my office, but he was there talking to his co-workers, often without headphones so the voices filled the house. I missed my previous life where I had hours of silence except for the animals and any noise I wanted to make.
I felt trapped, tired, and stressed. To avoid conflict and have some privacy, at some point I started spending a lot of time in my bedroom where I could be alone. I exercised there, practiced rhythms on a toy drum, sat and wrote, or worked on the computer either while sitting and looking out the window or in bed. When anxious, I would listen to the news while I played Words with Friends or Word Chums on my phone.
At first, my husband and I also talked a lot at first in the mornings when I came home, which was nice. But after one too many times feeling patronized (even if the comments are unintentional, they still drag me down), I started having my coffee alone. The last month we have been having coffee together again.
Family time, Netflix, games
My daughter and I also binge-watched Game of Thrones. I beat her and finished the eight seasons first, lol. I don’t think the violence disturbed me (years ago I could not have watched it because of my own trauma). Plus, I often fast-forwarded it. I do think, if anything, it helped to have such an all-consuming distraction, one that I could discuss with her.
I so appreciated my kids during all of this. We went for family walks, went to the park with the dogs, played catch, watched movies, and more. The up-side to the pandemic was all this nurturing time families had together, and we enjoyed that. All four of us.
Minnesota and other states were discussing when to shut down, and we got the stay at home order about three weeks after I made it home. People all over the country no longer could gather, play taiko together, go to weddings or funerals. The university sent students home from the dormitories, and kids just stayed home after spring break. In Minnesota, my eighth grader got an extra week off while the administration figured out what they would do during the stay at home order. The University of Minnesota got an extra two days of break, and then everything went online.
Oh no! Grocery shopping with the virus!
It was a momentous decision in late March to just go to the grocery store because of the virus. I ventured out for the first time to get groceries maybe a week or two after being home. The first time I went, my daughter had asked for something that I forgot. I almost ended up in tears at home because of this. It felt like a huge deal because when would one of us go again to this store?
The second or third time I went I was almost in tears in the aisle, worried my daughter would be mad because I couldn’t find a certain tea she wanted. The shelves had so many empty spaces because of people hoarding, but also still all these different flavors, prices, and quantities. I stood there perplexed and not able to figure out the options because they didn’t have exactly what she wanted. I seriously wanted to curl up in the aisle and bawl like an infant. Under normal conditions, I easily could have figured something out to get her. This was my first clue that I probably needed help.
Now I realize my PTSD made it seem like the consequences of a wrong decision would be catastrophic, when of course they wouldn’t. She might be a tad disappointed, but not angry. And even if she were angry, that would be more her problem, not mine, even if it would feel hurtful. I stood there for FAR too long before giving up. As I walked away, I worried I was disappointing her again. I can’t even remember if I grabbed some tea or not. Ha!
I knew already that I needed help, but it took me until mid May to ask for it…
Overkill to kill the virus
When I came home with the groceries, my husband and son took over and unpacked and wiped everything down. We kept things downstairs until we needed them. This was to give the virus time to dissipate. Despite my own fears, this started to feel like overkill because Dr. Fauci and others were starting to talk about how small the chances were to get something from a package of food. The main point was to not touch your face and to wash your hands, and the science was showing more clearly with each day that the chances of getting the virus from food packaging was quite low.
My fight against depression
Despite realizing in the first weeks of being home that I might need help and that I was at risk for depression, I hoped I would be able to keep my anxiety under control using all the tools I had learned over the years. Because I felt trapped and knew I didn’t want to slide into a dark place, I tackled the stay-at-home time with ferocity. I describe how I fought off the depression in a couple of essays on my website. I tried to keep a schedule, exercised almost every day, FaceTimed and talked with a lot of people. Additionally, I emailed and texted to stay in touch with friends from all over, including with my German sisters.
Drumming friends and thoughts of the future
I joined drumming sessions from Europe regularly. Most of these were small group situations where, if people were checking in, everyone was asked to speak, even if they didn’t volunteer. It was really nice to hear how people were faring during this odd time! I joined a couple of national taiko meetings on zoom. These were larger, but both times they broke into small groups where, again, everyone had a chance to speak. This somehow made the human connection more real for me despite the internet, and it helped my mood.
For my own drumming group, I also wanted to hear more about how members were doing. These meetings had less structure, so usually the same people spoke. It really was the tyranny of structurelessness. This usually isn’t an issue, but with so many people’s lives in upheaval, it made me feel more alienated, not knowing how things were for people I cared for and also not sharing too much about myself. I requested check-ins during our zoom meetings where everyone would speak for a few minutes. We did this once or twice, and it was good to hear all the voices.
Additionally, I tried to work on my plans for the future after my business died down, write a little, and most days I practiced taiko drills.
Exercise and more old-fashioned phone calls
In keeping with this idea of trying to stay above the darkness, the second week home I started to exercise with my neighbor. We walked, keeping our distance, and also did a lot of FaceTime exercise (I would prop my phone up so she could see my iPad and I would run a routine. A couple of times, we did her videos, but usually she would say, “so what are we doing?” and I would set up different videos for us from YouTube. I also did walk and talks with another friend in Nebraska, and then I started reaching out to chat with other friends I hadn’t spoken with in a long time.
Amazon stole my business because Bezos apparently needed some extra money
At home, I also had to face my online business debacle. Having been in business for over twenty years, I was faced with losing most of my income because of Amazon’s desire to control the sales of name-brand products. In February they wrote a letter that signaled the end of my home based business as I knew it and disallowed me to sell Schleich on Amazon and only on my website. But no one shops on my website, in part because of my choice to keep my business a part-time endeavor, but also it is the rare citizen who chooses to take the time to click again and go to the merchant’s website instead fo purchasing it through Amazon from that small merchant.
I had always wanted to write or do something else besides retail, so I hadn’t invested in my websites to make my business a full-time endeavor. Because of this, I was sitting on maybe eleven thousand dollars worth of inventory that I might not be able to sell on Amazon shortly. Because Amazon had for years made it difficult for me to keep my listings up or list new groups of toys I had, I didn’t trust that they wouldn’t suddenly take all my listings down, despite the fact that my groupings of toys only add to the diversity of options on Amazon.
The attempt to sell out at cost
The toy company, Schleich was not answering my requests to return inventory despite having reassured me that if anything happened with Amazon they would figure out how to help me. So, on one of our first social-distancing walks, I asked my friend about the accounting issues with selling things at cost versus donating the inventory. Business was so slow, I marked many items down to cost. I felt I was working for nothing, mailing out items for no profit. She said, no, it’s still better to sell than donate it all because you get some cash back. So I imagined selling most items at cost to get rid of them. I didn’t know if or when Amazon would pull my listings. This meant I couldn’t wait until the winter holiday season to sell everything at a more affordable price.
One month of increased sales
The country was shutting down state by state, and parents were stuck at home with their children, helping them with their online school or homeschooling them. It must have been toward the end of March that suddenly I was getting almost fifty orders every twenty-four hours. It wasn’t like the holidays when it gets to over one hundred, but it was crazy busy with many hours of processing and packing each day. This lasted for at least four weeks! Of course this was an economic plus for me and a way to get rid of the inventory, but the resulting exhaustion only added to my slide into depression.
Perimenopause and too much alcohol in the house
I also know that physically, I was under great stress because I was, with no previous symptoms and a completely regular period, suddenly perimenopausal and experiencing hot flashes. It started at night, and I thought it was the bed (a foam bed that gets hot), but somehow it felt a little different. Still, I wasn’t sure. Then it happened for the first time during the day while I was on the Roman chair doing my back exercise.
It slowly increased in frequency during the day and at night. They only lasted a minute. I don’t know how many a day I get. I haven’t counted. It’s June now, but I suspect maybe five a day and at least three or four a night. The night ones are the worst. My entire body gets covered in sweat. I think the mattress makes it worse, but they probably would be bad regardless. By July they have greatly decreased in frequency and intensity.
Because of the stress, I wanted an alcohol-free house
I met with a close friend for a distance meeting just to talk. During our visit, I told her about all the alcohol my husband had in the house and how it bothered me because we were all at home. I had asked him not to drink while we were all together, but he did, stating that we were always together because of the pandemic. I had been fine with it before, secure in my drinking habits (I only drank with friends once in a great while, like at drumming events), but now it felt much harder.
The refrigerator was completely stocked, there was a box of wine, and a bottle of whiskey. I had already insisted all the alcohol be moved into the garage, but we used that fridge a lot, and I still saw the other stock. It was nice to talk to my friend about our new normal and how we were losing feelings of enjoyment. It also empowered me to again set boundaries with the alcohol.
The summation of the stressors resulting in depression
So, all this was happening. The fear I brought the virus home to my family. The fear of the virus in Minnesota. Jet lag. Getting over the trauma of the shock of being in Europe, not knowing if, how, or when I would get home because of the stupid US president. The impending doom of sickness and death surrounding the Twin Cities. My business ending and Schleich not responding to my requests to return thousands of dollars of inventory. The future loss of income and complete economic dependence on my husband. My daily life transformed by having the entire family here all day long, which of course was in many ways wonderful, but having my husband here all the time made me took an adjustment (through which we have survived). But overall, at this time I felt very sad, trapped, and lost.
May 11 and May 12 I was in bed almost all of the day. I did the few orders I had, but that was about it. I remember crying on and off all day. Eating? I must have, but I don’t remember what or where. Nor do I remember sleeping. I don’t know if I watched Netflix, YouTube, the news, or if I just played word games. My kids checked in on me several times each day. I remember that. I told them I would be fine, but that I was just really sad for now. They were reassured that I knew I would get out of the hole I clearly was in.
Writing and reaching out for help
I wrote, shared, and went on medications
In the evening of May 12, I wrote an essay about how my low-level anxiety had morphed into a huge depression, rendering me feeling useless and incapable of doing much. I got up the next day for a bit longer than I had the previous two days. My daughter made me walk several times that week. At first I didn’t feel better walking, but I knew it was necessary, and already either on the first time but for sure on the second time – I admitted I felt a tad better at the end…
May 18 I was able to see my doctor over video. She recommended medications, so that day I started down that path again. It had been years since I was on any kind of therapeutic dose of anti-depressants or anti-anxiety medications. I know this was the right time, though. By the time I saw her, I was already feeling much better just from the support of my kids and friends. The medications helped immensely, and I will stay on them for the foreseeable future.
I have since deleted the screen shots of the climb toward insanity in the US, except for the one showing that we hit one million. As I finish writing this in June (it will take me until August to finish the editing because of a non-COVID medical serious issue we now have with our son), we have had more than three million cases, and are recording over fifty thousand new cases a day. We have been blocked from traveling to Europe and other places.
I healed and felt my strength
I have been feeling well for almost two months now and am grateful that I had the tools to do the work, that I had my loving children who kept visiting me when I lay in bed the two days weeping on and off, and that many friends reached out to encourage me and send me well wishes.
Now, I bounce out of the house to walk, garden, bike, or play basketball. My husband and I have adjusted to being at home all the time, and we have been having coffee and conversing much more, and all throughout we were able to keep playing basketball, catch, or four square with the kids. We also went for family walks, did our first outdoor dinner in a restaurant, played lots of Mario Kart, watched movies, and had countless dinners at home together.
We are still in the middle of the pandemic, and now, as I finish editing, there are great concerns for my son’s well-being. Because of his issues, I am extra grateful that I feel strong and ready to be there as support and also to help move this world toward a more empathetic and just place. Thank you to all those who sent me kind and encouraging messages. My son needs my strength now more than ever, and I have it.
This essay about Trump’s false announcement in Marchwas almost ready to publish in late June or early July, but I became involved with a non-COVID medical situation in our family. Since the time of writing…well, that’s another essay!
It has become more and more important to me the older I get to share my emotional world with others. I have come to realize that I am not unique. Sharing my emotional world is a positive thing for me, and I hope for others. I think that if I take a chance and share my dark side, I can maybe help others or I can maybe make new connections.
I have always shared a lot, but not publicly. In many support groups where it was safe I also readily shared. There I often bore my soul. Doing so I believe saved my life because it began the process of healing. I also shared my emotional world with a trusted friend or two. Still, there was so much I wouldn’t share also because I was ashamed.
The more people I speak with or get to know, the more I realize that my emotional world is similar to others. I also know that when I was at the lowest points in my life, it always helped to hear from others. Others who either could understand or who had had similar emotional worlds as I was having made me feel connected.
* * * * *
There is still so much I haven’t shared.
I wrote my #metoo list, but it is on an anonymous site. Athough I would tell myself not to feel ashamed about certain things, I still do. If these things were someone else’s experience, I would tell them to let it go, to be at peace, to not feel ashamed, that they weren’t at fault, etc. Someday I will also share this part of my emotional world.
Sometimes sharing my experience has alienated others. I cannot speak for them or explain why they turn away from my life. But I have learned that we all need to be authentic and be ourselves. The less fear we have to share our inner selves or even to just accept our entire emotional experience, the wiser we become.
But I am becoming more and more open. I hope that by doing so I not only help others, but that I too can keep growing and stay in a positive place…
My anxiety has increased with the pandemic, despite trying my best to keep it and depression at a distance. I have become increasingly aware of how much I did to overcome my anxiety and depression the past ten or more years and how the pandemic has stripped away a lot of my efforts.
Starting in 1990, I spent twelve to fifteen years dealing with my issues with groups, individual counseling, and healing workshops. I also was on almost every medication out there for depression, as well as some to help me sleep. Later also I was on a low dose of one specifically for anxiety.
The last fifteen or more years, I have been off medication and relied on other ways to feel good about myself, my work, and my life. I continued my journey to keep my body as healthy as possible, and exercised regularly. As my kids grew older and my belief that my marriage would be a fulfilling one faded, I worked on making my world bigger by getting more people and activities in my life for myself.
* * * * *
The last three years saw my world become immensely social because of taiko. Many weeks I drummed two to three times with others, and I almost always had a taiko trip planned. The more workshops I did around the country and in Germany, the more people I had to share experiences with. Even online, we maintained the connection we had made while making music together. We continued the discussion of life and how taiko can change the world. I had taiko players sleep at my house, and some of my current closest friends are from taiko, even if they reside far away.
When I returned from Germany on March 16, I plunged into self-isolation with determination to get through it. I used all the tools I have gained the past thirty years of my recovery and living with PTSD. I faced each day with purpose. I exercised with different friends most days, worked at home, and tried to get my family to do things together. I posted on FaceBook often and stayed connected with my friends around the world with zoom meetings or in other ways. I wrote a lot and posted a couple of essays.
Additionally, I joined my taiko group’s zoom meetings with enthusiasm, asking them if we could check in with each person taking a turn. I wanted to hear how everyone was doing (instead of just getting to business). I reached out to people to talk or to make FaceTime appointments. I ate healthily and talked to my kids a lot. In general, I was pro-active. I was determined to ensure that I would remain emotionally and physically healthy and productive, knowing that if I didn’t, I could end up in a dark place.
I couldn’t beat pandemic anxiety
But this past weekend, I slid into a dark, low, and sad spot. I know I have been sliding for a while, but I had kept fighting to stay afloat. I acted “as if,” even if I didn’t feel it – because I learned in the nineties that if you act “as if,” very often eventually you will feel it or at least you will have gotten through the rough spot.
There were different kind of anxieties to deal with before the pandemic. Yet because I was quite active each week, I was able to rise above the negative feelings because of social interactions, playing music with others, and having purpose at home or elsewhere.
But the past two days especially I feel like something has pushed me down, and my low-grade anxiety has morphed into a depression. I feel sad. I feel like there is no point. I feel like my dream will never come true. Going mostly out of business, knowing soon I will have almost no income and will be 100% dependent on my spouse, not having income from writing, I felt like if it weren’t for my kids, my animals, my father (and whoever else I cannot think of at the moment who would be very sad that I left), I could be done with my time here on earth.
* * * * *
Of course, I realize that my worth here on earth is more than what I earn or produce. But for me, being a great parent and a part-time essay writer, a sometimes tutor and editor is not enough. I feel I accomplished basically two great things so far in my life. But if I live another ten or twenty more years, I would like to accomplish at least one more great thing. I have a big dream that I have hardly began constructing. With life after the pandemic, will it ever get off the ground? Does it matter if I sit around? Should I really continue to work toward my dream?
I understand that much of my suffering is in my own head. There are some things I wish could change or have asked to be different. But mostly the anxiety is like an internal feeling of paranoia and fear. Becoming more socially active the past six or more years alleviated much of my lower level of anxiety I had for decades. When I went out to volunteer or play taiko, I had fun with others. I had interesting discussions or even just listened to people as they talked about their lives or interests. Even if I didn’t share my feelings, it didn’t matter, because I still felt validated and connected with other humans.
* * * * *
I know that the pandemic will end, and somehow I will have to figure out how to get out there again with all my wonderful taiko and other acquaintances and friends.
I have been through other bouts of depression, so I know I won’t cut my life short. I have never sunk that low, and I have confidence I won’t this time.
I know it’s okay to be by myself or just with my kids. I know how to have special time at home and how to connect. I have the tools. I just need the willpower to adjust to this change.
I am grateful for my privileged position in that I am not an essential worker and can be safe at home. My family and I keep each other safe, and we have enough to eat. I am deeply saddened by the suffering of so many in the world. My anxiety has increased, despite these statements.
I am not feeling sorry for myself, which was the message I was told since I was a small child. This may be a poorly-written essay, but I am being honest. My pandemic anxiety has increased, and I am naming it.
Except for with a few friends and a few online taiko activities, I have slowly withdrawn. I read email only once a day because many cause me anxiety, and some I don’t read at all. I exercise less. I even passed down chances to talk with friends, something I never would have done, even just days ago. I asked to take a couple weeks off from my taiko group because I am tired of smiling or looking attentive without actually connecting with the faces I see.
* * * * *
I am grateful for the friends who have reached out and with whom I could share and listen. Today I spent over an hour on the phone with taiko friends from Germany – the sole purpose of the conversation being to connect emotionally and socially. It felt so good to hear and nod when they spoke of their concerns. Plus, it felt like a burden released to tell them how small my world felt and how lonely I was. It also reminded me that I have to figure out how to have more fun during the rest of this pandemic.
My anxiety has increased with the pandemic, but I know I am not alone. Pandemic anxiety is an issue for so many people now around the world. Even if that doesn’t totally get me out of my slump today, I believe it will eventually. With the help of loved ones, friends, and my own inner gutsiness, I know I will be better tomorrow than I am today. I will get through this, and I know you will also, however you are suffering. These are unprecedented times, and many people feel lonely, sad, and anxious. I will get through this, and hopefully I will again find it easy to feel peace, serenity, and joy. I share with you honestly it case it helps you or someone else who is struggling. Despite our struggles, I believe, we can persevere.
My emotional world has started to close in on me. It is as if my smaller physical world is nagging at my mind, telling it to come along: “you can be small, too. Let’s get small, feel small, and forget about all the love out there. Just think about the doom and how powerless you feel alone and in your virtual world. Compare your measly accomplishments to others and feel the smallness!” I am fighting quarantine exhaustion, and I hope to beat it.
At first I FaceTimed and exercised every day, had different national and international taiko zoom meetings, and reached out to others to connect. I encouraged my family to do special family outings in the parks or to play games. Charades anyone? This was pandemic inventive! Games or family activities every day. Additionally, I wrote, and I worked on my dream. Basically, I took charge of the situation, knowing what I needed for my emotional health.
I so appreciated seeing people’s faces. Having conversations and hearing voices felt wonderful! I loved connecting on FaceBook with my friends. I felt strong, in shape, and as though I could get through this, despite not knowing how long it would be until I could play music or drink coffee with friends.
* * * * *
But after a few weeks, I got tired. I started to feel more withdrawn. Quarantine exhaustion felt real. It was as if the anxiety of the pandemic and staying at home was gnawing at me more and more. It was tugging at me to stay in bed and binge watch Game of Thrones. Once, during a zoom meeting with mostly European, but also a few North American drummers there was a chance when the formal topic ended to just talk. But after only a few minutes I wanted to leave. I didn’t understand why, because I liked to hear what these people were saying – some of them were wonderful friends I was close with.
Of course, I googled to investigate why I didn’t feel as connected as I felt I should, even though it also seemed obvious. Without any great insight it seems natural that true connection for humans comes from being together physically. Plus, I had spent the last ten years of my life working on becoming more social. By the time of the pandemic, I drummed with friends two to three times a week. I volunteered most weeks and exercised with a friend fairly regularly. I went to movies, book club, lunch, and other events. Being a writer and a home-business owner, as my children had grown, I had needed to do this for my well-being.
* * * * *
During the second half of April, I realized I was slowly sliding into the darkness, despite feeling grateful for me and my family’s health and well-being. Over the years I have learned that being grateful for one’s circumstances is not enough to feel content. It doesn’t mean I feel guilty for my circumstances. It means I believe humans or at least that I was meant for more connection. I needed more face-to-face conversations and more accomplishment.
* * * * *
My old reality and my dreams and goals from just a two months ago seemed so far away. It felt harder and harder to work on them and to remember that this too shall pass. It was hard to remember that maybe I’m not heading toward death and destruction and grief. I felt and have been feeling small and powerless. Furthermore, I am angry at Schleich and Amazon.com who, with their economic bullying are taking away so much of my income. No matter what I write to them, they do not care. I feel angry at all the corporations and greed and at our incompetent and immoral politicians and their supporters. I was starting to feel I will never accomplish my dreams. Of course, logically, this didn’t make sense: the pandemic will end at some point.
Still, as a survivor of patriarchy and too many bad things that can happen to young people, feeling angry and powerless is a familiar, deep-seeded feeling. I know it has the power to bring me down into a darkness I haven’t visited for a long while. So, before I slip too deeply…
* * * * *
I woke up realizing it is Prince’s death anniversary, and I decided that I was going to feel differently. As I wrote this essay, I sat looking out the window by my bed.
I wanted to write, to believe, and to tell you that we can get through this. I can get through this. If I can get through this, so can you. Please join me in believing that this pandemic will end without the entire world dying. Join me in believing we can have large gatherings with lots of human connection and interaction. As we shelter-at-home and feel grateful for those who are risking their lives for us, know we are doing the right thing for the greater good. Know that we will persevere, that you and I have inner strength and wisdom and love that we and the world needs.
I want to beat quarantine exhaustion
So, today I will wear some purple.
Today I will do something with my hair.
I will work a little on my dream, even if for just ten minutes.
Today I will call a friend.
Today I will express to someone, somehow my true feelings.
And I will step outside and look up to the sky. I will breath in and feel my inner power and wisdom and the connection I have to the great universe.
* * * * *
On top of our daily work, if we can also take a few minutes every day to do some of these positive things or to do as many of them as we can fit in, then I know we can get through this. I know I can. No matter how much time each of us has left on this earth, we can spend it knowing that we can make a difference in ourselves and in those around us, even if we are stuck at home for the duration of the pandemic. We can find meaning in our circumstances and beat quarantine exhaustion.
So, I ask you to look out your window, step out your door, or just look to the ceiling. Imagine a – or look to the – big beautiful sky. See how big you can become, feel how much wisdom and love you have inside yourself. Know you can share this love and spread it and help heal the world. Know too, that all love given returns. The positive energy you send out today and every day will help others and yourself as well.
Note from September 8, 2020: Of course, if any of you read through all my essays, you will see, I was unable to beat quarantine exhaustion. I tried my darnedest. But I was facing a lot. To me, the most important was that I saw where I was. I was honest with my kids who checked in on me. I asked my doctor for help. Within a week, I was doing so much better. I am grateful to friends, my kids, doctors, and the universe for helping me through that difficult time.
Many of us who are not essential workers feel a mix of relief and guilt, while we also try to figure out if there is another way to help those in need. Staying at home is a public health service, but many of us want to do more. You can find meaning in your pandemic circumstances: in the past weeks, I have found some in mine. I began the stay-at-home period fearing for my mental health, and I also felt both guilt and relief because I am temporarily successfully self-employed.
I am a small business owner of over twenty years. Small means that I am the CEO, the accountant, the strategist, the packer, the logistics manager, the buyer, etc. I wear all the hats except during the holiday season, when a couple of friends or a family member help me pack.
I’ve enjoyed gross sales of over $100,000 for at least thirty percent of the years in business. This was enough to make me feel as though I were contributing something to the family besides my unpaid labor. Having given up in frustration with Amazon and eBay, for years I tried to make a go with my own websites. But about eight years ago I ended up returning to the large marketplaces.
Had I made this a full-time endeavor, my story would be different. I never took out a business loan. Business plan? Nope, never had one (I was in graduate school, and this was a part-time, fun gig). I maintained my own websites, which quickly meant mine became old-fashioned and cumbersome. Except for on a couple of occasions I didn’t invest in professional development or any other professional services. I started my business while in graduate school and continued as I homeschooled my kids. But all along I kept it a part-time endeavor, since I was also interested in other work .
* * * * *
Before the pandemic I received a letter from Schleich, a name brand toy company I have carried for over fifteen years and primarily sold on Amazon.com. I also sold a little on eBay and Sears, and even less on my own website. Schleich told me they now forbid their customers to sell on the large marketplaces. This came after I had just purchased thousands of dollars of toys.
In December one of their representatives assured me that if anything happened with Amazon they would refund inventory I had purchased. The rep was aware of the problems I had with Amazon. (For the last three to four years I’ve had multiple issues on Amazon with my Schleich listings. This was because they intended to be the sole carrier of Schleich and other name-brands. Amazon would take my listings down or or make it very difficult for me to list in ways I can with less-known brands.) Now, they won’t give me an answer as to whether they will take any inventory back.
Schleich’s agreement with Amazon states that Amazon will be the only retailer selling Schleich toys on Amazon.com. This takes away at least ninety percent of my business. They are slowly controlling the markets and sellers of name-brand products on their platform. This hurts many more businesses on their marketplace than just mine.
* * * * *
Having already purchased much of what I would need in 2020, when Minnesota started to shut down, I had $38,000 in inventory, but with business so slow during the year, I had no idea how I was going to get rid of this without just donating it and taking it as a loss. I keep emailing Schleich asking about returning items, but they won’t respond properly. I marked everything down and put a sale on all Schleich items, plus I lowered my shipping and handling costs.
In the third week of March, the orders suddenly started coming in. It wasn’t as busy as during the holiday season, but much more than usual for this time of year. As I realized what was happening, I felt guilty. So many people were suffering around the country, and they wanted to get their children a toy. They were suffering, while I was getting rid of inventory. Sure, it will take many months to rid myself of the majority of it, but still, I was busy and successfully self-employed (not that I have ever been eligible for unemployment). I reconciled myself with the thought that at least the children were getting toys without costing their parent’s too much.
As the weeks have passed, while I still feel lucky and privileged to be safe, fed, and housed, I also realized it is okay that I am getting rid of my inventory. It’s not okay that others are suffering greatly. It’s also not okay that this billion-dollar corporation sold me thousands of dollars of inventory before basically putting me out of business. That Amazon determines the online marketplace to the extent that they do? That’s not okay. It’s not okay that Amazon and other large corporations don’t pay any taxes, while I do. I don’t have employees, but I still work hard for what I earn, and I then put money back into the economy. I cannot earn unemployment or any benefits from the government.
Find meaning in your pandemic circumstances
After a month I have realized a deeper meaning for me. For years I have insisted that I didn’t want to be a retailer. I am a historian, and I wanted to do something that felt more meaningful. Besides writing, I wasn’t sure what that will be – if I would tutor more people, edit more essays, or what. I started writing again about ten years ago. This helped my sense of purpose, but things hadn’t fallen into place yet.
Now in 2020 the corporate bullies have pushed me into action, ideas have landed in my lap, and I have a new sense of purpose knowing I can use my other talents to make the world a better place. Despite not being sure how to lose myself of so much inventory without taking a great financial loss, the pandemic has allowed me to ship out hundreds of toys to children who are also at home with their working parents. I stopped feeling guilty for this, because it will help me move quicker to a new project. There is value in providing children with quality toys. Yet, I am grateful that at some point I will be able to focus on other areas in my life.
So as I sit at home waiting out the pandemic and packing so many toys, I keep my dream of more meaningful work for myself alive each day. It will come…Find meaning in your pandemic circumstances, somehow. This will hopefully be temporary!
I don’t know how long I have had post-traumatic stress disorder, but living with PTSD is manageable. I first started addressing the main symptom of numbing the emotional pain in 1990. This means that this August I will have been actively trying to get beyond PTSD for thirty years. It wasn’t until some years after 1990 that I was officially diagnosed. Although I wasn’t numbing my pain, I still lived with other symptoms.
These other symptoms included anxiety, depression, negative self-talk or obsessive worrying. I was easily startled (especially if awoken), frequently feeling emotionally overwhelmed whether in crowds, at home, or in groups. I also had difficulty making even small decisions (subconsciously fearing unknown consequences), difficulty dealing with anyone who was or could be angry with me, difficulty speaking out for fear of retribution. Furthermore, for many years hiding myself from movies, news media, or books that might include information or scenes on rapes.
I have actively faced my issues with intense group therapy, workshops, individual counseling, EMDR counseling, and various support groups. Because of this I grew incredibly fast and past many obstacles. I was able to teach my children at a young age to name and talk about their emotions, and to learn the importance of self-care. Despite my diagnosis, I was still able to raise two children with high self-esteem. I finished my Ph.D. on an extremely difficult topic (sexual violence and war). I ran a part-time business for twenty years and homeschooled my kids for about six. I also wrote essays, encyclopedia articles, and started a memoir about one period in my life (I still hope to finish this). I was in a swing dance performance group, later took tap dance lessons, and then more recently started playing taiko.
* * * * *
Because of societal and self-imposed pressure, however, I used to hide my symptoms. I put on a brave face to the outside world. Often, I wasn’t fully honest and pretended I was “normal” when I had to explain something. I couldn’t admit that I had this “thing,” this “issue,” this “problem,” that makes whatever the event or issue was too hard for me to fathom doing.
I also tried as hard as I could to hide my anxiety or sadness to my kids. Because children can sense so much, I put a conscious effort into smiling and being positive. I pretended to be brave and without fears of simple societal contact. I had always shared smaller feelings, because I wanted them to see one parent who could express a range of emotions naturally. As they kids grew, I began to share more of the feelings I was ashamed of. I came out to my daughter as a rape survivor when she was about sixteen, and I have yet to share much with my son.
As a child, I was told to “pick myself up by the boot straps” and to stop “feeling sorry for myself.” These are positive messages when given in moderation, of course. In excess, however, this led me to swallow my natural emotions and to not learn how to express my feelings verbally in a healthy way. Despite all my journaling about feelings, I still grew up believing no one cared if I was sad or scared. I also thought I was supposed to be stronger and I didn’t want to feel sorry for myself.
* * * * *
I hid all my assaults from my parents and friends, and once I stopped numbing my pain, I still only told certain people who were safe to me. I knew intellectually that I should not feel ashamed of anything that had happened to me. But I did not know how to voice it. I was deeply ashamed. I taught my children that people do and will care about their feelings. With the right people, it is safe and healthy to express one’s sadness, disappointment, frustration, etc. It is also good to learn to move on after facing a setback.
According to the National Center for PTSD, about half of all women will experience a traumatic event in their lives, and many of these women will subsequently live with PTSD. Traumatic events are also common among men and transgender people. Those who develop PTSD from a traumatic event can experience debilitating symptoms, while for others, the symptoms are less severe. Some people never experience PTSD from a traumatic event. This could be because they have the emotional tools to deal with what happened, but it also could be something about how their brain is wired – something even the experts cannot yet explain.
* * * * *
I have complex PTSD in the sense that it wasn’t just one event. The childhood lack of emotional support and physical abandonment (in the sense of being left alone, even for multiple days as I entered middle school) prevented me from learning basic coping skills. Plus, I abused alcohol since before before I was a teenager. This led me to not being able to cope with traumatic situations later, including sexual harassment in middle school, high school, and workplaces, constant bullying in middle and high school, and multiple rapes.
You may think that I had lousy parents, but I believe they did the best that they could with the tools they had while I was a young child. Despite not providing me with certain tools required for emotional, physical, and spiritual health, I learned these tools quickly in my twenties. It was like I took an intense course to overall well-being! And by my thirties I was able to provide my children with these tools only because my parents gifted me a sense of drive and a will to survive.
In 1990, I first started realizing all that I had been through. I saw how my childhood, despite not being as bad as many stories I heard, still was not ideal. Digging in, I fought to stay afloat, get past my rapes and understand my raw and strong emotions. I reached out to others, used my phone list, and shared my feelings over and over again in safe supportive settings. Because of a heart condition, I believe that I would be dead if it were not for this determination to not only survive. And I didn’t only survive: I thrived and gave back to the world in a kinder and gentler way than some of what I have experienced.
* * * * *
Recently I had the experience that someone seemed to think I was a project they could fix. This was because they had witnessed some of my raw emotion and knew I had trauma in my life. But living with PTSD does not mean someone needs fixing, especially someone who has actively been working on growing past their obstacles for so many years.
I think we are all works in progress, and for some reason some people do have extra obstacles to overcome. Early on in my recovery I started to see myself not just as a survivor, but as a thriver. I have been fortunate to have grown up without too much economic distress and much travel and education. This has helped my ability to thrive. I could fight back for my sanity and for justice in ways that those less fortunate than I cannot.
* * * * *
Still, though, thirty years into this journey, I see how my trauma and the PTSD directed many of my life decisions. I could have become a professor. But having researched war and rape for seven years, I was traumatized and needed a break. Many, I know, would have forged on, but I had fear and felt overwhelmed. I was exhausted. Plus, I had already faced so much in my recovery. I felt a need to step away and stop “kissing ass” to the academic establishment.
Additionally, I had a young child. Had I become a professor, I would have had to leave her for someone else to raise. But I couldn’t do this. I felt a grave ownership and will to make sure she would not be raped at sixteen, not have her first drink at nine, or have regular blackouts by the age of thirteen. My parents were good people, but somehow those are a few of the milestones of my childhood. I just couldn’t let something like that happen to my daughter.
* * * * *
My last dramatic amount of growth came because I needed to find something more for myself. My kids were older, which allowed me more time. I found taiko, which has helped me shed more grief in three years than I could ever have imagined when I picked up my first pair of bachi and hit a drum. The #metoo also movement inspired me to speak out. I hoped that my story could help others with their grief and sorrow.
This is all to say that while I have had many symptoms of PTSD, I still have been able to push past them – sometimes better than other times – and give back to the world in a variety of ways. I know some of my trauma will always be a part of me. Still, this will not prevent me from continuing to get stronger and to help others who have similar struggles. I, like many of you, am a force with which to be reckoned! 😀
Just a short note today to take issue with a new-fangled feminist theory about which pronoun to use describing one’s own rape. An academic feminist who graciously read one of my essays turned my pain into an academic exercise and took issue with my use of the pronoun “my” to describe my rapes. This theorist explained that “my” insinuates that I blame myself for my rapes, and that the possessive pronoun make the rapes the my possession. She also wrote that she would not “want to identify that closely or take possession of being raped.”
I wholeheartedly disagree with all three of these points. To shy away from using the grammatical pronoun “my” falsely separates oneself from one’s own trauma. This slows down one’s own and the world’s healing process. To me, not owning one’s trauma is at the heart of many problems in this world. By facing one’s own pain one can more easily empathize with the experiences of others. To move forward in a progressive, healing, and inclusive manner, we each need to face our own trauma. Then we can teach the next generation to be strong and move forward with insight and wisdom. Feminist theory about rape should be grounded in reality.
To insinuate that using “my” means the survivor somehow blames themselves for the assault is illogical. Survivors often blame themselves, just as society blames rape victims, but this is not because they use the pronoun “my.” The issue of (falsely) blaming oneself for one’s rapes is separate from what pronoun a survivor uses to describe their rape. Such theoretical nonsense will not make our world, feminists, or trauma survivors stronger.
It also will not help our children or young college students heal. If survivors divorce themselves from their own trauma at the instruction of their teacher or parent they may be stronger temporarily, but the wound will fester under the facade of strength or happiness. Trauma is in one’s body at a cellular, emotional, and even some would say a spiritual level. To disassociate oneself from it on an intellectual level can only be a temporary fix. I believe one can heal the fastest by facing one’s pain, not by running from it.
Additionally, a survivor of rape or other trauma uses the pronoun “my” simply because the rape is their experience. Just as an incarceration, a beating, or a birthday party is one’s experience, so is a rape. It is the only logical pronoun to use. We say, “I was robbed,” or “We were broken into,” or “I was raped.” Similarly, we say, “she or he raped me.” The rape belongs to both the rapist and the victim. This is tragic, but but it’s reality. Trying to distance oneself by not owning or possessing the crime is pushing both sides away from healing, truth, and wisdom. We might not want to own our assaults, but they are our experiences, so they are “ours.”
Maybe we do not want to take possession of our deep pain, but to pretend it isn’t our own will not promote healing. “Identifying closely” with one’s rape is how we learn to empathize with other survivors and even perpetrators. This way we can closely understand the pain inflicted and how that pain mingles with other experiences. Many perpetrators also feel pain and have had trauma in their lives. As a society we need to understand all different kinds of pain to be able to not raise more perpetrators. If we do not claim and understand our own pain or if we spend time taking issue with the usage of the pronoun my to describe one’s own rapes, we postpone our own healing and even the healing of those around us and those we influence.
Divorcing oneself from one’s own trauma, which is felt on so many levels, is exactly how to prevent people from understanding and empathizing with one another. I am not a psychologist. But in addition to years of reading about trauma and survivors, I have heard hundreds of women in person speak about their own trauma. The ones who make progress in healing are the ones who face their pain. They own it and speak about it. By doing this, they move forward and grow stronger, all the while lessening the control their trauma has over them. This way, they bring up and teach their children or students to be morally courageous. They teach them to look inward first to see the source of one’s emotions.
I have referred to my rapes as “my rapes” for twenty-nine years. They happened to me. I own them, and I experienced them. They exist in my brain and my body, and they have affected my life in countless ways. In day-to-day life, in healing workshops, and in therapy I have shaken, screamed, and physically felt my shame, rage, and fear on a cellular level. That is not theory. That is real. No feminist theory about rape can change these basic facts.
Being in touch with what one’s body and psyche has experienced by embracing one’s own trauma is the key to how we can have empathy for others. It is how we as a society can move forward in a progressive and healing manner. We do not need fancy, nonsensical feminist theory to heal. I believe that because I faced my pain head on, I moved from being a victim, to a survivor, and then to a thriver. My rapes will always be a part of me. And in various odd or miscellaneous ways may affect me to the day I die. But by embracing my pain, I have experienced many levels of healing. By doing this, I have been able to teach children and adults around me that facing, owning, and naming one’s own feelings is the easiest way to understand much of the trauma in the world today.
Interview by Luka Pejić about sexual crimes in WWII, civilian’s coping methods, and the social consequences after the war.
Wendy Jo Gertjejanssen is an American historian from Minnesota who received her PhD in 2004 with the dissertation “Victims, Heroes, Survivors: Sexual Violence on the Eastern Front during World War II.” In doing this research, she worked with material available in archives in the US, Germany, Latvia, and Estonia. In addition, for the purposes of her dissertation, she spoke with more than thirty women and men from the territory of Ukraine whose life experiences were an important source for a fuller understanding of the problems of sex crimes during the war events in the east of the European continent in the 1940s. Although, after completing the nearly 400-page text, she temporarily gave up historiography, because of the trauma she had experienced from going deeper into the topic of her own research. In the last few years she has returned to academic work, the focus of which is gender and social history.
You wrote that the Germans developed an “extensive system of sexual slavery” during World War II. What exactly do you mean by that?
The German leadership recognized the dangers of venereal diseases to their armed forces and the reality that men, married or single, were having sexual intercourse with local women they met on the street, in local brothels, or elsewhere. Without antibiotics to fight syphilis and gonorrhea, soldiers became ill and eventually were unable to serve because of their unsafe sexual practices. To save the health of their soldiers, the Germans established brothels in concentration camps and across the areas they fought and occupied. Sanitation officers required a strict cleansing routine before sexual intercourse for the soldiers. The workers also were required to be clean, and doctors routinely checked them for disease. Females who engaged in prostitution during the war were starving or had limited options/chances for survival. Germans also forced girls and women at gunpoint to work in brothels where they could serve more than thirty men a day. This is sexual slavery.
Could you elaborate how the spread of prostitution in Eastern Europe during the war was economically conditioned? What were the consequences of this phenomenon?
During the war people had a hard time finding food, medical services, and other necessities. The Germans viewed Slavic people as Untermenschen and planned to starve them and eventually inhabit their territories in the east. Not only were people starving because of typical war conditions, the Germans purposely confiscated any food they could find. With the arrival of sex-craved soldiers who had essential food items, as well as chocolate and liquor, prostitution spread.
The consequences were many. The German army began arresting women and forcing them to undergo medical examinations to see if they were infected with venereal diseases. Venereal diseases spread through both the local populations and the German forces. This in turn led to Himmler insisting on establishing brothels, even if the females were Untermenschen. The spread of prostitution of course probably enabled some to bring food to their starving families, and maybe in some cases there were happy endings with love and romance. I’m sure that women forced into prostitution also were injured by sadists, which was traumatic beyond the pain of having to sexually service strangers.
Brothels existed even in the concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Dachau. How do you explain establishment of places like these in those locations? What were the living conditions there?
There were two different kinds of brothels, one for the prisoners and one for soldiers and officers. The prisoners had an incentive program so that they would work hard and behave themselves. One of their rewards was a visit to the camp brothel. This is something that is rarely talked about in Holocaust discussions. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C., the outdoor Berlin museum, Topography of Terror, as well as the museum underneath the Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe in Berlin, all do not mention that camp prisoners visited camp brothels where women and girls worked. Even if a female prisoner volunteered to work in the brothel despite the fatal risk of pregnancy or of injury and death by multiple rapes, this likely was NOT because she wanted to have sex with multiple men a day, but because she thought perhaps she would have a place to sleep and possibly more food. This is another layer of victimhood, where a victim victimizes another in the camps. While the topic of layered victimhood has been widely discussed in regards to arranging food, jobs, and services in the camps, museums and textbooks need to include in their discussions how sex, prostitution, and rape were bartered just as bread or indoor jobs were. Sometimes the SS would visit the camp brothels, and there is also testimony attesting to SS brothels just outside of camps.
In one chapter, you mentioned the various forms of “camouflage” undertaken by the female civilian population under German occupation for the purpose of avoiding rape. Could you tell us more about that?
Camouflage seems to have been a common phenomena. Several people told me about this, and you can read about it in various memoirs or testimonies. In one memoir, a family goes to extraordinary efforts to camouflage the teenage girl as being ill when the Soviet soldiers reentered the Crimean town of Feodosia in December 1941. Ukrainian women I spoke with also told about trying to make themselves look old or contagious. They would limp, cough, and cover or smear dirt or coal on their faces to make them look dirty.
Did you come across any specific information regarding sex crimes and prostitution during the 1940s in the area of former Yugoslavia?
Yes, the Chief Sanitation Officer in Poland argued that a brothel visit was not a social relationship, but a “material and economic kind,” and therefore such sex with Poles, Greeks, Yugoslavians, and others, was allowed. This infers, as another scholar pointed out, that there is evidence of Yugoslavians in brothels. Additionally, historian Danijel Jelaš found a document for me from 1941 in the Osijek archives that discusses the plans for multiple brothels in Osijek and the sanitation procedures required. I suspect there were others in additional cities in the former Yugoslavia. We need further research to ascertain how many brothels there actually were and what kinds of sexual violence people endured.
In the thesis, you also analyzed crimes of the Red Army. Moreover, you point out that in Berlin alone, more than 90,000 women visited doctors’ offices because of sexual abuse perpetrated by the Soviet soldiers. What were the causes of these mass rapes committed by Stalin’s troops? How did the dictator perceive reports on this type of crime when they had reached him?
There are several points: The first concerns motivation. The Soviet soldiers did not rape en mass as a political act to degrade the German enemy. They raped females of all nationalities and cultures. The Red Army consisted of soldiers from across Europe who raped Ukrainians, Poles, Estonians, Latvians, Yugoslavians, Jews, Christians, etc. The primary motivating factor in rape is sexual desire (not power or politics), and rapists use their power to obtain what they want, which is sexual satisfaction. Similarly, sexual desire motivated men to visit German brothels and have sexual intercourse with females who were not there to enjoy their afternoons.
Secondly, the desperation men and women felt as they went into battle or continued to fight is something we can barely begin to understand. Imagine the trauma of seeing Germans carting off women and girls to serve in Wehrmacht or SS brothels, of seeing entire Slavic towns disappear to mass graves, and knowing their own families were malnourished and dying at home. The soldiers were living in a surreal and horrifying alcohol-infused nightmare. They had seen corpses of men, women, and children, murdered, raped, or otherwise violated and mutilated, not to mention the carcasses of cows, horses, cats, and other animals, and all the destroyed (bombed or burned) trees, houses, farmyards, outbuildings, etc. Their desperation does not excuse their actions, but it does put the rapes into their horrific context.
Thirdly, historians and the media have long ignored the sexual crimes of the Germans and other western forces and instead have highlighted the rapes and other crimes against humanity by the Red Army. They have depicted the Slavic men as an Asian horde of rapists. While the mass rapes are inexcusable and horrifying, even unimaginable to most, so are the extensive sexual crimes of the German forces.
The Germans spent an enormous amount of resources in the establishment of their extensive system of brothels that enslaved thousands of females, and likewise, Stalin was unconcerned about the welfare of civilian females. There are mixed reports, however, about the issue, because as more diplomats became aware of the raping, there was a Soviet attempt to show that an effort was being made to control the soldiers’ behavior. One of these attempts was the Marshal Rokossovsky Order #006 by which a soldier would be executed for raping. However, various diplomats report meetings with Stalin who dismissed the sexual crimes. Even Yugoslavia’s Milovan Djilas wrote about how Stalin completely ignored the issue and acted angrily when Djilas asked about the conduct of the Soviet soldiers, who were not only raping Germans, but also Yugoslavians. I too acknowledge the horrors the Red Army experienced and the soldiers’ heroism pushing back the Germans, but unlike Stalin, I don’t believe that a soldier was entitled to “have fun with a woman or take some trifle” (Djilas).
What social consequences did victims of sexual abuse have to deal with when the war ended? You mentioned that some abused women were referred to as “German whores” upon return to their hometowns and that their children, who were born after rape, were also victims of discrimination.
Because of patriarchy and cultural norms, local people abused those who had been raped or had suffered prostitution. People condemned and shamed females as whores for consorting with the enemy, regardless of the circumstances, and society did not condemn those who had abused their power to obtain sex. Even in Germany, but more so in the more conservative Slavic countries, there was silence surrounding the rapes, and victims were unable to obtain counseling. One Ukrainian family I interviewed suffered for generations because a Polish man drugged the mother and raped her. When she came home her townspeople called her a German whore. She bore her rapist’s child, who in turn was bullied and called a German bitch (even though the rapist was Polish). Furthermore, many people in conservative societies did not view exchanging food for sex as rape, even though probably in most cases, the female normally wouldn’t have sex with the person who had the food. Instead of blaming the person with the food who used their power to obtain sex, both men and women blame the victim. Even my Ukrainian translator thought this particular woman wasn’t raped, since she was sleeping, but the man drugged her, and of course, a sleeping person cannot consent to sex.
How is it that, despite the abundance of available materials (official documents, testimonies, memoirs, etc.), such topics remain historiographically neglected? Have you noticed any progress on this issue in the last ten years?
Simply answered – shame, silence, and patriarchy. If someone is attacked, people ask what the victims were wearing or if they were intoxicated, none of which is relevant because the perpetrator is to blame. Women and men hold these institutionalized patriarchal views, and thus victims feel shame and do not speak out. Male and female victims need to talk, analyze themselves and heal, so they can heal their children and students. Historians need to tackle these topics so we can better understand why people rape, whether during peacetime or war. Because of these persistent views, professors may discourage graduate students from tackling sexual violence. One educated Croatian woman asked me why I had chosen my topic because it was a “man’s topic.” This kind of archaic view hampers progress toward raising awareness of sexual violence, which is a gender-neutral human rights topic that affects males, females, and transgender people.
When I presented my research in Cherkasy, Ukraine, it was momentous occasion because many people in Cherkasy had not yet spoken publicly about their trauma. It was as if my talk about sexual violence gave them permission to also start discussing and sharing. When we break the silence and fight the shame to honestly face our own trauma, we can better understand the trauma of others, the complexities of victimhood, war, and violent sexual and other crimes. It is extremely difficult to openly admit and discuss one’s own rape or the rape of a family member. Despite the difficulties of recovery and healing, war- and peacetime survivors of sexual violence can help us understand other trauma if they face their own pain. I was only able to do the research I did and to continue to write because for the last twenty-nine years I have faced my own complex trauma of sexual abuse and other childhood familial issues. It has been extremely challenging at times, but well worth the effort because I have changed the world for the better in small, but meaningful ways—by writing, talking, and raising children who will be less likely to be victimized as I was. Understanding our complicity in crimes around the world or the motives behind mass shooters or rapists in the US can help us better teach our children and students to not engage in such violence. Similarly, the more Croatians better understand their personal and societal traumas by breaking the silence and shame, they too can help Europe and the world grow toward a more peaceful and healthy society.
And yes, now there is much more written on the topic of WWII sexual violence than when I first tackled it. However, the general public still is not aware of the widespread system of brothels the Germans established nor how much the drunken Axis soldiers raped, yet a larger portion are acquainted with the extent of the rapes by the animalistic Red Army. This needs to change.
I have thought about a passage from a memoir I read almost twenty years ago to this day. I had empathy with a drunken rapist, which surprised me because I am a survivor of many non-life-threatening rapes. But I believe empathy will change the world.
Major Kopelev was on the eastern front during WWII when Marshal Rokossovsky issued his order to execute rapists without trial. The reasoning behind his order was to try to regain control over the troops as they moved through the devastation the Germans and others had caused in the Soviet Union, Poland, Hungary, Germany, and all across the eastern front. Kopelev wrote that a Polish woman with a torn dress came running in screaming for help. The lieutenant in charge threatened to execute the rapist, according to the “orders from headquarters. For rape – execution on the spot.”
The major did not want to shoot a “brave soldier blind-drunk on vodka.” Kopelev drew his pistol, and the drunken man “came at [him], hoarse with anger, spraying saliva. ‘You fucking officers, fuck your mothers! You! Fighting the war on our backs! Where were you when my tank was on fire? Where were you, fuck your mother, when I set fire to that Tiger?’” The officers could hear the men saying things like, “Some commanders…They’ll shoot their own men over a German bitch” (Kopelev, No Jail for Thought, 50-51). (Note that the woman was not German, which I discuss because it helps to explain some of the raping that occurs during war.)
Empathy will change the world
My empathy surprised me because I am a survivor of multiple peacetime violations. I am working on an essay where I explain my reaction to the horrific sexual crimes western and eastern European men committed during the war. I have not felt empathy for the leaders, for example, for the Germans who planned and implemented the largest system of sexual slavery during the war, still mostly unheard of today.But for the desperate soldier who was forced into a nightmare so large and long-lasting most of us cannot even begin to fathom, I have felt understanding and empathy even for those who raped, usually in a drunken and frenzied state. This empathy and your empathy will change the world.