In the early days of the COVID-19 social crisis in North America – hard to believe that was just over two weeks ago now – I woke up with mild symptoms of a flu-like illness. Within a day, the symptoms went from mild to moderate, and it became clear that I needed to self-quarantine for the recommended 14 days in order to protect the people around me.
I live alone in a studio apartment, but I am used to a lifestyle spent in close, intense contact with others: I have two jobs in social services, facilitate and perform at public events; since the beginning of 2020, I had been developing a somatic practice involving 4-6 sessions of group martial arts, yoga, and workout classes per week. I am – was? – a bodyworker, and in the months before the pandemic, spent hundreds of hours learning skillful, compassionate ways to touch other human beings.
All that, in the space of an instant, ground to a complete halt. All my busy-ness, all my business, my plans, my thrumming buzzing running spinning movement just stopped. The kaleidoscope of human faces, voices, bodies, needs, pleasures that my life had become faded away into an endless, empty, silence. My world collapsed to the size of a less than 400 square foot apartment.
The field of somatics teaches us that humans – like all mammals, and many other animals – require healthy co-regulation in order to thrive. Co-regulation is the attunement of nervous systems to one another: We cannot help but be calmed by the calm presence of others, or excited by the surge of a euphoric, dancing crowd. We instinctively know co-regulation without ever needing to learn the word; we simply know that we need others to help us feel alive and connected to life.
Part of the intense, agonizing irony of COVID-19 is that the very measures that might save millions of lives are the exact opposite of our bodies’ instinctual response to life threat: In moments of extreme stress, most of us seek comfort in the presence of others. We want congregate, seize our loved ones, huddle together, form a pack. Yet this virus makes all of those reflexes dangerous to ourselves and others: It creeps inside our bodies, corrupts our expressions of connection and care.
Like many trans women, I was socialized in a world steeped in the message that my body is harmful and repugnant to others (though, in more twisted irony, the truth is that trans women’s bodies are intensely sexually fetishized by most cisgender, heterosexual men). This painful developmental experience resulted in complex trauma that I have spent years working with and through: The belief that I am inherently destructive and dangerous.
Now, the entire world has been thrust into that same experience. We are being told (truthfully) that we must cut off contact with others in order to protect them – like amputating a limb to prevent infection of the greater body. We are being taught that our loving presence – handshakes, hugs, sexual communion, even breathing on or standing near others – is a vector of disease.
And in such a short time, we have lost access to one of the most ancient, powerful resources for health and wholeness that is known to our species: touch and physical proximity.
Isolation can be, depending on context, a powerfully healing or deeply damaging experience. When enforced upon us, it can wreak terrifying destruction on our mental and spiritual health, as evidenced by the use of solitary confinement within the prison-industrial complex – yet more reason for the abolition of the practice of imprisonment within our society.
Yet within the space of isolation, there is also the potential for great discovery – in Jungian terms, for the retrieval of treasure or elixir from the abyss. Within the relatively luxurious confinement of my apartment, I am finding more clarity, compassion, and strength than I had access to. And flowering with me as well, the determination as well to discover new ways of connecting, co-regulating, creating change for a better world: One where isolation is a choice, rather than a weapon of torture or the supposedly unavoidable result of illness, disability, or aging.
Today I wrote this thread on Twitter about how to create a support pod for folks who are isolated: https://twitter.com/razorfemme/status/1243926152319827969. Based on Mia Mingus and the Bay Are Transformative Justice Collective’s Pod Mapping exercise, my own practice creating care pods comes from my own experience of abuse and chronic illness.
In essence, the idea is that we must proactively reach out to people in our communities who need care. We can share the work of caregiving by creating small teams of people who share responsibilities, communicate clearly, and delegate tasks. We must remember that one of most valuable and powerful aspects of community care is its organic nature:
That unlike professional care (which is essential, but also highly boundaried and often too expensive) or capitalist models of care (which are often about exploiting the labour or marginalized people), community care is agile, flexible, and capable of providing real love. Community care is about seeing those in our community who have need, about choosing them because of their inherent worth rather than their socioeconomic status. And I believe as well that community care must extend to all beings, must safeguard the dignity of all people. This means no prisons, no migrant detention, no expendable people, not anywhere.
Like any kind of care, community care requires boundaries and great skill to do well. This is a skill that has been lost over time, eroded by violent and abusive capitalist and colonial systems: So many of us have forgotten, or never learned, the art of cultivating co-regulation in times of sickness or crisis. How to hold space for suffering. How to listen deeply and speak authentically. How to weep in another’s weeping, to shine in another’s shining, without losing sight of one’s own integrity.
Yet here we are, in our crumbling world. Cut off from one another’s physical presence. Still, we have tools, skills, rituals, technologies both new and ancient. And we will find each other. Sing with one another. Touch one another. In this world and in the next.