A practical guide for post-election anxiety

Originally published November 10, 2016

A group I hang out in online was having discussions this morning about how they’re dealing with the results of the U.S. Presidential election. There’s still a lot of grief and anger. There’s also a lot of people dealing with major anxiety for the first time and it’s causing them to spiral into obsessive worst-case worrying in a way that’s detrimental.

I am, as I’ve said before, an expert-level Anxious Person. Spiraling, obsessive thoughts, extrapolation of worst-case scenarios, and intrusive worrying have been unwanted companions since adolescence. (On election night I spent about five hours in a slo-mo panic attack; it only became inconvenient when the jackhammering of my heart meant I couldn’t sleep. That’s how familiar anxiety is for me.) I’ve expended a lot of energy arranging my life and behaviors to mitigate chronic anxiety. And that means that in the face of an event like this and the fear of the future that’s come with it, I actually have a set of tools that folks who haven’t spent so much of their lives anxious might not have. I told the people in my group that I would write this to help them, and I hope it can help others too.

I want to emphasize that this is not “don’t be scared or anxious” fatuous cheerleading. Being scared and anxious is absolutely understandable right now. No one is going to stop being scared or anxious because somebody else tells them to. One of the things dealing with chronic anxiety has taught me is that lack of control tends to make even very mild anxiety worse, and holy shit do we not have control over any of this. People have every reason to be scared and freaked out.

So taking control of what I can is how I help mitigate anxiety. The stuff below is a framework that can allow you to get a grip on the sources of anxiety and see what you can act on. It’s flexible and malleable so you can fit it to your needs. Using it consistently is how I’ve managed to stay functional more often than not, and I’m hopeful that it can help serve that purpose for others.

–Outline the things you’re anxious about. Anxiety is not reasonable. It’s a reaction to the perception of threat, and it can make you incapable of grasping exactly what has caused weasels to take over your brain. Creating a concrete accounting of it helps you see it all.

–Rank your concerns from most immediate/most likely/most practical to least. This will vary for everyone, but Maslow’s hierachy of needs can be a decent guideline. Right now, for a lot of people, the most likely are physical safety, finances, and medical care/insurance coverage. Nuclear war and complete societal collapse are not unreasonable fears at all, but they’re much further out on the scale of likelihood than things that impact your ability to live and survive day to day. Don’t make value judgments about your concerns, don’t get caught up in whether it’s “silly” to be scared about something; that’s a way to get yourself spiraling. Using criteria of immediacy/likelihood/practicality removes the value judgments and makes it easier to focus.

Note that this also includes care for mental health issues. If the election result has brought you to a place of crisis, of self-harm (including relapse of addiction or eating disorders) or suicide, that absolutely fits here and should be a priority, because it comes under safety. You deserve life and care and you deserve to get help. 

–Figure out plans for addressing the immediate/likely/practical concerns. This is where I was at on Tuesday night. My biggest immediate concerns are losing our income and our health insurance, so I was making lists of things we need to change about how we use our money, when/whether to look at new employment options, and setting aside things that carry too much financial risk. For others this might mean things such as self-defense classes or weapons training; getting medical procedures done before 1/20/2017; finding new sources of income or setting up new financial plans; sorting out new housing arrangements if where you are isn’t safe. Again, it’ll depend on everyone’s individual circumstances. But knowing that you can do things to address those immediate concerns can quiet the overwhelming anxiety.

–Look at what you can do for the longer-term concerns. A lot of this will be in the realm of preparatory stuff–you might not ever need it, but it’s good to have it if you do need it. Set up and organize all the legal documents you might need (and everyone should do this but it’s particularly important if you’re in a same-sex marriage, trans, or an immigrant). Get together all your medical documentation and outline what you’ll need for treatment/care for your medical conditions (including mental health). Organize emergency supplies, whether that’s a 3-day kit (recommended by most disaster planning agencies) or long-term “doomsday prepper” stocks against a possible extended calamity. Take steps to protect the security of your home, loved ones, and online activity. All of this is stuff that’s a good to do even if nothing dire is happening, but it can be particularly helpful when you’re in the throes of a specific anxiety.

–Volunteer or take civic action, if it’s within your capacity. Being directly involved in working on something that matters to you can be really helpful if you’re feeling scared or anxious about it, and volunteering has demonstrated benefits for the people who engage in it. Plus it can make a difference to the cause you invest your effort in, which can improve the circumstances that are making you anxious. Even if it’s something informal, such as providing escort for friends who might be at risk in the current climate or watching out for the safety of immigrant neighbors, giving your effort to help others will benefit both you and them.

–Giving money is always worthwhile (I say this as someone currently employed by a donation-driven non-profit), but it’s not always realistic. Give money if you can, if you want to, if it won’t disadvantage you to do so. Don’t fall into further anxiety if financial support of a cause isn’t feasible for you.

–Let yourself be joyful. It can be really, really easy to get trapped inside your fear and anxiety in a scary, uncertain time. You are allowed to have fun and be happy and do enjoyable things, and doing so will make you more effective when you have to deal with the hard stuff. Again, the specifics of this will vary for everyone depending on their circumstances. Whatever they are, they should be things that replenish you and don’t leave you feeling bad or regretful afterwards. 

Again, all of this is just a framework; it’s just tools. Everyone’s circumstances will vary, and not everything here will be practical or realistic for every person or situation. I know there’s no way at all that I can possibly have covered every circumstance (and that a lot of what I’ve said is definitely informed by my particular status and privilege). But I hope that putting the tools out there can be useful for at least a few people. I want you all to be as safe, secure, and happy as you can when we’re facing this looming horrorshow. I hope I can contribute a tiny bit to you achieving it.

When the streams cross

Originally posted November 21, 2016

I am a volunteer docent at a zoo.

I am also a long-time Doctor Who fan and I’ve helped a local PBS station with pledge drives for Classic Who for many years.

Today spouse and I were at the zoo presenting one of the programs we do as docents. We were chatting with the very last pair of visitors we planned to talk to before wrapping up our shift. I answered a question about snow leopard habitat. And suddenly one of the visitors said, “Aren’t you the one who does the Doctor Who pledge drives?”

It’s always kind of awkward when my disparate flavors of nerd-enthusiasm cross the streams.

(I acknowledged to him that I was indeed that person, and he said “I’ve been watching those shows for half my life.” I pushed past my reaction to the inadvertent commentary on my age and said I’m really glad I had been part of making that possible.) 

The long view

Originally published January 20, 2017

I was born the same year as Medicare, Medicaid, and the Voting Rights Act.

My childhood was Vietnam and Watergate, the Great Malaise and the Iran hostages and disco. It included two years spent in a majority-Muslim nation, which forever informed how I would view the world and meant I would always see shadings and subtleties in every political interaction and a profound skepticism of those who deal in demonizing and simplicities.

My adolescence was Reagan and Thatcher, the glittering false facade of grotesque wealth covering profound inequality, the sense of cruelty as a guiding force. It was the existential terror of nuclear armageddon. It was postpunk and androgyny and AIDS and the view of a world that was deeper and darker and beautiful and resistant and angry, pushing hard against the facade. It gave me a sense of where home might be for me, and what I wanted to value and cherish.

My first decade of adulthood was full of failure and missteps and figuring out who I wanted to become, even as my nation entered a period of prosperity and the fear of dying in a nuclear strike waned. I remember less about it than I should–not because of anything exciting or dramatic, but simply because I was not yet a person of full spine and spirit and I didn’t know what I was doing.

My second decade of adulthood was largely spent in the thrall of an abusive, gaslighting narcissist, who took the spine and spirit I had begun to find and pleasured himself with trying to crush and pulverize it out of me. It was also when the towers fell and our nation went with them into its own thrall of terror and endless war and the first stirrings of irreparable division and authoritarian control.

Then came the next decade, and I married a veteran of the endless war who will always bear scars from it, and rebuilt my spine and spirit even stronger than before, and learned my own foolishness and new wisdom, and watched my nation find hope and joy and love and acceptance, even as the division became ever more fraught and damaging. And I failed to listen closely enough to the noise it made, the evil hateful threatening rumble that ran underneath everything.

And then it was the night of November 8, 2016, and everything cracked and broke and the rumble was a full-throated roar crashing over everything I value.

And now it’s January 20, 2017, and there is a new President, and there is ground glass being slowly rubbed into my spirit so that the wounds will stay open and oozing for as long as this reality is in existence and I am already watching the world I value being sliced away in bloody skewed pieces and the fear is as overpowering as it ever was in the old days of nuclear peril.

I dyed my hair the color of deadly nightshade, and I wore blood-red lipstick and a skirt of repurposed fabrics in the tartans of my postpunk heritage and the homely knit of working clothes, and a pair of old stompy boots that are worn but still solid, and necklaces of various links with heart pendants for the love and the energy that must power me, and a jacket painted with wording from a film that had come to represent so much to me even before the election happened and now is a terrifying portent of what could well come.

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Of course these things are just symbols, things to show, talismans of what I wish to be. They will not, in themselves, change anything. But like all talismans, they give me the sense of power, and the sense that I can go forward, and the image to others of what I am and what I value.

The Green Place is gone. There is nowhere for us to go back to, no space of bounty and safety and peace. We can only go through the disaster and fight together for the vulnerable and the disadvantaged and the world that we want to see instead of the one we have.

I will continue to work at my non-profit job, the honest, meaningful work that provides income and meaning and value. I will continue to volunteer and pursue my passion, connecting people with the wonder of nature and wildlife and the value of protecting it. I will continue to stand up and provide safety for those in my community who are at risk from the awful roar of hate. I will continue to speak and amplify and counter the distortion and re-shaping of reality, because I have been through it both personally and politically and I understand what it looks like. I will live my life as I can, but I will incorporate resistance and anger and every bit of skill I can bring to this fight into the life that I live, and I will learn new wisdom and try new things to the best of my ability. I am scared that I will be harmed or imprisoned and I am scared that I will fail. But I will still do it, because it must be done, and I will do it for as long as I can. I will build my spine and spirit even stronger.

I have watched a lot pass in the decades I have had so far, and I have learned so much from it. I have never seen what is happening now. Our country as it existed yesterday no longer exists, and this thing we call the United States of America is likely to end. And part of why I will fight is because I believe that those who fight will make something better, in a different shape, and I need to help us make that. And this might take the rest of my life, however long that ends up being; my remaining decades will be so very different from the ones that have already passed. But I will spend them fighting.

At one year without her

Originally published December 27, 2017

I forgot that today marked a year. I didn’t want to remember, because how in the fuck can it be that she’s gone.

I’ve grieved, in a very personal way, for other celebrities. There are still moments when my eyes fill with tears because Jim Henson is no longer here. Bowie’s death was a black hole at the core of the art and subcultures that made me, while Prince’s was a stunning slap to the face that still stings. But Carrie Fisher’s death still feels almost unbearably cruel, in a way that challenges my supposed agnosticism.

Of course Leia Organa matters enormously to me; I would not be who I am without the Star Wars universe and the saga of the Skywalkers, and Leia as a symbol of resistance against fascism is unbelievably powerful in the moment we face right now. But Carrie, with her stinging wit and her profound skill at the structure of writing and her anger and her penitence and her absolute ownership of all her flaws and failings and her refusal to accept any shit at all that anyone tried to dump on her, Carrie was who helped me find who I need to be. Losing Leia Organa is painful, but it could be borne. Not having Carrie Fisher is just such a burning, unfixable unfairness.

The moments with her I find myself thinking of most are in this video: Her, curled up in a chair next to Craig Ferguson, being hilarious and filthy and wry and shiningly herself. This interview (if you can even call it that) was a turning point for me; I was still struggling with my bigness and messiness and my writing, worrying that I didn’t have the ability to be elegant and demure and reserved in how I use words. This moment of television felt like permission to be myself, to use filthy language and be open and messy and as loud as I need to be, as long as I never let the work itself suffer. She didn’t do any of this with the intent of giving a messy middle-aged fan a lifeline to herself, and I know that. But I still hope I won’t let her down.

My spouse gave me two gifts of enormous import that represent how much Carrie Fisher mattered to my life. On the 21st, before we went to see The Last Jedi, he gave me this set of charms, from Optimystical Studios. I’m going to make a piece of jewelry with the women of the Rebellion/Resistance. The General Organa pendant I originally wanted was sold out, which was a keen disappointment; when spouse explained to Optimystical what he was trying to do for me, they made a new one especially for me.

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And on Xmas morning, he gave me this print, by Lindsay Van Ekelenburg, and I ugly-cry every time I look at it. I’m still deciding where the right place is for it to hang, so that I can be inspired every day by that face and that middle finger.

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