Sweeping the Fragments Together

Today the term of the 45th President of the United States ended, and the term of the 46th began. The past four years have been a living nightmare that was both exactly as bad as I predicted, and somehow so much worse than I could have imagined. Everything has been so terrible for so long–and we came so perilously close to it not happening–that it was kind of hard to believe it would really take place.

And as it turned out, so much was wonderful. The first moment that caused me tears was, unexpectedly, around jewelry. Many of the attendees at the inauguration chose to wear pearls, in honor of new Vice President Kamala Harris and her favorite accessory, which was charming in itself. But Representative Barbara Lee revealed that she was wearing pearls that had originally belonged to Shirley Chisholm. The story behind this–and that Chisholm was Lee’s mentor, and Lee was Harris’s–was what sent me into tears. I wasn’t expecting to cry over a necklace. (I also appreciate Lee’s mask, covered in butterflies, which symbolize renewal and re-forming. Yes, my hyphenation on that word is deliberate; it’s carrying multiple meanings.)

Then there was the inauguration itself, with the Pledge of Allegiance delivered by a black woman firefighter who also delivered it in ASL as she spoke; with Jennifer Lopez singing a song by a notorious socialist artist and partially in Spanish; with the swearing-in of the first woman/Indian-American/Black American to be Vice President; and with the new President’s inaugural address, which condemned the racism, fascism, and criminality of his predecessor’s administration, including using the words “white supremacy” more than once, while also talking about the need to repair all the damage done and deep empathy for the suffering of the people he is now sworn to serve. And it was capped off by the reading from Amanda Gorman, the Youth Poet Laureate, who delivered the soaring, luminous, ambitious rhetoric and grand vision in her words (which were inspired by the failed coup carried out just two weeks earlier) that Biden knew better than to attempt himself.

And then there was a somber, respectful visit to the Tomb of the Unknowns, acknowledging Biden’s solemn responsibility as Commander in Chief and his understanding of the weight of that role. And Harris, in her first action as vice president, swearing in two new Democratic senators from Georgia, that state that gave Democrats both the Presidency and the Senate. And joyous walks down Pennsylvania Avenue, despite the ferocious security and presence of fences and tanks everywhere, as Biden and Harris had their families accompany them to their new workplaces. And Biden signing a raft of Executive Orders as his first acts, trying to turn back some of the damage. All of this was good and uplifting and infused with hope, something that hasn’t felt possible in a long time. I am so grateful that we have a new administration with competent, serious public servants who care about the country, not their own selfishness and narcissism.

But today has also been terrible, because I’m so traumatized by the past four years. When I learned that the previous president’s nuclear codes had been deactivated, I couldn’t speak or breathe for several seconds. As a GenXer, I carry the trauma of 1980s nuclear-armageddon threat, and the revival of that threat during the Trump admin has caused me deep panic; I’ve worried pretty much every moment since the election that he would choose to exercise that option out of his petulant, aggrieved narcissism.

Then I didn’t know how to react to the Bidens hugging and showing deep emotion before they walked into the White House. After four years of people whose only emotions were greed, anger, and self-aggrandizement, seeing a family that is genuinely loving and genuinely grateful and moved by the momentous thing they’ve achieved was difficult to process and upsettingly confusing.

I started crying when Biden told his agency appointees that they are expected to be respectful and decent to the people they work with, and thanked them for their willingness to join his admin and work very hard. This was unheard of in the preceding admin, and it seemed so rare and so alien in comparison.

Press Secretary Jen Psaki opened the first press briefing by thanking the journalists, saying how honored she is to be doing this, and emphasizing that truth and accuracy are the admin’s goals when talking to the media. She answered all the questions she was asked, didn’t lie or make up nonsense, and was respectful to everyone she spoke to. And she ended by saying she looked forward to doing it again. I teared up multiple times and had multiple “OMG WE’RE DOING THIS AGAIN” moments, because it all seemed so novel after the past four years.

None of this should be making me feel like that, because these kinds of things should be normal. But for four years we’ve experienced a presidential administration that gleefully destroyed all our norms and much of our day to day life; that harmed marginalized people of all types; that did everything imaginable to strip our rights; that engaged in grotesque corruption and graft out in the open; that destroyed relationships with countless nations and made us vastly less safe; that eagerly courted the support and violence of white supremacists and fascists; that gaslighted us about everything; and that allowed a deadly pandemic to rage unabated causing the worst death event and biggest existential crisis of our lifetime. And we also had Republican legislators who gladly enabled it all, capping it all with an actual coup that only barely failed. For four years, that was our “normal.”

We have been damaged by all of this, and that damage leaves trauma. That trauma makes it difficult to stop reacting to good things and things that should be normal as if they are instead potential harms, and creates significant emotional confusion and ambivalence.

On the day that it was confirmed Biden had the necessary electoral votes, I told friends that I felt relieved, but not necessarily happy, very much how I felt when my abusive relationship ended. I feel much the same today. I don’t know how to react to good and ordinary things now occurring. I can’t yet trust that the abuse and gaslighting is over. I feel conflicted about reacting with tears and mixed emotions. And I’m very, very tired. This is what trauma does. And I’m guessing I’m nowhere near being alone in having this trauma.

Biden wasn’t my choice for this role, but it’s who we got. And I still believe fervently that we have to push him unceasingly to make him hold to the more progressive things he’s said and get him to move further left. But I think he understands really deeply how much the trauma of these four years has harmed the people of this country, and he cares about helping us get through it. I saw that in the things that he and his administration did today that are so profoundly normal and reassuring. And in that regard, he might actually be the right person for this moment.

Of historic moments and memories

My earliest political memory is Nixon’s resignation. I came into the TV room and my grandfather seemed agitated so I asked what was going on and he said the President was resigning. I understood that it was a major thing but I didn’t really grasp any of the context because I was too young. I don’t recall any particular mood or conversation around my house in the runup or after; I was a little kid, I cared about books and bike rides and exploring the neighborhood, and my grandmother had died the year previously so things were still fraught in my family. But a President resigning to avoid being impeached was the start of my political understanding.

I honestly don’t remember a lot about Clinton’s impeachment either. At the time of the vote I was coming off a brutally hard work stretch (at the time I had a job where I would work 80-hour weeks for two months at a time) and was involved with an abusive partner who would mistreat me because work was keeping me from devoting my attention to him, so it was all pretty bad and my thinking and memory were not clear or fully functional. I know I was angry about the circumstance of what led to the impeachment, even as I had significant reservations about Clinton’s political and executive behavior around the relationship with Lewinsky (as opposed to his personal behavior, which was disgusting but not a matter of governmental concern in my view). I was relieved when the Senate didn’t convict but I recognized that there was worrisome fracturing in our political systems.

And now the second impeachment in my lifetime has happened. After the vote on the second article spouse poured us a little scotch and we had a recognition of the historical significance. And then I started crying, because while this was absolutely necessary and absolutely the correct thing to do, it’s utterly wretched that we are here, and that it is unlikely to lead to anything changing because the Republican party has given its allegiance to Trump instead of the Constitution. I remain convinced that this country won’t survive Trump, one way or another, and not least because our vaunted system is hopelessly inadequate for the size and fractiousness of the nation as it is now; and I’m pretty sure I’ll recall this moment as the point where it began to break apart. But I doubt I will forget how I felt about it.

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.