Sadness, Anger, and Self-Care in the Early Days of the Trump Era

From late October to the last days of December, I found it increasingly difficult to quiet my mind enough to fall asleep and stay asleep.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night sweaty, with my heart racing as if startled by a terrible nightmare. Sleeplessness left me on edge and exhausted throughout the day.  I had chest pains and a persistent cold and upset stomach and became fearful not only of these symptoms but of the world around me.  It became difficult to focus on work and to relax when I got home.

Then, on a cold and dusky evening December evening, I began to feel anxious on a crowded Metro platform on my way home.  Suddenly, the trains were too loud, and there were too many people around me.  A woman next to me kept complaining about her delayed train, and it took everything I had to respond to her cordially and commiserate with her.  But it was all too much.  I couldn’t figure out what was terrifying me, as I never had that kind of seemingly unprovoked reaction to crowds before.  I told myself to breathe, to count to ten, to force myself to control whatever was happening to me, and I couldn’t.

I was able to keep myself together all the way home, and I made sure that no one I met or worked with during those weeks knew what I was feeling.  But inside I felt out of control and powerless, especially at night, right before I went to sleep.  I never mentioned what I was going through to anyone, but one night, I called my mother, telling her the unease I felt when I woke up from sleep in the middle of the night and how that feeling haunted me on and off throughout the day.  My mother, amateur psychologist that she is, responded with her diagnosis matter-of-factly,

“It’s the election.”

According to her, Trump, President Trump, my fixation on the election, his victory, and the realities of his Presidency weighed on my mind so much that it was making me sick.

I laughed it off at first, explaining that other things were on my mind, but I slowly contemplated the idea that she was right.  And that was terrifying because I never thought that my feelings or my state of mind would have such a detrimental effect on my physical health or that politics would have such an effect on physical and emotional wellbeing.

I realized that I needed to take care of my emotional and physical health, because, in this case, they may have been interconnected.  The election left me completely bewildered and with an overwhelming feeling of loss, as it did for millions of people.  My addiction to news and social media during the last few months didn’t help.  While I had no desire to fight with strangers on twitter, I believed I was finding catharsis in hearing voices that expressed those feelings of fear and anger that I had.  However, sometimes those sentiments were coupled with apocalyptic declarations about life in the United States under President Trump, and all those worries and feelings of impending doom can lead to stress.  There will most likely be a surplus of political fights on the horizon that will leave me and others in a constant state of anger.  But if sustained rage supposedly leads to activism and resistance, what does that do to our health?

This acknowledgment of rage and need for self-care is addressed in this week’s Black-ish, “Good Dre Hunting,” which explores this issue of sustained outrage and its unsustainability and unproductivity.  But the episode also clearly affirms that sometimes righteous anger is absolutely necessary, and sometimes therapy can be absolutely essential.

The Atlantic‘s Julie Beck explores how some are looking to save themselves from election-related anger, stress or  what Jack Saul, director of the International Trauma Studies Program, calls collective trauma, “a shared experience of threat and anxiety in response to sudden or ongoing events that lead to some threat to a basic sense of belonging in society.” In order to relieve this stress or trauma, Saul and others advocate that people focus more on building connections to others to create a support system and community dedicated to volunteerism and activism than self-care, which, according to Saul, leads to isolation and vulnerability.

However, executive editor of Girls for Gender Equality Joanne Smith explains that self-care can involve deepening connections to other people:

“As a black woman organizer and movement leader, I will need to love me harder than I ever have before so that this toxic masculinity and white supremacy does not snatch my light or the light of my community. It also means that I must be vulnerable and connected to the people in cross movement spaces who love me and recognize my humanity the most.”

Numerous blogs, like Just Jasmineblackgirlmentalhealth.tumblr.com, and noirecare.com, are dedicated to addressing the importance of black women practicing self-care by themselves and within their communities because self-care is as important to social movements as collective protest.

Balancing self-care and social consciousness are not new concerns.  In “The Negro in American Culture,” in 1961, James Baldwin explains that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you.”

These last few weeks, I’ve focused on my own health and emotional quality of life so that I can be better equipped to helping others.  Sometimes that involves stepping away from social media more and more.  I will still keep myself aware of what’s going on since vigilance is essential, but so is abstaining from social media when righteous anger turns into feelings of fear and rage that are paralyzing and toxic and leave you feeling utterly powerless.

Focusing on my quality of life involves allowing myself to pursue what I enjoy in life, dancing, painting, being optimistic, eating delicious food and planning good things for the future because all of these things are necessary for emotional and spiritual survival as well.

And improving my quality of life has also meant getting involved in issues that are important to me: going to a local rally on saving the Affordable Care Act, attending the Women’s March on Washington, and exploring ways to get involved in my community, possibly through my local Democratic Committee or other groups and organizations.

The first step for me was in admitting that I was feeling powerless and angry and that I was surrounding myself online voices that were preoccupied with everything horrible that can and might happen and that I believed remained beyond my control.  It’s possible that a lot of people feel this way, and in identifying these feelings, I began to feel better.

Control freak that I am, I’m not ready to give up what little power I do have.  If you feel powerless and overwhelmed by your own anger, think about how that is affecting your daily life and your health.  Know that taking care of yourself is the most important thing you can do so that you can help others who will need you these next four years.  It’s not selfish or delusional to find some joy in your life; it’s absolutely necessary so that you can give that joy to others who will need it.  And I hope to remind myself of this when that feeling of powerlessness and defeat creep up on me again, leaving me terrified in the middle of the night.  I’ll have to remind myself that it’s possible to get a good night’s sleep and still be woke.

Sources:

Beck, Julie. “How to Cope with Post-Election Stress.” 10 Nov. 2016. http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2016/11/how-to-cope-with-post-election-stress/507296/. Accessed 20 Jan. 2016.
Blay, Zeba. “11 Ways Black People Can Practice Self-Care in the Wake of Trump.” The Huffington Post. 11 Nov. 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/11-ways-black-people-can-practice-self-care-in-the-wake-of-trumps-win_us_5824a420e4b07751c390db8a. Accessed 20 Jan. 2017.
Zinzi, Janna A. “Surviving Trump: Black Woman Strengthen Coalitions, Practice Revolutionary Self-Care.” The Root, 16 Dec. 2016, http://www.theroot.com/surviving-trump-black-women-strengthen-coalitions-pra-1790858050. Accessed 20 Jan. 2017.

Is it Possible to Unite a Nation Divided?

As I get older, I am realizing that I will save myself a lot of time – and ultimately save a bit of my sanity – if I accept that fact that human beings are irrational by nature. I’ve spent a lot of mental energy trying to figure out why people do the things they do. Why do they sometimes act against their own interests? Why do they appear to cling to choices that have and continue to be “bad” for them and a lot of other people, too?

I’ve been asking myself these questions possibly from a place of judgment. I like to think of myself as rational and can tend to judge others as irrational if they do things I cannot always understand. I elevate myself in my own mind when I do this. That is my emotional payoff. I can’t understand other people, and then deem them not worth understanding.

I’m speaking abstractly here, as this is something I think about and have done most of my life. But I’m really writing this in response to something more specific: the election and the political realities that we will face with this new incoming President. Full disclosure: I am an Obamanista in my heart of hearts. I volunteered for his campaigns during his elections, and most recently, since July, I volunteered at my local Democratic Coordinated Committee Campaign office to help Virginia elect Hillary Clinton as President. Virginia came through, but other important states did not. There’s a lot to blame for this result, and I’ve spent a lot of time placing blame almost everywhere in private conversations with friends and family because I cannot understand how this all happened.  Electing Donald Trump as the President of the United States seems completely irrational to me, as he disqualified himself more times than I can count. I’ve thought of reasons why this election happened the way it did: sexism, racism, nativisim, and an uninformed electorate. I’ve read why this happened: economic anxieties; the negative effects of globalization; a continual, institutionalized suspicion of the Clintons because of their political baggage/failings; and a populace fearful of the social, global, technological changes that we’ve experienced these last few years. All of these reasons are legitimate.

Here’s the difficult question I ask myself now: does it matter why people voted for Donald Trump, or Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson or Harambe or whoever wasn’t Hillary Clinton, if they even showed up to vote at all? What do we learn from this? There may be a lot to learn from the answers to these questions. However, as a results-oriented person, I also wonder what net benefits come from blaming and shaming others for their choices? It can be a great way of shining a light on questionable if not downright immoral behavior, and that can be instructive. But it is the best way to reach people?

I have no answers to these questions yet, but I also want to figure out if there are other ways of reaching people, too. For example, what if we just accept that people are irrational? That we all have biases and emotional reasons for doing things that other people can’t understand and cannot be explained rationally?  This country itself is irrational in the ways it defines itself.  The United States is as aspirational in its elevation of freedom and equality as it is forever characterized by its original sins of slavery, genocide, and racial and economic equality. We, as Americans, are irrational as well.  Our desires for freedom and autonomy were and still are determined by oppressing others.  We have internalized that.  We see that as a sign of power, and as a result, at times, we celebrate and elevate those who oppress others because we have romanticized that as an ultimate sign of self-determination and heroism.  I don’t want and never want to whitewash what has happened or what may come. However, I think we have to also realized that we are just as likely to listen to our better angels as we are to  double down on our worst, most bigoted impulses, even if that hurts us in the long run.  That’s a condition, that on some level, we all share. We are intertwined by these irrationalities.

In an attempt to tie this back into the original premise of this blog: what happens if we see those we disagree with not as caricatures or irrational creatures but as actual complex people with their own inner lives, biases and desires, their own complicated interiority?  How do you reach them? How do we encourage empathy with others instead of indulge in dehumanization, and what could be the results of that?  Can empathy become message powerful enough so that people can’t help but hear it? These questions weigh heavily in my mind, and I hope to come back to them as this year progresses.