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 Jasmine, blackgirlmentalhealth.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.