I had breakfast with a new friend last week. As we were getting to know each other better and share a bit about the work that we both have in front of us, we continually joked about the fact that we were tying not to be hyperbolic about what was happening in the world. We were being ever so cautious to not co-opt the language of freedom fighters from ages past. We were tip-toeing around using apocalyptic words… like “apocalypse”. We were mindful of the new reality in which we found ourselves and didn’t want to project any historical or even fictional allusions that might seem relevant to the new status quo (“are we in the middle of an intergalactic war?”) Despite our best efforts, it became increasingly difficult to avoid slipping into alarmist rhetoric.
And this was before the immigration ban…
In just over a week, the new administration has compromised the integrity of our democracy in ways that once seemed unfathomable to me. What’s worse is that none of this should come at a surprise. He is fulfilling his campaign pledges, and through the use of executive orders, doing so at what feels like lightening speed. Events are happening at such a pace that it almost feels impossible to catch your breath at times. I believe this is all very intentional. What we’re seeing is a mastery of information manipulation.
And you know what… I’m scared.
I’m genuinely frightened of the world in which my kids will grow up. I am frightened for my Muslim friends. I am frightened for my Hispanic friends. I am frightened for my LGBTQ friends. I’ve woken up each morning since the inauguration with a sense of dread, wondering what I will read that the administration has done today. I wonder “who has lost their rights today?”. I wonder what it will take for those who voted for this mess to confess their mistake and then I remember that there are many for whom this white nationalist revitalization project is a dream come true. That frightens me even more.
I don’t write often about the abuse that I experienced in my home. I spent much of my childhood being deathly afraid. I stayed in my room as much as possible. I tried to keep a low profile. Whenever possible, I wanted to be out of my house. I felt even more vulnerable once my older siblings went off to college. I lost my buffer. I lived in a house with one unquestioned and unquestionable leader. The fear was cultivated. It was practically demanded. I know what it’s like to live in a house with a man who needs others to feel small in order that he can feel big.
Now our nation feels like the house in which I grew up and it is absolutely triggering. During the election, I heard female friends say that Trump reminded them of someone who sexually assaulted or abused them. Many said that he reminded them of an abusive spouse or parent. We now have an abuser-in-chief and for those of us who have experienced massive ongoing trauma, some very familiar feelings are coming back into play; feelings of powerlessness, despair, and depression.
I offer here what I hope might be a few simple tips in fighting these familiar feelings. Even if you aren’t a person who has experience abuse in the past, you may be feeling aspects of these emotions as you comb through the world’s events. I believe that some of what I have experienced as beneficial in the process of healing from my personal past may be helpful in our collective present.
First and foremost, we have to own what has happened to us. For years, I refused to use the word “abuse” in relation to my own situation. It may be hard for many to own the word “trauma” in regards to what is happening now, but I think it is important that we name it as such. What is happening in our nation right now is traumatic! It is a psychological injury, and for many of us, a moral affront. This is not normal. It is abuse of power, misuse of authority, accompanied with threats to punish those who act out. That is what abusers do and we need to capture that language for this time.
Second, reclaim your voice and your own power. I remember clearly the first time that I verbally stood up to my stepfather. It felt like slaying a dragon. We have to fight the feeling that we are powerless. I think that this is what the marches did for many. I think this is what many of us feel when we call our elected officials. It is empowering, even in a small way, to speak to someone in power and say “this is not right!”. We surrender power when we surrender our voices.
Next, be aware of your triggers. The other night I had an out of body experience where I completely overreacted to a playful tap. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was so bothered. I couldn’t understand why I was so upset, but I was transported back to being a scared eight year old boy. I wanted to run away and hide. We need to have the intimate self knowledge to know what things we read and watch are pushing our buttons. And we need to know when to excuse ourselves from situations that trigger feelings of being threatened. Many have said in recent weeks that they are unable to watch Trump on television. His voice is literally a trigger for many right now. Know when you need to turn off the TV, close the laptop, or swipe away from the Twitter app.
Prioritize your self care. Therapy is hard. I say it all the time. But therapy is hard in the way that exercise is hard, or playing an instrument is hard, or learning to dance is hard. It’s the kind of difficulty that is totally worth it. I’ll be honest, I have a mild distrust for people who aren’t in therapeutic relationships. That’s a personal bias of mine. That said, many things can be therapy: music, exercise, art, reading, meditation, prayer, sex, cooking… find the thing that helps you to take care of yourself and re-energizes you. I have been missing my garden something awful in recent weeks. Last week I sorted through seed catalogs and began planning what I will grow next year. It was the most calm I had been in a week. Take care of yourself!
Share stories with fellow survivors. Ultimately, we’re built for community. What benefits survivors most is knowing that they aren’t alone. There is something comforting in knowing that your experience is part of the human experience. Find safe spaces to process what you’re experiencing these days. That might be with friends. That might be at your Mosque, synagogue, or church. It might be online. Wherever it is, find folks that you can huddle up with, commiserate with, and conspire with. If nothing else, find some shoulders you can cry on. Even digital shoulders are nice once in awhile. I only survive if we survive. Let’s survive together.
Maybe this seems overblown or reactionary. Maybe. I am given to hyperbole. But I would rather put this out there now, knowing that things are likely to get worse before they get much better. It’s taken me a long time to heal from own abuse and there is still work left for me to do. It will take us a long time as a nation to overcome arriving at this point. We need to come out on the other side of this a stronger, more compassionate people. To do that, we have to do the work of healing from this trauma.