I don’t know about you, but I’m already tired. I feel like a different person than I was two weeks ago–less optimistic, more hectoring, depressive instead of just anxious. Most of the time, I’m hyper-activated, scanning the crowds I walk through for people who might pose a physical threat. I’m afraid to walk across campus alone at night, and my conversations keep turning into long rants in which I Cassandra on about the effects of authorizing hatred, how Trump will change the face of the Supreme Court in a way that will ruin countless lives, how even if Trump is incompetent, the people he’s hiring aren’t, they’re just evil. And we don’t even know what it will be like until the next San Bernadino, at which point we are all seriously fucked in a way that there’s no coming back from. And the scary thing is that most people don’t try to talk me down–the conversations often just end with us staring off into space in terrified silence.
We’re in DC for Thanksgiving, which is so, so strange. Everyone here seems to be either clad in camo hunting gear and a Make America Great Again hat or swimming in the oceans of grief behind their eyes. The memorabilia store in our hotel is full of Trump bobbleheads, next to the Clinton ones they’d foolishly bought ahead of time, jinxing us all.
We arrived on Monday, and I discovered the next day that we just missed the big White Power rally over the weekend. For all I knew, our hotel was full of people who’d stayed to sight-see for the holiday after zeig heiling our president-elect. I was in our room putting Teddy into bed when I read the news, and I felt like I could never leave. I’d looked forward to running while we were here, but now that seemed idiotic–I would just be asking for trouble. Even going down to the pool to watch my daughter swim with her cousins felt naive and foolish. A swimsuit might as well be a target. Et cetera.
I’m in this funny spot, because my experience of violence gives me first-hand insight into this whole process, but just those same experiences put me in a place where I’m so activated that my responses are simultaneously less reliable than others. Or–not less reliable, but so noisy that they get in the way of action. And what we need right now is action.
The strategy that worked the best came to me a few nights ago. I woke up at 1 AM, and immediately started my usual Roll Call for the Apocalypse: queer teenagers driven to suicide by federally funded ex-gay ministries, rising sea levels, racist cops armed with tanks and machine guns against peaceful protesters, beloved friends fleeing the country, and on and on.
I realized that the other time I felt most like this was when I was in the hospital ten years ago, after I had my colon removed. I couldn’t leave, and there was a situation completely out of my control that was progressing despite my best actions, seemingly inevitably toward destruction. One of the many things I tried to calm down was hypnosis, a strategy I’d used to sleep since I was a kid.
I had terrible insomnia as a little girl, and my parents got me this hypnosis tape, which I listened to nearly every night. A kind, avuncular voice would drone through a progressive relaxation script: “picture the muscles in the ball of your left foot, like a handful of loose rubber bands. Let everything go loose and lazy.” One side of the tape changed gears at the end to more general self-esteem and anti-anxiety stuff. “You are a good person. People enjoy your company.” It didn’t really work–I was rarely asleep by the end, and remained unconvinced by his kindness (after all, for all the disembodied voice knew, I was drowning puppies in my spare time). But all that practice made me simultaneously susceptible to hypnosis and resistant to its lure. At fairs and stage shows, I listen along and am calmed, but am never tempted to quack like a duck or forget my name.
So I tried another script in the hopes that I could recapture some of its calming effect. In this one, I’m walking down stairs, and I get deeper into hypnosis with every step. When I get to the bottom, there’s a dial, and I can physically dial down my own anxiety. In my mind, the dial was huge and steel, like the knob on an industrial oven. I paused at three–it seemed stupid to relax any further–but ultimately turned the dial all the way down to one, since I did need to sleep. And I could feel it working. Maybe this is the upside of all my PTSD magical thinking right now? If my negative thoughts have this kind of power over my world-view, maybe my positive ones do too?
I looked up from the dial, and I was in a white room with green carpeting–one that looked vaguely familiar in the way of all dream-spaces. This one was a vacation-space–a lake house or something along those lines. Close to something beautiful, set aside from the rest of the world. There was another version of me there, waiting, dressed all in white (apparently hypnosis-me is not only better at calming down, but she doesn’t spill food on herself all the time). I can’t remember if she said anything, as I was close to sleep at this point, but I knew that she could take care of me. That she was a grown up, ready to face what’s next, whatever that may be.
Here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure my apocalyptic thinking is right. Things are on the verge of getting very, very bad, and when they start to go south, I think that will happen quickly. But in all the noise of my fear, it’s easy to forget that I don’t just have experience suffering from trauma–I also have experience recovering from trauma, and building a life that I love and want to protect. If I want to show up for the long haul (which this is), I need to have the energy to keep going for it.
What that means for me today is that I’m trying to take one concrete action every day to beat back the darkness, and to take at least one action every day to remind myself I’m not alone. So I’ll write something, or give money, or have a hard conversation with a loved one, or make a political phone call. And I’ll make a list each morning of things I’m grateful for, in the here and now. Today it’s my in-laws, who have taken my daughter for touristy adventures so I could exercise and write.
All this energy in me feels like a fire, burning through the lies I’ve told myself over the years. I need to be cleaned out and renewed, not consumed by it.