Until recently, and for several months, I’ve had this vague, nagging feeling that before I could do something – and it didn’t matter what it was, as it was literally everything – send that email, text that person back, deal with my imbalanced diet that lead to an imbalanced gut that lead to significant weight gain and fatigue – I needed to do something else first. I knew it was big, and I was dreading it, but I didn’t know exactly what I needed to do. Sort of like those dreams where you are plopped back in high school or college and you have to figure out what you need to do to graduate, and quickly, and you can sense that you are in trouble, but why exactly? And then the visceral sense of relief when you wake up and realize you were only dreaming, but you can’t quite shake the sense that something is amiss, and maybe nothing is as it seems?
Anyway, I eventually figured out that the thing that I needed to do was to make sure Joe Biden was elected President of the United States. Which, like … easy right?
After 2016, I was no longer under the illusion that we wouldn’t be flung into an alternative reality hellscape in which Donald? Trump? was elected to be our
tyrant leader. And while I do believe that Donald Trump is a reflection of America’s long-reaching shadow of capitalism and white supremacy , as people much wiser than me have suggested at the University of Instagram (where I am a night … and day … and middle of the night and also middle of work meetings? student) and not the actual problem, the idea of him in charge for four more years was too much for me to bear. I didn’t realize how much tension I was holding in my body, in my mind, and in my soul, until Joe Biden was safely sworn in as POTUS last week. And even though I now feel a sense of relief, and a sense that life can continue, albeit cautiously, it’s taking me a while to shake off the doom of the anxiety dream aftermath: how can I be sure that we’re safe, that we can trust this reality, that the rug won’t be pulled from under us again?
For folks who have experienced trauma, this sense of brooding unease is familiar and protective: it’s the body’s brilliant way of saying ‘fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, shame on me.’ After a devastating traumatic experience, we steel ourselves against it happening again; we constantly scan the room for evidence of danger, and find it: every raised voice is violence, every whispered conversation is a plot, every sideways glance is judgment of us. Folks with unresolved or unhealed trauma – and this is an important distinction, because none of us are leaving Earth unscathed – are living on the edge, and in order to protect themselves, they believe (instinctively) that they must always treat everything first as a provocation, as a threat, while constantly assessing for safety. If there isn’t an opportunity to heal some of these feelings of terror, trapped, and the resulting, relentless hypervigilance, the constant scanning of the horizon for danger can’t cease, because the body, and in particular, the nervous system, will never reach a sense of safety. It requires an enormous amount of energy, and it is exhausting.
Interestingly, and unsurprisingly, researchers/thinkers are starting to conceptualize depression as an adaptive response to this state of hypervigilance, which honestly, I could have told you, had anyone asked me. But I guess it’s more important to do “research” and “studies” with “participants,” than to ask random woman on the internet, who don’t even connect their name to their sporadically written blog, what they think! Seems off but OK.
Re: the trauma response. When I think of the four years of Trump’s presidency, I think of the all-encompassing dread that accompanied his inauguration, and the catastrophes, sometimes quietly passing into legislation, other times overwhelming in their audacity to be so publicly cruel, that followed. The past four years are notable in ways that we will be unpacking for decades, but what’s striking in the immediate aftermath is how his presidency, and he himself, was trauma personified. Even without this past year, and the ways in which the world stopped turning, lurching us all over the place as we mostly stood stagnant, the trauma of his rule was devastating – familiar in its danger for some, unbelievable in its threats for others. Even the millions of folks who supported Trump weren’t necessarily immune: when canvassing this fall with a friend for the November elections, we encountered several people who planned to vote for Trump who believed in his policies on immigration, for example, even if they (and they often looked away when they said this) “didn’t like the way he went about it.” Seeing images of kids in cages, separated from everyone and everything in the world who kept them safe, seemed traumatic for everyone involved (with extremely notable exceptions), though the brunt of the almost unfathomable consequences lies with the children. It’s a boulder of horror that we will carry with us.
And that’s the thing about trauma: it lingers. Around the time that Trump began separating children and their parents at the border, and those haunting images of children screaming, clutching a stuffed animal, started to circulate the internet, I began waking up in the middle of the night, fumbling for my phone, to see what other devastations had occurred while I had let my guard down in sleep . Often, there was nothing of note – by that time, so many of our collective fears as a country had been realized that even things normally considered atrocities became rote – but the damage was done. Under Trump’s rule, the world become increasingly unfamiliar and unsafe – from the disregard to conventional presidential decorum, to the abject, pointed cruelty-as-policy, to the narcissism-driven relationship to a constructed “reality” where facts were meaningless, to the courtship of conspiracy theories that centered Trump as a hero: the parameters and containment of the world, as many of us understood them, started slipping away.
Undeniably, some of this shock to our collective system was necessary and unavoidable: we quite literally cannot keep going at a racist, capitalistic, pace that leaves no space for challenge to the status quo, or reflection, or dreams of a different world: the Earth can’t sustain us as who we are, and we can only hope that Mother Earth will grace us with time to grow into who we can be. I almost don’t want to include this past year, and the Coronavirus, and the revival tour of America’s white supremacist rage, once relegated to the shadow, taking center stage with renewed purpose, and the grief of a collective of people, systematically brutalized by our racist nation since its inception, that exploded with power, and the ways in which this grief finally started to be heard and felt by others – all of this feels like it is ongoing, and therefore cannot be analyzed – and it also feels like it has the power to be transformative. The preceding years of Trump’s administration, from my perspective, were not like that.
At least part of that is because in this past year, there was some hope for change, which may in be in part because everything did change, suddenly, and overnight. Again (and I will save any analysis and meaning-making of this past year for a future blog post that I will stress out about unnecessarily as if it’s a goddamn address to the nation, taking myself entirely too seriously), but this differs from the previous years in significant ways. A hallmark of trauma is that we feel, or we are, powerless to it happening: trauma happens to us, and removes our sense of agency in the process. This often happens when there is an a power differential to be exploited, such as children and any authority figure, including their parents: children, historically, have little agency, and when they are abused, have no ability to make it stop. Instead, they protect themselves as best they can, and in the ways that will keep them the safest, relatively: they fight, they freeze, they take flight, and, as some gender-specific research suggests, they tend and befriend. Children might freeze when the abuse is happening, or dissociate (take flight), or they might fight in a different setting (i.e. school), or try to “befriend” their abuser in a heroic effort to minimize the abuse – or they might do all of this – but their motivation remains the same: they want, desperately, to regain some sense of control and autonomy. They want their power back. This is instinctive, and the myriad of reactions to trauma are driven by our nervous system and our body’s sole pursuit of survival: we don’t have control of how we respond as the trauma is happening, though we can learn to be intentional in our later response and conceptualization of it. As children who have been abused grow older, they might become hyper functional, overachievers, or superstars, driven to attain a sense of security that can never again be snatched away from them. They might not – there’s also a possibility that folks who have experienced childhood trauma will have devastatingly negative health outcomes. They might exist in the many realities between remarkable success and a shortened life, or they might experience all of these possibilities at once. But the sense of helplessness – of having no ability to change the circumstances around you, particularly when they are terrifying and dangerous – is a powerful and profound wound that remains.
I think that for the Trump presidency, much of the trauma resides in this sense of helplessness, and in the ongoing horror that no one was coming to save us, that no one could stop the harm of his administration. Now that President Biden has reversed some of Trump’s policies and issued several executive orders to address some of the chaos that Trump left in his wake, my mind feels a sense of relief and comfort. But my body, where trauma resides, and which is always in the present moment, reminding me of aches and pains and hunger and fatigue, still feels on edge. I intellectually know that we have moved into a safer space in the sense that Trump no longer wields the power that he used to, and I am no longer waking up in the middle of the night, readying myself for Armageddon alerted to me through a Facebook post. But my nervous system – which has instinctively, and intermittently, wanted to fight, freeze, and fly away from here, in response to both the overwhelming tragedies around me and my inability to stop them – has not gotten the memo that it’s OK to relax. And, because of what I know about the impacts of trauma on the body, I know that it won’t suddenly relax – that it will need some time to trust in the goodness of the world again, and – most importantly – that it will need deliberate interventions on my part in the form of anti-inflammatory foods, exercise, mediation, connection and co-regulation with friends and community, to name but a few things that helps our system restore itself to sanity.
Lately, I’ve been dealing with some GI issues, including acid reflux and indigestion. It’s very glamorous. There is so much emerging research on the connection of our mind and gut, and how our experienced stress contributes to our gut’s dysfunction, and how our gut’s dysfunction stresses our entire system out. I’m not blaming my weight gain over the past several years on Trump – but I’m not not blaming it on Trump. In fairness to Trump, I will blame my weight gain on anyone and anything except for myself. But I do think that I literally couldn’t stomach much of what was happening on any given day during his reign – that the horror of it was more than I could handle, and the resulting impulse to be on high alert to every chance of threat, which were many – created an internal chaos that I will be remedying for months, if not years. Of course, my challenges with a sense of safety and security in the world pre-date Trump, but it makes sense to me that as the world around us was an increasingly sweeping dumpster fire, my internal world also became enraged and inflamed, desperate for a relief that is only now on its way. Injustice doesn’t digest easily. I suppose that’s a good thing.
I write this because I know that my experiences are not unique; if I am feeling a gnawing sense of not-quite-right-yet, than likely you are too. I am trying to have compassion with myself around this, as I don’t feel entirely motivated, clear, relieved, or ready to move on. I am grateful for my body’s internal wisdom, and it’s desperate hope to protect me, to remind me to be cautious, and alert. But I do want to let my body know that it’s ok to exhale and it’s ok to feel relief in the moments of quiet. I do want to offer my body the sense of safety it couldn’t get when the trauma of the Trump presidency raged on. I know that it will be slow, and sometimes bumpy, and I also know that this sense of safety will only be found if we as a country start to conceptualize what it means for all of our residents to feel safe, and empowered. It’s a relief to have hope that we are on our way.