In his inauguration speech, President Biden spoke of our “cascading crises.” He mentions the pandemic, financial inequity, systemic racism, climate change, and the tenuous role of the US in the world. He also spoke of “an attack on our democracy and untruth.”
While he never mentions Trump by name, I would argue that we should add “recovering from Trump, his administration, and his supporters” to the list of traumas we have been juggling for far too long at this point.
Like many folks, I wept during the inauguration. Whether it was the history-making moment of Madame Vice President Kamala Harris being sworn in or the entrancing spell woven by the amazing poet, Amanda Gorman, there were many moments pulling the tears forth. My wife broke down sobbing when the clock ticked over and Trump no longer had control of the nuclear codes. Later in the night, I had a good old ugly cry during the “Celebrating America” festivities.
And I went to bed with a sense of relief unlike anything I’ve experienced before. And still, my dreams were anxiety-filled hellscapes of crowded rooms and anti-maskers. Even as I can breathe easier knowing that those in charge are sincerely public servants wanting the best for our nation, rather than for themselves, those cascading challenges are still the stuff of nightmares.
The day after the inauguration, a friend sent me a text asking “how you are physically” with a screenshot of a post that talks about feeling profound exhaustion as our bodies release tension and give way to a sense of relief.
I feel that exhaustion, not only from having covid-insomnia but from four years of living in a dystopian novel where each day brought multiple attacks on our democracy and our basic human dignity. I’m dealing with the “I could sleep for a week and am really struggling just to get through the day” kind of exhaustion. Aren’t so many of us here feeling that tiredness?
I’m reminded of the way the body, in the words of Bessel A. van der Kolk, “keeps the score”:
Under normal conditions people react to a threat with a temporary increase in their stress hormones. As soon as the threat is over, the hormones dissipate and the body returns to normal. The stress hormones of traumatized people, in contrast, take much longer to return to baseline and spike quickly and disproportionately in response to mildly stressful stimuli. The insidious effects of constantly elevated stress hormones include memory and attention problems, irritability, and sleep disorders.― Bessel A. van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma
Even when trauma stops, it takes time for our very beings (bodies, minds, spirits) to trust that it has stopped and to begin to process and to heal from what we’ve survived. As I’ve written about before, I had an intensely crappy childhood. Things didn’t take a turn for the better until I was around 9 or 10 years old. But it still took several more years for me to stop having nightmares every single night. I was almost 13 before I woke up without having experienced a nightmare. And it took decades for me to stop being afraid of the dark.
Which is to say that even though the abuser is gone, it doesn’t mean that our reaction to the reality we’ve lived through is over. It takes time. And a commitment to being okay somehow at some point.
Those of us who survived the Trump era have much healing to do. I’m not talking about the healing of our divided nation, families, and friendships (although, yes, perhaps those as well). I mean specifically that we have the residual effects of being traumatized, and for many of us re-traumatized, by the intensity of the anger, narcism, and downright inhumane actions of the Trump administration and its supporters. Not only of the people in power in DC but also of those whose demons Trump’s rhetoric encouraged to come to the surface and who marched boldly through our streets, carrying torches but not bothering with the white sheets.
Be kind to yourselves. Know that what we just survived was as bad as it feels and that it was not okay. And that it will continue to be with us for some time to come, even as we continue to be impacted by all of the other challenges we must navigate daily.
That struggle, that exhaustion, doesn’t mean that those of us who were deeply affected by all of this are broken; it means we have some healing to do for ourselves, first and foremost.
Light a candle for yourself and know that I have one burning as well.