How to survive Election Day — and the aftermath — without losing it

Nothing about this hothouse of suffering we've created for ourselves is normal, natural or productive

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Senior Writer

Published November 6, 2018 2:30PM (EST)

A voter fills out a ballot at a polling place at Lake Shore Elementary School, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Pasadena, Md. (AP/Patrick Semansky)
A voter fills out a ballot at a polling place at Lake Shore Elementary School, Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018, in Pasadena, Md. (AP/Patrick Semansky)

Take your meds. Call your sponsor. Keep your appointment with your therapist. Take a walk. Do whatever you can to survive the storm. As for me, after giving it careful consideration and thought, I'm facing the midterms the best way I can think of: I'm fleeing the country for a few days.

It was the Brett Kavanaugh vote that shifted things. Specifically, the day after Christine Blasey Ford's testimony. It was as if I could feel a collective passing through another, Elizabeth Kubler Ross-like stage of the American fiasco. A moment when many of us decided, for the sake of our mental health, we needed to emotionally detach more, so we could face this election day with our oxygen masks already firmly in place.

Two years ago, instead of going out for a celebratory dinner on my birthday, my family and I went down to our local pub, where I cried, ordered fries and asked the owner to change the channel to anything but the news. (I'd like to think I wasn't the only person there grateful for "Gilmore Girls.") It was the day after the election. I'd spent much of it on the phone with friends, who were panicking about their healthcare, the legitimacy of their marital status and adoptions, their reproductive rights. Three months later, a journalist friend with clinical depression died of an overdose.

Although the past two years have exceeded our worst news cycle nightmares, I don't blame this administration for the serious mental health challenges plenty of us have faced since November 8, 2016. But wow has it not helped. The deluge of rage and falsehood and cynicism. For many of us in the media, the emboldened harassment. The sheer ceaselessness of it all.

On the day that Christine Blasey Ford gave her testimony, my friends and I were riveted, following every moment  and texting each other with our commentary. That evening, my spouse and I found ourselves at the same bar where I'd spent my 2016 birthday, and this time, we barely made eye contact because we were so glued to news coverage above our heads.

But the next day was different. "I'm out," a friend who's lived with depression since college texted me. A rape survivor said that she couldn't watch any more. The next weekend, when Kavanaugh was confirmed and sworn in, I was in a self-imposed media blackout at my mother-in-law's house. This morning, I voted. Now I'm off to spend my birthday somewhere far away. It was worth the price of the ticket just to be in the sky for several hours, unable to get news updates. I just have to get past the blare of airport CNN.

A few years ago, I attended an all day seminar at the Dart Center, a Columbia Journalism School project for journalists managing trauma. The number one phrase that stuck out for me from that entire experience was from the speaker who said, "Human beings are not meant to consume constant distress." We are not sin-eaters. Nothing about this hothouse of suffering we've created for ourselves is normal, natural or productive. The challenge is to figure out how to stay engaged and empathetic, while protecting our own emotional resources, because the current political climate and the glut of information available make it very, very easy to binge distress. And that is simply a bad mental health bet.

In the aftermath of the last presidential election, I  felt a moral obligation, fueled in no small part by certain worst-case scenario journalists, to maintain a constant state of vigilance. I learned the warning signs of authoritarianism; I felt personally each pointed attack on the press. I fretted for my children, and all I can't protect them from. Now, I still haven't given up. But I am better at letting go.

The past two years have changed a great many of us, in so many ways. My friends and colleagues have adjusted —  with varying degrees of success — our emotional stamina accordingly. A heightened, amygdala blaring state is unsustainable. Living with long term stress requires a plan of action.

I can't control this election. I can't control what happens in 2020. I maintain the manageable tasks of consistent civic engagement, including calling my representatives, volunteering and donating the time and money I can, peacefully protesting, and just showing up. Then I do the other things I need to do to not go mad, including and not limited to getting a decent amount of sleep, walking in the park, and shutting off my phone.

Turning a complete blind eye to what's going on doesn't make us feel better. Active engagement in the work of helping others is a proven mood booster. But "Clockwork Orange-style exposure to relentless information is not. Anxiety is not altruism.

It hasn't all been awful  — our national tragedies and disappointments have been a call to action and service. Once seemingly untouchable men who abused their power have had to answer for their sexual misconduct. Students, fed up with fearing for their lives in their classrooms, have become a powerful movement. Women have been running for office, many for the first time, in droves. Yet I also feel the daily weight of injustice and pettiness, and it could bury me if I let it.

It wasn't politics that earned me a post traumatic stress diagnosis and an antidepressant prescription; it was a confluence of personal crises. Most of the people I know who are trying to stay sober or manage their depression had been at it a long time when this administration began, and God willing, they'll still be kicking when it's ended. That's my hope for all of us, anyway. But it requires substantial additional effort and active diversion from the worst.

Making yourself feel crappy is not the path to enlightenment or wellness. It's often instead a gateway to even worse self-harm. It takes work, if you're actually not one among the narcissists we find ourselves surrounded by, to extend the compassion we feel for others to ourselves. So stop refreshing the page if it's freaking you out. Unfollow a doom-and-gloom prognosticator. Take breaks. Find light in the heat. It's okay. The resistance will be still be here when you're replenished, and you need to keep your strength up. So if you need for the next few days, sorry, I'll be in the sky.  

By Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a senior writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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