Do You Have Political PTSD?

Last week was bad.  Like really, really, colossally bad.  A humdinger, doozy of a week.  One day I stayed in my pajamas and had my nose glued to Internet news reports. Most nights I had trouble sleeping.  My tolerance for other people was limited, at best. It's not healthy, which I can readily admit, but I feel at a loss to stop it.

I think I have political PTSD.  Scratch that.  My informed and educated opinion is that I have political PTSD.

I first learned about PTSD as a grad student when I was assigned to the PTSD Clinic at a local VA hospital for my year long clinical rotation.  I was a young, earnest, enthusiastic clinician in my mid-20s tasked to work with Viet Nam veterans coping with PTSD in their mid-40s.  Trauma, anxiety, substance abuse, depression, guilt, anger issues -- these were the parting gifts of war time combat.

In retrospect, I had no business being there, but I tried hard and therapists have to learn.  Thank goodness for supervision.  I was responsible for a number of individual clients and a support group.  The vets kept coming back, week after week, and I kept trying and learning and, yes, sometimes failing.

My second dance with PTSD came after the death of my daughter when my son was a young toddler.  Every ache and pain he communicated filled me with terror.  Like the time he was limping and we couldn't explain it.  We went straight to the ER where, because of his family history and symptom presentation, they gave him a full work up, including x-rays.  It ended with a doctor telling us to buy him better shoes.  I literally walked out of that hospital with a prescription to shop at Nordstrom's.  No joke.

Or that other time my boy woke up complaining of headaches three days in a row (a common sign of pediatric brain tumors) and our daughter's oncologist, who kindly took my call, offered to provide him an MRI, if it would bring comfort and confirmation that he was healthy.  He said it best, "You can't erase what you know."

So, last week, when the walls felt like they were closing in on me and my patience and tolerance for people was relatively absent and the only thing I really wanted to do was take to my bed, I knew what I was feeling.  The helplessness and hopelessness and lack of control.  The fear and anxiety and anger and irritability.  PTSD.

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Living through this political chaos where bad things out of our control are happening at breakneck speed has triggered those things inside me that felt similarly when we were guiding our daughter through her cancer treatment, in those days when we learned her disease was terminal.  This is how PTSD works.

Call me crazy, or a snowflake, or a libtard, or weak, or whatever comes to mind, in the end, I will wear all those labels as a badge of honor.  At my core, I am engaged by politics and social justice, even when, in a political climate like the one we currently find ourselves in, it can be consuming and self-destructive.

Truth is, I have a hard time relating to folks who don't seem to care or are not interested in what is happening in our country right now.  I see photos of donuts (why did people keep posting photos of donuts last week?!) or summer fun on the Facebook and I think to myself, "How do they do it?"

And, to be clear, it's not so much that I was envious, that I wanted to be easy and breezy myself, but I wanted these folks to wake the hell up, put down their romance novels, and pay attention to what was happening in our nation's capital for a moment or two.  An old friend said to me last week, "I worry about you."  My immediate response was, "I worry about all of us."

Ugh.  It can be hard to be so engaged.  There is a real cost to it, but I don't know how to exist in the world in any other way.

What helps me, when my political equilibrium is off, is to step away for a bit. Now, mind you, it's easier for me to say and do that this week given the votes of Senators Murkowski, Collins, and McCain.  And, yes, I stayed awake late into the night to see how that particular cliffhanger would end. But, not to disappoint, the GOP is already chattering about how to revive a repeal and replace bill jeopardizing the ACA.  It's like the worst zombie that will not die in a bad horror film.

Having access to the Internet via a device we hold in the palm of our hands and carry with us everywhere is not so healthy for those of us who tend to lean in to politics.  The updates and breaking news coming out of the White House these days is staggering.  A friend of mine jokes that every time he showers another bombshell drops.  It's funny because it's true.

Make no mistake, this is not normal.  This is not how our nation is supposed to operate and this is not how our nation has ever operated in the past. There is no precedent here.  Not to be flip, but this is not your grandparent's political scandal we're dealing with here.  Nope, not even close.  If you, too, are feeling overwhelmed and hopeless, it means you are paying attention.

My personal mantra, the one that helped me cope with the death of my daughter, is "choose hope."  I cling to hope like a sailor lost at sea.  I hope for an America that stops operating in chaos.  I hope that our allies around the globe will have patience as we sort this mess out.  I hope that democracy is a verb, capable of bending and stretching and popping up should it collapse.  I hope that at our core we are better than this.

So, yes, I am experiencing political PTSD.  It's no joke and it's unhealthy and it makes being a mother and wife and sister and friend and writer harder.  Misery loves company, so raise you hand if you, too, are experiencing political PTSD.  For those of us who are, it helps to talk about it.  Be aware of the symptoms.  Know that they are real and legitimate.  You are not alone.

Tomorrow I will write about how to better manage your political PTSD.  

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