On the first day of 2016, a guy I'll call Larry decided to stop drinking for the entire month of January, putting a pause on his habit of polishing off a six-pack a night. At the end of the month, he felt great. Too good, in fact, to give up giving it up. So he kept going. On his birthday, March 28, he turned down an invitation from co-workers to head to a bar. It was only then he realized he hadn't had a drink for nearly the first quarter of the year.
He decided to see if he could make it six months. After hitting that mark with ease, he motored on. Larry—who didn't want me to use his real name—didn't have a drink the entire calendar year of 2016. He began to wonder if he'd ever have one again.
Then, as quickly as the challenge began, it ended. His impressive streak was broken on January, 20, 2017, the day Donald John Trump was inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States of America.
"I just couldn't deal," Larry told me, staring at a TV tuned to CNN while sipping a tall boy of High Life. "I felt the initial tug [to drink] the night of the election, but never gave in. By the time he took the oath, I'd been thinking about it a lot—how nice it would feel just to numb out with a few drinks." That night, with the looming specter of a Trump presidency impossible to ignore, Larry went to the store, bought a 12-pack. He's now back to his old habit.
He's not alone. Existential dread is the reason my friend Dana hasn't been able to get herself to the gym in weeks. Anxiety about what's next is the reason Alex, a co-worker, has been smoking more than usual, up to two packs a day at one point after quitting for a spell. It's the reason another, Catherine, has been smoking more weed than normal, which concerns her.
"I haven't been sober this year, I don't think," an old acquaintance told me recently while catching up on Facebook. Stress has lead Judd Apatow to overeat, and is the reason Lena Dunham can't eat at all.
All of these emotions are built atop the same foundation: Trump. He is the reason many are giving up or giving in, why they're succumbing to despair or taking wild nihilistic stabs into the void.
"Trauma can contribute to people throwing caution to the wind because they don't feel as hopeful about the future," Juliet Ross, a clinical psychologist in private practice in New York City for nearly ten years, told me. "It gives people a sense of a foreshortened future, which can cause them to engage in riskier behaviors and also to self-medicate."
According to Ross, there is a high prevalence of dependence on drugs and alcohol for the purposes of self-soothing among people with PTSD. People upset by Trump's victory may feel a similar drive to deal with the "collective trauma," as Ross described it, of an election that felt particularly high-stakes and personal.
Of the majority of Americans who did not vote for Trump, many felt "unprecedented dread" post-election, as LA Times commentator David Horsey put it. Suicide hotlines took record numbers of calls. Psychiatrists were busier than ever. Titans of tech wept. Even James Franco "spiraled into depression."
"It doesn't feel removed," said Ross of Trump's surprising win. "It feels more immediate. People are feeling very anxious about themselves and their loved ones and how Trump is going to impact their lives—be it through losing their healthcare or worrying about not being to stay in the country. People are feeling very traumatized."
Now, some three months after, it has not let up. In fact, since the day Larry broke his booze fast—as the new president's unorthodox and dangerous administration has unfolded—the fear, anxiety, dread, and depression have ramped up in those who opposed Trump. This, of course, has manifested itself in renewed activism and historic levels of protest—millions taking to the streets and filling airport terminals across the country.
But it's also allowed Trump to take up substantial real estate in the minds of many who find him vile, and they're coping in some not-so-healthy ways. But how to stop? When the world is turned upside down, how do you find your bearings and move forward?
Sheila Tucke is a therapist and clinical social worker in private practice in Massachusetts for nearly 25 years. She works with clients and couples on a variety of issues—depression, anxiety, trauma—and, in keeping with nationwide trends, Trump has made his way into some of her patient's sessions.
"I've noticed people have a bit of an obsession about what's going on with Trump, the daily happenings, and every decision he makes," she told me. Her advice to these obsessives is pretty basic. If Trump has inspired many to do more for the collective good while simultaneously doing less for their own well-being, concentrate on the former. "Ask yourself, What can you do about it?" she said. "Do that, then let it go. Put it aside."
We can still be engaged in the world without only focusing on politics.
Ross agrees with Tucke in part—do what you're able, then give yourself space—but stresses that, while activism can be a great antidote to help with feeling defeated, it's not the only option. She worries some feel social pressure to participate in activism when not everyone is able to, either due to anxiety around crowds or being stressed out by the loud noises they can generate.
"If you're not participating in activism, not only are you full of this traumatized outrage toward the Trump administration, but also you might feel isolated from your friends and family who are sort of painting this picture of activism as this only path out of misery," she said.
Both Tucke and Ross suggest old self-care standbys like eating well, sleeping, exercising, and connecting with family and friends in real life outside of social media to help cope. Both know that can be hard, especially now. As such, Ross and a colleague run a Politics and Mental Health Group to help support those who are finding it hard to get off the mat.
"It's really important to remember that it's OK to take a break from the news," she said. "Just like we might take a vacation from work, we need to take breaks from social media or have a day where you let yourself read non-political news, like human-interest stories. We can still be engaged in the world without only focusing on politics."
"That's true," Larry said when I told him about Tucke and Ross's message of positive self-care. He paused, the day's Trump-related news filling his TV screen, and cracked open another High Life. "I'll definitely start on that tomorrow."
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