It Only Took A Year
It is November 8 about 11:00pm and I am having a panic attack.
My roommate had come home from the election party I’d left, and the thought of even being looked at by another human being — even a like-minded one — made my stomach lurch. I couldn’t place the feeling then, but I can now: humiliating. It felt humiliating.
I needed to walk.
So I’m walking, fast, starting to sweat as my feet stomp the pavement. Maybe I can crush reality under my shoes. I’m scanning every block for the “alt-right” types that have been harassing me on Twitter for months, death threats and all. Just trolls behind screens, but every screed and Nazi meme instantly transported me backward 10 years, to the night a fellow gay man and I were cornered in a Scottsdale parking lot by IRL bigots making IRL threats.
I’d recently read about a KKK HQ near my neighborhood, even in deep-blue Chicago. I’d seen on the news earlier that they were already in the streets in some places, waving celebratory Confederate flags. Would that Scottsdale night start repeating itself? Run-of-the-mill white gay men like me had been mostly spared the election’s hate screeds, but I’m awake enough to know that when one bigotry takes the spotlight, the others are always waiting in the wings. Privilege only gets you so far. It’s always just a matter of time.
A group of male pedestrians round the corner and I realize I am weaponizing my keys, splaying them through fisted fingers, the better to gouge someone’s eyes out. It’s remarkable how unsafe I feel. Already, before the day is done. Like the past and old fears and lifelong suspicions are trailing me. I feel hunted.
I pass a couple silently sharing a cigarette. She tips her head back to exhale and erupts at the sky: “How is this happening?!” Agonized, frightened indignance. Yes. Not disappointment. Not exasperation over differing politics. Fear. The terrifying, panic-inducing truth that millions chose — chose! — this pitch-black vision for the country, this Nazism 2.0. It never stops astounding me that people can’t grasp this distinction. “Now you know how we felt when Obama won,” they say. No we fucking don’t.
An old instinct kicks in for the first time in a while: run. I’d been running all my life — from abusers and bullies and jobs and cities. Now it’s America I must run from. I have to get out of here. Like most, I have no way out. I can’t breathe. My head goes light. My phone rings, and I gasp into my best friend’s ear on the other end: “I don’t think I can do this.”
At the outset of the 2016 election, in the Spring of 2015, I was precisely one year removed from a mental breakdown punctuated by three suicide attempts — or at least intents. The straw that broke the camel’s back — or my brain, as it were — was falling out with my Christian fundamentalist parents and stepmother over my gayness. Over the course of a year, ties with both parents were involuntarily severed (an estrangement that in the case of my mother continues to this day), and after a Stockholm Syndrome life spent striving to ward off my parents’ rejection, this was more than my addled brain could manage. I found myself teetering on the edges of both psychosis and a New York City Subway platform, waiting for an oncoming F train to blot me out.
There was a long progression to that train platform that started way before the break with my parents, and the simplest explanation is that instinct I felt the night of November 8. I’d been running for 35 years. I ran from the poverty and economic inequity that frayed my mother into bouts of desperation and sometimes abuse, and eventually frayed me into a stint at a YMCA shelter at 30. I ran from the radical Christianity that held me hostage and had me praying for death until I finally came out at 24. I ran from men — my terrifying father and brother, the exclusively male bullies who began targeting me in first grade, the gay men who mocked me in bars when I first came out and the one who assaulted me years later and all the probably good men too, because I’ve never quite known how to tell the difference. The more it all caught up to me, the harder I ran, until my parents’ rejection hit me like steroids and I sprinted right up to the edge of that Subway platform on St. Patrick’s Day, 2014.
It was a suicide hotline telling me the ACA’s Medicaid expansion would allow me to access mental healthcare that made me renege. It was the ACA-provided psychotherapy I received, in two different states, that allowed me to finally begin putting my life back together, and just a year later, the dust had already begun to settle. I was even beginning to feel hopeful, something I wasn’t sure I’d ever have in me. For the first time in my life, I looked at the future and saw something beyond a black blank. It was like being reborn.
This was the context in which I saw Hillary Clinton pop up in my Facebook feed that April, unofficially kicking off the next presidential campaign from her front porch. I’d always been a political person, but this time was different. My life had been saved by policy, by good government. When marriage equality passed a few weeks later in June, politics suddenly ceased feeling like a remote, arcane necessary evil and became intensely personal. To confront an election as a survivor felt vital. To confront one as an equal (or at least vastly moreso) felt redemptive. Factions within my country and family could try to gamble my life away or dehumanize me all they wanted. They’d lost, and I resolved to fight like hell to ensure it stayed that way. Because my life and dignity depended on it.
I never truly thought she’d win.
It strikes me as almost comical now, the extent to which I was undone by this election. Of everyone I know I was the most pessimistic by far. Between my upbringing and my Michigan roots I know the Rust Belt and Evangelical votes like the back of my hand. Their inability to see through the charade (or at least their lack of concern about what they found when they did), and the Left’s devolution into a circular firing squad, left me deeply worried. So did the voices of many women and People of Color, who saw through this farce far sooner and more clearly than anyone else (and per usual, fell mostly on deaf ears). When Brexit happened, and Marine Le Pen’s numbers rose, and other similar events made it all too clear that our election was part of something bigger than just another moment of American electoral stupidity, I knew we were doomed.
But as Election Day approached my own personal world was brightening. Two years of therapy thanks to the ACA had allowed me to process my trauma and gain a firm grip on the reins of my mental health. I’d escaped poverty for the first time in my life, for a full 12 months and counting. My heartbeat had returned to a normal rate that didn’t pound in my ears all night. The dogs nipping at my heels for 35 years had at last been tamed.
So when the world seemed about to fall apart at the seams, on a personal level I saw it as a test. I could believe the pessimism, suspicion and fatalism that had led me to that train platform in 2014, or I could do what my therapist had taught me to manage the anxiety, bipolar disorder and PTSD that were diagnosed in the aftermath: identify the threads of truth and grip them instead. In this case, the threads — the data, the polling, the analysis, the demographics, the trajectory of the past eight years — all said we’d be okay.
And so I made myself believe. I kept my worries mostly to myself, and for the first time in my entire life, I believed — in possibility, in progress, in the human goodness I’d been told is far more common than my body of experience has led me to suspect. I engaged. I donated. I volunteered.
But when I woke up November 8, still wearing my early voting receipt bracelet as a good luck charm, I knew as surely as I’d ever known anything in my life: She’s going to lose. I scolded my pessimism, got out of bed and went back to believing. But when the Florida results came, early that evening, I knew it was over. The mounting “gotcha” was too sickeningly canny. Reality crashed over me like shards of glass from a brick through the window. My friends appealed for calm and patience, and it landed in my brain the way my family’s abuse and homophobia does: Don’t you fucking dare tell me this isn’t real. Everything I’d narrowly escaped just months ago would now be in the White House, empowered beyond anything I had the capacity to run from.
I once told my therapist that the hardest thing about what happened with my parents was the precise, firsthand knowledge of people’s capacity for cruelty, how easily they can convince themselves not to care about other people. “I can’t unknow that,” I’d told her, “I can’t unthread that needle.” I suddenly felt stupid and embarrassed for having tried.
I wore my voting receipt bracelet for six more months, until it broke off one morning in April while I was brushing my teeth.
It has taken the entire year since the election to feel like my head is high enough above the floodwaters to finally catch a breath. My therapist has used the word “retraumatized” — not just in reference to me, but nearly all her patients, even some of the white, straight male ones. Whatever they’ve had to survive, whatever they’ve had to run from, it’s back, on a 24-hr multichannel loop with no end in sight.
Maybe it’s a clinical thing, a movement through the stages of grief, or maybe just the symbolism of a year passing, but I’ve moved to a kind of acceptance — not normalization, or capitulation, but simple realism. There seem to be no detours, if history is prologue. Our new normal is the fruition of seeds planted in the 1970s, and what took 40 years to build may not be undone in my lifetime. I have spent my entire life living alongside the dominionist foot soldiers and white culture warriors that have played a vital role in this wildly successful coup at which we find ourselves staring slack-jawed. They will not go quietly from what they have spent decades working and praying for, what many of them believe their souls are dependent upon. Impeachment would bandage the bleeding but do nothing to address the infection. And while this year’s elections are heartening, the GOP’s profoundly tyrannical ram-through of their tax bill — a move that should be political suicide — proves that Republicans are not worried about facing their constituents next year. We are not dealing with people who expect to face free and fair elections.
Time will tell of course, and perhaps I’m too cynical by half (God I hope so). But my acceptance of the present writing on the wall has brought the return, of all things, of a sort of hope. For the cliche reasons, sure — more “good guys” than bad, promising younger generations, the fact that nefarious movements always eventually crumble. Nothing is forever. But more than anything, my hope comes from the fact that I am not running, for the first time in my life. I am not falling into a defensive crouch, or keeping my head down in hopes of avoiding conflict, I’m holding up a length of pipe, ready to swing. I suspect many others are too.
Years ago, a friend sent me an unreleased Madonna demo written in the post-9/11 lead-up to the Iraq War, the last time we on the Left felt like we were watching the world fall apart. As brains are wont to do, mine randomly called up one of the lyrics one day right after the election:
I have learned nothing is for free,
If my ship goes down,
No one’s gonna come for me.
Those words made my brain churn with fear and anxiety. My government has returned not just to indifference but open hostility towards me and other people like me, and I have no material resources, no parents, no spouse — none of the safety nets people will traditionally rely upon when times get as dark as ours seem poised to become. “No one’s gonna come for me” is an easy suspicion to succumb to.
But I’ve realized that hung-out-to-dry feeling ignores one simple fact: I’ve spent my entire life surviving. I don’t know what else to do, or how else to be. All marginalized people are this way to one degree or another, I think, and there’s more of us than there are of them. We withstand things that others can’t even conceive of, and no election, no legislation, and certainly no cabal of pampered, rubber-spined, tantrum-throwing politicians can change that. They may be powerful, but they aren’t strong. They’ve never had to be.
So I don’t know about you, but I’m ready to fight. Go ahead and shoot my ship down, motherfuckers. Watch me keep swimming.