Feel it All: A Highly Sensitive Person at the Women’s March on Washington

I feel him before I see him. It’s six hours after the official start of the Women’s March on Washington, thousands of people surround me, but my heart zeros in on his. The small man draped in his county’s flag clutching a small sign that reads simply, “I am a Syrian refugee. I love America.” Many in the crowd cheer for him as they pass his spot on a tiny hill near the end of the route. He’s radiating such pure love and gratitude that I’m sure this is the moment that my heart will finally give out.

Like countless others around the world, the election of Donald Trump left me unbalanced, uneasy and afraid. Before the Women’s March on Washington even took shape, I knew I had to be there. But, I was worried. As a highly sensitive person, I’ve always had strong reactions to what other people are going through. I can’t turn off the heightened awareness I have of the emotional state of those around me. As a result, my own emotions lurk right below the surface. My tears come easily. My anger comes easily. I have to work hard to control the sadness or anxiety or fear that can hit me at any moment based on the energy of the person I’m interacting with. I understand and care very deeply for my fellow humans — so much so that it’s a constant struggle to feel at peace.

I planned to go to the March with two loving and kind women, one of whom has been my closest friend for more than 25 years, but still, I worried about how I would handle being around hundreds of thousands of activists, each with his or her own complicated mix of emotions and motivations. I believe in the intersectional and inclusive mission of the March, but I wondered how I could sustain my energy in such a massive crowd. Would my anxiety get the better of me? Could I handle the inevitable confusion and complications that arise when that many people are in one place?

On Inauguration Day, my heart was heavy as I waited to board the plane that would take me from Denver to D.C. I was still mourning the end of President Obama’s time in office, so I was relieved to be in the air when Trump officially became the next President of the United States. Just as I was feeling at my lowest point about Trump becoming president, my spirits rose again as cheers erupted from almost everyone on the plane after the (male) pilot gave a special welcome to those headed to the March: “I honor you and I wish I could be with you.”

The positive energy didn’t last long. That afternoon, curious about the mood of Trump’s supporters, we walked over to the Inauguration Parade. We felt it immediately — an oppressively dark force overtook us. There was no joy emanating from those wearing red caps. Why weren’t they celebrating? Instead, it felt like we were trapped in an Outbreak-style disaster movie and everyone there had already been infected with a deadly, infectious disease. It took hours to shake the sense of doom and hopelessness that contaminated us. That night, as we watched the news of violent protests by anti-Trump extremists during the Inauguration, we talked about the very real possibility that extremists could disrupt the March.

The next morning, getting dressed in our all-black outfits helped restore some of the strength and resolve that we’d lost at the parade. While most of the thousands of people we saw heading to the rally sported pink cat-eared “Pussyhats,” we felt more powerful in our Women’s March hats, “Wild Feminist” sweatshirts and red lipstick, which we renamed “Resistance Red”. It was early still, but everyone we passed exuded the same excitement, anticipation and kindness.

We were fortunate to be part of a small group to receive “special guest” passes that allowed us to be close to the stage during the rally. We found a spot right next to Jessica Chastain and Chloe Grace Moretz. Several women from the cast of Orange is the New Black were directly behind us. While I’m only 5’3,” I had to ask Yael Stone, who plays Lorna Morello and is my favorite actor on the show, if she wanted to switch places so she could see the stage. (She passed on my offer.) Uzo Aduba, “Crazy Eyes” on OITNB, sang along beautifully during Janelle Monáe’s powerful performance of her protest song “Hell You Talmbout.” Author Glennon Doyle Melton was there with her love Abby Wambach as well as her mom, sister and a group of friends, who were all sporting “Nasty AF” black hats. All the “regular” people were respectful of and friendly towards all the well-known VIPs. We were all there to participate in an event that outshone the stars in attendance.

Over the next five hours, organizers, activists, actors, living legends, and artists spoke from their heart about the issues that mattered most to them. Through their outrage and passion and commitment, they connected with the thousands of defenders of human rights in attendance. It was a rally. It was an uprising. It was a memorial. It was a celebration. It was a sacred prayer. It was a rallying cry. It was a call and response of “feet on the ground; not backing down!” It was a once-in-a-lifetime empowering experience of swearing/singing along with Madonna: “I’m not your bitch. Don’t hang your shit on me!” There is even footage from the rally live feed that clearly shows me echoing Madonna’s advice for our new President, “Donald Trump, suck a dick!” That funny moment now sits on YouTube where it will embarrass my boys and horrify my mother for years to come!

We listened. We were thoughtful. We participated. We were joyful. We were inspired. We despaired. We felt pride. We felt guilt. We felt resolve. As I soaked in the emotions of those around me, my heart broke. And it healed. What I didn’t feel was hatred. What I didn’t feel was judgment. What I didn’t feel was hopelessness. What I didn’t feel was anxious. What I didn’t feel was fear. What I felt was peace.

When it was time to march, I braced myself for the inevitable wave of thoughts and emotions of all those people to come crashing down on me. But the wave never came. I waited to feel claustrophobic and overwhelmed. But I never did. I often feel anxious in a group of five people and yet here I was in a crowd of more than 500,000 and I felt safe and at peace.

The March was a chance to have our voices heard through powerful call and response chants like, “Show us what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!” and signs: “Respect my Existence or Expect my Resistance!” We laughed at funny chants directed to the new President, “We want a leader, not a creepy Tweeter!” and pointed out creative signs: “Super Callous Fragile Racist Super Braggadocious!” We vented as we booed and held our middle fingers high while passing Trump’s hotel.

We celebrated differences, made connections, acknowledged inequality, and galvanized all those who fight for equal rights in any capacity. This was a 500,000 plus-strong protest of women, men and children of all backgrounds with no arrests, no unkindness, and no disrespect that I witnessed.

We agree to no longer accept the things we cannot change, but change the things we cannot accept. Now we turn our resolve into action. Now we hold each other accountable. Now we focus on grassroots change. Now we turn our understanding into action. Donald Trump has made us all activists. What’s the alternative in this upside-down world of alternative facts?

I know now that the reason I was able to feel so at peace during that day is because it wasn’t about me. It wasn’t about the “I,” it was about the “we.” I’ve learned that as a highly sensitive person I must work even harder to make peace with the often very insensitive world. If I can spend a day absorbing the passion and emotion of half a million people, I know my heart is strong enough to withstand any human connection. My heart won’t give out and I won’t give in.