I cannot stop picking the scab. I know it’s going to leave a scar, but I don’t seem to be able to help myself. I claw until I bleed, and I dig in further. It helps to have it concentrated in one place for the moment, I suppose, but it’s been like this for weeks. I don’t know when it will stop.
If you’re an anxious person, you live your life in a constant state of “What if?” What if I left the burner on, forgot to pay that bill, misread that look on her face, screwed up the tip? What if that’s not a mole, my boss called this meeting to fire me, the brakes fail, he wins? You spend your days and horrorstruck, cut-short nights hunched over in crash position, breathing shallowly and bracing for impact as if the sheer force of your worry might keep the bad thing at bay. The layoffs won’t hit you, the lights will remain on, the plane will stay in the air.
This election season, the plane crashed.
No amount of pre-emptive fretting, phone banking, marching, petitioning, or magical thinking on any one person’s part would have prevented this. Even if I’d refreshed 538 just one more time, sent more money, made one more call, stayed up later on election night, or posted one more Facebook status, the outcome would have been the same. It’s not magic; it’s math. Electoral math to boot — the cruelest, most convoluted kind, and it’s the law.
When I’m at the lowest of my anxious spirals, I claw the skin of my right thumb until it bleeds, Then I dig in more until it’s raw and open to the world. Hypnosis stopped this for a time, but on September 12, 2001, I picked up the habit again. It’s a bad, dirty, painful thing to do, but it offers a weird release. It’s self-inflicted. I can stop if I really need to.
I couldn’t stop this. All I can do is stumble around in the wreckage looking for survivors. I know they’re out there, bruised and bleeding worse than me. One friend is in his neighborhood bar, being told to go back to his own country (he was born here). Another is smacked with a homophobic slur as he’s helping a man cross the street near Trump Tower, near where he works. I meet a woman who fled Somalia at age 7, and 23 years later is afraid she will be forced to return there because she’s trying to cobble together money for her legal paperwork. A friend’s girlfriend proposes to her; they haven’t been together long enough and they both know that, but they’re frightened that they may not have the chance. The worst that happens to me is that a White Nationalist calls me a hideous, hook-nosed Jewess on Twitter (half-Sicilian recovering Catholic, but why spoil his fun?). I do not have the luxury of fear or wallowing. None of us are going to be OK until all of us are — but won’t someone please tell my body that?
So this is where I’m at, screaming at my heart, lungs, brain, stomach, and skin to calm down. Blahblahblah put your own mask on first before helping others, but it’s true. The notion of “self-care” has gotten strangely convoluted into pricey retreats, massages featuring creepy substances, picking up crayons, and eating pie under the covers until the bad man goes away. That’s great if it fuels you for the fight, but it’s not an action plan, not in the long run. What helps me (a little, but better than anything else) is breathing.
It’s so easy to forget to breathe. Not in the autonomic sense — we’d all just be passing out in heaps on the street and behind the wheel if that weren’t the case — but in a deliberate way. Standing up, inhaling deeply through my nose, holding it in, releasing it. It’s such a simple thing, and it’s free of charge, and I have my lungs with me all day, but I forget to do it. Or, rather, I forgot.
Two weeks ago, I set an auto-reminder on my calendar. It pops up every couple of hours reminding me to unclench, un-hunch, stop clawing my goddamned thumb, refreshing the popular vote count, reading Twitter. I stand up, breathe, reclaim my body from my mind as best I can. It works — some of the time, but way better than nothing.
There’s so, SO much work ahead and people whose need for safety is greater than mine, and I’m trying like hell to be healthy for it, for them. There’s so much, that it can feel overwhelming. Call this office, march on that street, give your cash there…no there, wait — actually you’re supposed to call here instead and say this. STOP. Breathe. Focus. I can’t do it all, no one can — and that’s OK — but I have to start with something.
I take a breath. I pick my battle. I make an impact.