Two years ago this month I found myself staring up at a tunnel of blue framed by coastal redwood and Douglas fir. Covered in dust and pine needles, I attempted to roll onto my left side, feeling the click and crack of broken sunglasses in my pocket. They had crushed on impact. Pivoting back, I gazed back to the heavens through a prism of giant evergreen and, for the first time in 48 hours, felt peace.
In the preceding hours I had, in no particular order: wandered my suburban neighborhood, barefoot in the darkness; ranted doomsday on a text chain with my best friends; cancelled a flight to San Diego; asked my mother to call and reassure my 11-year-old daughter; requested that my 11-year-old daughter call and calm down my mother; drank too much; slept very little; been flagged as a “car prowler” on the Nextdoor listserve; and now, tripped over a root on a trail run and found a smidgen of peace in the awesome agelessness and interconnectedness of the forest above me.
It began well before they called Pennsylvania. A pit of foreboding settled in my mid-gut and began expanding, like a balloon at high altitude. The next few hours were a blur, muted optimism turned to worry, worry to dejection and along the way our normally stoic daughter turned into an inconsolable puddle on the living room floor. After they called Florida she had asked me if it was going to be okay, and I didn’t know what to say, because it wasn’t going to be. Sometime between pathetically trying to go to sleep and when the election result became official, I decided to take a walk. Clothed in sweatpants and barefoot, I wandered the neighborhood, making erratic turns and switchbacks, blowing gusts of air from my nose like a provoked bull. My peripheral vision collapsed and I focused straight into the distance as if searching for some solace in the unknown future. Disbelief cavorted with worry, which cavorted with the enormity of the implications. What did this mean for the Supreme Court, for climate change, for my daughter’s long-term sanity, for decency in America, for notions of science and integrity, for democracy as a grand experiment in self-governance? What did it mean for my 7:45am scheduled departure from SFO the next morning?
The following morning, not long after cancelling my flight to San Diego and having a somewhat panicked discussion with our investment advisor about the fate of the stock market, my wife discovered on our local Nextdoor listserve that a “car prowler” matching my description had been spotted in the neighborhood. A “Tall, thin, dark-clothed man and wearing a hoody” was seen pacing the neighborhood and “ignored repeated inquiries as to what he was doing.” The post had imagined the hoody detail and left out the bare feet, but it was close enough.
My friend Hank also took a walk that election night 2016. Unlike me, he was not made for a thief, but like me there was so much that was impossible to comprehend. Hank’s bewilderment was at how the system — an orderly system — could fail him and so many others. He described it like a safety net being ripped away, causing him to fall directly on his head. It was not just Hank, Derwood, a friend in a solidly red city in the Midwest first told me that he planned to use a burner phone to set up a fake Twitter account to harass the administration but later told me that he had decided to focus the next 4 years on his garden. And there were many, many more of course in concentric circles beyond my network of friends. On Twitter, one user posted “I have said ‘I love you’ to so many of my friends tonight. I am so sad, I can’t stop crying.”
Consistent sleep was hard to come by for months and months after November 8th, 2016. Early digit morning would greet me with a rude awakening — face pulsating, heart galloping and mind perseverating — a windmill of disbelief and uncertainty. How Did this Happen? How Could this Happen? What Will Happen Now? What Can I do? I was not an isolated case of insomnia. Ronald J Pelias of Southern Illinois University published a paper in the journal Qualitative Inquiry on the topic entitled “On not being able to sleep: After the 2016 Election” and opened the piece with “Following the 2016 U.S. presidential election, I find myself struggling, wanting to find a narrative that will let me sleep, but I am unable to find any comfort in the current political landscape.”
The root cause of my condition seemed self-evident, but the physiology of it puzzled me. Attempting to consider it rationally, I entertained some options — was this a case of generalized anxiety disorder or perhaps an acute grief event — characterized by “extreme restlessness, inability to concentrate, and lack of capacity to initiate and maintain organized patterns of activities.” Or could it be something else entirely — what we would call an “organic” cause rather than a psychological one — such as an endocrine tumor or an overactive thyroid gland. That would be quite the coincidence, but the restless mind can seek farfetched connections. Whatever it was, it was highly unusual for me, anxiety and sleep disturbance had never plagued me. And, it spilled over to personal relationships — friends, family and acquaintances who I knew to be in on the other side of the political spectrum were bombarded with communications — cloaked as an attempt to “understand” their viewpoint but really a hope that I might be able to change it.
I did make it to San Diego a couple days later than planned. An old friend and I were at a tavern in Pacific Beach when a heavyset man in a Blake Griffin jersey offered us an animated account of how he had asked a homosexual coworker to keep his relationship details to himself. He watched us closely for our reaction, his intoxicated gaze shifting back and forth, hoping, it seemed, that he might have a chance to confront us. Later, walking along the boardwalk, we overheard a couple picking out people from the crowd to send back before we built the wall. There was poorly restrained glee in their voices. I thought of Newton’s third law — every action has an equal and opposite reaction. For some the election had disrupted their entire worldview, for others there was a vindication of their tribe-based inner impulses. My own impulse was not to sleep on the cognitive dissonance of the situation, but, as it turns out, that is not a very effective survival technique.
When people abruptly move from a temperate to hot environment, they go through a rather rapid series of biological changes that are called acclimatization (or acclimation). We have all experienced this — a winter-break transposition from the mid-Atlantic to the Caribbean requires several days of adjustment and adaptation, not to mention the high likelihood of sunburn. These adjustments start right away — more blood flow is sent to the skin and this helps dissipate temperature. Sweating is up regulated and core temperature actually decreases. Our heart rate ticks down a few notches, as does our blood pressure and our kidneys retain total body water and electrolytes. The threshold for plasma lactic acid — the primary end product of anaerobic muscle activity — is raised. And this is not all, in fact there are at least 25 measurable changes that happen to our bodies and they all start within minutes and reach a new steady state within a couple days. Athletes are thought to require 1–2 weeks of daily exposure of at least 90 minutes in order to attain peak acclimatization performance. The physiological rationale for this is not just to allow us to maximize our vacation but also to improve activity capacity and confer a survival benefit — that is to reduce the risk of serious heat illness that can result in heat exhaustion, heat stroke and even death. Why do we acclimatize? Because, to boil it right down, acclimatization to new environments promotes our continued existence.
Science has a detailed grasp of how our bodies adjust to different climates and altitudes — there are more than two dozen distinct physiological adjustments made in each of these situations. But we have the barest understanding of how our brains acclimatize to abrupt changes in their reality. A reality like waking up to a radically different political environment. The reality is that we really have no choice — if we don’t normalize our psyche then we will eventually succumb to the cortisol, stress, distraction and insomnia. If depression doesn’t get us, substance abuse or psychosis will. Psychological acclimatization is a survival mechanism and the only antidote is to change the reality that forces it upon you.
It is fall of 2018 and, for the most part, I sleep soundly. Yes, there are the nights that our 9-year-old pitter-patters his way into our room not long after midnight and proceeds to intermittently kick box me in the gut until dawn. And other nights when an early wake-up for work causes me to start watching the clock at 4am. But the racing heart and chest squeezes are gone. I still feel have despondent moments, but less often, and less severely. I’ve given up trying to convince those friends that voted poorly to re-consider their prior choice. If I were recovering from the death of a loved one, one might say that the clouds are softening and the gloom is lifting. Except for that they shouldn’t be. All but the most catastrophic fears that kept me awake in November and December 2016 have come to pass. The violation of norms, and decorum and truth and basic decency cascade so rapidly that it is impossible to process all of their off-colors onto the same canvas. Shortly before I wrote this, our president had blamed the attempted bombing of a media entity that he has repeatedly skewered lambasted and threatened, on that media entity themselves. Just the latest in the blame the victim mind-f***, not to mention everything else.
As November 6th approaches, and the flashbacks to 2016 escalate, I for one would settle for a psychologically stabilizing return to political balance and rule of law. If that does not come to pass I may be inclined to find a peaceful forest in a different land to gaze up at.