It’s Okay to Still Not Be Okay
The world we lost seems to be roaring back to life. So why do you still feel like garbage?
This past Saturday, I stood in the middle of Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood and watched as dozens of people danced, banged pots and pans, honked their car horns, and cheered in celebration of Joe Biden’s electoral victory. The good news of that day was swiftly followed by more good news — the hilarity of Giuliani’s Four Season’s Landscaping press conference, the wins in Georgia and Nevada, and then on Monday, Pfizer’s announcement of a 90% successful Covid vaccine.
Those few days felt bright and filled with possibility, as if the world we lost in 2016 had suddenly come roaring back to life. It was still a world beset with problems, but it felt like one where hard political work could make a dent in things, and lives could truly be saved.
Yet now, still in this same week, I feel a looming, soul-sick dread in the pit of my stomach. I don’t trust the hope I experienced just three days ago. I keep checking the news and imagining worst-case scenarios, caught up in an anxious pattern I can’t seem to escape. Why can’t I just be “okay”?
If you’re like me, you probably feel a bit guilty about having done “nothing” but watch election results all of last week, about not being “productive” during that time — never mind that the fate of your world hung in the balance. You might also be experiencing an emotional crash following the joyous high of Saturday morning. And your furious news-checking habit is probably still in full force, constantly igniting your sympathetic nervous system with announcements of Trump’s many lawsuits and firings.
Despite all of the pressure and stress you are still carrying, you might also be berating yourself for not being all better. Why can’t I get back to normal? you wonder. Why can’t I set down my phone, put on a smile, and get back to work?
If that sounds familiar, I’m here with a message: You deserve to be gentle with yourself. It isn’t “all over,” and you don’t have to feel “all better.” It’s not a sign of weakness to fully inhabit the present moment, and still be haunted by the horrors that came before it. It’s okay to not be ready to disappear into work. In fact, such awareness and sensitivity is normal, healthy, and deeply human.
Is It ‘Zoom Fatigue’ or Is It Existentially Crushing to Pretend Life Is Normal as the World Burns?
Questions to ponder
All this year, you have endured significant uncertainty and stress. You’ve watched as hundreds of thousands of Americans died due to the negligence of a president who hasn’t attended a Covid briefing since the summer. You’re hearing mainstream Republican politicians question the election results despite a lack of evidence, and you’re watching Trump erect an apparatus of yes-men and sycophants around himself. This after four years of political turmoil and terror on a level we’ve never seen.
Even when Biden does take office in January, you’ll be living in a world beset with police violence, ever-growing income inequality, a climate that continues to destabilize, and tropical storms that rip through the globe. You’ll still have to worry about making rent in an economy ravaged by business closures and furloughs. The damage done by Trump and his administration will not be easily remedied. The wicked problems that existed long before his tenure will continue to be thorny and far-reaching. Even with a Covid-19 vaccine on the horizon, you can still expect months of social distancing measures and harrowing hospitalization numbers.
No wonder it’s hard for you to focus on writing quarterly reports. It’s no surprise doing laundry seems empty and pointless. My head is not clear right now; I’m sure yours isn’t either. How could it be? We need more time to heal. We need more reasons to have hope. Only then can we slowly, messily return to anything resembling our old lives.
When a person experiences trauma, they don’t always feel the full force of its effects until after they’ve gotten safe. Post-traumatic symptoms can be delayed; it’s when you escape an unsafe situation that you finally are free to process what happened. That is often when the hypervigilance, panic attacks, and nightmares start to come out in full force. All your old coping mechanisms start to break down as the energy you expended trying to holding yourself together finally wears out.
When Trump was first elected, I spent more than a year calling my political representatives every single day. I devoted an hour every day to that task, not just calling my own reps, but also calling on behalf of others who couldn’t use the phone. Friends complimented me for doing a good deed, but I was just trying to burn through my nervous energy. I needed something to do, to keep me from confronting my despair. After hundreds of calls, very few of which seemed to ever have an impact on any politicians’ stances, I became a weepy, apathetic mess, and abandoned the project entirely.
If you’ve spent the past few months (or years) text banking, donating to political campaigns, or just refreshing Twitter and FiveThirtyEight obsessively, you might be a weepy, emotionally drained mess right now, too. Even in the face of “good” news, you might find you have no focus, no will to go on. One of the key symptoms of trauma, after all, is a sense of a foreshortened future. It’s hard to plan or work toward any goals when you’ve gone years without having any hope.
It’s okay if you still feel like garbage. You have been through a lot. And you’ve probably had to grit your teeth, put on a chipper, “professional” smile, and work tirelessly through most of it. But now, you can consider letting down that facade. We are entering a new phase, no less complex than the one that came before, but perhaps a bit more hopeful. You can let yourself grieve all that was lost. Mourning is an important part of the healing process. It allows you to accept the world as it truly is, and to face the pain you’ve been quietly enduring all this time.
Life will get better. But it’s gonna take a few more fits and starts. Your jaw won’t stop clenching for a long while after that. This has been a hell of a four years. And it’s not over yet. So it’s okay to still not feel okay.