By Erica K. Freeman
The presidential debates have left me gasping for air.
For years, I’ve experienced an inability to catch my breath whenever stress tightens its hold on me, strangling like a serial killer. It’s usually not debilitating, but it’s always exhausting and frustrating. If the spells last for more than two days, I start wondering if it’s ever going to stop. It always has, but you never know.
This time it’s my own fault. I’ve been watching the Clinton/Trump debates. I’ve been tempted to just read about them the day after and watch an episode of The Andy Griffith Show instead. (Mmmmmmm, comforting.) But, no, I’ve watched the debates, live-tweeting and yelling “no he didn’t!” at the TV for more than an hour each time. Characteristically, Black Twitter has been using humor to cope with the man’s foolishness, which provides a cushion that everyone needs desperately.
This cushion gives a sense of safety as Trump’s condescension and hostility toward Hillary Clinton, African-Americans, Latinos, President Obama, and women in general has not only been explicit, it’s been palpable—even through a TV screen. It’s vivid enough to have brought on this damn shortness of breath, a symptom of PTSD that I had always assumed was related to generalized stress before learning it’s one of the effects of experiencing a trigger—a moment when a memory or some other cue causes a trauma survivor’s mind to relive an event (or even a lonnnnnng series of events). The body’s instinct kicks in as if it’s suddenly noticed there’s a big ol’ bear tracking it. In the moment it’s “deciding” what it’s going to do so you don’t die. What follows can be a range of symptoms, from sweating to dissociation. Basically, it’s a mess. And my body is reading Donald Trump like he’s an animal stalking me in the woods.
I started really understanding what he’s like during the first presidential debate—it became even clearer the next day when I watched the Clinton campaign video of 1996 Miss Universe Alicia Machado. Hearing Machado describe how she felt brought up a lot for me—and since then the news has been no less disturbing. There’s the recently leaked video of Trump mouthing off to fawning Today show host Billy Bush about the degree of sexual assault he can get away with and the recent revelation that Trump intruded on teenaged Miss USA contestants while they were undressed. Most recently, there’s Jessica Leeds’s first-hand account of Trump assaulting her on a plane in the 1980s when she was a young woman on a business trip. I’m beginning to lose track, but there have been more women who’ve come forward in only the past few days.
Women are now making his abuse public, emboldened by others. I’ve had no personal contact with Trump, but when I hear and read about other women’s stories, my body is quick to remember the trail of emotionally abusive partners I feared, yet tried to please and appease, as well as the handsy, intimidating strangers dating all the way back to my teenage years (when I was 17, one kissed me dead on my mouth after stopping me on the street to ask directions). With these memories, as well as the fear and confusion I tried to block out as a kid, I shouldn’t have been surprised when Trump’s behavior began setting off that feeling of blocked breath, a sensation that feels like my lung capacity has been shaved in half.
Survival is key. Trauma survivors know this better than anyone.
It’s also those triggers that call on the little girl inside me. I know that sounds crazy, but she’s very real. I’ve had hours and hours of trauma therapy sessions, training me to acknowledge and care for her. It is times like these that she shows up on her own and I have to listen patiently and respond to her. She’s often terrified and confused. She’s lonely a lot. She sometime feels inadequate, humiliated, unlovable, smothered, enraged, even murderous. She’s bared her teeth at me and growled. Identifying and engaging with her is a skill I’ve had to learn. I can do it, but it’s still heartbreaking when the fear overwhelms her. What’s passing for political discourse in this election campaign has been signaling her, making her frightened and furious with thoughts (to be clear: not memories) of humiliation, being held down, foul things being stuffed in her mouth. As the grown-up version of myself, I tell her that everything she’s feeling makes perfect sense. She’s not crazy.
But, she has a right to be uncertain. I guarantee her safety when I’m not even sure of my own. When I go to bed, I close my eyes and see images, telling a story that rivals The Handmaid’s Tale. I tell myself I’m being ridiculous and wonder if I just need to up my anxiety meds—but apparently I’m not the only one whose mental health is suffering as a symptom of this fear.
Michelle Goldberg’s article in Slate, “Fear, Anxiety, and Depression in the Age of Trump,” rings all too true. She tells us that therapists are seeing a disturbing uptick of patients, who are suffering from nightmares, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and more, as they imagine what life would be like if Trump were to actually pull off what we’d thought impossible. What they’re responding to is real. Every day, this week, I’ve seen a new article that identifies Trump’s behavior as that of the classic abuser. A common pattern with abuse is that victims withstand, and sometimes even enable, their abusers out of fear for their physical, financial, and emotional safety. Survival is key. Trauma survivors know this better than anyone.
But we haven’t become victims quite yet. We still have the ability to slam the door on this abuser with no reprisal. He hasn’t unpacked his suitcase or commandeered the remote control. He hasn’t taken over our lives quite yet, though sometimes it feels like it. We actually have the power to keep him out and we can’t take that for granted. He’s knocking and he is dangerous—and the best chance we have of protecting ourselves is not to invite him inside in the first place.