November 9, 2016 – USA. Over the last half-century, a number of stark memories have been seared into America’s psyche so shocking or painful or unexpected that they live largely unmetabolized as an image, a recollection, something we turn to each other to say: “Where were you when it happened?” The images of the balcony of the Lorraine Motel the day after Martin Luther King was shot. The slowly driving motorcade and Jackie O. scrambling to climb back over the front seat towards her husband. Two planes flying into twin towers and their slow, knee-buckling collapse into clouds of billowing dust. And, now, the day Donald Trump was elected.
My husband and I were at the theatre. The play was about Haitian immigrants in America, a powerful and touching story about racism and its overcoming. In spite of the standard request to turn off our cellphones, the news flickered on screens through the audience and ‘broke’ somewhere halfway through the second act. Surely the actors must know, I kept thinking, watching them come back on the stage after leaving a scene. I kept wondering how they came back to perform, devoted to their craft, following cues they returned while something inside them was surely collapsing. “The show must go on” I kept thinking to myself, along with the spirit of the arts and our desire to digest, give human meaning, and resurrect love in the face of the history’s horrors. But the memory I have of the morning after is the one that stands out more fully, perhaps because it took at least the night for the reality to have the first opportunity to sink in.
I sat on the leather couch in our living room staring at the television with the sound on mute. My children had just left for school, boisterous and blissfully naïve about the bomb that just detonated in America’s constitutional soul. I stared at the talking heads on CNN, my awareness focused inward.
Something important is happening in our world that you will not read about in the newspapers. I consider it the most fascinating and hopeful development of our time, and it is one of the reasons I am so glad to be alive today. It has to do with our notion of the self. – Joanna Macey
Like others, I was still in shock but settled between the various pesto smudged stains and illicit pen marks on our family room couch, I could sense, next to my disbelief, something else hovering in my awareness. It seemed like inside the hollow silence created by this news some part of me was assessing the size of the test we were about to be put to, one that carried the potential to either break us as a nation or to birth something new – in me and in Americans. Whatever birth might be possible, however, was going to depend on a pending breaking point, but I had no idea what that meant, what the timing would be, or what it would look like. Accompanying this intuition was also the haunting sense that everything in my life had somehow prepared me for this moment.
Echoes of Childhood
Something, after all, felt disturbingly familiar about Donald Trump, his domineering, superior tone, his wrecking ball disregard for those who didn’t (don’t!) align with his reality, his self-referencing grandiosity, his masterful twisting of the truth.
I grew up with a father who, like Trump, turned out to be tragically less human than he was a personality-disorder-in-motion. He was a genius scientist, charming, charismatic, brilliant dignified and successful. He was an iconic American success story with an immigrant, rags-to-riches story, a man who’s talents enlisted him in the “brain drain” of the 1970s, when my family moved from England to the United States when I was eleven.
With these characteristics and, as my father, I grew up adoring him. He was, in fact, quite lovable in his own way, as I expect Trump is to many of those in his inner-orbit. I grew up with an in-built reverence for his excellence, proud, even, to be the daughter of such a great man. The ‘above-the-water-line’ story, then, was of a daughter, fortunate to be related to such a great man, but a daughter who learned to tell his rags-to-riches story at the expense, quite early on, of knowing herself.
Growing up in the shade of my father’s superiority-complex, gaslighting and denial, after all, was the ‘below-the-water-line’ story. The one that was hidden from others, and largely, also, from me, for much of my early life. My father was masterful at taking any cracks he felt in his elevated self-image and projecting them, in indirect, hostile, derisive and manipulative ways, onto others. (As British, he was more measured in his countenance than the bombastic, American Trump, but his egoic defenses – projection, deflection, inflation, bullying, intimidation, distorting the truth – were much the same.) Whatever was faulty in him became the faults in those around him. With regularity, he would name shortcomings in others that were actually his own limitations, creating a maddening self-doubt and obeisance in those who came close to him. In particular, it was his children whom my father turned into the carnage and confusion he created in the wake of his impeccable, all powerful and revered self-image.
I learned not to fight back. My father always won. If I tried, if I couldn’t contain my hurt, anger, hatred and it showed, I would find myself slithering away from the encounter with the words “human tragedy”, or “worthless little shit” following me in my retreat. Often, he derided my (non-scientific) interests and talents as pointless or pathetic and in my moments of achievement – awards I received in school, valedictory address at college – he would tell me “not to let it go to my head”. In any of these instances, if tears broke through, he referred to me as a “blubbering female”. Much like our current President’s twitter feed, it was not exactly the best us of language.
Few in my life knew these details. Most people thought my father was a hero in his field. Colleagues and professionals would pull me aside to whisper how lucky I was to have such an exceptional, intelligent and engaging father. With this admiring field around him, there was no option, I felt, but to hide myself and these experiences from others in shame; I didn’t know how to make sense of it all but knew that talking about it was likely to make others uncomfortable. Besides, while I knew something was wrong, our birth-family is the water we swim in. In the absence of any self-awareness in my father about his abusive behavior, I thought the problem was me. Turning against myself then – not him – I wrestled with depression on and off for years, watching year after year as my invincible father “won” the claim on reality.
Many flavors of distortion arose from this madness, commonly referred to as “gaslighting”. I learned to doubt myself, my interests and intuitions and came to accept my father’s “use” of me for his searing cruelty as the grounds for my attachment to him. It was a strange kind of intimacy, a ‘master-slave’ relationship that I was later able to see as an enabling co-dependency – daughter to father – an especially abusive form of a patriarchal template.
It’s hard to adequately describe the vortex created by this flavor of mental illness in a parent, or the tremendous work and time it takes to claw oneself out of it. It wasn’t until my 20s, after I read my first book about narcissism, followed by many more to follow and a fair dose of therapy, that I began to understand the power of a personality disorder, and, in particular, the complex, mind-twisting, force-field of malignant narcissism. It took time to see the ways that its power distorted my father’s reality, how something tragic forged in his childhood separated him from himself and his vulnerability and – given his various positions of power – how it leveraged the great harm he did (largely without realizing it, or feeling any guilt) on those he came near.
So, with this childhood, as I watched the talking heads on TV, themselves spinning over the inconceivable outcome to a surreal election, I felt like I had a keen and chilling familiarity with what was about to happen in America. I knew the experience of devoted adoration evident in Trump’s base. I also knew the gaslighting and abuse of those who deigned to cross Trump’s path. I felt a kinship with Hilary and the looming, ‘superior’ force peering down at her on the debate stage. I knew the collapse into submission, helplessness, resignation, and deference of the women enablers in Trump’s family. I knew the ease of falling into a vortex of ceding to Trump’s spun narratives about reality. I knew the endless, and futile, attempts to try to resurrect the “truth”. I also knew the cynical apathy I was already aware of in the American electorate over an unpredictable, self-aggrandizing authority who had an infuriatingly successful penchant for winning.
It was with these eyes, then, that I had looked inward that morning after Trump was elected, knowing how long it had taken me to learn – to the extent that I had – about gaining sanity in a family that spoke in lies, denial and distortion. I saw the venn-diagram of my life and our country’s overlap and, with years of therapy behind me, I had a sense of the challenge we were about to be tasked with as a nation. On that pesto stained coach, watching the chyrons cycling their headlines across the screen, I locked down for the storm ahead.
That window of reflective calm that carried the space of some clarity and perspective, however, didn’t anticipate the personal impact of the storm that was coming.
Within two months, familiar dynamics from childhood resurfaced with a terrifyingly and exponentially multiplied effect on the national stage. Knowing what I knew about the mind-bending impact of malignant narcissism created a sense of familiarity, but as the days passed, also, of terror. Something that I had grown up with that had impacted my life in debilitating ways for decades was being enacted on a national scale in a country I loved with the passionate hopefulness of an immigrant.
I joined rank with others in disbelief as we watched the wrecking ball that is our current President begin its attack on our democracy, the justice system, our International relationships, our climate, immigrant families and our country’s already fragile state of racial and sexual trauma. I saw Trump’s masterful narcissistic narrative, his projections and gaslighting ricocheting in all too familiar ways between the various ‘family members’ of our country: the media, politicians, immigrants, women, African Americans, the south and mid-west, the coastal elites and Trump’s ‘inner circle’. Knowing how the reality of a malignant narcissist acts like a dementor leaving those it contacts exasperated and impossibly scrambling to regain an inner compass from inside the narcissist’s narrative, I could see how the press and the Democrats, let alone the GOP, were (and remain) squarely beholden to Trump’s command. The only way to disengage from this vortex is with a skillful, psychic aikido – building the capacity to identify the defenses in real time (gaslighting and projection), again and again and again. Engaging only to disengage. The moment any content in the defense is followed, even getting caught up in ‘defending’ the truth, leaves the narcissist in command of the narrative. Newscasters and Democrats were consistently getting caught in the sinking sand, crying out in moral outrage about Trump’s unabashed lies as if he might care about the truth or even know the difference.
For me, as the months passed, the personal and political became unconsciously intertwined, in anything like the empowering way feminists using that slogan had intended. The news triggered memories of a head of household who offered the opposite of security and emotional protection, now leveraged with logarithmic effect across the country. Also reignited were fears of a child too familiar with warps of self-doubt, the whip-lash on consensus reality and the manipulative vortex of narcissistic grandiosity. Slowly, whatever progress I had made in years of therapy began to erode as each new headline pulled another rug out from under me. As each day passed, my addition to Apple News grew more and more intense. I frantically searched the headlines in order to be ‘prepared’, or, with the naïve hope and prayer for some article that would have hidden in the 9th paragraph a lead on something that would miraculously puncture Trump’s balloon. Still, some lasting ‘hope’ led me to check the news right before bed and the first thing in the morning; it was nothing short of a full-blown addiction. And that, of course, was compounding the problem as news channels and reporters barely had a grip on what was happening themselves. The newscasters, themselves, were missing the story: Trump’s mental illness. I wanted everyone to see and know what I saw – to name it, to call a spade a spade – but I felt helpless to reach anyone. I pointlessly sent weekly emails to the comments/feedback page on CNN’s website, watching all the Don Lemons and Anderson Coopers on TV and the Democratic so-called ‘leaders’ in Congress, (let alone the Faustian GOP), routinely get sucked up into Trump’s foils.
And then, how, of course, could this not in turn affect my family. I was still functioning, able to take deep breaths and remember not to lambast Trump in front of them, I stayed on top of email and calendars, but under the surface was an unmanageable, anxious preoccupation that was no way for a child to experience a mother day in and day out. Furthermore, I couldn’t fathom or tolerate what felt, at times, like my husband’s relative lack of outrage, or anyone’s lack of urgency. It’s not that he wasn’t concerned, he was, but that he wasn’t gathering up the proverbial household shovels and pitchforks for the pending battle un-nerved and enraged me all the more.
Of course, I was not alone in any of this. In a 2017 essay for a book co-edited by psychiatrists from Harvard Medical School and the Yale School of Medicine, Jennifer Panning of Evanston, Ill., coined the condition “Trump Anxiety Disorder.” As distinguished from generalized anxiety disorder, TAD was connected to “symptoms specific to the election of Trump and the resultant unpredictable sociopolitical climate.” In an interview, Panning described the disorder as marked by “increased worry, obsessive thought patterns, muscle tension and obsessive preoccupation with the news.” This unofficial diagnosis also referred to as Post-Trump-Anxiety-Disorder would surely be comical if it weren’t so nuts for those experiencing it. LaMotte, founder of the D.C. Counseling and Psychotherapy Center, referred to what she saw in the clinic as: “A collective anxiety among patients who [felt] on edge about how potentially dire the president’s decisions could be.” LaMotte was struck by “how much their anxieties resemble those of patients raised by a parent with a personality disorder — someone who would display traits like “grandiosity, excessive attention-seeking and severe lack of empathy.” Well, there you have it.
For those with a history of parental abuse, Trump’s presidency has the impact of being re-traumatizing, but notable, also, is the research on the impact on women, at large. According to this research, as a white, financially secure white woman, what I was experiencing was a cake walk. Medium writer Sady Doyle sums it up well:
One 2017 study, published in the Journal of American College Health, found that following the 2016 election, 25% of students developed PTSD-like symptoms and suffered “clinically significant” levels of stress comparable to people who had witnessed a mass shooting. Female students, in particular, were 45% more likely to report trauma symptoms — a risk that was heightened for black and Latina women.
*WTF!* The Whole Global, Technological, Environmental, Late Capitalist Catastrophe
But to capture the full scale of this breakdown, I need to cop to the truth that it wasn’t just Trump. In these surreal, all-too-real times, he was the straw that broke the back of my long-standing denial about the whole catastrophe, the impact of which extends much further into the future than the next several elections. My addiction to the news, while fueled by an industry that makes money off alarming headlines, exposed me nevertheless to the many looming realities that during the Obama years I’d naively assumed our ‘leadership’ would address.
On the surface was the rapid and daunting gap between rich and poor that has long since made a mockery of the “American Dream”. Next, the daunting and increasingly blatant evidence of climate change in 2016 – raging fires on our doorstep, friends losing houses, devastating mudslides further south, record-level rainfall and hurricanes in the gulf growing in ferocity and number. These marked mounting evidence of a problem far greater than any of us seemed able to fathom, now spreading epically, like the wrath of an old-testament God meted out across our un-prepared country.
Also mounting, was my frustration with the day-to-day exposure on my computer and phone to relentless efforts to colonize my credit card with a barrage of emails and pop-up ads on every webpage I visit. Here, the commercial age of the 80s and 90s met today’s digital age leaving me questioning any value I might have in the public sphere short of the dollars I might spend. Not only was I sick of my consciousness being assaulted by silicon valley algorithms, I could no longer deny that our global run-amok addiction to buying “stuff” was facing an imminent shelf life. Our current rate of consumerism, which so-called ‘developing’ countries around the world are hungering to replicate, is endlessly extracting from a planet with limited resources. We consume, in America, each year, raw materials the planet takes (5) years to recover. It’s patently unsustainable. Capitalism as we know it – our God of choice – is destined to self-destruct. And then speaking of death, the global habitat destruction, which has long since triggered record level species extinctions – tragic in itself – is on track to very possibly include the extinction of humans, themselves. What kind of planetary homicide and human suicide mission are we on?
I knew these things – sort of, because I didn’t want to know them – but the dire national situation somehow threw them further in my face. All this, and I am a mother. To repeat, because it matters … I am a mother. Why did I even have children is this was the present and future my children would inherit? What was I thinking? Not only was this the world we were giving them, but I could see, even in the short term, that my twin boys were growing up in a culture moving at a wholly, un-natural, warp speed towards this future I didn’t want to know. So much of what I valued as meaningful play from my own childhood was replaced by a screen I was constantly battling against for attention, a screen which tech companies – oblivious to the well-being of children’s growth and development – use to maximize their dopamine charged profits. Fifty percent of the challenge of parenting these days (as if it weren’t challenging enough) has been taken up figuring out how to invent the god-damned wheel of screen-time-management. Where, amidst all this was there anything left of real value? There was nothing, I mean nothing beyond our front door, beyond flesh and blood contact, that I felt good about in my children’s future.
The present convergence of crises––in money, energy, education, health,
water, soil, climate, politics, the environment, and more––
is a birth crisis, expelling us from the old world into [the] new.
― Charles Eisenstein
Six months into his presidency, the impact of what Marianne Williamson has referred to as the Trump Phenomenon and its confluence with the pretty apocalyptic events happening around our world led me to a un-sustainable state of distraction, an addiction to Apple News, daily irritability, short-temperedness, sleepless nights and erratic mood swings. There are two things worthy of note here: First, if these symptoms were signs of an ‘hysterical female’, then the evidence seems to suggest we are an epidemic. Second, I was suffering. While the atmosphere of our times may privatize this pain as something to be addressed in therapy, this epidemic was personal just as much as it was political – individual just as much as it was collective.
What to do about it?
When desperate beyond measure, our human bodies choose from a set of natural responses (familiar to trauma experts) to mitigate the pain. We can collapse (freeze) to preserve energy and hope that somehow the predator will pass on, assuming us dead. We can run for the hills, (flight), hoping to avoid the danger by…uh, getting away from it. Or, we can fight, engaging in retaliatory action, charging forward with all our might in the service of eradicating the aggressor. In that first six months after Trump’s elections, many Americans like me, locked into the fight position, our bodies poised for action with the urgent question: What can we do about this!?
In 2017, America saw the rapid-fire growth of Indivisible Groups, calls and texts to elected representatives, record attendance at women’s marches, rising donations to the ACLU, all kinds of networking on-line, and more. I stepped up, calling representatives, joining email groups offering lists of “Three things you can do each day to fight back.” I went to rallies, mailed postcards, attended local meetings. Many good things were developed in this constructive fight mode, but as much as I did this, I couldn’t get rid of the gnawing sense that it wasn’t enough. Day in and out, the unpredictable headlines left me feeling that the familiar practices of citizenship – voting, calling representatives, canvassing – even as they were now being stretched had never felt so pathetically limited. My hunger and urgency to engage as a citizen was blowing out beyond the prescribed options, and my painful awareness of their insufficiency left me with an untenable sense of rudderless as an American.
Had I been able to tune-out on Netflix or ‘do my part’ and then hunker down and pray for something to shift in the next election (flight through denial), maybe I would have done that. Had I been able to give up in cynicism or apathy, or ride this out as a bad chapter in our history that would eventually pass (freeze in collapse), perhaps I would have. But given my history, given my familiarity with what giving up or “falling asleep” looks like in these situations – I couldn’t. I knew this place. I knew it required more to triumph than doing more (no matter how important the activity) or, instead, putting my head under a pillow to pray. So what was next?
The trouble was, as the days of Trump’s presidency crept on, along-side my sense of urgency and panic, I had become increasingly depressed and hopeless. With each new piece of evidence that the GOP was willing to sell its soul for re-election, the resolve and clarity I felt on that day after Trump’s election got steadily eroded by overwhelm and grief. With the dial turned up on my own history and the teapot starting to whistle I found I had no choice. I needed to turn towards the hopelessness, itself – to just face up to the fact that everything felt totally fucked and, instead of fighting my feelings, I could take a deep breath, walk to the stove and pour them and myself a cup of tea.
I wasn’t going to get anywhere, after all, if I didn’t take care of ground zero and that meant it was time, again, to face my past. Or, to use another admittedly overused, but apropos hot water metaphor, if I wasn’t going to be the frog that boiled in the slowly heating water, I’d have to wake up and notice the water was getting hot. Doing something as a person, as a woman, as a citizen, would need to include this – noticing my own state of fear and pain and turning towards it. And here, right where I was pushed to the place where all hope was lost, I had to trade in the world I wanted… for the one I was living in.
How to be with it?
The turn towards my despair, to face it squarely and get support with it, had less to do with changing what I was doing than with addressing my (well) being. This is not about taking a trip to the spa here, I mean first, acknowledging the active wounds.
I have long believed the attention to our being along-side doing as citizens and activists is essential to the resilience and capacity of our most inspiring civil-rights movements. African Americans and other minorities in America are entirely too familiar with the impossible helplessness and hopelessness created by white narcissism and the unjust use of power. As a deeply inscribed ‘way of seeing’ rooted in projection and prejudice, racism in the mind of its host is an unforgiving beast. The wound this creates, unique, particular to each individual, but a burden, shared from birth by those with darker skin in a country whose culture is sick with racism, has to be seen if there is any hope of overcoming. As James Baldwin with his wise, measured and profound truth telling said: “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.”
Black Americans have a long history of familiarity with the experience of helpless rage and powerlessness reaching the minds and hearts of white, narcissistically fragile Americans. However, when faced with this utter powerlessness in outer circumstances, they have come together in communities providing support for tending to the wound – communities that understand that true resilient power, when it feels lost in ourselves, has to come from somewhere else.
The early history of civil rights activism harbors a familiarity with leaning into the wounds of racism, into the grief and hurt, rage and anger with the support of community and spirituality. Accordingly, there is ample evidence of a deep heritage of resilience and indestructible joy at the heart of much of civil rights activism – a joy and resilience that defies and mystifies external power. The ‘silver lining’ if you could call it that of our current dire circumstances may be that it is introducing a frontier of reckoning for many more white, privileged Americans facing their hopelessness and despair – a despair in facing the culture we, after all, have created. Silver linings, after all, don’t appear until we face the utter darkness. So, it follows that doubling down on the wellbeing of my soul as citizens would require tending to its wounds.
Today’s Inside Story: The Personal Just Got a Whole Lot More Political
In 2017, the tending to the soul I did was not in a Baptist church or a bible reading. It didn’t happen with a piano and saxophone or in praise along-side others with whom I shared a multi-generational history of racism. It took the form of therapy and spiritual inquiry and practice assisted by women. It also took shape in conversations with other women writers, friends – male and female – engaging, in deepening ways in what Walter Bruggeman calls the “public processing of pain”. These spaces were not bitch sessions, (though plenty of steam was let off), they did not further the polarized political divide, they were not rallies for the cause, they did not solidify my identity and confidence as an activist or Democrat. They were an honest reckoning – requiring courage and a willingness to be vulnerable – with a painful personal history that was dovetailing with our current political climate.
Therapy and spiritual practice are typically viewed as an exit from the public sphere into the private, personal territory of our lives. However, in hindsight, I can see that this turn, for me, while clearly personal, was not a step out of the political process but a step in. The line between the personal and political was clearly blurred and my choice to directly engage the impact of current events was a personal necessity. However, my choice to turn towards the impact our current events were having on me was also an active engagement with our political history as I was experiencing it as an American citizen and a woman.
It turns out that this journey towards tending to the feelings of “PTSD” and the “whole catastrophe” – this inner path of citizenship – irreversibly changed the way I see the world. It broke me open in ways I couldn’t have imagined in that first six months when the Trump wrecking ball made its way beyond D.C. and Mara Lago into every aspect of my personal life.
Something important is happening in our world that you will not read about in the newspapers. I consider it the most fascinating and hopeful development of our time, and it is one of the reasons I am so glad to be alive today. It has to do with our notion of the self. – Joanna Macey
I have my story, which I will tell, fully aware that there are so many others. Mine and others’ are stories about where despair is met with courage, where anger, rage and grief are embraced, and sometimes, where familiar worldviews crumble, along-side the self-images that go with them, making room for something new. When we chronicle these stories, I believe we take a stand for the future against the gale force winds of today’s dire climate. We fill ourselves out as a new kind of citizen with a deepened level of commitment and purpose. In this way, my story and others’ are the people’s story, coming from down in the day-to-day, psychological trenches of democracy. They are stories about how the inner work unfolding now amounts to the growing pains of democracy, how what unfurls at this deeper layer where the personal has become political is evolving citizenship in a new era of human history.
In the next section of this essay, I begin my story. It is not meant to be a prescriptive story. There is no way to replicate someone else’s unfolding. Each person, when they unravel, surrenders and finds their deeper value has its own fingerprint, as unique as their individual history and irreplaceable soul. I have shared here that the background of my story lies in the patriarchal narcissism of my childhood and its collision course with Donald Trump’s election as President. However, the foreground is unusual in that the protagonist is not so much me as my relationship to the feelings I was having.
What becomes possible when we show up in presence, embodied, meeting the emotional legacy of our history? What arises from the all-too-human vulnerability that connects us all in the process of deep healing? My story, in the end, is a story about the reclamation of tender truths about our shared humanity – truths that are indestructible and essential dimensions of our experience. When deeply known, they cannot be negated or denied and they carry with them the values I believe will be essential to guiding Democracy’s future. My story is about humanity, truth and the power in love, and the love in power, capable of forging a new citizenship for a new era.
Trump is not the story. What unites us is.