Since sometime around, oh I dunno, November of 2016 I believe? The world has looked a little different. And since then it seems like Americans have awakened to a constant slog of international embarrassments, “collusions,” and domestic policies that seem to fly in the face of what slightly over half the country actually thinks the United States SHOULD stand for. Even the positive progress that’s been made — the spotlight shown on movements like #BlackLivesMatter and #MeToo, for example — serves to underscore just how deep-rooted and constant those abuses of power and systemic inequality have always been. Even as we try and reflect on how we got to this point, and where we go from here, many of us still face a daily battle to cope with our lingering anger and general sense of hopelessness.
So how much worse is it for those of us struggling with mental health issues? That’s the crux of this week’s advice inquiry — one that led to a very long discussion on the Pajiba Slack which went, well, just about how you’d expect from the Overlords. And by that I mean: pessimism so practical that it almost feels like optimism. These are the times we live in, folks.
[Reminder: If you too need a reality check, that is just one of the many services we provide! Drop us a line at [email protected] and we’ll make you feel better. Or worse? We’ll definitely make you feel… something.]
Here’s today’s letter:
I’ve been reading the site for at least ten years (whenever you did the “Lindsay Lohan hates Pajiba” ad campaign) and love what you do.
I have Bipolar I. I’m compliant with all five of my prescription meds and see a therapist every week. I’ve been getting good results from alternative medicine and dietary changes; I have a supportive spouse and network of friends.
The fact of my mental illness is not the problem. The problem is my worst nightmares keep coming true every fucking day of the week. No need to recap. Even when I’m having a nice day, underneath my skin is naked paranoia and terror. And when I see that same fear on other people’s faces, it freaks me the fuck out. Because then what I’m feeling must be valid.
See, I was involuntarily committed for a month back in January 2016. I hadn’t slept for five days and was screaming that Donald Trump would will kill us all. I still think that. There is no bottom to this. The spineless R-branded potatoes in Congress will never act. The people I grew up with are his base, perfect Good Germans and Dear Leader enablers. America is the Galactic Empire, not the scrappy rebels, and it’s 1938 already and this time we have nukes and Twitter.
And when I share my pessimism in my blue metro bubble? If I try to get my spouse to have a conversation about where we can go to survive peak oil and water shortages and sea level rise? When I insist on renewing our passports (done) and strongly suggest we get a visa to anywhere? Then I must be ill. I must be going CRAZY. I would feel much better if I’d just stop reading the news. Because look out the window, everything’s fine.
This isn’t a request to help me balance self-care and activism. This is a plea to help me know whether to trust my own mind and body (which says “prepare for the end of the world”) or the well-meaning people who were fucking wrong last time. Well-meaning people can authorize doctors to medicate me until I drool and forget my own name.
I can’t speak specifically to your Bipolar I disorder, as you obviously know yourself better than I. It certainly sounds like you know your situation, take positive steps to manage your health, and recognize when you’re not OK. So instead, let’s unpack the root of your question: whether to trust yourself or those around you. And I think that issue is more complicated than it seems. Let’s start with everybody else, because I think a lot of us were “wrong” about the turn our country was taking in the last election. It seemed impossible that Trump could win, and even seeing that it wasn’t, in fact, impossible at all doesn’t make it make any more sense. It’s a bad punchline that fucking happened — and the reality continues to be not funny. So I can’t hold it against anyone who truly believed our country was better than that, because I’m one of those people too. However, maybe it’s not your loved ones’ grasp of politics that you need to trust in, but their knowledge of you. They may not be able to predict when our country is on the brink or about to take a turn for the worse, but they still may know you well enough to know when you need help.
Of course, that’s assuming they truly are well-meaning and know your situation. If they’re just calling you crazy even when you are managing your fear in a healthy way, that’s not helpful. But through talking about your fears with people you trust, maybe they can commiserate with you on the ones that they share (we’re in this together! everything’s awful!), and identify the ones that may be a bit excessive. The key here is knowing who to trust to look out for YOU, and that’s something only you can decide.
As far as your own instincts go — well, you’re not wrong. We’re in a bad place right now, and it’s scary AF — not only in terms of our society but also in terms of climate change. And it’s important to be aware of it, and talk about it, and be vigilant! But the reality is that this isn’t necessarily exceptionally bad. Life has always been particularly not-good to somebody, somewhere. Even ignoring the history of a world filled with plagues and genocides and multinational wars, America has experienced plenty of dark times in its own past. Our nation was created by immigrants who committed atrocities against Native Americans, yet we still held it against every new group of people to cross our borders (remember when we lynched Italian-Americans?). We literally fought a war against ourselves during a time when we didn’t all agree on whether black lives mattered (except as property). Women didn’t always have the right to vote. There was a time in this country when students were taught to hide under their desks in the case of nuclear bomb strikes — now we buy them bulletproof backpacks.
Of course, there was also a time when we thought AIDS was just for gay men, or we could be killed by Tylenol, or that clandestine satanic sex abuse rituals could be happening right next door. Hell — compare where we are now with the 1980s, when we also elected a celebrity to the White House and people thought they were going to die basically all the time. And lots of people did die, from crime and crack epidemics. But not from an actual apocalypse. We’ve lived through some very real shit, and we’ve also lived through some shit that we sorta made up in our own paranoia. But the point is: We lived through it all, and now we’re here. With Trump.
Basically: This isn’t the end of the world. It’s just, well, THE WORLD. This is how it’s always been, and it’s easy when you’re in the thick of it to forget that we’ve survived a lot of social upheaval and political turmoil in the past. It always seems worse now, because “now” is the stuff that’s immediate to us. And chances are, we’ll live through this and continue to make more mistakes during the next generation under circumstances that may seem different but aren’t really. I’m sorry, I know that’s a cold sort of comfort, but I think perspective is important. After all, it’s not like systemic inequality is a new issue in America — it’s just that a very specific cross-section of America is really facing that fact. And we need to continue to face it.
But trusting your instincts and dealing with them isn’t the same thing. And I’m not going to lecture you about self-care, but I do want to support you taking practical steps to make yourself more comfortable. Renewing passports or researching how to get a visa are fine, if they bring you a real sense of control over your future. Better yet, volunteering for causes that are important to you or canvassing to help elect politicians you believe in are proactive ways of trying to improve the world around you a little bit at a time. Look — sometimes things still won’t work out the way you want, even if you put in the effort, and that shouldn’t discourage you from continuing to try. The thing about this pervasive fear is that it isn’t about the reality RIGHT NOW — it’s about the reality to come. And the only way to change that is to fight. It’s not easy, and we won’t get it right in one fell swoop, but we can correct our course step by step if we try.
Should you build an ark in case the sea levels rise, or a bunker to wait out the radiation? Maybe not. It doesn’t mean it won’t go down that way in our lifetime, but there are more immediate and realistic threats to our existence to deal with already. Like car accidents. Or cancer. If you start to live in fear, you realize that there is an endless amount of shit to be afraid of, all the time — things that don’t have anything to do with our society, and things we can’t control. So if possible, focus on the things you can change — and maybe that’s where you can talk to the people you trust for their opinions.
Maybe there’s a middle ground between trusting yourself and trusting your loved ones, where you’re not wrong but they also can help you keep things balanced.
And yes, you SHOULD get away from the news and look out the window if it helps you feel better. Dustin says, “There’s this thing that I do, when I’m watching terrifying horror movies in the theater, where I look away from the screen and look around at the people in the theater to remind myself that, as bad as everything is on the screen, it’s just fine inside this theater.” Perhaps the best piece of advice is to do just that, only with the world around you. Get away from your TV and your computer and your phone and step outside sometimes, to remember that even though everything seems awful, the world around you is still there, and it’s doing fine.
Or get a dog. Seriously, they help make EVERYTHING better.
And one final note about prepping for the end of the world, because that ended up being a whole tangent the Overlords went off on, in response to your question. We’re depressing motherfuckers sometimes, so our conclusion was: why bother? Do you REALLY want to survive into a post-apocalyptic hellscape? That sounds really hard. Most of the Overlords agreed that we’d probably run toward the bomb, if it came down to it. I ain’t spending my twilight years fighting mutants for canned beans. Fuck. That.
Image sources (in order of posting): Dr. Strangelove, Columbia Pictures