This article describes the dynamics of abusive relationships and references PTSD. Please be mindful of this, and gentle with yourself, before reading further.
America is in an abusive relationship with Trump. This sound bite has been repeated countless times since Ibram X. Kendi’s article was published in 2019, and the events of this year have brought it into even sharper focus. His gaslighting didn’t just begin in 2020, though; it started long before the 2016 election. The slogan “Make America Great Again” is a perfect example. It’s right up there with “No one will ever love you like I do.” Trump told us that although America was once great, it isn’t any more, and he is the only person who can save us. So which is it? Is this a great country? Or is it a failure in need of fixing? By telling Americans to believe both things at once, he has fundamentally undermined our sense of reality.
The transfer of power from Trump to President-elect Joe Biden has been far from straightforward. At first, the Republican leader flat-out refused to concede. He continues to make baseless allegations about election fraud which serve only to divide our country further. Our collective relationship with this abuser may be changing, but it will not end quickly.
For better and also for worse, Trump’s behavior is not new. Abuse follows a very predictable pattern, and we are not the first people to live through it. As we fight for freedom, we must also fight for our own sanity. These survival strategies will empower you to do just that.
1. Check the Facts
When you first get out of a relationship, whether or not it’s abusive, it’s tempting to engage in black and white thinking. “This person was wrong about everything,” you might say to yourself, or “it’s all my fault they hit me.” The truth is likely far more nuanced. I am not defending any of Trump’s actions; I do not believe there were ever good times with him. However, many of his supporters feel differently. No matter where you fall on the political spectrum, it’s important to be mindful of the details. Trump has repeatedly lied about his own behavior in response to COVID, and the American public is exhausted. It’s emotionally draining to keep up with the news, and hard to discern which sources are reputable.
As we move forward from this administration, we must stay grounded in fact. Do your research. In the midst of our emotional turmoil, we can apply therapeutic techniques to our engagement with the news. In both Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), providers counsel their clients to check the facts. While this may seem obvious in the context of consuming media, it has deeply personal implications.
When you’re confronted with an emotionally charged situation, such the rising COVID numbers, you may fall into a spiral. Fear of our country’s economic future can quickly escalate into an anxiety fantasy about living under a bridge with your hungry children. If this happens, interrupt your thoughts. Look around you. Come into the present moment and make a list of undeniable truths. For example: “I just read an article about the economy. Unemployment numbers are up. I am experiencing anxiety.” Remind yourself that your worst fears have not come to pass; if they do, you will handle them in the future. Rehearsing as-yet imaginary trauma simply compounds the experience. Don’t borrow trouble.
2. Go Slow
Healing is a-linear, and it takes time. As hopeful as you may feel at the prospect of Biden’s presidency, the wounds inflicted by 2020 will not simply disappear in January. If it were that simple, PTSD would not exist. Be patient with yourself. As you adjust to a new normal, you may experience heightened anxiety long after Trump leaves office. Some of us may even have flashbacks to the hardest moments of this year. These, too, shall pass. As you work through this time, it’s especially important to avoid pretending you’re ok when you aren’t. Whether you tell that lie to yourself or to the people around you, it can damage your relationships and your sense of identity. If left unchecked, this pretense can become another form of gaslighting. It’s not uncommon for abuse survivors to develop abusive tendencies themselves. Be mindful of your behavior. If this begins to happen, don’t double down on violent self-talk. Tell your therapist about it and look for ways to interrupt your unhealthy patterns.
Even in the depths of this painful process, there’s good news: lasting trauma is not entirely negative. Survivors are capable of great things, including post-traumatic growth. Studies suggest that trauma can even increase compassion and prosocial behavior. There is gold to be mined here. When we emerge from our current isolation, we will have the opportunity to turn toward each other in a brand new way. In our current political climate, that’s more important than ever.
3. Dream and Scheme
In the last 10 months, how many times have you heard the phrase “at the end of the world”? How strongly do you identify with the “this is fine” meme? We’ve all spent at least part of this year feeling hopeless. In October, the Red Cross reported that more than half of the global population was experiencing anxiety and/or depression. That was months ago, and our situation has not improved. Just like COVID, this mental health crisis is a pandemic.
At the end of any relationship, many people feel like their life is over. This feeling is even more extreme when the relationship was abusive. Abuse is addictive. Survivors get caught up in the extreme highs and lows, associating happiness with instability. It can seem impossible to experience the same overwhelming joy in a healthy context. While it’s unlikely that you’re addicted to the highs of 2020, you may still feel like future happiness is out of reach. It’s not. I promise.
Hope is a discipline. It should, however, not be confused with expectation. We can’t possibly know what the future holds, and complacency is a greater danger than ever. But allowing yourself to dream of a better future can have a measurable impact on your success.
Imagine, just for a moment, that you’ll come through this year safely. Imagine that you’ll keep your job or find a better one; that your loved ones will stay healthy or heal from their illnesses; that you’ll go outside again. Imagine that you’ll adjust to a new normal, connect with your community, and be able to read the news without fear.
If you accept the premise that your basic needs will be met, what then? Who would you like to be? How would you like to spend your time? Where would you travel? What kinds of art would you make?
To build a better life, you must first dream it into being. Find concrete ways to articulate your goals. Think; write; draw; sing. Most importantly, talk to your community. By sharing your ideas, you can both inspire and be inspired by the people around you.
Abuse thrives on isolation, and we are all extremely isolated right now. However, healing requires some amount of healthy and intentional solitude. You have the opportunity to rebuild your life from the ground up, reassess your priorities, and get to know yourself again. You might dust off old passions or find new ones. You might completely redefine yourself. As you do this, take stock of your past experiences. We have lost so very much, but there are some things no one can take away.
When I left my abusive ex-partner, I felt like I’d forgotten how to have other relationships. I desperately needed support from my community, but so much of what they offered me felt hollow. Almost everyone wanted me to hate her, but I wasn’t ready for that. Just the mention of her name triggered a cascade of fear and longing; despite all that had happened, I just wanted to go home. I didn’t trust myself to make the right decision, and I blamed myself for all her bad behavior. The single most helpful piece of advice anyone gave me during that time came from my brilliant sister, and had nothing to do with my ex. “You’re still you,” she said to me, over and over again, as many times as I asked her to repeat it. “You’re still you.”