Can You Relate?

"We need one another. We need the bonds of community, political solidarity and collective action if there is any chance of alleviating the darkness of this era. We can prevail — we can protect our democracy, our planet and our emotional well-being — only if we do so together."


A Biden Win Won’t Cure My Trump-Era Depression

I find hope and relief from my misery in things that have nothing to do with the election.

By Mychal Denzel Smith

Mr. Smith is a writer.

New York Times, Sept. 11, 2020

When I was 12 years old, my cousin was killed. I started having trouble sleeping.

Looking back, that’s when my depression took hold. I couldn’t concentrate in school, and my grades slipped. I lost interest in friendships.

From that year until my early adulthood, every spring, around the anniversary of my cousin’s death, my despondency would return. My panic attacks started when I was 16; I waited until I was of legal age to add an unhealthy relationship with alcohol to the mix.

Through therapy, I’ve become good at recognizing the signs of depression and warding off the worst of its effects. I can note my own social withdrawal, recognize that I have slipped deeper into an overwhelming sadness and correct some very basic things in my life — diet, exercise, sleep, returning phone calls — to help me get back to normal.

Since the day Donald Trump was elected, this hasn’t worked.

I know I’m not alone. According to the American Psychiatric Association, in 2017, 36 percent of adults described themselves as feeling more anxious than they did previous year. Also in 2017, more than 17 million American adults and three million between the ages of 12 and 17 had at least one major depressive episode. A psychologist, Jennifer Panning, has even assigned a name to mental health problems attributed to this presidency: Trump Anxiety Disorder.

Some of us broke four years ago and haven’t recovered. Along with so many others, I had to ask myself what it meant to live in a system that allowed for a proudly racist and sexist representative of the capitalist class to seize presidential power. I mourned for the younger version of myself that had cast his first vote for the first Black presidential candidate on a major party ticket and had his cynicism challenged when that candidate actually won.

In the beginning, I tried taking up Muay Thai, thinking that the endorphins and supposedly healthy space to place my anger would be able to buoy me. But as much fun as it was to strap on gloves and beat a heavy bag, I lost interest within a couple of months and gave in to my desire to do nothing. I saw all the familiar signs: I wasn’t answering phone calls. I was taking days and weeks to respond to texts, if I responded at all. I slept infrequently, fitful and afraid.

I know well that this moment in history is not an aberration. But I’m haunted by thoughts of the tens of thousands of migrant children who have been held in detention and away from their families, 100-degree days in Siberia, people dying alone of Covid-19 and the astronomical infection rates among American Indians and Black Americans. I feel an overwhelming sense of powerlessness.

No, I never assumed that in my lifetime we would defeat the entrenched forces of white supremacist heteropatriarchal capitalism. But I had come around to believing that a slow, frustrating but ultimately sustainable victory and all the jubilation that would come along with it was something my friends’ children might someday experience.

That sense of possibility has largely dissipated. I am afraid every single day — of wildfires in California, of hurricanes on the Gulf Coast, of the police and ICE, of going to the grocery store in a pandemic, of Electoral College math.

When I can’t sleep, I think of the time I walked by a Planned Parenthood in New York City and watched a person affix a cross to the side of the building and pray over it — a reminder of how reproductive rights remain under attack and are in danger of being whittled down to nothing. I think of how Breonna Taylor didn’t even see the police coming. I think of how I lost my great-aunt to Covid-19.

I feel fragile.

But as the election approaches, I know I can’t rely on a President Biden to cure my Trump-era depression. If he wins, it will simply represent a return to the normalcy favored by Democrats and the lie of American unity. A Biden presidency would not bring with it the same level of incompetence-meets-evil that we have suffered under the Trump administration. But without an agenda aimed at radically transforming (or in some cases eliminating altogether) the institutions that have caused so much harm, the best we can hope for is four years of bipartisan compromises that leave us facing the same challenges. Electing Mr. Biden is, at this point, a necessary measure to beat back the worst of the Trump era, but it is hardly a balm in and of itself.

So when I’m briefly able to shake loose my sense of dread, it’s not tied to a fantasy about Nov. 4. Instead, it’s the result of the hope I’ve found in pockets: the teenagers who lead climate marches, the protests at the border against family separation, the defeat of new prison construction, the ending of cash bail, a brand-new nationwide call to defund and abolish the police, and a tide of progressive lawmakers elected to local and national offices, from New York to St. Louis. The systems of mutual aid that have formed in response to the pandemic. The largest protest movement in this nation’s history.

I can imagine coming out of this depression when I think of examples of people acting together to make the world better and fairer for themselves, but also for strangers. It’s not unlike when I have to make myself return texts and phone calls — I can lift myself out of misery by remembering that I’m part of a collective. And that we care about one another.

This is perhaps the greatest lesson of the Trump era for me, one worth repeating to myself every day even when this presidency is a distant memory: We need one another. We need the bonds of community, political solidarity and collective action if there is any chance of alleviating the darkness of this era. We can prevail — we can protect our democracy, our planet and our emotional well-being — only if we do so together.

On good days, I can see that happening. I can look through the fog of this Trump-era depression

This doesn’t often last long. But what I’ve learned from my depression is that you have to string together as many of these moments as you can, until eventually they give way to a better life.

Mychal Denzel Smith is the author of the forthcoming book “Stakes Is High: Life After the American Dream,” from which this essay is adapted.

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