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I couldn’t recall when I’d last experienced similar symptoms. Churning in my stomach. Elusive rational thought. Inability to string words together coherently. Zombie-like motions. But I knew they felt familiar when they set in Election Night 2016.
I had a basement full of revelers, many in pantsuits and suffrage colors. I handed out “pussy” ears at the door. The champagne was iced, ready to pop when we hit 270. There was a fine spread of food, with a cake inscribed, Congratulations, Madam President. A life-size cardboard Hillary with a gold crown was holding court. I am Woman was queued up for our Nasty Woman Victory Dance in the street.
It was supposed to be an early night; all the polls predicted an easy victory. But I intuitively sensed Hillary wasn’t going to win; I’d had anxiety about it throughout the campaign. And early on that evening, before guests arrived, I heard the announcer say, “The Obama coalition isn’t holding together.”
The unthinkable was happening.
Guests arrived, equally nervous. To lift our spirits, we sang parodies about Trump. We ate Mexican food. “That’s OK,” we murmured when a state tally came in. “We expected to lose that one.”
But then, “too early to call” became “too close to call.” The laughter stopped as state after state turned red on the big screen. Some friends left sobbing uncontrollably.
I don’t remember exiting my own party to start madly washing dishes upstairs. I could faintly hear people asking where I was and their collective groans as more states were lost. Sounds came to me as though through a tunnel.
I kept scrubbing.
“Do you want us to leave?” remaining guests asked, when I reappeared to collect more dishes to wash.
“No, that’s fine. Stay put.” I rotely responded. Scrub, scrub, scrub.
One by one, the stragglers filed out when they realized there was to be no Breaking News telling us Florida had been called wrong.
I don’t remember saying goodbye to anyone. Or if I even did. I’d slipped into shock.
I crawled into bed at 1am, devoid of any hope for Hillary’s presidency. Or for our country’s future. But I didn’t cry; I was too robotic.
Early the next morning, 4am to be exact, a line in my book about my mother’s death flooded my consciousness: I wake up, and my mother is still dead. That’s when I remembered the circumstances under which I’d previously experienced these symptoms – when my mother had died.
Because when I woke up on November 9, Donald Trump was still the victor; it was not a nightmare. My brain has registered that message every fitful morning since election night – if I can even sleep. I wake up, and Trump is still president-elect.
After my mom’s passing, time helped me heal. Grief was supplanted by joyful experiences. Yet the passage of time under his administration has the potential to drive my fears and grief deeper as he implements his promised retaliatory agenda.
No, time won’t help this, I realized the morning after, sinking deeper into despair. But I didn’t cry until the next afternoon, prompted by a friend’s hug. To my shock and his, the first halting words out of my mouth were, “I. HATE. HIM.”
As a progressive, I’ve often been on the losing side of elections, both national and local. I’ve come to expect it. But I’ve never before felt personal loathing toward the opposition. And, yes, right now, for those who voted for him. This feels so personal because Trump has many of my friends in his crosshairs. And perhaps me.
I’ve never before equated a political loss to a personal death either. A death of so many dreams I didn’t realize I was so closely holding: To have a highly-qualified female president in my lifetime; to continue President Obama’s agenda; to be a better country than political rhetoric suggests. To send Donald Trump’s vitriol back to his tower.
After my mother died, I joined a hospice support group to assuage my grief, which was manifesting as helplessness and anger. In parallel fashion, the Sunday after the election, I invited my party guests back for a therapy session to assuage our collective grief, which is manifesting similarly. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to Kubler-Ross’ fifth stage. I’m not sure we should strive for acceptance; I don’t want to become impervious to what we have wrought.
As a caregiver for my mother, I’d turned to journaling to exorcise fear and grief from my physical being. That became a book, which created opportunities for me to speak to groups about the pain of adult parental loss and needed advocacy. Slowly emerging from shock after this election, I again intend to unleash the power of the written word to heal myself and others. To publicly advocate for groups, organizations, programs, and policies under attack.
The keyboard is mightier than the sword. And writing is very therapeutic.
Consider this the first chapter.
Even though right now it feels like my dreams are still dead.
Copyright 2016 Patricia A. Nugent