In early January, almost exactly a year into our American adventure, I started experiencing intermittent tightness in my chest. I didn’t pay it too much mind, thinking I had perhaps strained a muscle. During the midnight hours, however, the symptoms in my chest were accompanied by a tingling sensation down my arm and a numbness on one side of my face.
I got a little concerned. In the murky darkness of early dawn, it was all too easy to begin imagining my children growing up without a mother sooner than I had expected. Although the words heart attack were not uttered,when these obscure sensations recurred on a second night, my husband insisted I see a doctor.
It was mere days after my 47th birthday, DC felt like a frozen gulag and Trump was poised to become the new leader of the “free world”.
The doctor sent me directly to the Emergency Room, where I spent eight long hours undergoing a battery of medical examinations. I was hooked up to an electrocardiogram and monitored hourly for blood pressure while they ran chest X-rays, blood tests and MRI scans. With plenty of time to wait and listen, I peered directly into the admissions area from my room and felt like I had been transported to the popular ’90s television series, ER. I saw it all, screaming patients, gossiping nurses, gunshot wounds and the preternaturally verbal teenager who spelled out a litany of anxiety medications.
Inside the claustrophobic, deafening MRI machine, I practised mindful breathing and was able to survive the 30 minutes enclosed like a mummy.
Having been prodded and probed within an inch of my life, I am relieved to announce I am not about to die yet. My tests results all came back clear. Still, there was no clarity for what had caused my symptoms. Until, of course, it dawned on me that the most likely culprit was stress.
And I wasn’t alone.
In the tense lead-up to the elections and even more so after Trump was elected, a collective anxiety was unleashed onto the American landscape. I had my own personal reasons for feeling anxious; moving countries and the unavoidable mid-life crisis, but the shadow cast by Trump’s victory undermined the very ground beneath me. I had thought I was moving to a hopeful and relatively robust America. The elections cracked open the chasm of discord and seething resentment beneath a dream of Obaman optimism.
Psychologists reported a spike in anxiety among their clients, even dubbing it “post-election stress disorder”. Everywhere around me, neighbours walking their dogs and mothers dropping off their kids at school complained of heightened nerves, sleeplessness and even fear. Hate crimes proliferated and friends in our seemingly Jewish-friendly neighbourhood received virulently anti-Semitic pamphlets in their mailboxes.
Nothing seemed secure. Suddenly there was a big question mark over the future of the planet, immigrant and refugee rights, women’s rights, education, healthcare, the list goes on. Therapists even spoke of a drop in libido and described the symptoms like being in mourning. Online, there was an explosion of self-help articles to deal with the new political reality. On any given day, I could read articles with titles like:
Trump-induced Anxiety is a Real Thing
How to Resist Trump without losing your mind,
Fear, Anxiety and Depression in the Age of Trump
50 ways to take break from Trump
How to survive Trump and stay sane
Activism and Burnout in the Trump era,
A Zen Master’s advice on coping with Trump
I HAVE SINCE found a modicum of comfort in the idea that I belong to a new club, a sleepless, agitated, dissenting, resisting hub.Do the others sense, as I do, that there is something different about the insecurity Tump engenders, something beyond his Republican agenda? I read an article by conservative commentator, Andrew Sullivan, which sums up the almost primordial dysfunction America is living under.
“It’s less like living in a democracy than being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father, who will brook no reason, respect no counter-argument, admit no error, and always, always up the ante until catastrophe inevitably strikes. This is what I mean by the idea that we are living through an emergency,” he writes.
That tension has seeped into my life, robbing me of sleep and equilibrium. Living in DC, at the epicentre of it all, made it worse somehow. Washington is not the calmest place to begin with. The city is continually rushing to make the next deal, the next meeting, the next deadline. A recent ranking of the most and least stressed states in the US found that DC tops the charts for the highest divorce rate and crime rate per capita, as well as some of the least affordable housing and most hours worked per week.
In the early, turbulent stages of moving to America, I joined a year-long women’s mindfulness program. I felt isolated, exhausted and uncentered. My energies had been sapped by setting up house and appeasing children uprooted from their familiar surrounds. I wanted to feel anchored again and open to new possibilities, maybe make some friends. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into and I certainly didn’t know that learning mindfulness would become a lifeline for me.
In our first session, we commit to pause for five minutes a day, while sitting quietly and focusing on our breath. It is both easier and harder than it sounds, but it starts to change my life. I start paying attention to my own journey and I choose to get involved, rather than be overwhelmed by reality.
I HAVE BEEN practising mindfulness for a year now; finding my way and losing it again. Still, I keep coming back. A few weeks ago, while Trump was wielding a sword and awkwardly dancing the male-bonding ardah in a televised spectacle in Saudi Arabia, I was holed up in the woods of Maryland in a bonding experience of my own. Together with 30 women I have come to know and treasure, I was attending our group’s culminating retreat and reflecting on a rocky year.
On the eve of Shabbat, a fellow Jewish participant made the traditional blessings over the candles and challah and we literally broke bread together before eating our simple meal in mindful silence. On our last morning, we woke early to do some silent walking meditation.
The heady fragrance of honeysuckle is the first thing to hit me as I step outside my cabin into the morning air. Above me, the deep green leaves of oak and beech form a dappled canopy. I try to focus and get into a rhythm of breath and step. My initial scrambled thoughts and self-consciousness abate as I continue to put one foot in front of the other.
I find an unexpectedly welcome relief in the silence and a concomitant sharpening of my senses, a deepening awareness of the world around me. As we continue walking, I notice not just the trees but the shape of the leaves, I hear the squirrel and the bird calls, separate and distinct. The chatter in my head is quietening, and longer buried feelings and memories are emerging.
We move towards a green clearing in the woods, slowly forming a circle. I am welcomed by the thrum of singing voices and as I join the circle I feel the prick of tears come to my eyes.
No matter how I rail against it, Trump is my companion on this American journey. He is an integral part of my here and now. America is reflected through the prism of his mindless tweets, but America is also this community of women teaching me to breathe, teaching me vulnerability and connection. Although I don’t have any answers for surviving Trump, I know that slowing down to pause and take a deep breath is a good beginning.
DC Diary 1: Trump and me