How to Survive Post-Trump Traumatic Stress Disorder

Photo by Michael on Unsplash

The day after Joe Biden’s Inauguration, a friend wrote me: “I’m celebrating, but also crashing with fatigue. You?”

“Yes, I’m exhausted,” I responded, realizing that for the first time in four years I hadn’t begun my day dreading what new divisive tactic or vendetta Trump had instigated with his Twitter tantrums.

“The monster is gone,” she wrote back. “But our hypervigilance has been so stressful.”

For those of us deeply troubled by Trump’s constant cruelty — children in cages, mishandling the pandemic, racist rabble-rousing, environmental destruction, macho misogyny — four years has taken its toll on our spirits, health, and psyche.

“We’ve got Post-Trump Traumatic Stress Disorder,” I said, the realization striking me like a long exhalation or falling down when the wind stops blowing.

“That’s it!” my friend agreed. “We’ve got PTTSD.”

Immediately I Googled “Common Symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.” I suspect many liberals have all the symptoms:

1. Vivid flashbacks (Feeling like the trauma is happening right now)

The breach of our nation’s Capital, which I watched live, has left permanent visual scars of violence and trauma: With a noose hanging outside for him, the viscious soundtrack of Trump supporters screaming, “Hang Mike Pence!;” a Capitol Policeman wailing as he’s crushed in a door; a bleeding woman on a stretcher, para-military men climbing Capitol walls and occupying the scaffolding meant for an inauguration, not insurrection. A slain policeman lying in state in the scene-of-the-crime Capital where he was beaten to death by the mob. An Instagram of OAC hiding for her life in a bathroom, believing she would be discovered and die.

Though we must witness and remember this attack, it does deepen our Post-Trump Traumatic Stress Disorder to watch endless news videos of the January 6th insurrection. Flashbacks are everywhere in the media — except perhaps FOX news, which like an addictive drug, mainstreams denialism. Every day more evidence of just how menacing the preparation and how violent the execution of this tragic attack on democracy really was. The most troubling is that though there was only a permit issued for Trump’s rally, it was he and his White House who directed the mob to march on to the Capitol.

2. Intrusive Thoughts or Images

For four years, many of us felt our psyches invaded by Trump’s chaotic incompetence and rages. For any abuse cycle to thrive, there must be co-enablers — those who are either too afraid to break the pattern or perpetuate the abuse for profit or power. Think Rep. Hawley, Cruz, and Mark Meadows. Think Hannity, Igraham, and Carlson. Think Rupert Murdoch’s deadly FOX dismissal of the virus as a “hoax”, while he is one of the very first to get the vaccine.

Like a landscape besieged by an invasive species, liberals have watched our government overrun by grifters, liars, racists, and profiteers. A once legitimate and reasonable Republican party now traffics in QAnon conspiracy theories. The majority of GOP Congressional representatives voted against a peaceful transfer of power — the very night of the insurrection.

3. Nightmares

Because I keep a dream journal instead of a diary, I have recorded countless Trump nightmares. Here’s a sampling: Trump bashing my beloved dog with a golf club; Ivanka and Jared evicting me from my apartment, which in the dream has the Sign-of-the-Beast address of 666; Trump, with his tiny, but intrusive hands, groping me. The worst nightmare wasn’t a dream. It was chillingly real: Trump attempt to overturn a fair election, standing on the capitol, raising his fists like Mussolini while adoring red-capped MAGA fans worship him with the blood-lust fundamentalism of Crusaders. Years from now, I hope to look back on the terrible Trump tyranny with more clarity and calm, especially if his followers and co-enablers soul-search why they elvated one troubled man as a monarch and prophet instead of just a president.

Photo by David Todd McCarty on Unsplash

4. Intense distress at real or symbolic reminders of the trauma

Many of us dealing with PTTSD will have to gird our loins as we dutifully witness the second impeachment trial. The vivid testimonies by policeman attacked by the MAGA mob and new videos of the Capital Insurrection, will surely induce even more flashbacks and nightmares. As we prepare for the return of Trump, in impeachment trial form, are there strategies for surviving even more PTTSD?

To Do: Make a Sensible Plan

My therapist always says, “When facing anxiety, make a sensible plan.” My plan is to read more about the trial rather than just watch it televised. Since Trump lost the election, I’ve carefully curated how much info I consume about the ex-president. Knowing how addicted the media still is to him, I am moving on to a post-Trump world by NOT clicking on articles about him or his family. Or simply tuning out the newscasts. I’m thrilled that FOX news has fallen to third place in cable ratings. Instead, I let my media algorhythms register how much more interested I am in Biden’s new life-saving plans and policies. I’ll watch some of the impeachment trial with my small pandemic “pod” of friends so we can process our worries and hopes and fears. We can also laugh out loud and enjoy our favorite snacks — chopped liver from our local deli, gourmet cheese, and blue corn tortilla chips — a gastronomic antidote to Trump terror and indigestion.

Split the Screen

Years ago, when I was dealing with an earlier bout of PTSD, someone who had worked with Vietnam veterans taught me a psychological survival strategy called “Splitting the Screen.” In the mind’s eye, place the traumatic image on one side of the screen; on the other, a nourishing and life supporting image. For example, on one side is an image of Trump, fist raised as he incites the mob to march on the Capital; on the other side, an image of Dr. Jill Biden lovingly embracing their German Shepherd, Champ, at the White House. On one side, Trump doing his teeth-clenched dance, black-gloved fist raised; on the other side, a warm Kamala Harris laughing as she embraces her blended family. Both images are heartfelt and real; but they balance each other. Slowly, over time with this technique, the life-affirming image grows stronger, while the traumatic images fade.

As we all move into a new post-Trump world, I am envisioning a psychic landscape restored, like how the earth regenerated after Chernobyl, like how the animals reclaimed their native territories when we all stayed home sheltering from the COVID19 virus; like the natural healing that happens when we face our traumas and realize we have, after all, survived. In the struggle for the soul of our country, Trump has lost — but we haven’t lost ourselves~.

Bio: Brenda Peterson is a novelist and nature writer, author of over 20 books, including the New York Times “Notable Book of the Year” novel, Duck and Cover, just out in audiobook. Her memoir I Want to Be Left Behind was selected as a “Best Non-Fiction Book of the Year” by The Christian Science Monitor and chosen by independent booksellers as a “Great Read” and “Indie Next.” Her recent books include Wolf Nation, Wild Orca ,Your Life is a Book: How to Craft and Publish Your Memoir; and the new picture book with artist, Ed Young, Catastrophe by the Sea set on the Salish Sea.

Brenda Peterson is the author of over 20 books, including Duck and Cover, a New York Times “Notable Book of the Year,” and the memoir I Want to Be Left Behind.

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