As I write this, a new president and vice-president have just been inaugurated, and like many, I’m emotional about it. There’s relief, of course, but also much more. Four years ago on election night in 2016, I was sitting with a group of friends, at first encouraged by the polls and then, in utter shock. My shock went beyond the political to the personal—the man who’d just been elected president* represented a type of man I already knew, one that many, many women across the nation recognized. We also recognized that the abuse he’d spent a lifetime heaping upon the women in his life would probably extend far further. And I was right; the nation has been like one gigantic traumatized broken family.
Like many women, I knew by heart the signs of domestic mental and emotional abuse, and there are a lot of them:
Humiliation in the form of name-calling, derogatory pet names, character assassination, yelling, patronizing, dismissiveness, sarcasm, insults, put-downs.
Control and shame in the form of threats, unilateral decision-making, lecturing, outbursts, unpredictability, walking out, and using others.
Accusations and blaming in the form of jealousy, “alternative facts,” using guilt, goading then blaming, trivializing, destroying and turning on you.
Other qualities of abusive relationships include demanding but not earning respect, dehumanizing you, actively seeking to turn others against you, and indifference.
This is where the country has been for more than four years. We’re traumatized. This is why healing will take time. But knowing all this didn’t explain why, on the day before inauguration, I was so restless, so unable to concentrate, and, I finally admitted, so fearful. Why? My sweet, gentle husband asked me in mid-morning, “How are you doing?” And I didn’t know what to say, except, “I’m having a lost day.”
And then I realized what was wrong. As any woman who has ever been in an abusive domestic relationship knows, the greatest danger occurs on the day you leave. That is the day when the tyrant, be it your spouse, partner, or even a president*, is most likely to be enraged and most likely to lash out. This is why, when years ago I escaped a dangerous domestic abuse situation in which I feared for my life, I did it in secret, so that the only thing my ex could rage at was the surprise of my absence and the note I left. I was absolutely terrified, and the feeling didn’t go away immediately. I spent years looking over my shoulder.
And so, on the day before the inauguration, those same feelings came welling up again, that radar that said there was great danger, because I knew there were 24 long hours left in that godforsaken presidency*, and plenty of time for an enraged man in possession of the nuclear football and other ways of controlling or destroying our lives to lash out in ways that could put us all in great danger.
It was the leaving.
I only recognized these feelings for what they were this morning, after the inauguration, when I knew it was relief I felt but didn’t understand why I didn’t quite trust it. Now I know. Just as recovering from domestic abuse takes time and talk and being gentle with yourself and others where possible, and stopping all contact with your abuser so as not to hinder your healing, recovering from this four-year nightmare of national trauma will require the same kind of fortitude, civility and patience. Expecting that everything will be hunky-dory in a matter of months would be just as big a mistake in the national picture as it would be for the personal one.
So grateful for your perspective. Such a thoughtful analysis. Thank you for sharing your story.
Karen, you are an amazing writer. We were all traumatized, but you recognized the abuse traits from the personal to the political and back again.
I sympathize for the past you had to endure, however, I am proud and honored to know the woman you have become.
Now that “that” is done there is lots to do.
“The last great exploration on Earth is to survive on Earth.”
Then the children of all can reach for the stars
Yes, thank you. Your take on this might explain for me how I felt like I needed to stay “on alert” somehow. I just didn’t realize that was why.
Thanks everyone. The insight hit me like a bolt of lightning just after the inauguration, and the essay poured out in 15 minutes, no edits–a first. January 6 had felt like the kind of gut punch you wonder if you’ll ever recover from, topping off four years of so many of us being unwilling daily witnesses to relentless narcissism and physical and mental violence, from which turning our eyes away was not an option–because it was everywhere. When I heard words of dignity return to the presidential pulpit yesterday, I realized afresh how much words matter, and how much hearing those healing words was like water to a dehydrated soul. The state of alertness felt by so many women despite all this promise was a sign of the hyper-vigilance so many of us have carried in our bodies over lifetimes. This is a time to practice good self-care.
I fell hard, back into the rabbit hole of early abuse when Trump became president. Thanks for this just remarkably reasoned look into PTSD and the lingering effects from this man.
Time for another picnic. Ad astra per aspera my friend.
Thanks, Cate. Ad meliora, and definitely, carpe vinum.