By Andrea Askowitz
I used to feel like I could make a difference in the world. I used to march in the streets. When I was a kid, my mom took my brother and me to March on Washington three times. For fifteen years after college, I worked full-time to help homeless people find jobs, working-class people make a livable wage, and queer youth who’d been bullied out of their schools or homes. I volunteered for Democratic candidates all my life. My candidates didn’t always win, but I always felt like the world was moving in the right direction.
Four years ago, I dragged my kids to phone-bank and canvass door-to-door for Hillary Clinton. Then the most qualified candidate that ever ran for president lost to the most absurd candidate. And the world went dark.
Now, at 52, I have never been this panicked by what’s happening in the world. I can’t sleep. I know I’m not alone because when I wake up at 3 a.m. and check Facebook, half my friends in my same time zone are awake and posting.
I’ve been living with low-grade depression and anxiety since Trump took office. When coronavirus started to scourge the world six months ago, my anxiety amped up. My iPhone screen time went up 20% to four hours a day. I knew it was a problem, but I was scared, so I let myself be distracted. I did yoga on Facebook live, enjoyed a friend’s daily piano concerts, learned how to braid challah, and watched a man in France run the length of a marathon on his 10-foot balcony. None of this helped to lessen my panic.
For 20 days in a row, I danced with my kids—my own little way of reducing stress. I created the hashtag #coronavirusdanceparty and posted on Facebook. I’d dance, post, then check my feed every half hour to see what others had to say. Finally, my kids said, “Stop.” They knew the dancing wasn’t helping.
When George Floyd was murdered, I watched that video over and over. And then I watched the reactions of people protesting in the street. My daughter and I put masks on and went to one protest. But, mostly, I quarantined inside and watched the news.
I’m not a very good swimmer, but this summer we found a public 25-meter pool that lets 10 people swim at a time and I’ve worked my way up to 64 lengths. That’s a mile. When I get out of the pool, I’m dizzy and exhausted. That kind of physical exertion used to relax me for the rest of the day; help me sleep. Not now.
Now, wild fires are ravaging the West Coast. I wanted to reach out to a good friend in San Francisco, but the orange-sky images she posted were so apocalyptic, I couldn’t. With coronavirus threatening people’s lungs and headlines like this one from the Insider: “An Ominous Map Shows the Entire West Coast with the Worst Air Quality on Earth,” all I could say was, “Holy shit! You must be freaked out.” So, I said nothing.
Last year, before coronavirus and the fires and before white people were reminded of our roles in subjugating Black people, my mom, my brother, and my business partner—three people closest to me—beat cancer. Back then I thought my world was sick. Now, I see that the whole world is sick.
I have several friends with prescriptions for medical marijuana. One has been on the phone with me enough lately to know I need a chill-pill. A few weeks ago, she dropped off her remedy. She said, “Two puffs before bed.”
I know people smoke weed to get their mind off things. But as soon as the weed kicked in every scary thought I’d ever tamped down rose to the surface. My wife and I lay there in the dark. I said, “My mind is flooded with scary thoughts…Flooded.”
Hurricane Laura and then Sally had just flooded the Gulf Coast, killing at least 13 people. Tropical Storm Vicky brewed in the Atlantic. Vicky is my wife’s name. The World Meteorological Organization has already gone through the whole alphabet naming storms, which has only happened one other time, and we still have two months left in this hurricane season.
All of this anxiety is rising up with the presidential election in the backdrop. And then Ruth Bader Ginsburg died.
Sex usually puts me right to sleep. I mean after sex. But now there’s a gaping liberal hole in the Supreme Court. Now, it’s hard to think about anything else, but I’m desperate for sleep, so I locked the bedroom door and lit the candles and after, instead of spooning my wife and peacefully nodding off as usual, I was wired for hours.
I called my weed friend and told her the weed wasn’t working. I said, “When corona hit, I increased my screen-time; when Floyd was murdered, I got in the pool; the fires, weed; RGB, sex. Nothing’s working.”
She said, “You know what? Maybe you should get your ass out of bed and do something for someone else.”
That same day, my sister-in-law, who works 24/7 for the Democratic Party, asked me to write postcards to encourage people to vote. She said they need people to hand out slate cards at the polls, starting with early voting. She asked me to get other people to write postcards and work the polls too.
I said, “Whatever I can do!” Then I emailed 20 friends. Ten wrote back immediately: “YES!” “Count me in!” “Whatever I can do!”
Other people needed something productive to do too.
Why didn’t I think of this? I know helping others can help a person get out of their own head. When did I stop helping?
I know the answer. I let myself wallow in my own misery when it all started to feel so bleak; when democracy itself felt threatened. But I also know that Democracy is government by the people, and I’m one of those people.
I’m hoping this is the turning point.
Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. Her essays have appeared in The Manifest-Station, The New York Times, Glamour, The Rumpus, Huffington Post, Salon, The Writer, and other publications. She’s also the co-host and producer of the podcast Writing Class Radio.