Shortly after 9 am on the morning of September 11, 2001, my mother called to tell me to turn on the TV, because two planes had flown into the towers of the World Trade Center. I was at home with my toddler son, getting ready to take him with me to campus so I could talk to a couple of my professors about the comprehensive exams for my PhD program, which I had recently restarted after a three-year hiatus.
Instead, I watched the television. I watched the smoke. I cried and worried and prayed (I was a Christian then) and hoped that people would get out. The first tower fell. It was horrifying to watch it collapse. I cried some more. I prayed some more. I hoped that the second tower wouldn’t fall. It fell. Horrifying.
And then . . . well, and then I wiped my tears, changed my son’s diaper, and trundled us off to campus, where, as in the rest of the world, no one was doing any work. I found at least one of my professors, who seemed to think it was kind of weird that I wanted to talk about my exam on that day and suggested that we reschedule.
NO WALLOWING has been Rule #1 in my life for so long that I rarely think about it. I spent four of the seven years between twelve and nineteen mired in deep, deep depression. Only at the end of high school, on a day when my mother stood in the doorway of my bedroom crying while I lay in bed immobile, did my parents overrule my desire to not get treatment—they were going to make me see a therapist.
I saw that therapist for four years, and I owe pretty much everything I have achieved in my life since then to her. The most important thing she said to me was “When you’re depressed, the last thing you want to do is anything . . . but the best thing to do is anything.” I was too deeply depressed when she said that for it to be a curing kind of statement, but over time, and especially after I made a firm decision to get better, it became a strategy. It’s a cliché, because it’s true, that being depressed feels like being wrapped in lead, and all motion becomes more difficult than it should be. I know that the longer I wait, the thicker the lead gets, and the harder it becomes to push through it, and therefore: NO WALLOWING.
I used to sometimes feel guilty about my response to 9/11, allowing myself so little time to feel sad about it, trying to get back to work an hour after the towers fell. Did that mean I was heartless? A kinder interpretation, more compassionate to myself, is that whereas other people knew that they could afford to feel a lot, and that it wouldn’t endanger them for the next six months, I had no such assurance, and so I was protecting myself by tamping down my emotional response.
The parallels with November 9, 2016, are instructive. I went to bed at around 2:30 am and woke again at 5:08 am. Learning that Donald Trump was president-elect of my nation felt as physically horrifying as seeing the Twin Towers fall. My chest hurt, and my mind was overwhelmed: Where do I live, what country? Who are my fellow Americans? Why have this man’s rage and pettiness and incompetence not disqualified him in their minds? What will happen? I felt all this terror and anger and sadness for an hour, but then . . . well, I had to wake my daughter up and get ready to take her to school. And when I returned from driving her, the “no wallowing” rule went into effect, and I tried to shut down the sadness and replace it with optimism and the idea that I could make a plan to make things better. Thus this blog, yes, but also an unwillingness to feel again what I had felt for an hour between 5:08 and 6:10 am on November 9.
But it hasn’t been so easy. In the long continuum between wallowing and emotional numbness, I’m not sure that there is a right answer, only a series of choices that people make based on what they want, what they need, what they value. One of the funniest and most true things my ex-husband ever said to me was “I don’t know why you’re always wanting me to have more emotions. Yours don’t seem to make you very happy.”
And that’s important, isn’t it? I have a sad work situation at my university that derives from red-state education ideology and a terrifying national situation that derives from the twin dangers of an unhinged, incompetent megalomaniac setting the tone for interpersonal discourse and a Republican majority that will use the distraction of Trump’s theatrics to push through an agenda to make life in this nation worse for people who are different or who are poor. In both situations, to look is to feel; the only way for me not to feel things about these troubles would be to avoid seeing: to close my office door and ignore university politics, to stop reading the news, and in both cases to hope for the best and decide not to fight.
With 9/11, there was no requirement that I, personally, fight anything. I made a choice to tamp down my response of sadness, but whether or not I felt angry enough to fight was immaterial to the outcome. But both at my job and in the nation now, the situations call for disempowered people to fight. Fighting requires anger as fuel, and anger is anathema to me. Where sadness and depression are so comfortable to me that I have to fight against them to avoid losing myself, anger is deeply, deeply upsetting to me, provoking a strong physical anxiety response. I want to flee my job because the anger I feel there is so uncomfortable, and so of course I have avoided as much as possible feeling anger about the election.
“Yours don’t seem to make you very happy.” No, they don’t, not always. And yet my emotions are an asset to me, not just in my personal life but in my work life as well: as a teacher, when I was a supervisor, and as someone whose emotions drive me to speak the truth. This blog has up to now been an intellectualizing effort for me to channel my emotions about the election into something less emotional and more practical. But it’s not working—I have too many feelings right now to sublimate them all, and although I still believe that I need to control my emotions so as to avoid depression, it’s probably time for me to give more thought to the emotional strategies I have followed for the past twenty years. If my big messy heart is both my greatest liability and my greatest strength, how can I keep it open for the next four years?
Rachel E. Hile