Elana Sztokman
Award-winning feminist writer, researcher, educator and activist

Michelle Obama is depressed. I get why.

When I heard the news that Michelle Obama is suffering from depression, I felt a huge sigh of relief.

I realize that is the wrong response. I should have felt sadness and empathy first. But really, when she said out loud that the political and cultural events of the Trump world have been keeping her up at night and inhibiting her ability to function normally and to access emotions such as joy and optimism, my insides were screaming, “I KNOW!! I KNOW!!”

For me, I think the emotional free-fall began on election night in November 2016. I can still feel the impact of learning that Trump won, like a massive balloon deflate inside of me, the balloon that held all of my chi, my prana, my entire life-force.

It was as if the entire world suddenly became engulfed in a black cloud. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t speak. I couldn’t stand up.

The night before, I had gone out and bought a bottle of Blue Curacao. I was planning on making a “Mazel tov cocktail” when Hillary Clinton would be elected. As someone who has experienced way too much sexism, sexual harassment, and sexual abuse in my life, I was eagerly anticipating a gender switch in American politics. It was going to be a moment that would usher in a new beginning for women everywhere. I was so excited by the Democratic National Convention that I stayed up all night to watch Hillary’s nomination. And the next day, I was dancing around my kitchen, doing the “Hillary Hula” and the “Hillary Hora”. I thought, finally, the world is going to be a better place for women. I was giddy!!!

The discovery that the most competent person ever to run for president lost to an incompetent and immoral guy who ADMITTED to groping women –  and who also, by the way, was known to cheat his service providers and cheat on his wives was devastating. The experience was a betrayal.

Sixty million Americans chose Trump. I felt betrayed by the American people who voted for him. They would rather have an absolute creep than a woman. That was the message. Loud and clear.

Of course it was true. That was the truth in my life, anyway. Why was I expecting anything different?

For a few months after the election, I was in a pretty dysfunctional emotional state. I kept trying to get back to work, but it was hard. I kept trying to initiate new projects, but it was as if there was no strength in my arms. Like I lost my power. I lost my motivation. I lost my trust in human beings.

All my worst fears about the world had been validated. All the work I was doing on myself to be positive, optimistic, grateful, joyful, patient, hopeful – none of it mattered. Reality slapped me back in the face.

But that was only the beginning. It got worse from there.

The Trump win emboldened his supporters. The most toxic forms of human interaction got a major reinforcement. All the awfulness received an A++. Keep at it! Good Job! A burst of social-cultural poison had just entered our orbit, and was now spreading.

I once gave a ride to a random guy here in Modi’in who heard that I was originally from New York and went on a little rant about how awful “liberal New Yorkers” were. It didn’t even matter that I was driving. He felt no need to hold back from attacking my entire identity. He was in charge.I should have kicked him out of the car. Instead, I swallowed hard and kept going. A metaphor for these entire four years. You think you’re driving but you’re not in charge. Keep going while violently being put in your place.

I was once chatting with a friend about what it meant to have an admitted sexual molester in the White House, not realizing he was a Trump supporter, and his reaction was, “He didn’t do it. There is no proof.” I was like, “23 accusations of sexual assault, his own admission, his radio brags, the Miss USA pageants…”  None of it mattered or moved the conversation. “Proof. You have no proof.” It was mind-exploding. This, of course, was a lesson in Gaslighting 101. And it was just the beginning. Four years of non-stop gaslighting. Non-stop.

Another guy I know went on a rant once about how terrible “liberals” are, not caring who I am or what I believe in. He fully believed that every normal person in the world hates liberals because liberals are evil. I got a glimpse into what the ugly Trump world looks like from the inside. Where words like “liberal”, “feminist”, and “progressive” are interchangeable with “not human”. These labels give Trumpists license to kill. Sometimes literally.

So many stories like this. So many. I have four years of experiences in which all sense of normal humanity and decency have disappeared. As if morality and civility do not matter. Four years of living with cultural pitchforks at every corner.

Four years of a culture of smashing liberals. Smashing feminists. Smashing women. Four years of emotional violence against people like me. Like I’m not a real person.

Four years of widespread emotional violence, all sanctioned and emboldened by the White House. Violence getting the biggest thumbs up in the world.

Four years of war against basic human decency. Yes, that’s what this is. The Trump world is an assault on basic human decency.

In the Trump world, words like “Political correctness” and “Identity politics” are signals for the things that need to be destroyed. The Trump world has designated these ideas as enemies of the people.

But let’s get this straight. “Political correctness”, “identity politics”, “liberalism”, and even “feminism”, are not what Trumpists say they are.

What is “political correctness”? It’s a snarky attempt to dismiss the vital idea that we should consider another person’s life experience.

What is “identity politics”? It’s an attempt to mock the compassionate idea we all have diverse cultural backgrounds which should be respected.

What is “feminism”? It’s simply the idea that women are human beings. And when Trumpists attack feminism or call us “feminazis”, they are basically saying that women who strive for the same human status as men are like Nazis.

These ideas that Trumpists have gone to war against are really just code words for norms of kindness, empathy and civility. The Trump culture is a war against basic human kindness and empathy.

This is what we’ve been up against for the past four years. Human compassion and decency have been cast as evil, while the most vile, violent, and inhumane version of society has gained one of the most powerful platforms in the world.

It’s enough to make anyone go mad. Or in some cases, just depressed.

What’s worse, it is absolutely impossible to have a conversation about this with Trump supporters. Their loyalty to him, despite everything we know, is unshakeable. Which also adds to the sense of helplessness, distrust, and gaslighting trauma. It has severely damaged a basic trust in human beings to be able to know right from wrong.

The attack on liberal, feminist, and/or progressive ideas is an assault on basic humanity. When one oppressed group suffers, we all should listen to their stories, and seek to alleviate their plight.  Rep. John Lewis knew this.  He not only championed the civil rights of African Americans from the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s til he died this last month, but he also supported LGBTQ rights, and asylum seekers and refugees.  If people of color are suffering, the world should listen and care. If gay couples want to get married and celebrate their love, we should embrace societies of love. If people run away from their countries and seek asylum or refuge in America, we should find ways to hear their stories rather than lock their children in cages and let them rot on the concrete floor far from their parents. If 150,000 people have died from a virus, we should get behind the practices that stop the spread of the virus instead of screaming about the oppressiveness of masks.

And if women want to be free to live life as whole beings and not someone else’s sex object, we should be supported in those dreams.

These are not “liberal” or “politically correct” ideas. These are simply humane, common sense ideas about creating a decent society. They are basic tenets of human connection and empathy. The fact that the Trump world has turned all of this into something to be feared and destroyed is crazy-making. Crazy-making!

For four years, crazy-making has dominated. Four years of not knowing who to trust for a normal conversation. Four years of feeling under attack for daring to believe that human beings should let other human beings live.

Four years of sadness. And depression.

And a lot of suicides.

A lot.

I don’t think I have slept through the night in a year or two. Maybe more, I can’t even remember. I have a storage cabinet in my kitchen that we jokingly call the “End of the world cabinet” because that is how the world kind of feels in 2020. I can’t figure out if the idea of the world ending right now would be a bad thing or a good thing. I think about death often. I recently went to the funeral of my friend’s husband, and part of me was thinking, “Lucky him.” That is not a good sign.

It’s as if for the past four years, we have been living in an abusive relationship. A collective abusive relationship. We are dealing with emotional abuse, physical abuse, sexual abuse, and financial abuse by trump and his supporters.

And now it’s time to get out of this relationship. Because we are suffering from collective PTSD. Years of a collective abusive relationship have left us in a traumatized state. Depressed, disempowered, and traumatized.

In 2016, I became involved with Democrats Abroad Israel, and I now serve as Vice Chair for Media and Policy. I’m dedicating every free ounce of energy to getting Trump out the White House. I’m doing this not out of political ideology or the need to win a rhetorical argument. I’m doing this for the sake of humanity – mine and everyone else’s. I’m doing it for my own mental health.

Because after the November 2020 election, even after we turn the country blue again, there is still going to be a lot of work ahead of us. We will have to embark on the process of healing, recovering, learning to breathe again, learning to sleep again, learning to believe in the goodness of humanity again. It will take some time, because the spiritual-emotional damage from the Trump years has been enormous.

The Trump experience has caused layers and layers of collective, psychic, emotional damage. Right now, our primary task has to be to get him out of office. And then, our collective job will be to rebuild our own humanity and learn to trust, to breathe, and to smile again. I guess Joe Biden is onto something when he says “Build Back Better” for the soul of our country.


About the Author
Dr Elana Maryles Sztokman is one of the founders of Kol Hanashim, the new women's political party in Israel. An award winning writer, leading Jewish feminist thinker, educator, social activist, indie publisher, and overall spiritual seeker, she has been involved in the movement for gender equality in Israel for 25 years, and has worked with many organizations and communities. She has written four books on gender and society, two of which won the National Jewish Book Council award. She is involved in many causes, and currently serves as VP for Media and Strategy for Democrats Abroad-Israel.
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