My background as a transgender hillbilly with a lifetime of managing a hodge-podge of anxiety fueled mental illness has left me with a skill set that I find quite handy during our American tryst into a real life dystopian novel. From worrying about natural disasters to evaluating the potential for a Russian invasion, this presidency and its fallout is a bit familiar to me.
As I watch so many of the people close to me struggling with the onslaught of terrible news and the “what ifs” of the day, I find myself wanting to comfort everyone and whisper, “I know, honey. I know.”
Southwest of Atlanta, I grew up on tornado drills, Boy Scout preparedness, and the Patrick Swayze version of "Red Dawn." In summer, our well would go dry, and we could go extended periods of time without running water. Floods periodically covered the tiny bridges that led to grocery stores and hospitals and washed away the dirt roads that were our backup routes. “Vacations” consisted of hiking and camping with the scout troop or church and going multiple days in the woods without power.
On a political front, Ronald Reagan’s “Trickle Down Economics” most definitely did not trickle down to poor families, and the Cold War with Russia was the backdrop for our fears around a foreign takeover.
Mixed into that landscape for me was the existence of burgeoning anxiety problems, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and the understanding that there was something very different about me that both ordinary people and those with power viewed as deviant. I didn’t just worry about the typical things other kids worried about, like marks on report cards or getting invited to birthday parties.
By the time I was in third grade, my brain was a breeding ground where typical fears about the world copulated with deep-rooted internalized transphobia to produce anti-social behavior and constant state of worrying that everything was out to get me. These aren’t twins that anyone cheers for.
I spent a significant amount of time contemplating everything from running away to death, because those seemed like easier alternatives. I made a variety of attempts to shut my brain off completely and pretend like I was fine. I even made a few runs at trying to ignore everything around me. My chess match of coping mechanisms spanned years, eventually evolving into drug and alcohol abuse, destructive romantic relationships, and a variety of bad decisions made from a place of anxiety and trauma.
As I approached 30, I felt exhausted from decades of considering death and lonely from sitting in it by myself. I knew there were some things I couldn’t change. I have always had, and will always have, a significant anxiety and obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I have always been, and will always be, trans. Instead of berating myself and buttoning up my identity, I began to see these parts of myself as positives, including the pieces that are typically labeled “disorders.”
The desire to flip my thinking led me to a good therapist, coming out as a transman, and beginning to appreciate the talents that are a direct result of my “disorders.” Even though my head had been a field full of landmines, I began to see these parts of myself as positives. My experiences had built a pretty solid skill set for my internal resume: a unique type of resiliency came from constantly talking myself of a ledge and persistently worrying about things beyond my control.
It taught me to navigate complicated social situations and produced empathy for others experiencing disparity or suffering. Add that to the skills I developed growing up in the woods preparing for and working through worst-case scenarios. This mix of things that I hated all my life, which includes dealing with public ridicule, threats of violence, discrimination, and even coping with no running water or being forced to live outside for days on end “for the fun of it,” got turned into tools I use to make me feel stronger.
Given our current political reality, it’s like I’ve been trapped in a sports training montage this entire time and now it’s time for the big matchup. Based on my social media feeds, being flooded with calls for “self care” and “omg, what are we going to do now,” not everyone has this same feeling right now.
If you find yourself buried in fear and anxiety over Trump’s America, take a few tips from someone whose particular queerness has him ready for damn near anything.
You’re not crazy. Institutionalized racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, gun violence and remarkable greed are bad, but not new. They are emboldened right now, and it’s okay to feel scared and to ask for help when you need it.
You’re not alone or the worst-off. Recognizing that others are suffering and trying to help could keep us all alive. Dismissing fears of others as “a distraction” isn’t productive and misses the bigger picture. Others may have past stressors or experiences with trauma that make something you view as small significant.
You’re not helpless. Ask yourself what you’re most afraid of and the likelihood of that actually occurring. Once you’ve established that baseline, imagine what you would do in that scenario. Develop a plan for emergencies. Worrying without planning is useless, as is trying to force yourself to ignore or run away from reality.
Like other tragic time periods, We’ll find a way through this. Commit to accepting our truths and those of the world, be empathetic and take action to prepare for the worst while hoping for the best. That’s how we can help brighter days come more quickly.
James Sheffield lives and loves in Atlanta. He is a professional LGBTQ health advocate, part-time event planner and top-rated worrier.