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Our Great Big Postelection Emotional Hangover

I learned that the election had finally been called for Joe Biden when I was still in bed on Saturday morning. I’d slept in, drifting in and out of strange dreams. Around 11:30 the street outside my window erupted with cheers, and I knew. I tore myself out of the tangle of my duvet, jammed a pair of contacts into my eyes and ran downstairs while I was still pulling my jeans on, blearily calling out to my roommates, “That’s it? This is it?”

This was it. We went out onto our stoop with a bottle of champagne and toasted each other and our neighbors with jam jars that sparkled in the sun. It was an unbelievably beautiful day, 70 degrees in November in New York City. Somebody started blasting Bruce Springsteen. A group of teenagers passed by us holding each other’s hands and skipping. One older woman wandered alone into the street, tossed her head back, and yelled, “WE’RE FREEEEEEEE!”

My heart cracked open. For the first and what was pretty much the last time that day, I felt it: that rush of relief and euphoria and petty, delicious schadenfreude that compelled hundreds of thousands of people across the country to take to the streets this weekend in celebration. Trump lost. Our “long national nightmare is over.”

It’s not really, of course. As Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it in the New York Times, “we aren’t in a free fall to hell anymore. But whether we’re going to pick ourselves up or not is the lingering question.” For one glorious, unseasonably warm Saturday, however, the organizers and activists who’d worked tirelessly to eke out a Biden–Harris victory could indulge in a brief and much-deserved break. Some cranky people on Twitter made sure to shame others for daring to enjoy themselves when we’re still mid-pandemic, when there’s still an overwhelming amount of local, national, and international work to be done regarding climate change, the rise of white supremacy, and a whole host of other ginormous problems that will not simply vanish with Trump. But even the cranks should allow themselves their own break; making space for joy is essential to the work of building a better world.

As much as I believe in a revolution with frequent dance parties, though, I couldn’t quite bring myself to join seemingly everybody I knew in Brooklyn who flocked to Grand Army Plaza for an epic block party on Saturday. I didn’t begrudge them their happiness, but I did envy them for it. My own brief spark of glee I’d experienced on our stoop had already soured in my stomach by the time I excused myself to go back inside, feeling tired and disoriented and a little bit ill.

I’ve felt tired and disoriented and a little bit ill to various degrees since March, when I may or may not have had COVID. The anxiety and depression I’d worked so hard to manage over years of medication and therapy are now the worst they’ve ever been. It’s become impossible for me to tease out what might be wrong with my body or my brain at any given time, where pre-2020 I feel like I could have at least made a decent guess: Are you PMSing? Hungover? Are you achy and sniffly with a regular cold, or is it allergies, or could it be COVID (a new infection or the long-term effects of the old one)? During that horrible limbo between the election on Tuesday and the call on Saturday, I was plagued by mysterious aches and pains. Stomach acid burned in the back of my throat. It was hard to parse what was mental, what was physical, what was both, what were the results of my own silly little choices, and what was completely beyond my control. (And I am definitely not alone in this.)

One of my least favorite things about anxiety is how extensively I punish myself for it. Curled up on the couch, watching videos of the raucous celebrations going on without me a few blocks away, everybody else’s happiness gave me major historical FOMO. I felt bad for feeling bad — the start of a classic anxiety/depression spiral that real ones know are nearly impossible to claw yourself out of.

Perhaps a part of me didn’t quite trust that we’ll eventually really be free of President Trump, who still has plenty of opportunities to wreak havoc before Biden’s inauguration, though Republican members of the electoral college told BuzzFeed News they don’t think he and other GOP leaders will get away with undermining Biden’s victory. (High-ranking Senate Republicans, including Mitch McConnell, “irresponsibly and baselessly cast doubt on the election results” on Tuesday, as my colleague Addy Baird reported, while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo claimed on the same day — maybe jokingly? — that there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump term.) Perhaps I was having a typical depressive episode that would have swallowed me up despite whatever enormously consequential things were going on in the world around me.

Or maybe I’m just traumatized by this year, by this pandemic, by this presidency, and this sudden sort-of end to so much suffering and pain that it’s giving me and lots of other people a painful bout of whiplash. We watched in real time as the country nearly fell to fascism, and now we’ve got another moderate Democrat teed up for the presidency. National nightmare over! Back to business as usual! (Back to “normal racism,” as one viral tweet put it.) But no matter how aggressively Biden plans to clean up Trump’s mess, no matter how comfortingly “normal” he looks when compared to a racist wannabe autocrat and conspiracy peddler, he and the country face a cartoonishly large battle ahead. People are out of work, they are sick, and they are suffering. Not to mention that millions more of them voted for Trump this time around than they did last time; Trump might be out of power soon, but Trumpism won’t be.

As I watched Biden and Harris speak on Saturday night, I heard my roommates’ friends cheering from their own livestream out in our yard, and my sense of disorientation and cognitive dissonance only grew. I’m definitely celebrating Trump’s ouster, logically if not quite emotionally yet. But like a whole lot of other leftists right now, I’m not exactly thrilled that Biden (who’s much more a fan of fracking than he is of Medicare for All) is Trump’s successor. Kamala Harris’s vice presidency is certainly exciting for its huge historical significance, though Democrats are, as ever, in danger of overestimating the power of representational politics.

Regardless of what a Biden administration will end up meaning for the country — whether he can come close to achieving the vision of unity he proposed to a nation torn asunder by disinformation and bigotry and ignorance and hatred — we’re all still freshly reeling from four years of chaos and ongoing mass death. And as of this week, there are more Americans in the hospital with COVID-19 than ever before. (Biden just launched his new plan of action on COVID amid frightful reports of rising cases, but we’ve got a long winter to live through between now and January 2021.) And while we can, and should, find moments of joy, we should also give ourselves the time and the space to grieve. To even begin attempting to address our escalating mental health crisis. To mourn the dead. To figure out what work remains for the living. ●

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