Recently, my friend Hannah and I were sitting in our favorite coffee shop. After arriving in the same AA meeting—our very first—just one week apart from one another, we meet regularly every few weeks. This gives us just enough time to have things to talk about, but not so much time that we don’t feel like we haven’t connected in eons.
This time, she seemed distracted and drained. Nervous, even. It was very un-Hannah. Every few minutes, she’d turn on her smartphone, scroll through something with a smirk, then sigh. Finally, she turned to me: “I think I have to shut down my Facebook account,” she announced. “I don’t think I can take much more of this.” She was dead serious. Apparently, the hurricane of President Trump and his new administration was working a number on Hannah—and her sobriety. “This is the kind of shit that makes me want to drink,” she said, turning her phone to me so I could see some story on Trump. My friend isn’t alone, it turns out. Experts and research studies alike contend that people in recovery are as vulnerable with election-related stress as they are with a bottle in their hands.
The election—and the year-long runway to it—struck social media channels with the subtlety of a 10-megaton bomb. In the aftermath, there’s a virtual wasteland that our Twitter-happy President is pretty proud of. If you’re looking to avoid seeing even the slightest hint of Donald Trump online, good luck. Unless you’re visiting PBS Kids, you’re guaranteed to see him. One writer even took to crafting a eulogy for Facebook, claiming: “Facebook, The, 12, of Boston died in the early months of 2017, after a long illness stemming from the 2016 election cycle.” It’s a joke that’s actually not far from the truth. While the most polarizing election in recent memory revealed sharp divides online, it actually revealed more about how Trump’s arrival may affect some more than others.
Almost immediately after the election, many stories emerged about how Trump would approach the addiction crisis in America. We wondered how he might treat marijuana legislation, not to mention what it meant for the very future of recovery. Virtually no one, however, considered what impact Trump’s election would have on the recovery community itself. According to an American Psychological Association (APA) survey, it’s hard to dismiss how people in recovery may be struggling: over half of American adults reporting that the election caused them stress. And that stress “becomes exacerbated by arguments, stories, images and video on social media that can heighten concern and frustration, particularly with thousands of comments that can range from factual to hostile or even inflammatory,” the APA’s executive director said. For people with little hope, the prospect of a Trump administration may just be too much. In fact, one bold theory from Slate suggests that Trump performed best in drug- and addiction-ravaged counties in the American Midwest. If true, it makes a pretty convincing argument that people with the least hope elected Trump to office: “Wherever I see hope exiting,” a photojournalist told Slate, “I see Trump and drugs entering.”
Trump’s election may spell disaster for some, but it’s also a silver lining for some professionals out there: “[Trump] says he’s the jobs president—well, he certainly is for me and my fellow therapists,” one family counselor told New York Magazine. In the same story, therapists recounted stories about how the Trump administration has rattled their clientele in all the same ways it’s brought new patients knocking on their doors. Many female patients expressed concern that Trump’s election is the sign of a country condoning sexist behavior, the article said, while some gay patients fretted about social progress being rolled back. In fact, many professionals, including physicians, now commonly call it “Trump anxiety.” One doctor described the condition as a “palpable surge of distress,” while another cited side effects that included everything from a loss of appetite, insomnia, heart palpitations, and a sinking feeling of doom.
Patients can be unsettled by Trump’s election for any number of reasons: race, sex, creed and religion. You name it. People seeking treatment are no different. “My patients were in a state of shock and grief, like at the funeral of someone you love and did not expect to die,” said one therapist in the New York feature. “In fact, in many of my patients I noticed signs of regression, which means turning into the child you were when overwhelmed by similar stress.” For anyone in addiction recovery, this should sound familiar. Being mindful of old habits is what early sobriety is all about: avoiding a relapse right out of the gate. For some people climbing the first steps of a 12-step program, Trump’s election may only serve to chip away at the foundation of their already-shaky sobriety.
“He’s Not Worth My Drinking Over”
When I asked the members of an addiction subreddit if Trump’s election to the Oval Office could trigger a relapse, the reaction was as swift as it was unanimous. “If I didn’t relapse because of mom’s cancer or dad’s stroke, I’m bloody not going to relapse over Donald Trump,” one redditor said. “He’s not worth my drinking over.” Similar reactions were quickly upvoted, noting that if anyone was so fragile as to relapse over the 2016 election, that person wasn’t in solid recovery to begin with. Most everyone agreed that if President Trump pushed them back to drinking, they were looking for an excuse to relapse in the first place. One redditor put a finer point on it, observing than an actual relapse isn’t using or drinking but the “process or series of events leading up to it.”
Navigating the uncertain post-election waters may be daunting, but it’s not impossible. An LA Times story on election-induced stress offered several solutions for Trump-anxiety sufferers, ranging from simply avoiding the TV for a few nights to understanding that “very little will change overnight.” Some sites even suggest temporarily deleting news apps from devices. And while people like my friend Hannah have resorted to deactivating their Facebook accounts, it’s important to remember that this is our current reality—like it or not. Recovery is about facing fears, doubts and troubles. It’s not about running away or escaping them. Whether you’re in an AA meeting or the office of a licensed therapist, it’s all about getting the tools to cope with whatever life throws at you. Trump’s election may have shaken some people’s confidences, but it can’t shatter anyone completely. As wild as it may sound, perhaps the arrival of President Donald Trump may help people in recovery discover genuine strength in their vulnerability.
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