The U.S. Capitol Attack: A Siege on My Nervous System
By Marieke Slovin Lewis / Bailleul, France
I have always been a sensitive person. I experience the world without any filters or defenses. When I was little and my parents took me to watch E.T., I had a complete meltdown after the scene where E.T. became sick and turned a pale white. As we were leaving the movie, I apparently told my parents never to take me to another movie like E.T. ever again. I struggle over events, real and fictional, and it takes me a long time to soothe my sensitive system after something riles me up.
Because I feel things so acutely but also need and want to live in the world (aka, I am not a hermit or monk living in a cave or monastery), I have spent a lot of time cultivating healthy ways to reduce the toll on my nervous system.
One method for keeping my nervous system in balance is to limit my media intake. This means that I read the news first thing in the morning so I have the rest of the day to process it. I do not read the news or go to any social media sites before bed, because the result would be a fitful night of tossing and turning.
I began this practice shortly after the morning my husband and I woke up in Brussels in November 2016 to the shocking and devastating news that Donald Trump had been elected president. We went to bed with Hillary Clinton in the lead and woke up to a very different world. The subsequent bombardment of communications and alarm over each new act on the part of this megalomaniac has been simply too much for my system.
Sometimes, I forget my self-imposed rule and check my Facebook account on my phone before bed. When I exclaim in alarm over a person setting fire to a veterinary clinic, my husband will remind me to turn off my phone.
My husband and I are from the United States, and another protection practice I have developed is to avoid texting with friends and family back home in the hour or so leading up to bedtime. Since my husband and I moved to Belgium from Arizona in the fall of 2016, I have kept my phone on silent because we have so many friends and family members living in different time zones. I do my best to also remember not to text people in the middle of the night, but it can get tricky, particularly with my uncle who lives in Hawaii, which is a 12-hour time difference.
My intention to greatly reduce the amount of time I spend doomscrolling and texting before became even more of a lifeline over the past pandemic year. The seemingly unending barrage of stresses and triggers from news outlets, social media sites, internet memes, and late-night comedy sketches, combined with the texts from friends and family, communicating shock and horror, were enough to set my system on high alert. Texting about Trump’s latest affront or the worsening pandemic could keep me up for hours. I would also try to avoid reading the text messages that appeared on my phone over the course of the night, which I would see each time I woke up and looked at my phone to check the time.
One benefit of living overseas is that I am far away from the events happening in my home country, where Trump drama and the rippling effect of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry that follows in its wake is local news. While I engage in a certain amount of communication over the rising tide of nuclear waste that has been bubbling up since Trump took office, I can also practice a certain amount of denial.
After the initial sweep of texts with my expat U.S. American friends and the people I have met in Belgium and now France, where my husband and I moved this past fall, I can pretend that the United States is not experiencing an increasing divide from which it may never recover. I can close my eyes and not see it, which means it must not be real.
This denial became more difficult over the course of 2020, which began with impeachment trials and ended with Trump’s continued refusal to accept election results proclaiming Biden as the next president.
Since moving just across the Belgian border into northern France, my husband and I have regular debates about returning to the U.S. worthy of The Clash song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” After the seemingly never-ending, infinitely grueling election week, during which time I felt like I aged at least 20 years in under seven days, we felt a tenuous ray of hope was shining on our possible path of going back. Finally, a Democrat would take the presidential seat. Of course, the challenge with U.S. politics—at least, one of myriad challenges—is that everything feels like that ray of hope, so very tenuous. Every two years, the majority in the House and Senate can change. Every four years, the ruling party for the presidency. The word ruling is perhaps too delicate of a metaphor with the increasingly despotic tendencies of the current body inhabiting the Oval Office. The question, “Too soon?” comes to mind.
Often when we are out and about, running errands in our small town in northern France, we find ourselves engaged in dialogue with local merchants. Just Friday morning, we chatted with a staff person at the boulangerie (French for bakery), talking about how the current president is hands-down the worst of any. We then laughed because it has seemed that in my lifetime each previous Republican president has taken that place. I was living in Brittany in northwest France when George W. Bush was reelected, and people regularly asked me how Americans could vote for such a man. Moving to Brussels, Belgium four years ago just before the 2016 presidential election, I found myself in a disturbingly similar situation.
It is not just that the current president is worse than any previous Republican president. It is that every single thing he does seems like the epitome of unpresidential, criminal behavior. Each new act outpaces the one before it, surpassing the shock effect and climbing to ever higher levels of insanity and inanity. It’s almost as though the president is in competition with himself, trying to beat his highest score in a post-apocalyptic, political video game.
All of my best efforts at self-soothing for a restful night’s sleep went to hell when Trump incited a mob of zealous supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol this past Wednesday. My husband and I were quietly reading when a text came in from my dad that read: “Glad that you are in France today! Crazy times here.”
Nonplussed, I responded, “What's happening? The election?”
I knew this was the day that election results were being validated for each state, but I just assumed this would happen as it normally did. I assumed wrong. Normal has no place in any sentence describing the Trump presidency.
My dad’s swift response sent shock waves of anxiety and nausea through my body: “Protesters have invaded the Capitol Building.”
“What?!?! Trump supporters?”
“Yes. They have smashed windows, tear gas, etc.”
My husband then reminded me to stop texting and to absolutely not start looking at news headlines. I dutifully obeyed, doing my best to breathe my nervous system into submission in order to be able to fall asleep. The texts my dad sent later that night, and which I received first thing in the morning, did not instill confidence in democracy nor did they inspire me to want to return to the United States.
Over the following days, I did my best to maintain an even keel through video check-ins with family in the United States, texting with friends and family in Europe and North America, and updates from news and social media outlets. I was shocked all over again by the images of protesters in the mob that broke into the Capitol, decked out in outrageous attire, including t-shirts with the acronym 6MWE (6 Million Wasn’t Enough) printed in bold yellow lettering. I had not heard of this movement, which is meant to communicate that the Holocaust did not murder enough Jews and so the wearer of the t-shirt would like to continue the cleansing. I used to think that nothing from Trump and his cadre of crazies could shock me anymore, but this most recent event proved me wrong.
My New York Times email digest Friday morning was not reassuring: “Your Friday Briefing—A wounded U.S. is in turmoil.”
My text communications from friends included expressions of solidarity, shock, and sadness, along with vomiting and weeping. emojis. One friend sent a meme with an alarming photograph of a man with the U.S. flag painted on his face, no shirt, a flag in his hand, and a fur hat with a tail and horns on his head (not sure what kind of animal it was meant to be or if it was some kind of mythical creature to help Make America Great Again). The words beneath the photo read: “After today’s event, Mexico has decided to pay for the wall. And Canada wants one, too.”
My husband and I regularly refer to life as “riding the wave,” but this recent surge of violence in the name of making American more white and racist was akin to sitting in front of an automated tennis-ball throwing machine where the tennis balls are aimed directly at your stomach. I practice yoga and do a fair number of push-ups, but my core is nowhere near solid enough to withstand such a constant bombardment.
It is an incredible gift to be able to switch off the media and live in temporary denial of the current President’s existence, and yet my husband and I also have talked about feeling a simultaneous guilt over being so far from the front lines. We haven’t been there in the thick of it, experiencing the daily barrage from the media and the roller coaster of emotions that inevitably bubble up in the wake of each new shocking event. It’s like visiting a town after the tornado has already blown through. We carefully step around the wreckage, imagining the horrors people must have experienced as the storm raged through.
Perhaps, there is also a feeling of survivor’s remorse, having spent the entirety of the Trump era safely ensconced in our northern European bubble. In France, we can soften each blow with endless pastries and baked goods. In most of the world, there are seasons for eating fruits and vegetables. In France, there are dessert seasons. January is the season of the Galette des Rois or “King Cake,” “commemorating the arrival of the Three Kings to the manger where Jesus was born.”
Since I am Jewish, I am more interested in eating the delicious cake and in finding the “king” or “feve,” which is a treasure that is hidden inside the cake. It is traditionally a small porcelain figurine. The gustatory delight combined with the possibility of finding the hidden prize makes the overall experience quite enjoyable. Each cake comes with a paper crown for the prize finder to wear. We have been quite devoted in our searching for the best galette among the many boulangeries (French for bakery) in our town. So far, our favorite comes from the Maison Bril, which also has for the prize quite lovely little figurines that resemble the larger Russian nesting dolls.
As the shock waves from the Trumpquake continue to reverberate around the world, at least I am in a corner with lots of pastries to help soothe the emotional toll of Trump on our psyches. We can drown our sorrows in butter and frangipane.
Wherever you find yourself in the world, it is my greatest wish that you can find a way to self-soothe in such a strange, surreal, volatile time.
Marieke Slovin Lewis is a writer, musician, composer, yoga teacher, and editor. She grew up in Massachusetts and holds a Ph.D. in Sustainability Education from Prescott College. Marieke is a wandering soul and has lived all over the world. She currently finds herself in a second lockdown in northeast France with her husband, Richard Lewis, three cats and a big white husky. Marieke strives to create balance in her life through long walks around the farm fields that surround her home; practicing yoga and meditation; singing and strumming on her ukulele or banging on her bodhran; and writing, writing, writing.