When I woke up yesterday morning, it was seven AM. My mother, who was the Democratic Ward Captain, was on her cell phone and, I think, the house phone with the local congressional office. There was some sort of confusion about where people from each ward lined up, which ward they were in, and if ward maps existed that could be passed around the line. I had woken up to all this noise with radiating jaw pain from clenching my teeth in my sleep and a horrible stress headache, which was how I had woken up for the last three or four days in a row. I took double the amount of Xanax I usually take every morning. I was terrified that I would go to sleep that night in a country where Barack Obama would no longer be my president.
To understand why this election was so, so important to me, it’s necessary that I share something that I tend to keep extremely private – I had my very first panic attack when I was around six years old. I say my very first because it was not, by a long shot, my last. And I say “around six years old” because the truth is, I don’t know when I actually had my first panic attack. I have had so many over the years that they all blur together. It’s not unusual that I had one; most people will have panic attacks in their lives, especially as children. Both of my parents as well of both of my siblings have had mild anxiety. It probably would have been more surprising if I had gone through my childhood having no issues with anxiety at all. What was different about my anxiety is it never went away. The older I got, the more pronounced it seemed to become, and the more auxiliary disorders like depression and ADHD made themselves known. By time I graduated high school in 2007 I was almost completely debilitated by both the stress of dealing with these three disorders and the constant effort I put into pretending I didn’t have any of them. In the space of six months after graduating high school, I had become housebound and deeply depressed.
The other thing I need to make clear is that I grew up very, very cynical about government. I believed that government was capable of doing good things, but I also believed they either were so hamstrung or incompetent they never quite managed it. When I was in second grade and I was asked who I would vote for if I could vote for president, I recited what I’d heard my dad say a million times: “Bill Clinton, because he’s not perfect, but he’s better than the other guy”. I didn’t understand his sex scandal when it happened, but I was old enough to understand it as further proof of what my parents had taught me: there is no such thing as a good leader, there is only a less bad leader.
When I became a teenager in a post 9/11 world, this feeling only intensified. I remember very strongly how it felt the day we went to war in Iraq, how heartbroken and angry I was at the idea that my country could send people to die against my will and for no good reason. I remember feeling furious and impotent and small. I felt that way for the next eight years of my life.
The first time I voted for Barack Obama, I was 19. I was probably at my lowest point, mental health-wise, and in an outpatient clinic at McLean’s Hospital that I loathed. I felt deeply, deeply ashamed to be a patient in any capacity at a mental health institution, and the program was not helping me. I felt incurable. The one bright thing that happened those two weeks I was in the clinic was when I cast my vote for Barack Obama. It was a vote purely based on hope, and because, in the horrible mess of my life, he was the only thing that felt right. I needed at that point something and someone to believe in. I needed to believe that this man who seemed so good and so decent could run my country, and run it well.
Unlike most people, I fell more in love with Barack Obama the longer he was president. He was everything I had ever wanted in a leader and never thought I would get. He was principled, practical, and intelligent. He was level-headed and reliable. He admitted to his mistakes. He passed policy that was practical rather than ideological. I didn’t always agree with him, but he was always worthy of my respect. And as America slowly began the long road to recovery after its crash, I began mine. The Affordable Care Act meant I could be on my parents’ insurance instead of MassHealth, which allowed me to see the doctors I still see today, and, for the first time in three years, I began to get better.
Much like America, my road to recovery hasn’t been easy or straightforward. I still struggle with inexplicable bouts of anxiety for sometimes weeks on end. I have trouble holding down a job because my anxiety and depression continues to make it so that I can’t work regular, reliable hours or even schedule my life very far in advance. My steps towards independence – gradual and short-term employment, learning to take vacations, getting my learner’s permit, learning to do more than one task a day without total and utter exhaustion, learning to spend money, learning to run errands – seem miniscule compared to how hard I have had to fight to get every single one of them done.
So to me, the idea of electing Mitt Romney felt personal. There were a million reasons why Mitt Romney was both ideologically and practically repugnant to me. I was terrified both as a woman and as someone who relied on the Affordable Care Act. But more than that, I felt personally threatened by him. Mitt Romney to me became every fear I ever had, every person who had ever told me to shake myself out of it or that there was nothing to be afraid of or sad about. He was every teacher who told me that my failures were my fault, that if only I worked harder and concentrated I could get better grades. He was every smug over-achieving parent I avoided at neighborhood parties who wanted to know why a smart girl like me wasn’t going to college, and did I want to hear about their perfect and awesome kid at some prestigious school who was now out saving the world? He was the human embodiment of the voice in my head that whispered to me every night that where I was in my life was my fault, that on some level I must like being stuck where I was, that I had ruined my own life and that my anxiety and depression were fake. When he talked about that 47% of Americans who were dependent, those were me. All the pain I had caused my friends and family, all the money my parents had spent, that was all because I was too selfish and lazy to be better. It was a waste and I didn’t deserve any of it. I wasn’t good enough. The progress I was so proud of was pathetic. I was pathetic.
We have this glorious rags-to-riches myth in America, this idea that those with the greatest determination are the ones who make something of themselves. But the ugly flip side of this is the belief that since it’s possible to make it, that there’s something wrong with people who don’t, or can’t. It’s so easy to forget that not everyone starts in the same place, that we all have bootstraps to pull ourselves up by, but for some of us there is a longer way to pull, or the resistance is greater, or the bootstrap is shorter. We forget the shame that is associated with those for whom things don’t come easy, the guilt and worry that there’s something wrong them that turns into helpless anger at a world where everything feels stacked against those who have to struggle. Times when all of America struggles are important. They serve to teach us not that we need to be harder on ourselves, but that self-determination also requires compassion, that pulling ourselves up is easier when we give up on our own bootstraps and all pitch in together.
I’m proud of my country for so many reasons today. I’m proud that we have passed gay marriage initiatives by ballot for the first time in our history. I’m thrilled that our new class of senators and representatives include the first Asian-American female senator, the first openly gay senator, the first openly pansexual representative, and the first disabled female representative. I’m proud of my state personally for sending our first woman to the senate. (And I’m proud that I voted for her because she’s awesome.) But what I am proudest of, and what I want to thank America for the very, very most, is for re-electing Barack Obama. Thank you for choosing compassion and caring over cynicism and greed. Thank you for believing in people like me, and thank you for letting us wake up this morning in a country that believes that, if given a chance, we have the power to get better together. I don’t say this enough, but love you, America, and today I am so very, very grateful to be a part of you.