Mental Health in an Apocalyptic Age

America, our chickens have come home to roost. One could argue, as Malcom X once famously did, that this was always the way it was going to play out—that a country built on genocide of the native population and dependent on the enslavement of an entire continent to do its dirty work would inevitably face the return of its poultry—but I’ll bet that the majority of you are just now starting to realize how truly well and fucked we are.

Stop and close your eyes and think about this for a second: I’d be willing to bet that just in the past two years you’ve been forced to confront some hard truths about America and about humanity in general. There’s been a subtle shift in your thinking from “America is a democracy and will always be the best country on earth” and “humans will be around forever” to “everything I was taught in school about this country was a lie” and “will this planet still be here for my grandchildren?”

It’s hard to estimate the mental toll these sorts of realizations take on the human psyche. At no other time in the history of our species has there been more of a collective realization that we are climatically doomed; that humanity is no longer sustainable in the long term on this planet; that the ideals and institutions that you believed were honest, earnest, and meant to protect you will not, in fact, do anything of the sort; that the game has been rigged all along, and not in favor of people like you and yours. How do you measure the mental toll that worrying about whether your children will have clean water or clean air when they’re your age takes? How do you quantify the anxiety you feel when you hear about the extinction of over one million species on this planet and what that will mean for our species’ survival? What’s the level of depression that results from reading that UN report saying that, literally, humanity is rocketing itself toward extinction? Oh, and sooner rather than later, by the way, so tell your kids you love them but they’re fucked. 

Part of this unease, of course, results from the fact that social media injects terrible news into our feeds and our veins around the clock now. We are possibly more aware of the evils that men do than at any other time in human history. We have become a society of endless digesters, consuming goods, services, drugs, booze, food, weed, shows, video games and, yes, social media in the hopes that these distractions will make us feel like we’re not propelling ourselves toward Mad Maxdom. The old news adage “if it bleeds, it leads” is still true, and we are hemorrhaging like never before. 

We talk about how addiction is a disease, but what about those members of society for whom things are so wretched, hope has so been abandoned, and options have so been explored, that why not just surrender to the sweet embrace of heroin? Or booze? Or Xanax? Or Netflix binge-watching? Or Instagramming the mundanity of our lives? Or building massive Pinterest boards for kitchens in houses we’ll never ever be able to afford? It’s all about checking out as much as possible because real life has gotten absolutely overwhelming. Compound that with the fact that you feel utterly impotent to do anything about it, and you have a recipe for a society that cares about all the wrong shit (see: Kardashians). 

Which is likely why many of us have gotten to this realization: what even fucking matters anymore? How does even the most lightly-informed human have the mental wherewithal go through the motions of commuting, child-rearing, job interviewing, making meals, taking vacations, etc. etc. when it’s become patently obvious that we are irrevocably screwed? My wife’s point is, and it’s a valid one to be sure, “You can’t do anything about it so why not just focus on the positive things in the world?” I get it. But to me, that feels like rearranging the deck chairs while the Titanic sinks. 

I mean, think about it for a second, I mean, REALLY think: in the span of the last two years—okay, let’s even generously say ten years (so, pre-Trump, though he is a central figure in our collective descent into hopelessness and national intractability, to be sure)—somewhere in your psyche has occurred a shift. I’m willing to bet many of you reading this have become how acutely aware in these past few years just how untenable the Great Human Experiment has become. The reports being churned out at a rapid rate aren’t even bothering to sugarcoat anymore; pretty soon we’ll see a IPCC report entitled simply “WE ARE FUCKED.”

Sure, it’s the relentless bleak news from scientists, geologists, and climatologists about how we’ve passed the point of no return, but it’s also awareness that mosques are being bombed, schools are being shot up, synagogues are being torched, and gravestones are being graffitied that has crept into the edges of our awareness now. It’s also the knowledge that white supremacy is on the rise (a whopping 226 percent rise of racial violence in areas where Trump has held one of his Klan rallies); that black people are being beaten, often by law enforcement, but usually just by scared, dumb, white men; that people with brown skin now have targets on their backs; that gay 9-year-olds are committing suicide; that a transgender girl was beaten savagely in a school bathroom; that our government is caging and sometimes killing children because the children had the misfortune to be born somewhere even more terrible than here. The relentless stream of news that passes before our eyes is affecting us in ways we don’t even know yet.

It’s realizing that most of the tenets that have rooted you in your Americanism were built on a lie, and now that awareness seeps into your brain even in your happiest and most pleasant moments. (“The ocean is beautiful...too bad it’s full of plastic...” “...wow, I can’t believe it’s 75 degrees in February! I love this, but I know it’s not right.”) It’s knowing that the criminals in charge right now are, literally, content to watch the world burn. It’s realizing our entire system was designed by powerful white men, and that they have spent the last 250 years tilting the entire ball of wax in their favor to retain their wealth and power. It’s trying to figure out how your kids will claw their way out of this mess when they’re adults, when the gig economy or artificial intelligence have taken over, when the federal courts are full of conservative judges who, literally, wouldn’t stop to piss on you if you were on fire. It’s knowing that generations of corrupt politicians have now aligned things so that you and yours will never get ahead.

And it’s watching people you love and thought you knew turning into paranoiac Fox News zombies; sharing racist memes on their facebook pages; regurgitating Trump tweets, factually incorrect talking points, and shooing you away as you ask how they could consider themselves Christian and still support an administration that is locking people in cages or that is ginning up so much racial hatred. It’s realizing that they have well and fully been brainwashed and that the machine that Nixon’s cadre of evildoers put into motion 60 years ago is now reaping its rewards—they now control an entire voting block of under-educated, paranoid, poor and middle-class people living on the thin edge of the wedge who are blindly supporting everything that takes away their rights and protections just to spite “the other side.” It’s hoping that your uncle with diabetes who spends his time on conspiracy websites runs out of HIS medication and can’t get more. It’s living with the fact that this is what you’ve become. 

It’s knowing that we are on the downhill slope speeding toward that tree, that America has had its heyday, that within the last few years you’ve had to really think about human extinction when two years ago, it likely never crossed your mind. Think about that: that’s a lot for a psyche to digest, and you really have no idea how it affects your overall mindset. It’s the tiniest creep of the thought: what happens when water becomes scarce and only rich people have access to it? It’s knowing that if a hurricane or a tornado hit your house, you are well and truly on your own because your government isn’t coming to save you—no one is. It’s knowing that if, say, ebola washed up on the shores of this country, we are less able to cope with it than ever before. It’s knowing your kid or grandkid likely won’t be eating a lot of shellfish or beef in his life because those things will rapidly become unsustainable. 

It’s knowing that the phrase “future generations will judge you for [fill in the blank]” is essentially meaningless because the only thing future generations will be judging us for is how we let this planet die and how they’ve had to watch their kids die of thirst. It’s wondering if your town will become the next Flint. It’s wanting to scream your head off at the rich men in power who want things to stay exactly the same in the face of such tragic news. It’s pointing your finger at all those Republicans who willfully ignore facts, science, reason. It’s knowing that in the year 2100, no one will care about who let what happen because half of the continent will be under water, and mass migration will have become a thing again, and who gives a fuck at this point about some guy named Mitch McConnell or the Koch Brothers or what horrendous decisions they made in 2019? 

It’s toying with the idea of becoming a survivalist-lite. “Lite” because you don’t wanna seem crazy, but Jesus, things sure are starting to look bad, and honey, do we have enough water stored in the garage? It’s reading an article about how rich people have bought bunkers and water sources and huge swaths of land in the event of massive societal collapse and thinking “What do they know that I don’t?” Christ, even they can see the guillotines coming.  

It’s not being able to shut it out anymore, no matter how much you’d like to bury your head in the sand. It’s the slow creep of global awareness that things—that we—are not okay. As a country, as a planet, or as a species. And yeah, we can meditate, do yoga, engage in “self-care,” work out, play with our kids, cook meals, donate to causes, volunteer, vote, host parties, go to movies, post selfies about how happy we are, or walk in the park with friends. But it’s always there now—the knowledge and fair certainty of our own destruction. There is no more “I want my kids to do better than I did.” That’s a silly pipe dream. The dual chickens of late-stage capitalism and white patriarchy are coming home to roost, and we are in so deep that it’s impossible to see a way out. The machine is still destroying the climate and eating the poor, and we’re busy screaming at strangers online about guns and abortion.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that you stop doing any of the above activities. When you are powerless to stop the machine, the best you can do is to do the things that make you the happiest, to try and live in the moment and, of course, at the very least minimize your own footprint. I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one trying to find these straws to cling to right now because it seems like it’s all we have left.

And for the record, I thought long and hard about posting this. I can hear the people who know me saying, “Remember when she was funny and not the killjoy she’s become? Remember when she was the life of the party?” And I WAS the fucking life of the party, but now that the party’s over, yeah, I find it hard to crack jokes about the shitty service I got from my barista this morning because none of it matters anymore

Also for the record: I hate that this is who I’ve become—I am deeply unhappy and cynical. I’m clearly not good at that whole self-care routine. Like everyone else, I know what I need to do: less news, less social media, less Netflix, fewer drugs and booze, better diet, more exercise, more time making connections in my community. I know all of that and yet still can’t escape this massive shadow that’s crept over us. And I certainly can’t escape my fury toward the people and the systems that got us here, toward the willful ignorance that’s overtaken us, and even to the people who stick their heads in the sand and pretend everything is fine. Yes, I have rage for them too, even though I don’t how they’d be able to fix any more of our problems than I could. There are entire days where I just seethe at the ignorance and maliciousness of the American populace. So, you know, that’s a productive day. 

Humanity is entering an era where it will be tested like never before during a time where we are mentally ill-equipped to deal with it, civilly unequipped to deal with it, and socially unequipped to deal with it. It’s gonna be a free-for-all up in this piece. In a time where someone can’t post even an innocuous news story on social media about wildflowers without it devolving into political and racist mudslinging, the revolution (or devolution) isn’t gonna be pretty. We will eat ourselves alive. And I have no answers. I, like you, have been experiencing every emotion from anxiety to rage to deep depression—all fueled by the fact that we have precious little control about how we’ve evolved to this point or how to fix it. Lack of control breeds hate and fear, and hate and fear breed panic. 

We definitely have enough hate and fear. The impending panic is what’s keeping me up at night.