What to do when the news makes you feel like a human ashtray

photo-by-mario-calvo (1)I never realized how much we take the absence of pain for granted. Instead, we cite boredom, general malaise, and complaint rather than sheer gratitude for the stardust shooting through our bodies, for those perfect moments when speck and cell align, humming, harmonious.

We’ve got to be grateful at the cellular level. We’ve got to work on that.

Remember that when you feel like a human ashtray. Like a gaping hunger. Like a dry thirst. Like garbage.

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The horrific news over the last 36 hours — the white man who massacred dozens and dozens concertgoers in Las Vegas with assault weapons and injured hundreds — is severe. It is outrageous. It is unprecedented. It was the largest mass shooting in U.S. history. I want to call him a “terrorist” but the truth is, the motive for the shooting is not yet known (and a terrorist is defined as “a person who uses unlawful violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims”).

There is a very real issue here that will not be solved with “thoughts and prayers” and if I see that line one more time I think I will throw up. It makes me angry. DO something. Call your senators. Vote. Resist. Getting into flame wars on the Internet with that dude Billy who you hung out with one time in high school is not the way to go. It does not matter. I am so tired of how we all keep wasting our precious energy on things that do not have staying power, that do not have worth.

Think about it: you know when a conversation is worth having. You know. Your fellow person is engaged. Instead of raising the defenses — sighs, obvious shifting of the feet, opposing body language, interruptions — s/he is listening to you.

It may sound crazy, but what I’m saying here is that YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE THE CONVERSATION. You don’t. There are too many precious things that need your energy — to uplift, to protect, to resist, to empower. To love.

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I work in news. I’ve been in this business for just about 10 years. That means that I am exposed to a barrage of emails, tweets, calls, notifications, newsletters, and television screens for 40+ hours a week. I do a lot of things at my job, but one title that’s always on is the “information filter.” Usually this runs at a low grade, like a background app running on your phone. But when there is major breaking news — like the horrible massacre yesterday — this kicks into high gear. Everything is on alert. I may be safely sequestered away from the action physically, in an extremely secure building almost 2,000 miles away from Las Vegas. But this still does nothing for my head and my heart.

And before you laugh it off or tell me to “put the phone down” or something equally derisive and dismissive, I think it’s worth considering the effects of news — particularly horrible, traumatizing news, our access to it, and the speed at which it all travels.

“According to some psychologists, exposure to negative and violent media may have serious and long-lasting psychological effects beyond simple feelings of pessimism or disapproval …violent media exposure can exacerbate or contribute to the development of stress, anxiety, depression and even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).”

(From “What Constant Exposure to Negative News is Doing to Our Mental Health,” Huffington Post.)

Combine these symptoms — stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD — with the fact that no one seems to be able to have a conversation anymore (online or in person) without interrupting or trying to take the other out at the knees, and it makes for a pretty toxic mix. 

Yesterday, when I woke up, I checked my email. I do this every day, usually before I even move from my bed, to get a sense of what to expect. Immediately, email after email with “LAS VEGAS” and “LAS VEGAS SHOOTING” and “VEGAS MASSACRE” began to pop up. Dozens and dozens of them, all from the overnight hours. I headed into work with a sense of icy-cold dread — you know the kind, right? The dripping, cold fear you can feel deep in your bones? The kind of chill a sweater really won’t warm?

((I also wrote something very similar about my experience in news when the Boston Marathon was bombed.))

After a few hours, I felt overwhelmed and nauseous. When I left work, I was still nauseous. I did things that usually help restore some sense of normalcy: I cuddled my dog. I drank lots of water. I kept the lights low and the noise off. I did the things I thought would help me decompress. It didn’t work. I got ready to go to a meetup with several friends about a creative project we were working on, but had to psych myself up to even get out the door. I couldn’t shake the sense that I was going to be not in the right mood, a wet blanket thrown over the whole thing.

So I figured I’d try something different: I’d talk to them about it. I’d put it out there that I was feeling really weird — mentally and physically off. That I didn’t want to hijack the meeting, but that this world felt extra-super-fucked at the moment and I just needed to release it. And a funny thing happened: it was like releasing a pressure valve. We all felt it. We all needed to acknowledge it.

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Today, a colleague sent a note to the newsroom staff, which I’ll paraphrase here:

“Dealing with the news is tough no matter who you are. And it can be really tough for people who work in news, who get a constant barrage of sad and horrible information at any given time. It’s okay to feel this way, and it’s okay to seek help. And we support you.”

This applies to anyone. It’s okay if you’re pissed, sad, devastated. That’s an appropriate response to this atrocity. To any atrocity, really. Do what you need to do. Talk to a friend. Cry. Boil a pot of tea. Hug your dog. Make an appointment with your therapist. Take care of yourself and your mental health.

And if or when you feel up to it, fight. Resist. Speak up in ways that will multiply your energy rather than deplete it. Write your politicians. Research legislation. Inform yourself. Work hard to stay informed.

And above all, don’t forget what to do in those perfect moments when speck and cell align, humming, harmonious. Don’t forget to be grateful at the cellular level, when you can.