My experiences are not the same as yours. The specific things I’ve dealt with in life are not the same. That said, I’ve learned some things the hard way and some of these things might be useful.
For over a decade, it has been part of my job to interact with the internet-at-large. For ten years I read all of my mail. I didn’t necessarily respond to it, but I read every myspace message, then every email and @ on twitter. I thought it was fair to give a stranger’s armchair diagnosis of debilitating dissociation the same amount of consideration I gave to criticism on language use from a member of my wider community. I believed that if I put words and thought out there, it was only right to hear out the responses. And, fuck, did that ever fuck me up.
Reading things that were sent maliciously—to hurt—isn’t the same as being stuck in the same physical space with someone as they scream the words at you, but it’s on the same spectrum. Eventually all those little comments pile up, especially when they’re coming in every day. Especially when they’re mixed in with important messages you need to see in order to maintain your work and have the money to pay your rent, to help organize protest, or to keep up contact with friends and loved ones.
Eventually this pile started to get to me. Eventually a nasty tweet from some random human on the other side of the globe who was almost certainly never going to act on their threat was able to poke at the scabs from threats of immediate concern or from my past. Eventually I found myself going into fight or flight mode every time I opened my computer or unlocked my cell phone.
People tried to help. “Haters gonna hate” was pulled out of storage and dusted off. Encouragements to ignore [blank] or to not think about [other blank] were given out like Halloween candy in a middle-class US suburb. Eventually my response was an extremely frustrated “I’D LOVE TO BUT HOW.”
Because, you know, that “don’t think about pink elephants” thing.
I tried imagining unresolvable concerns as clouds floating away, and picturing them as leaves falling into a stream before being carried off by the current. Then I bemoaned how ineffective this was for me to a partner who told me that they handle thoughts of things they don’t need to think about right now with a direct, internal ‘I don’t need to think about this right now.’ I was all “OK THANKS BUT THEN IT STILL COMES BACK.”
(It was a very all-caps period of my life, stuck between “Yes, yes, I need to take care of myself” and how the actual fuck to do that.)
To which they replied “Yes, and the trick is to accept that things you don’t need to think about will pop back into your head and then calmly address them again with ‘I don’t need to think about this right now.” Once I stopped getting frustrated with my inability to put a thing out of my head permanently, it became slightly easier—and far less emotionally draining—to put those things out of my head until something could actually be done about them.
Finally a friend introduced me to Rebecca West’s “Black Lamb and Grey Falcon.” It is not light reading and many grains of salt must be taken with it, but somewhere in those 1,200 or so pages was the most effective answer I’ve found so far to BUT HOW: instead of subtracting bad things, add good things.
Or: When bad things cannot be subtracted, protect the good things and turn to them as things to do thinking about and focusing on when you need a break from the bad things.
(An individual’s good things to think about/focus on will vary, as will what we each have access to. Here are some of mine: cats+laser dot, floating in hot water—which has a 50/50 chance of helping or exacerbating, fucking, sewing silly little things for friends out of remnants from larger projects.)
The ability to wrangle our brains into actually taking a break from stressors feels important because without rest—if we are constantly embroiled in skirmish after skirmish—it seems that much harder to find the stamina to win a war.