Guest Post: HELP! I’m Stuck in a Toxic Relationship (with America)

Editor’s note: We’re featuring a series of guest posts by the fabulous Emily Swayne, a geeky therapist who sees clients at Blue Box Counseling & Wellness in Minnesota.

This week, Emily is talking about the challenges of trying to survive in the constant onslaught of life in America. In a system that benefits from and wants you broken, tired, and dysregulated, it is a revolutionary act to care for yourself.

Like many others, I am trying to process the recent Roe v. Wade supreme court ruling, amidst a backdrop of continually stacking tragedies and terrifying new realities, especially for those of us who live our lives outside the groups that hold the most privilege, societal support, and power.

What are we to do? I’ll be honest, in so many ways I feel more at a loss with each new oppressive piece of legislation, school shooting, and refusal to help those that so desperately need it. Not to mention the quickly churning news cycle that pushes us to forget all of it before we even have time to process any of it, and that’s if we have the energy it takes just to wade through all the levels of bias in order to even get to actual information. Friends, I’ll admit things are feeling bleak.

I’ll also let you know right now that, unfortunately, this is not one of those blog posts that leads up to neatly packaged action steps or answers. I feel like I don’t know or have answers for a lot these days. But there’s this thought or metaphor that I can’t seem to shake. Being a person that this country (or at least some of the louder voices currently in it) seems to keep reiterating they hate, who doesn’t know what else to do or where else to go at this point, makes me think of someone trapped in a toxic relationship. I feel like I’m losing my power, autonomy, and say in my own decisions and life. So many people seem intent on gaslighting me into believing that things are not that bad, actually good, or even the best despite some very clear evidence to the contrary. What does one do when they don’t have resources to leave a toxic situation? Especially when the most marginalized tend to have the least support and access to resources. What does one do when they feel they have no idea where to go to feel safe? This feels true to the situation as well.

I also recently read about ideas around our attachment engaging with the world and systems that we are a part of, in addition to our relationships with others. One of the things the post questioned was how are we to function and live with secure attachment in a world that feels unsafe? What do we do when the whole thing feels set up to most severely hurt those that are the most vulnerable? How do we move forward when it feels like no matter what we do, America seems unwilling to take a good hard look at our baggage and do the work we need to do to be better? What do we do when we feel defeated and exhausted and worn down?

Meanwhile, continued choruses of “this isn’t who we are” or white-knuckled clenched fists around the opinion that we’re the greatest, despite the fact that America is a country taken through genocide, a country laid on top of stolen land, an empire built through human trafficking, slavery, bloodshed. I don’t think it’s who we have to be going forward, but saying it’s not who this country has been is bullshit. And claiming we as a nation are better while we watch children get murdered in schools, white supremacists march in the streets, people’s rights get torn away, etc. – also bullshit. All the while being told to “vote” and “go to therapy” and “do more self-care”. Don’t get me wrong, I’m about all of those things. But at what point is the relationship, the system, the setup, too toxic; too abusive to be fixed by everybody just doing their individual part while the machine churns on, using all of us as fuel, just like it feels like it was made to do.

And maybe comparing living in America to feeling like being trapped in a toxic relationship isn’t a great metaphor. But it feels like there are parallels to draw. The loss of freedoms, bodily autonomy, ability to make decisions that one deems best for oneself, forced conformity into what is determined by someone else to be what’s “right”; etc.  In addition to this framework continuing to pop up for me as I try to process how I’ve been feeling, when I’ve shared my thoughts with others, many have expressed feeling similarly. So, I guess that’s a big reason why I’m writing this blog – because if you feel this way too, then I at least want you to know you’re not alone.

Which leads me into another thought I can’t seem to shake: despite the fact that it feels like in many ways we’re becoming more and more polarized, I think if there is anything close to an “answer” it’s each other. It’s community. If the systems, if the rich, if the powers that be can’t or won’t help us then maybe we should start looking more and more at how we can help each other. How can we come to truly see those around us and how can we deconstruct the staunch individualism that often keeps us scattered? How can we instead lean into community and the collective? How can we reshape our structures and systems to benefit everyone – not just those with the most privilege? To me it seems like a clear concept that people thriving from the bottom up will positively impact so many more people than the seeming myth of the trickle down. And please don’t be fooled: greed is an unquenchable monster by its very nature. If they come for me, it is likely that eventually they will come for you too.

Now I’m sure at this point you might be shocked to hear that I actually don’t hate America or want the country to fail. This country is pretty much all I’ve known. It’s familiar. It’s mine. We are beautiful and diverse and have so much potential. There are things that I do love about America and living here, but I wish we would hunker down and undertake the work of owning our shit as a country and actually make this country a great place to live. I want us to make it a place where freedom really is valued for everyone, not just those who vote or worship or look like you. I want this country to take a good hard look at itself and be willing to do what it takes to actually be great. That could be a country I might possibly be proud to be a part of.

When we’re in toxic relationships it can feel easy to believe that we’re not worth more, that there’s nothing better out there, that we could never do better even if we tried, that we deserve it, that the way things are is how they have to be, etc. Add any amount of dysregulation, lack of resources, trauma, mental/emotional/physical limitations, lack of support, etc. and that can just make the idea of a better life feel all the more unattainable, if the idea even enters ones mind at all. Humans are AMAZING at adapting and surviving. However, that also means sometimes we find ourselves staying in and surviving situations that may feel familiar, but are far from ideal. To me this rings true of where we find ourselves and America. It feels like many are trying to cling to what is known rather than search for and dream of something better. And I get it to some degree – change is scary. The unknown is scary. As humans we want to survive and curiosity is not always synonymous with safety and survival. I get it. But there are better ways to do things and treat people. We have way too much abundance to keep harming people out of fear of scarcity.

I want to name something else, too: similar to being in a toxic relationship, I also find myself feeling at a loss because lately it feels like no matter how much I do for myself, no matter how much I grow or heal or realize or try to work on myself, America is still full of toxicity that needs to be rooted out. And similar to a toxic relationship, I can do all the work I want, but if the other involved party doesn’t also accept accountability and make change, there’s only so much I can do alone. And even though doing what we each individually can is something that I think can make a difference, I just don’t know that it’s enough on its own to fix the problems our country and it’s ingrained systems and structures are facing.

I’m sorry I don’t have answers to the hard topics talked about in this post. I wish I knew how to make all of it better. In my little neck of the woods these days I’m mostly trying to rest when my body tells me I need it; to be gentle and loving towards myself and those in my life; and to look for ways I can try to get better at building and engaging in community myself when I have the energy, because I feel like I have so much to learn. If you find yourself feeling scared right now, I stand with you in solidarity and in hope that what we need will find us; that we can find the energy, inspiration, empowerment, curiosity, connection, and whatever else required for the work that must be done. If you find yourself not feeling scared or relating to this post, that’s valid too, but maybe consider why that is. If it’s privilege that shields you from these things, I’d encourage you to try to find ways to leverage that privilege to help those that need it. If it’s numbness, fear, coping, etc. that’s valid too. I think most if not all of us are doing our best trying to navigate really hard, weird times. I hope we choose curiosity where we could choose close mindedness. I hope we can come to see each other as connected versus in competition. I hope we can love and hold each other through the growing pains and move together to something better.

Find Emily at:

Blue Box Counseling & Wellness Logo

Instagram @faveweirdtherapist

“Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”

Audre Lorde

Guest blogs do not necessarily reflect the views, values, or stance of POW! Psychotherapy, its owners and therapists, or other contributors.

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