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Why It Was So Hard to Watch the First Presidential Debate as a Trauma Survivor

Full disclosure — I’m a political fanatic. From the time I was old enough to vote I was fascinated by politics, how government impacts our lives and felt a deep sense of duty as a citizen to be involved in something that others have fought for centuries to give me — the right to vote. This year I feel particularly motivated to be engaged because I truly believe this is a historic election and there is so much at stake that is deeply personal to me, including health care, LGBTQ+ rights, women’s rights, voting rights, climate change, racial injustice and of course COVID-19.

So last night I prepared myself for the debate between President Donald Trump and former vice president Joe Biden, anticipating a back and forth between the candidates, discussing their plans and individual platforms on these issues.

Unfortunately what I witnessed last night was far from a typical debate. In fact, it was a complete disgrace to our political system at best, and a traumatic triggering scream fest that completely overwhelmed me, leaving me utterly exhausted and dismayed at the degree to which civility is lacking in our current political climate.

I quite literally panic texted my therapist afterward because it was so overwhelming to watch. I felt like I was reliving a lot of the trauma I experienced as a child. I saw one man get continuously bullied, verbally assaulted and gaslit by another — and I recognize abuse when I see it. What occurred on that stage was a classic example of it.

Mr. Trump repeatedly talked over, teased, picked on and attempted to hijack the discussions of the former Vice President with absolutely zero regard for decorum, rules that were agreed upon by both parties going into the debate and most egregiously zero respect for the humanity of the person he was debating. He attacked his intelligence and stoked ongoing speculations of Biden’s mental fitness, when it has been well documented that the former VP has struggled his entire life with a speech impediment. He vilified the Vice President’s son for struggling with drug addiction.

I found myself so triggered and recoiled so viscerally that my whole central nervous system was flooded. In typical fashion for me, the abusive behavior sent me into freeze mode so I literally sat there for the full 90-minutes like a statue, incapable of turning it off or of running away.  

Getting so triggered by this debate makes me so angry because something I am passionate about and used to enjoy has been turned into this. I don’t need to add fuel to the anxiety I already feel. This has been a challenging year for us all.

What I and most everyone else I know are craving is some leadership. We need some semblance of normalcy and hope. Sadly I do not think we will find that in any of the debates. 

If you’re someone who had a hard time watching because of your past history of trauma, know you are not alone. Witnessing bullying and verbal abuse of this kind can be an unwelcome reminder of what you may have experienced yourself at the hands of an abuser. It can bring up all of the feelings of terror, rage, helplessness and frustration that may still reside within you, no matter how much healing you may have done. 

Opting out of watching future debates isn’t a commentary on your commitment to our democracy or lack thereof. It’s about self-preservation and acknowledging that sometimes the most patriotic thing we can do is to honor our own needs, and be sure to vote. 

The photo originally appeared here on ABC’s news channel.