When election results first began to trickle in on Tuesday, I’d already been reliving several days’ worth of PTSD from what I’d experienced in 2016. I was still a single parent then, with two young girls safely asleep in the 660-square-foot apartment we had in low-income housing, but as votes were tallied, the world around us began to feel less safe.
This election started to feel too familiar, as the earliest reported votes initially turned states red. I started to feel that same disappointment, sadness and fear, and my thoughts went to the single parents who had to go through these hours alone.
My surroundings were different this year. I had a husband sitting next to me in a house I owned. I had someone to hug and hold and offer comfort. I could take time off work the next day, and maybe the day after that. But I couldn’t stop thinking about those who couldn’t. The ones who were already stretched thin, struggling to get to work and make ends meet while they struggled to feed themselves and their children.
I know that life too well. I not only lived it for most of a decade, I wrote a book about it, so I have also consequently been telling that story all over the country for the last two and a half years. Standing in front of those audiences, I want to describe how it felt to work as much as possible to afford a small, moldy room. I want to describe that in such detail that they feel the anguish of never having enough food, soap, childcare or medicine. How isolating the experience was and how invisible I felt.
Public speaking is not something my mind and body are able to do easily. I sweat profusely with shaky hands to match a voice that sometimes cracks. I wake up in the middle of the night obsessing over what I said and if it sounded weird or if I shouldn’t have said that. Sometimes I have full-blown anxiety attacks. But I rarely turn down an opportunity to speak to an audience.
My reasons for putting myself out there are many, but most important, it’s a way to connect and feel less alone. Because somewhere in that audience is a person who has gone through something similar who now hears, “I know, I’ve been there, too.”
I never heard this during my hardest times. I even searched for fictional versions of my life as a single mother in poverty and found nothing even remotely close to accurate. Nobody looked me in the eye and said, “What you’re going through is incredibly hard, and it’s not your fault.” I’m not sure why. Maybe they couldn’t comprehend what my life was like as a mom of a 3-year-old who worked as a housecleaner to put herself through college. But I never really felt like they tried to understand.
I’ve talked about this a lot over the last few years. To me, the only way we’ll see a collective change in this country is by listening to people who have experienced life in the margins of society, who have lived less privileged versions of my story, in systemic poverty and facing structural racism. If we can somehow start to remove shame from struggle, if we can truly see people and care for them as our fellow human beings, we’ll start to see how many of us are also fighting in our own way.
As a country in crisis, we desperately need that compassion. We need leaders who are able to vividly remember how it feels to experience hardship, trauma and pain, who make us feel less alone. For four years, we’ve been bullied by an Administration that lacks any semblance of compassion. Our new President, alongside our Madam Vice President, won’t be able to repair everything that’s been broken, but Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will not only see us, they will listen to our stories. They will bring back the dignity in simply being human.
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