It was around the beginning of the summer that I noticed that all I wanted to do was sleep. And it wasn’t (just) the heat. My mind felt bruised to a livid purple welt. Just thinking felt — disturbingly — painful. My bones felt as weary as dust. And that fine dust seemed to cover everything, leaving my world cloudy, hazy, foggy, slow-motion, indistinct. The dust sang sweet lullabies of slumber.
Just sleep, it would murmur, please, let yourself rest, doesn’t it feel sweet. So one part of me would plead with another for sleep, for rest, over and over again. The other part, annoyed and alarmed in equal measure by such self-indulgence, such laziness, replied sternly: you’ve slept plenty long enough today! And commanded me to sternly to leap up, write, work, meet, discuss, talk, go, do — like everything was fine, normal, pretty good.
You listen to your internal signs and signals, the movements and pulses of the strange and unknowable thing called a body, its rivers and oceans, its beats and murmurs. And yet I couldn’t pin down just why I felt so tired. So sleepy. So utterly exhausted. Lethargic, drained, done, like all those rivers and oceans had turned to deserts and parched earth.
By about a week later, I was a walking zombie. I’d toss and turn at night, then leap out of bed, groaning with frustration, and pace from the living room to the bedroom to the bathroom and back again. Wait — wasn’t I worn out? So why was sleep eluding me? Then I’d sleepwalk through the day. I’d wake up, and — snap! — my mind would go numb. It would simply shut itself down. Every cell, feeling, sensation in my body seemed to want was to hibernate blackly as if through the darkness of a white winter.
It took me a week or so to put my finger on it. I don’t have a particularly stressful life. Or do I?
I rouse myself, go have tea, write. It’s pretty low-key. I can’t manage much more, to tell you the truth. There’s a reason none of the storybook vampires ever have nine to five jobs. And yet nobody who can’t sleep, can’t think, feels so inexplicably tired all the time can tell you they’re not feeling some kind of acute, systemic stress. So what the blazes was it that was stressing me out?
So I confessed to my friends. Weirdly, they were all feeling more or less the same way, they admitted reluctantly, when I pressed them a little. Sleepless — but restless. Exhausted — but wide awake. Sleepwalking through the day. Worn out, drained, wrecked. Minds numb. Fatigued and stunned — all at the same time. What the hell was wrong with all of us? Was there something in the drinking water? And then it hit me.
I was burned out on collapse.
Our lives might not be particularly stressful in some kind of narrow personal sense — but they’d become profoundly, severely distressed in what you might call a psychosocial one.
Living through an age of fracture and decline, of pandemic and planetary collapse, of indifference and helplessness: it’s an exhausting, soul-crushing thing.
I’m burned out on collapse —. and I’d bet you are too.
It’s not easy living in a time like this. It sucks the life out of you, drains you, changes you. Just being there. Just watching it all go down. Just going on to fight through another day. That’s the truth. Give yourself a round of applause. You deserve it. Cry a little tear for yourself. I mean it. You deserve that, too. You’ve been tested — in a difficult, deep, and painful way. Not just from a pandemic that shows no signs of ending — a pandemic that capital doesn’t want to end, because they’re making the greatest profit in human history. Not just from the rising totalitarianism around the globe. Not just from the climate grief — of knowing that we’re destroying the planet and watching the devastation unfold in real time. But also from the sheer indifference to it all that elites seem to have. Their inaction, their indifference? It leads to our helplessness. And that is a soul-crushing feeling, my friend.
But let’s think about what all those emotions really mean.
Now, I won’t give you the usual rigmarole.
You know: get-off-the-internet-and-practice-self-care. I think all this cuts a little deeper than that. I’ll simply talk you through what I noticed in myself, and you can judge for yourself if it applies to you, too. You can be honest — nobody’s listening but you. (And let me say emphatically that isn’t a plea for pity, though it’s always nice to know that you care about me. It’s just a little reflection, that I thought I’d share with you, about the psychological price of living in an age of collapse.)
The first thing that I noticed, if I looked at myself, was that almost the instant I woke up, my mind was shutting itself down. Snap! It was like it decided, all by itself, to operate at a quarter speed. I’d struggle for words, to make decisions, and so forth. Any good psychologist would probably have noted that this was a kind of protective measure — a defense mechanism, kicking into high gear. Technically, several at once: denial, compartmentalization, possibly regression, maybe even a little bit of dissocation. But from what? Such a sudden, intense defensive posture tells us that a mind is under acute pressure, tension, conflict. It prefers the bliss of ignorance to the anxieties of a dreaded reality. Snap! Shutdown.
In the case of you and I, I think the cause of that tension, that pressure, that conflict, is pretty easy to understand. Who wants to wake up and read the news?
Who wants to pore over the grim headlines anymore? We say casually that they’re full of bad news. But the truth is a little tougher to bear. To constantly read a litany of things like your society’s broken, the pandemic’s not ending, the planet’s melting down, elites have left you broke, and the fascists are rising — it’s psychologically ruinous.
Human beings don’t need to awash in a warm bath of good news — that’s destructive, too. But when reality itself has turned into something like a grotesque, bizarre dystopia — then just making contact with it is deeply psychologically stressful.
How stressful? Like me, during the course of 2021, many of my friends began to develop trouble sleeping. Not just minor-league trouble — but staying up many nights a week levels of trouble. Now, all this is doubly ironic for me, because I stay up all night anyways, because the sun can melt my blood. So there I was, staying up all day…staying up all night. No sleep till the apocalypse. It should have occurred to all of us sooner, I guess. If we’d talked about it, noticed, we would have soon uncovered the next thing a good psychologist would: we were going into hyper vigilance and hyperarousal. Another sign of severe psychological distress — this time, bordering on trauma.
Now, another irony was I’d written many times, over the last couple of years, that I thought this era was leaving many people with low-level PTSD
How absurd and funny then that I didn’t see it my friends and myself, when it was right in front of me. Really, you might wonder, PTSD? Come on! But that’s exactly what I think a good psychologist would and should say about many of us today — maybe not that we “have PTSD,” but certainly that we have been traumatized. To be traumatized is to be exposed to death, of violence, to feel threatened with one’s own nonexistence, or that of a loved one. And a good psychologist would know that none of that has to be “direct.” You don’t have to be the one who is hit by an abuser to be traumatized by abuse. You merely have to be in proximity to such a thing, for the experience to ripple out and strike you, too.
But isn’t that precisely what this age feels like? Proximity to, if not direct experience of, relentless, gruesome, needless abuse after abuse? Abuse of power. Abuse of societies. Abuse of democracy. Abuse of technology. Abuse of the planet. Abuse of women. Abuse of our health, for profit. Violence against the vulnerable. An indifference to life and truth and decency. Predatory profiteering, greed, devastation. Fire, famine, flood. Skyrocketing poverty amongst soaring riches.
Wouldn’t watching all of that make sane person burn with rage, pound with anxiety, shudder with dread, go cold with panic?
It does me, and I think that you the only person you’re kidding is yourself if you pretend it doesn’t do just that to you, on some level, too. This, my friends, is a traumatized time, generation, milieu, society, world.
Imagine watching your house burn down. Imagine being in a car crash. Imagine watching a highway pileup happen in front of you. Every day. Over and over again. We might not be there physically — but that is precisely where we are psychologically. We are forced to watch our house burn down, — or be burned down — every day. The house of democracy, the planet, the future, society, prosperity. Forced to watch our neighbor suffer while we look on, helpless.
What’s worse, it’s addictive — and it’s always on, like a weird, gruesome spectacular machine of destruction. It’s a click away.
Just tap Twitter, Facebook, whatever, and wham!! There’s this age’s choice of catastrophes, on auto-repeat, every instant of the day or night. You can’t really escape it — unless you decide to forsake the modern world and become a hermit. And it’s not just always going, this machine. Sometimes, it feels better to watch it than not to watch it — because at least bearing witness is the responsible, mature thing to do. And so we watch our house being burned down by this giant machine of ruin, obsessively-compulsively — never quite fully knowing that the price is anxiety, dread, panic, powerlessness, hopelessness. In short, trauma.
That’s probably why we’re having less sex, why we’re so depressed, why we’re so unhappy, why we’re committing suicide more and more. We’ve been traumatized — “burned out on collapse” — and we don’t quite know it. But only a traumatized world, society, time, generation, place, ends up like that. Feels so powerless, hopeless, desperate, guilty, ashamed, bad. You can tell me you don’t feel those things, and maybe you yourself don’t. But what else does it say when the pulse of society is taken today — and what it beats with is despair, fury, and sorrow?
It’s obvious to say that people worry these days — what happens if I get cancer? Will I have to off myself so the kids don’t have to pay medical bills? But that is being traumatized. It is not a thing that anyone should have to worry about in a remotely normal, or decent, time, society, or place. And yet that’s just the beginning.
I’ve come to think that we live in something like an age of trauma. Many of us are instantly traumatized from the moment that we wake up.
Today, this school was shot up. See that poor guy? He had to crowdfund insulin. Those little children got Covid because their parents refuse to give them masks. The planet’s melting down. The rich are profiting off a pandemic. Your income hasn’t gone up in decades. How are you going to survive? These are just everyday thoughts that might be provoked by simply glancing at the news, Twitter, Facebook, and so on. But they are also the stuff of panic attacks, of palpitations, of profound distress that must be buried deep where it isn’t seen or felt. They are the stuff of trauma. They are the living essence of a constant exposure to death, to nonexistence, to violence.
I’m burned out on collapse, and I’d bet you are too.
We need to take better care of all of us. We need to take better care of the wounded parts of us — individually, as societies, as a world.
And to do that, the reverse, strangely, maybe beautifully, is also true. We need all of us to take better care of each other, too.
So hang in there. Stay loving, stay gentle, stay kind. Sleep, rest, breathe, eat well. Taking care begins with the basics. Above all, stay true. It’s OK to admit it. This has been a terrible, unforgiving, horrific couple of years. It’s been a psychological catastrophe for all of us. You don’t need to keep it inside. It’s the greatest gift that you can give, to share your burdens, sometimes. That way, we grow.