In the summer of 2016, I secretly started smoking again.
At work, I would sneak out the back door on my lunch break and hide behind a dumpster. On the road, I constantly checked my mirrors to see if someone I knew was in the car behind me. On vacation, I crouched in the shadows of our beachfront balcony while my husband splashed around in the ocean with our nephews.
Before I was halfway through every cigarette, I was already thinking about the next one. If it was 10 PM and I only had two left in my pack, I’d panic that I might want a third before bedtime.
Everywhere I went I was followed by a filthy cloud — kind of like Pigpen, only mine was a mixture of cigarette smoke and shame.
And the universe was torturing me, screaming at me to stop: the constant airing of the PSA starring the lady in the hospital bed with the tracheotomy, or the Spiriva commercial where the elephant sits on the chest of the old man with COPD; the giant tower of nicotine patches, gums, sprays and lozenges at the pharmacy.
But every time the 7-Eleven cashier handed me a fresh pack of Marlboro Lights, it felt like I was being thrown a life preserver.
On a Friday afternoon in early October, while I maniacally scrolled through my Twitter feed and chain-smoked, there finally came a moment in which I felt like I could breathe for the first time in months: the Washington Post had published its story about the infamous Access Hollywood tape.
Like the majority of Americans I thought, surely this had to be it, surely this recording of the Republican nominee for President of the United States boasting about grabbing women’s genitals without their consent will be the final strike of the last of countless nails in the coffin for the Trump campaign.
I could feel the lactic acid draining from my shoulders and my lower back while I watched the tape on a loop, utterly horrified and yet incapable of removing the grin splayed across my face. Our national nightmare was finally going to end.
But, alas, I was wrong. The tape turned out to be nothing but a blip — a serious one, but still only a blip — and with each passing day Trump’s disciples continued to look less and less like Americans and more and more like the early settlers of Jonestown.
I was up to a pack and a half a day.
On the morning of November 9th, beneath the demoralization and the heartbreak I felt, for the first time in years, utterly petrified of the future.
I feared that Trump’s win would dramatically amplify the voices of white supremacists (it did). I feared that a Trump presidency would sway public opinion of the LGBTQ community and diminish national support for equality (it has). I feared that the legitimacy of my marriage would be challenged (it is).
After volunteering for the Maryland marriage equality campaign in 2012, exchanging marriage vows with my husband in 2014, and laying the foundation for a future I had never in my life thought possible, at the age of 33 I finally felt like I was an equal participant in the human experience. Not just because I had the right to marry, but because the hate had somehow begun to feel less palpable, which was freeing. I wasn’t ready for this new freedom to be taken away.
Six weeks after the election, my husband and I moved from Maryland to New York so I could attend Columbia University and complete my undergraduate degree, something I had been putting off for over a decade. That I would finally be leaving behind a dissatisfying career to study human rights and journalism supplemented some of the hope that I had lost after the election, but it also filled me with trepidation. Not because I didn’t think I was up for the challenge, but because it meant I would no longer be able to afford my expensive nicotine habit.
Mind you, the mere prospect of quitting was going to require substantial disengagement from social media and news consumption, otherwise I’d probably just end up gnawing off the hand I typically used to hold my cigarette. Unplugging felt cowardly, but I was hopeful that at Columbia and beyond I would be engaging in a way that superseded my previous stratagem of #RESIST-ing, which at the time involved little more than a bi-weekly release of self-righteous diatribes into the echo chamber of Facebook.
So, albeit very apprehensively, with the help of 2mg strength Nicorette gum and a heavy dose of denial, I quit.
I’m not going to lie, it was hard. I hated everyone. Everything sucked. You sucked. And I had been foolish to think that I could shield myself from the constant barrage of outrageous headlines, each one more devastating than the last. Even if I didn’t know all of the details, I could still feel it everywhere — all of the heartbreak and the fear.
“It’s like 9/11 all over again,” I must’ve heard five times a day.
Everyone was grieving.
I was grieving, too. I was grieving the loss of the election, certainly, but even more than our defeat I was grieving the loss of the past, a past which for years had seemed so full of promise. I felt overcome with nostalgia, constantly scrolling through pictures of past Christmases and birthday celebrations, of our autumn wedding and our honeymoon in Europe. In the photos, we looked bright-eyed and hopeful, so genuinely full of joy.
I was also grieving the loss of my beloved Marlboro Lights. So desperately, in fact, that I was lucky it didn’t take me too long to figure out what proved most effective in dulling my multi-layered pain: cookies and binge-a-thons of Nineties sitcoms.
And that’s what I did, every night. I pounded Oreos and watched the various gangs of fictional friends live, laugh, and love in a pre-President Trump Manhattan.
Sometimes it felt like I was opening up a time capsule from a past life, or even from another world, as if we had all been kidnapped and taken to a planet where time went in reverse and everything was backwards and upside down.
Sometimes I cried.
It was on a cold winter night that I overheard a stranger on the subway make an innocuous comment about George W. Bush, and thought, “God, do I miss Bush,” when I realized that my longing for the past had gone from desperate to insane. Perhaps this is what old people felt when they spoke wistfully about “how things used to be,” I mused, even if many of the things that used to be were shit.
Perhaps it was time to start smoking again.
The universe must’ve heard my desperation and felt moved to bestow upon me a mercy, because before I could even ask my husband, “Would you mind if we skipped some meals so I can start smoking again?,” I learned that NBC would be bringing back Will & Grace, the television show that played the most prominent role in my nightly self-care routine.
This may seem trivial to some readers, but to many gay men and women who were born prior to the new millennium, the comeback of the series — the same series that Vice President Joe Biden famously said “did more to educate the American public more than almost anything anybody has done so far” — felt akin to the Second Coming. (I can personally testify that the show was my salvation between the years of 1999 and 2001.) Finally, with the news that such a cherished part of pop culture history would be returning, my post-apocalyptic, nicotine-free future began to look a little less grim.
Over the summer, my morale got another boost when I landed an internship for an LGBTQ rights organization. This, I thought, is exactly the type of engagement I had been hoping for. It was time to really plug back in.
The immediate inundation of soul-crushing news was disorienting, to say the least, in particular the coverage of the radically anti-LGBTQ initiatives of the Trump Administration and the so-called ‘bathroom bills’ for which state governments were calling special sessions to legislate.
Everyday I was more appalled than the last, but the afternoon I came across an article about Roseanne Barr’s history of transphobia — of which I had been previously unaware — is one that stands out in my memory. Not just because I found the anti-trans (and pro-Trump) bile Barr spewed so abhorrent, but also because it was heartbreaking to learn these things about a woman who had been a torchbearer of promoting gay visibility in the media, even before the debut of Will & Grace.
After researching the backstory, I could intuit that Barr’s comments weren’t driven by hate so much as they were derived from vast ignorance and misinformation (as is most transphobia and homophobia). I wished desperately that she would take the time to inform herself of the truth about the trans experience, so that she might in turn inform her millions of Twitter followers whose phobias are stoked by her 140-character rants. But people don’t really seem to be doing that kind of thing these days.
After the Will & Grace reboot proved to be a success for NBC, other networks naturally began to follow suit. When ABC announced they would be bringing back Roseanne in March, I was torn over whether or not to tune in.
Transphobia notwithstanding, I find Barr’s support of Donald Trump to be inexcusable, as I do of anyone who voted for him, save one family member to whom I have given a pass for making the reprehensible decision. (I am currently considering retracting this free pass.) But here lies the conundrum: my nostalgic yearnings were not even close to being satisfied, and the thought of another sacred remnant of the past appearing on my television screen felt too tempting to pass up.
After much internal debate, I decided to tune in.
The Roseanne reboot was outstanding, even funnier than Will & Grace. Yes, I did feel a niggling sense of guilt when I watched the show, but I reassured myself that it was OK because one of the characters was gender nonconforming, and out-lesbian Sara Gilbert was involved, and so was the brilliant Laurie Metcalf and even Wanda Sykes. I just wanted to enjoy some good old-fashioned (but for the new millennium) comedy, after all, and shouldn’t I pity Barr for her shortcomings rather than condemn her? And who was I hurting, really?
On May 29, describing former Barack Obama senior advisor Valerie Jarrett, who is African American, Barr tweeted: “Muslim brotherhood & planet of the apes had a baby = vj.”
ABC swiftly cancelled Roseanne, stating her comments were “abhorrent, repugnant, and inconsistent with our values.”
I was afraid.
I was more afraid than I was the day Donald Trump was elected.
I was more afraid than I was the day Trump started banning entire nations of people from entering the country, or the day he said the media was “the enemy of the people,” or the day he described hundreds of neo-Nazis holding tiki torches as “very fine people.”
I was more afraid than I was during that dark hour when I realized that our president, his supporters, and the majority of the Republican Party would sooner dismantle our democracy than they would relinquish their white supremacy.
I was more afraid than I had been in years, because it was then that I realized I had come to accept Trump’s America as our new normal.
There was nothing that surprised me about Barr’s tweet; I was not in the least bit shocked that she harbored these racist views. And yet I had opted to ignore my apprehensions and betray my convictions for weekly, twenty-two minute intervals of sitcom humor. All this time I thought I was being vigilant, but the endless barrage of desensitizing news items had succeeded in deadening my resolve and beating me into submission.
For the past year and a half I’ve watched in horror as Trump’s shameful behavior and his contemptible message have become normalized. I never in a million years thought that I would end up aiding in that process.
Some of you might say that it’s really not that serious, that it’s just a stupid television show, so what was the big deal if I watched it?
But it is that serious, because written beneath the layers of sitcom humor was the assurance that it’s OK if you voted for Donald Trump, because so did our beloved Roseanne, and that it’s OK if you subscribe to the abominable message Trump panders, because Roseanne does, too.
And it’s not OK.
It’s not OK because the man you elected is sowing a hybrid of hate unlike anything this country has seen in decades.
It’s not OK because the man you elected is eroding the integrity of our democratic institutions, quite possibly beyond repair, by convincing Americans that lies are the truth and that the truth — the actual truth — is irrelevant.
It’s not OK because the man you elected sat idly by, shamelessly tweeting out his torrent of false diatribes, while under his order thousands of small children were separated from their immigrant parents, taken to detention camps, and placed in the hands of absolute strangers.
It’s not OK because who you believe will ‘make America great again’ is in fact perpetuating the most radically un-American ideals of any president that has come before him.
So, no, it’s not just a stupid television show.
These past few weeks, I’ve tried not to worry about it too much. I keep telling myself it was just my desperation to escape into the past, to the decade when Barr’s original series ran.
But it doesn’t work. In fact, it just makes it worse, because it means that Donald Trump has not only succeeded in ruining our present and perhaps our future, but he has also managed to reach into our past and tarnish something previously untouched by his evil.
So perhaps it’s time to start smoking again.