On Edge: When politics feels like a moral injury

489
Scott Zayatz, 43, of Denver, Colorado said he’d like to cut the cord on social media and its associated mental health issues but finds the attraction to it like a moth to a candle. He sees the multitude of issues it causes on both sides of the political spectrum saying, “it’s an echo chamber…The machine has us all figured out”. He has been on Zoloft to treat depression and had to up the dosage during the current administration’s time in office. (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2020)

Scott Zayatz upped his dosage of antidepression and antianxiety medication in early spring when the pandemic started clobbering the nation and the presidential race, post-primary, turned foul.

The 43-year-old news junkie could feel his body tense and cynicism rise with each tweet about COVID deniers, the president’s false assurances, and the politicization of a national and global catastrophe.

On Edge is a cooperative effort between Sentinel Colorado and The Colorado News Collaborative. There are more than 15 On Edge stories in the special report. Click here to see more reporting.

“I noticed this sense of hopelessness coming over me, like everything was messed up and everything was shit,” says the Denverite who, when not tracking the online blow-by-blow of American politics, works in medical imaging at a Denver hospital that was, and still is, slammed with COVID cases.

Scott Zayatz, 43, of Denver, Colorado holds his prescription for Zoloft in his home one evening. He has been on Zoloft to treat depression and had to up the dosage during the current administration’s time in office. (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2020)

The Trump era has rattled Zayatz, especially in 2020 when his blood pressure spiked and he was overcome with a kind of disillusionment known as “moral injury.” It is a feeling that transcends politics and partisanship, a realization that what you thought you knew about people, including people you love, and about the nation in which you had faith to function just as you have faith that one plus one would always equal two – that all of that has been turned on its head. It’s something like disappointment, but also disorientation, and it has a way of making you doubt everything, including yourself.

The 2016 election of a man whom Zayatz sees as a “farcical bully with a tough-guy act” caused him to start losing trust in people, he says. “It made me feel like I didn’t know anybody, even my family and some friends, like they’re nuttier than squirrel shit like the rest of them. It really ruined my view of our country. It harmed my view of humanity and just made me feel alone.”

He understands that plenty of conservatives and Trump supporters, including those who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, may also feel morally injured. It’s just that “they may not frame it in those terms,” he says.

Zayatz was raised by conservative Catholic parents in New Jersey who in his youth admired Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, but never said why. “Nobody talked about anything important, ever, especially politics or the news of the day,” he says. The N-word, he notes, was part of the family vocabulary.

SHOT 1/6/21 5:54:21 PM – Scott Zayatz, 43, of Denver, Colorado said he’d like to cut the cord on social media and its associated mental health issues but finds the attraction to it like a moth to a candle. He sees the multitude of issues it causes on both sides of the political spectrum saying, “it’s an echo chamber…The machine has us all figured out”. He has been on Zoloft to treat depression and had to up the dosage during the current administration’s time in office. (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2020)

His own politics formed in college partly from an awareness of what he calls his “middle-class, white male privilege” and partly from a sense of empathy and compassion he believes he always possessed. He sees his “leftiness” not just as a political orientation, but as a mark of his character. His news habit has become a way to measure the way the world is turning in relation to his moral compass.

His relationship with his conspiracy-theorist brother back East has grown strained since 2016. And he stopped speaking to a close friend here in Denver whom he says gloated to Zayatz’s wife when Brett Kavanaugh was confirmed to the Supreme Court.

“It’s like, dude, every woman I know has been assaulted or raped or whatever, and if you bring that up to a woman, what’s your purpose besides poking the bear and being a dick? I was done with him. Finished.”

As nurses and doctors whom Zayatz works with fell sick with COVID and some of his patients were dying, Trump’s downplaying of the pandemic made things worse. What he calls the audacious “me-me-me-ness” of people not wearing masks infuriates him, as does the president’s ongoing lie that he won re-election.

“I mean how could people swallow those things so willingly and eagerly with no regard for facts or the truth? Well, that just blows my mind,” he says. That more people are not freaking out has caused him to question himself.

Scott Zayatz, 43, of Denver, Colorado said he’d like to cut the cord on social media and its associated mental health issues but finds the attraction to it like a moth to a candle. He sees the multitude of issues it causes on both sides of the political spectrum saying, “it’s an echo chamber…The machine has us all figured out”. He has been on Zoloft to treat depression and had to up the dosage during the current administration’s time in office. (Photo by Marc Piscotty / © 2020)

He finds himself sitting at his laptop, hour after hour, scrolling through Twitter and other sites, monitoring the smallest developments. He doubled his relatively low dosage of Zoloft – a widely-used antidepressant and antianxiety medication – during the election season to help take the edge off his anger and anxiety. Without the prescription, he says there’s “a feeling in the back of your head that if somebody cuts you off in a car, you take it five times harder.”

He lowered the dosage after the election. That has been enough to sustain him through two months of doom scrolling about Trump denying the outcome, weeks of speculation about whether there will be a peaceful transition of power, and, of course, this week’s insurgency.

Zayatz wishes that what he sees as a steady erosion of democracy didn’t feel like stabs to his soul. He wishes he didn’t care. If only, he wishes, he could turn off the news and sign off of Twitter, go to the gym or fishing and stop seeing what he sees. But he can’t avert his gaze, he says, sighing.

He had hoped to try to break the habit this winter, but says this isn’t the time because “We’re watching treason unfold in our country right now.”

“… I’d miss too much by turning it off. How could I not watch? I need it,” he says, then pauses.

“Holy shit. Listen to me. It really does sound like a sickness.”


 

This story is part of a statewide reporting project from the Colorado News Collaborative called On Edge. The intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma runs high. This project is supported in part by the Rosalynn Carter Fellowship for Mental Health Reporting and a grant honoring the memory of the late Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal.

If you’re struggling, help is available on Colorado’s crisis hotline. Call 1-844-493-TALK(8255)

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
1 Comment
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Judith A Powers
Judith A Powers
6 months ago

I’ve taken the attitude that the dire danger to our democracy that is happening, with events unfolding hourly, we have no choice but to give our attention to it. In order to fix the disinformation, to identify who the enemies among us are, and to continue our effort to preserve our republic, we have to be informed. I, too, go online to glean every bit of news possible so I can create as complete a narrative as possible.

The president of a national association of sheriffs said in a statement that the seditious attempt to obstruct our government is no different from other protests that have happened in recent months, which he blames “Antifa” for (“antifa” doesn’t exist.) https://www.sheriffs.org/Statement-National-Sheriffs%E2%80%99-Association-President-Sheriff-David-Mahoney?fbclid=IwAR0RNylGJ5TIG_rlkfx7RE-IEo2-4xDZmJYdMzvjZe7eG17gzqIZJLE-0AA

This tells me that this organization is likely a part of the problem, in view of the outrage at the difference between the law enforcement response to what started out as peaceful protests, and to this riot intent on a seditious attack on Congress. (i.e., armed, violent treatment of Black Lives Matter and other protestors vs. little or no preparedness or resistance to the initial Capitol attack, despite widespread knowledge that it would occur.)

I also wish that I could divorce my mind from what is happening, but as there is a time to be born and a time to die, there is a time to pay rapt attention to events so we can figure out what to do about it, having as much information as possible. The problem is that it has been going on for years. Now that the FBI is involved and the enemies have shown themselves as criminals, maybe it will be quelled in the months to come.