Brexit and the 2016 existential crisis

Bowie, Brexit, Bake Off. I’m being tongue-in-cheek about the importance of the last matter, but I think you get where I’m going. This has been a hell of a year for many people. If you have your own personal crap going on and/or mental health problems, the news throughout 2016 may have added to your thoughts that things suck a bit.

The psychotherapist Susie Orbach wrote about Brexit early in July, saying that all of her clients wanted to talk about it in therapy during the last week of June.  Susie’s work is different from mine – I work for a free counselling service that specialises in bereavement – but most of my clients also wanted to talk about Brexit (or Syria, or the government, or Jo Cox) at some point.

I saw clients the day after the EU referendum. I had been unable to attend my own personal therapy on the Thursday because flooding had screwed up the trains – a one-hour journey took three hours. Fortunately my therapist was able to reschedule for the Friday morning, and I ended up feeling very grateful that trains in the south east are so sensitive to rain in the summer. I talked through my shock and confusion. I talked about how the news seemed to be one unexpected thing after another. I was scared to really think about the present, let alone the future.

On the Friday afternoon, I saw clients at the bereavement service. They talked – to various degrees – about the referendum and the news generally. For some, Brexit seemed like another bereavement of sorts – an ending that many people, no matter which way they voted, were unprepared for. For others, it was just a bit peculiar, unlike any other public vote they could remember. I didn’t ask how people had voted, nor did I tell them how I voted. In the counselling room, whether I was the counsellor or the client, it didn’t seem to matter. What mattered was that we felt accepted and understood.

Outside, it was different. There seemed to be an epidemic of empathy failure, which spread everywhere – through newspapers, strangers, friends, acquaintances. Social media, as ever, was the best and the worst of it. It was the first time since the early 1990s that I felt genuinely scared of being dark-skinned in the UK. Amongst it all, I was trying to finish my dissertation before the 4 July deadline. “How are we supposed to block out what’s going on outside?!” I asked another student in desperation. This student was finding it as hard to detach as I was. I wonder now what it was like for people who had big things going on in their personal lives at the time. Were those weeks in midsummer happier, sadder, more confusing, exciting, or frightening for them?

In the weeks before the referendum, I had been horrified by the news of clubbers murdered in Orlando and the MP Jo Cox in Yorkshire. In the following weeks, as the PM stepped down and shadow cabinet members resigned, I talked in my own therapy about how scared I was of the uncertainty, violence, and things changing on a big scale, as well as the changes in my own life. I needed the outside world to anchor me, but instead it felt like that scene in the film 2012 (I know it’s a ridiculous film, but I like it) when the ground keeps ripping apart below everyone’s feet.

How can we be like John Cusack, still standing, still cracking jokes, despite the OTT, unbelievable script going on all around us? And how can we do that if we have our own mental health problems going on at the same time?

I guess we need to do what we can to look after ourselves – and we’ll have different ways to do that. Seeing your doctor is a good start. It might be doing something creative or active (I recommend doodling). It might be spending time with people who care about us, who we can have a cry and/or a giggle with, rather than spending hours reading vicious comments from strangers below the line on news articles (I have never done this. Ok, I’m lying). It might be watching something horrible and cathartic (The Walking Dead for me, Game of Thrones for others), something silly and fun, or something lovely and sad but not traumatic (my dream cinema would have a screening room that showed a double bill of Inside Out and Kramer vs. Kramer on a loop every day).

There aren’t easy answers to the big questions that a year like 2016 brings up: Why do bad things happen? How will we cope with change? What is the meaning of life? Why am I here? But I think the fact that we ask these questions shows our humanity as well as our fragility, and if we can find someone safe to talk through our thoughts, hopefully we can find the compassion and acceptance that we need.