My head aches. My legs throb. I want to sleep but can’t. I’m not hungry and don’t want to drink. But, boy, am I happy.
I’m no doctor, but I believe I’m suffering from one doozy of an emotional breakdown.
Even now, exactly seven days after the Obama family spent their first night in the White House, I’ve yet to experience a fully restful slumber. I’m whipped, in a way that I have not yet fully processed, from the backlash of activity swirling around our new—and 44th—president.
Clearly all this giddy pain and suffering, this post-inauguration hangover that I’m feeling, is more emotional than physical. Though physically I am still bone tired. Emotionally, though, perhaps it was all too much to take in. I knew Jan. 20 was coming. I knew it would be grand and historic. I knew it would be cold and raw. I was prepared for all of that, and nothing about that glorious Tuesday was unexpected.
But what I didn’t know—and had no way to prepare myself for—was the tsunami of emotions that drenched me when the unbelievable was made real.
As Obama, surrounded by his family and the watching world, placed his hand on the Lincoln Bible, I was surprised to find myself thinking of my father. He died a year before the election, so he never saw a black president of the United States. Ditto for my mother, who died more than a decade ago.
For all my pride in the moment, I wished I could have shared it with them—just as my own college-aged daughter seemed to revel in being able to soak in the experience with her parents.
“It’s really happened, Papa,” she said, after Obama pledged to protect and defend the Constitution. “I’m happy we’re here together.”
That’s when the first tears fell, the emotional breakdown couldn’t be contained. Those first few days following the inauguration remain a kaleidoscopic blur. No longer the candidate-turned-president-elect, Obama was suddenly the leader of the free world. As unbelievable as last year’s campaign, November’s election and the way-too-long transition were, the inauguration and the resulting scenes of Obama sitting behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office were like something from a childhood comic book, for me, a fantasy come to life.
Was that really a brother ordering Gitmo closed? Were all those people praying for him to lead the nation and world at the prayer service in the National Cathedral? Is he using a bully pulpit to push through economic stimulus legislation? Is that big, black ride just to keep him safe? Is it going to keep him safe?
I lie awake in bed at 4 a.m., wondering whether it’s all a dream, some sick mind game I’m playing on myself? If it’s not real, I don’t want to know. During the day, as I stumble around still groggy, it is all everyone is talking about … on television … in the grocery store … at the gas pump. Still.
And through all the deprivation and confusion, I have been engulfed by a single, constant emotion: Joy, simple and profound, joy.
I suppose I should have known this might be more than I could handle. The collision of dreams and reality, history and future, joy and pain. But how could I have been better prepared for something as large as this—something that could not have happened in my ancestors’ craziest imaginations?
How do I bear witness to the impossible? And how do I recover my emotional bearing after having seen it?
I don’t think I’m alone. I’ve seen so many glassy-eyed people wandering Washington’s streets since last Tuesday. They wear Obama T-shirts, smile easily and seem so, so, tired to be so, so jubilant.
One friend said that when routine life abruptly resumed last Wednesday—after all the ceremony and pageantry, after all the balls and events, after all the visiting relatives and friends—that she just crashed. “I haven’t been this tired since I gave birth to my twins,” she said.
I know what she means. Well, not the birth part, which I can only imagine. But if she felt half of what I’ve felt during the past week, it is grueling and uncomfortable (and wonderful and thrilling) enough that we’ll both remember it for the rest of our lives.
I’m not alone, right? There must be some way we can help each other get through this lingering physical, spiritual, emotional wallop. Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell me about your post-inauguration reactions, and how you are dealing with them. We’ll print your responses on The Root.
Sam Fulwood III is a regular contributor to The Root.