When Politics Feels Like a Moral Injury

  • COLab is an independent, nonprofit, statewide journalism coalition, media resource hub, and ideas lab. We serve all Coloradans by strengthening high-quality local journalism, supporting civic engagement, and ensuring public accountability.

  • Susan Greene is a reporter, editor and coach for the Colorado News Collaborative (COLab). She was editor and executive director of The Colorado Independent before it merged with COLab and a longtime reporter and metro columnist at The Denver Post. She was selected as a 2020-2021 Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellow, and is the inaugural recipient of the Benjamin von Sternenfels Rosenthal Grant for Mental Health Investigative Journalism.

  • Marc Piscotty is a commercial and editorial photographer based in Denver. Marc has covered everything from Super Bowls and the Winter Olympics to Columbine, the Aurora theatre shooting and the Democratic National Convention. He was also a part of the staff at the Rocky Mountain News that won two Pulitzer Prizes in breaking news photography and spent an entire year covering post-Columbine life in high school with reporter Tina Griego.

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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.

“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.

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.”

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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.

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 doubled his dosage of Zoloft – an antidepressant and antianxiety medication – to help him through the election season. (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. 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. Our intent is to foster conversation about mental health in a state where stigma runs high.