On Edge: Politics, “doom scrolling” are toxic mix for this news junkie

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,” 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.

Zayatz 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 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 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…. 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.

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.

As nurses and doctors 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.

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 and speculation about whether there will be a peaceful transition of power.

Zayatz wishes he could turn off the news and sign off of Twitter, go to the gym or fishing. 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.

“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 that is intended to foster conversation about mental health in Colorado. 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. Reach Susan Greene at [email protected]

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

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