autonomous futures


Final thoughts: burnout and sustainable activism
May 8, 2008, 12:08 pm
Filed under: reflective log

I’ve been trying to figure out my final thoughts on this course for awhile now, with nothing really coming to me. Then, I rediscovered a piece of writing by Tooker Gomberg and it became quite obvious. Tooker was a well-known Canadian eco activist. In 2004 he succumbed to depression and ended his life by jumping off a bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He left his partner Angela a note saying he’d “lost his chutzpah.” A couple years before he wrote the following piece as a private exercise with his therapist as he battled burnout. You can read the whole thing here.

…But I am writing to you about activism. Amory Lovins, the great energy efficiency guru, once called me a Hyper-Activist. I guess that’s what I was. I lived, breathed and focused on activism. It kept me thinking, inspired, interested and alive.

But it also allowed me to ignore other things in life that now, suddenly, I realize. This makes me sad and despondent. I used to enjoy cooking, but stopped. I always liked kids, but never really thought about having kids. Changing the world was more important, and having a kid would interfere.

…I neglected my heart, and how I was feeling about things. Now that I’m in crisis, I don’t really have the language to connect with people. The silence is easier than trying to explain what I’m going through, or to relate to other people’s issues or problems.

So what advice can I offer? Stay rounded. Do the activism, but don’t overdo it. If you burn out or tumble into depression, you’ll become no good to anyone, especially yourself. When you’re in this state, nothing seems worthwhile and there’s nothing to look forward to.

It’s honourable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do. Don’t drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental.

…But in the end, when burnout finally caught up with me, it was mega. It must have been because of the accumulation of decades of stress and avoidance. And now I find myself in a dark and confusing labyrinth, trying to feel my way back to sanity and calm.

So take this warning seriously. If you start slipping, notice yourself losing enthusiasm and becoming deeply disenchanted, take a break and talk to a friend about it. Don’t ignore it.

The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul, you can make a real positive contribution and live to witness the next victory!

I am nowhere near the place that Tooker must have been, but this semester I’ve caught a glimpse of what it could be like. Somewhere between discovering that my hair was falling out, hurting my hand and hearing more bad news about my younger brother’s injuries, everything caught up with me and things stopped making sense. I felt irrationally depressed and I couldn’t shake it. I couldn’t get motivated. It became difficult to get up in the morning. When I did get up, I felt overwhelming guilt if I wasn’t working on all of the things I should have been doing. And what was the point in struggling with these things anyway? The planet is going to shit and nothing is changing…

Also like Tooker, I haven’t really known how to talk about it. I feel weak and embarassed. I should just be getting on with things, but it’s like my brain and body have gone on strike. I was committed to organising trainings, meetings, articles and actions and I didn’t know how to admit that it was too much. The doctor wasn’t much help, and I didn’t have the language to tell him what was going on anyway.

This has been a different lesson in self-management than I expected to learn. I have never paid much attention to things like activist trauma (perhaps a good topic to include in next year’s course?). I really thought I was immune to this stuff. Whilst always nodding sympathetically at any mention of mental health concerns, I truly didn’t think I was prone to them myself.

So what do I do now? I’m still slogging through the remainder of my ‘to do’ list, trying desperately not to take on anything else. I’ve passed on the responsibility for checking a couple of email accounts and organising the agenda at a big Forest meeting. If I ever get through writing papers, my partner and I would like to escape Edinburgh for awhile. There’s also a wall in the Forest I’ve wanted to paint for almost a year and this is the closest I’ve gotten to writing in my journal in nearly two years.

A big question is how the MA course fits in. I never intended to do it at this pace, and as a result I haven’t done a good job of balancing things. Hopefully I’ve learned from the mistakes, but I don’t know if it’s realistic to think I can keep it up like this. Maybe I’ll put it on hold until I can afford to do it without working at the same time or until I can afford to move to Leeds.

For now I’m trying to take Tooker’s advice and I’m working on saying no to things. I think I should go take a walk in the sunshine and mail this assignment.

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