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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media with Mick Fuzz
April 15, 2008, 11:52 am
Filed under: reflective log

Today we learned how to post (embedded) videos! Like this:

[blip.tv ?posts_id=181332&dest=-1]

link to original file

– go to blip tv
– click share, embed with wordpress
– write link to original, highlight it
– go to blip tv, click files and links, cut and paaste the .mov file

This was a really good session, but like most of the sessions, it’s really hard to get into this stuff with so little time. Especially when people are coming in with such different levels of experience. Still, I feel like slightly less of a techno-dolt than I did this morning.



A couple more thoughts on the gathering
April 13, 2008, 12:41 pm
Filed under: reflective log

I would really like to put together some sort of Scottish ‘how to organise a gathering’ document from this experience.

For example: We must have checked out almost every possibly suitable venue in Glasgow. We know how much time to set aside for agenda planning, how many meal coordinators are needed to avoid anyone going crazy, and what time time to turn the music off to prevent folks from getting cranky. We spent loads of time trying to sort out entertainment when everyone was more than happy with a few people playing records. Trying to plan an action for the day after the gathering is not a good idea – it won’t happen unless the recky and organising is being done by people not involved in other aspects of the gathering. Don’t buy bread – you can skip everything you need in a couple of hours and save at least £100. Parents will love you forever if you make the kids space a priority. Et cetera.

We need to get this stuff on paper and collate it while it’s still fresh in everyone’s mind. Hopefully this blog will be a good start.

I am still feeling frustrated by how the facilitation worked out. It wasn’t horrible by any means, but I feel like we would have done so much better if we were given the information and support that we asked for. It seems like people have taken this problem on board, but it’s something that comes up at almost every gathering, every camp, and so on. I watched the core person in the meeting team spectacularly burnout last year at the camp and it wasn’t very nice. No one seems to notice the countless, thankless hours put in arranging facilitators, trainings, meetings and agendas, but everyone is there to jump on you when they think you haven’t handled an emergency spokescouncil properly. Every so often some kind soul will speak up and remind us that it’s everyone’s job to facilitate, people nod their heads in agreement, and then it’s promptly forgotten when the next contentious point is raised.

On a positive note, I am really proud of how well the kitchen coped. We transported people and food between venues, on different sides of the city, for five meals, feeding about 80 people at a time, and each meal was tasty and pretty much on schedule. The quantities of food I ordered worked out almost perfectly and donations far surpassed the bills. Five Edinburgh people even signed up to help with central kitchen coordination for the camp – we have a functioning working group!



Glasgow gathering reflections
April 10, 2008, 7:13 pm
Filed under: reflective log

Ten top tips:

1. You can cook for 80 without proper use of your good hand so long as you recruit enough people to chop. Also needed is someone to carry the heavy pots between venues.

2. Transporting food between venues, on the other side of the city, is ridiculous. Never agree to take on a gathering until you know you have secured a venue which allows for meetings and cooking to happen in the same place!

3. A venue with computers and printing facilities is a good thing. Especially if most of the organisers live in another city and no one seems to live nearby.

4. Remember to print evaluation forms before 10pm on Saturday night. Easyinternet cafes are horrible and expensive.

5. Do not get drunk Saturday night in an effort to relieve stress. It will only make things worse in the morning – especially when you need to be up to facilitate!

6. Tighten deadlines for proposed agenda items. Don’t allow a closed group to finally hand you the information needed to facilitate a large, contentious session 20 minutes before it starts.

7. Likewise, you can’t always accommodate last minute agenda additions. Can the facilitation team go on strike?

8. The group organising the gathering should not have to take on all the logistics as well as agenda and facilitation. When no one outwith the group answers your plea for facilitators, contact the process group and don’t just accept that it means you’ll have to do it yourself.

9. Listen to people who tell you what a great job you’ve been doing. Stop worrying about what could have gone better.

10. Always buy more beer and more coffee than you think you’ll need.



Stuck in the middle of institutional medicine & schooling
April 8, 2008, 4:53 pm
Filed under: reflective log

It started on Wednesday March 27th when I went for a haircut.  The hairdresser found two bald patches that I had failed to notice.  He said it looked like alopecia and was probably due to stress.  I knew I was stressed, but I thought I’d been doing quite a good job of keeping up with everything – so long as nothing in my schedule was thrown out of whack it would all work out.  Apparently my body didn’t agree and had decided to try physically manifesting the stress so I’d notice.  Still, things needed to get done so I made an appointment to see a doctor and kept on going.

The next evening completely destroyed my tenuous hold on things.  Playing a game at a drumming rehearsal, a friend fell on me and we both fell on my left wrist.  Swollen, bruised and sore, I couldn’t even hold a pen properly.  Xrays were done and I was assured it was only soft tissue damage.  Just give it time, ice it and take ibuprofen regularly.

But I didn’t have time.  The pain was making it difficult to sleep, I couldn’t work, I couldn’t write and I could only type one handed.  Suddenly everything was overwhelming and seemed completely impossible.  I was angry at myself for getting hurt and didn’t know what I was going to do about the essays I was supposed to be writing or the gathering I was supposed to be organising.  And then there was my rent…

I wrote an email to Paul letting him know that I thought I would need an extension.  He told me that would be fine with a doctor’s note.

Meanwhile, there was the doctor.  First I told him about my bald patches and he told me about a barrage of tests he would run, though it was unlikely anything would turn up.  It could be one other thing, but he didn’t think I was the type to have it: syphilis.  The man delegated to get to the bottom of this mystery didn’t think I looked like the kind of girl to contract syphilis so he wasn’t going to test me!  Even though he was already sending my blood work to the lab!

Next it was my hand.  I told him I hadn’t been able to write or type and had essays due.  I’d been to Accident and Emergency, but it was just soft tissue.  Ibuprofen, he declared, and told me to keep using it despite the pain.

Still without the doctor’s note needed and having lost almost a week of work on my essay, I broke down.  What the hell was I supposed to do?  Here I was trying to write an essay about the many failures of institutional schooling and the potential of alternatives, filling my brain with the likes of Ivan Illich and Paulo Friere, whilst simultaneously trying to adhere to rigid university deadlines.  I wanted to be doing the work.  I was trying.  But unless I could convince some random doctor to declare me ill, I would be punished with late penalties.  It was very different than the DIY health message promoted by Becs a few weeks earlier.  Autonomy?  Self-empowerment?  Self-management?  Not so much.

A few days later I went back to the office to get the results of the blood work.  First, my hand.   I had done what he said and tried to keep working, but after a day taking notes in the library the bruising along the side of my arm had increased and my range of motion had lessened.  He looked surprised, as if he thought I had been exaggerating or something, admitting it must be worse than it seemed.  Are you sure you’re taking the ibuprofen?  Yes.

And then onto the bald patches.  The tests came back fine.  No thyroid problem, not anemic, et cetera.  “You think it could be stress? ” he asks, and I start crying tears of frustration.  Finally he’s prompted to write a letter:

Miss Stephens has asked me to write to you to confirm that she has been attending the University Health Service here in Edinburgh as a result of a stress related condition.

Clearly you will have an overview of this student’s academic performance but if it has fallen below that expected I am sure you would wish to take the above into consideration.

I wonder how much my stress levels increased due to this whole debacle?



Agenda and facilitation hassle
March 30, 2008, 8:04 pm
Filed under: reflective log

Oli, Tilly, Sophie TP, Mel and I had a meeting on Saturday to start working on the agenda. We ended up being there for about seven hours. Most of the difficulty stemmed from the fact that almost no one has bothered to send in proper proposals.

We knew that site group wanted a couple of hours and would take care of it themselves (great), there was a rumour that workshops wanted to do something, some scant details on budget proposals for a variety of working groups/projects and a mystery proposal from a closed mass action group. We had very few of the details necessary to work out the best order to do things or how long each session should last.

Also looming large was the threat of everything going off the rails due to a series of disagreements and an emergency meeting between the biofuels group and the networking group. After near disaster, the two groups had agreed for biofuels to do their own publicity instead of networking giving ‘equal weight’ to both. So, biofuels would now need a budget for publicity and this would need to be explained to the gathering without getting into the contentious and messy details (which had already been hashed out over email and through a series of other meetings).

The plan is to explain the barebones of the networking/biofuels debacle in the context of the request for a new budget. Of course, this means taking finance decisions to the main group which can also be scary. On the other hand, it’s good for new people to have an idea of how financial stuff is sorted and we expect there to be quite a lot of new people at the gathering.

For now, we’re going with this and frantically sending off emails to different groups, begging for more details. It’s pretty much impossible to plan the facilitation until we have more information. This is incredibly frustrating as there are loads of logistical things to be done. We’ve worked really hard at staying on top of things and now it feels like we’re behind because no one else has their stuff together.



Facilitation training success
March 18, 2008, 1:56 pm
Filed under: reflective log

Yesterday was the facilitation training and everything seemed to go well. Rhiannon was really pleased with the turnout (20 people) and was enthusiastic about how the group up here seems to be developing. She also seemed confident that Lucy and I are capable of organising our own facilitation trainings in the future, which was encouraging to hear.

I found the sections I facilitated a bit nerve racking but feel better for having done it. The first section was just an introduction and then an explanation of some key things to keep in mind when giving and receiving constructive criticism. In the afternoon I facilitated an exercise looking at different techniques (fish bowls, spokes councils, go-rounds, spectrum lines, etc). The popular education session came into play here and I was able to input some things I learned during class as well.

It was a very long day as I was up and at the Forest by 8am to prepare lunch. The night before Rhiannon and I prepared flipcharts, divided up the facilitation and came up with examples for different exercises. Lucy came along and helped with shifting everything upstairs, getting tea ready, shifting chairs and photocopying handouts. Miraculously, we started just about on time and stuck to time limits for most of the day.

Afterwards, I cooked dinner for Rhiannon and her partner and we chatted more about movement building in Scotland. I came away feeling good about how things are coming along. It was really nice to have Rhiannon’s outside input as it can be easy to get bogged down and lose perspective when you’re so involved and close to what’s happening.