“Acceptance is usually more a matter of fatigue than anything else.”
― David Foster Wallace
What was your first thought this morning?
Sadly, the first thing I woke up thinking about wasn’t coffee, which is exactly what I think I should wake up thinking about on a Sunday morning.
I woke up instead thinking about some research and writing that I have been doing lately about the intersection of historical adversive childhood experiences and family estrangement. In fact, I was dreaming about that just before waking.
As I made my way downstairs to make some coffee, I moved from thinking about that, to thinking about a bunch of emails I had received from friends across the week about Atheist churches, asking whether or not the topic was something I’d like to write about.
By the time I was stirring my coffee, I had moved on to thinking about how I was going to find the energy to continue to advocate for myself in the insanity that is the healthcare system. Before I had even taken my first sip of coffee, I had been awake less than 10 minutes and I was already thoroughly burned out.
“Burnout is defined, and subjectively experienced, as a state of physical, emotional and mental exhaustion caused by long-term involvement in situations that are emotionally demanding. The emotional demands are often caused by a combination of very high expectations and chronic situational stresses.
Burnout is accompanied by an array of symptoms including physical depletion, feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, disillusionment and the development of negative self concept and negative attitudes towards work, people and life itself. In its extreme form, burnout represents a breaking point beyond which the ability to cope with the environment is severely hampered.”
- Career Burnout – Causes and Cures
I’m pretty sure I was born with my advocacy and activist leanings. My mother would undoubtably suggest that my first words were “That’s not fair”. I spent my childhood resisting “that’s not fair”. My early adulthood was concerned with the intersection of my personal “not fair” with the wider social “not fair”. My adult life both personally and professionally, has also been concerned with the battle against “not fair”. I don’t think I have ever been without my “not fair” radar, humming away in the background of my life.
I moved away from psychology and became a social worker in part because I didn’t think it was fair that the clients who I was working with therapeutically were so often being pathologized for things that not only were not fair and not their fault, but also far exceeded their individual ability to change. I didn’t want to be *that* therapist, who made her living fostering the illusion that somehow people should individually think or feel that they were responsible for issues that are actually social or political issues. I didn’t want to make my living helping people resign themselves to “not fair”.
Because I realized that my clients and myself were so often living in the glare of “not fair” things, I’ve also made it a bit of a personal mission to confront “not fair” things, head on, with the resources / weapons I most readily have at my disposal; an unshakeable committment to advocacy, my education, my ability to articulate unfairness and of course, my writing. Across the years I’ve been involved in many social justice causes and across time have learned to pick my battles, not because I think any one issue is more important than any other, but because I am aware of the limits of my energy. Being selective, pacing myself then, is my often fragile effort to stave off burn-out.
If you regularly read my posts, you will know that I got sick in November, ended up in hospital and have spent my last weeks advocating for myself in the health care system; to somehow get a reasonable shake in a mega system that seems stacked against not only me, but the average Joe who is just trying to feel better.
At the same time, I have been preparing for graduate school and undertaking research about estrangement. My reading and thinking has had me doing more writing in this area; writing that has been personally challenging as I consider the implications in my own life – but also challenging in terms of the kick back from many of my readers who are struggling with the things I am talking about. My 9-5 day job is working with kids and families who experience a range of difficulties often stemming from complex trauma. Systems advocacy comes with the territory.
I am weary. I am sick, still in the grip of an autoimmune flare that will not quit in the wake of unrelenting stress. Not only have I not saved the world this week, I haven’t even been able to save myself.
The research about activist burnout is very clear. Burnout is a political and social movement issue. Every year committed activists suffer and drop out of their communities because they have burnt out.
Activists can’t keep moving without the support of their communities – sometimes this is concrete support,the recognition of effort, the liking and sharing of posts hard written, the emails I get from my readers, the ripple of conversation that happens when people truly tune-in. Sometimes the support is less concrete but equally as important; the friend who shows up every week without fail for good conversation and dinner, coffee dates with my daughter, cuddles and walks with my puppy or petting my cats, a good movie or book, keeping up with my meditation and yoga, extra sleep.
As much as advice givers would suggest that I, and other activists, unplug and tune out I am not sure that is realistic. For instance, acceptance of my personal circumstances within the health system will mean I don’t get the care or support I need. No one else is going to advocate for me. My best friend recently told me advocacy was in my genes and there was no way I could turn it off, or tune it out. Tuning out is not an option I would choose, although it may be an option I am forced to yield to simply because I run out of energy. The body always wins.
I believe that this long, slow (or not so slow) energy bleed happens every single day for activists. I believe oppressive systems bank on it.