On the cusp of Occupy Wall Street’s one year anniversary, the media (both mainstream and professional leftist outlets) are asking the question: “Is the Occupy movement on the decline?” and deservedly so. The movement, while certainly not finished, has lost numbers and steam for the time being. Some journalists have even mentioned “activist burnout.”
What is missing from this coverage is a deeper portrait of just what burnout actually entails, and why it may play a role – though maybe not the defining role – in a political and social movement’s progress. People outside of activism read or watch reports of protests, but many don’t realize that there are complex people marching on those streets and organizing behind the scenes, that carry their own scars.
Activists are a rare breed of people. They spend countless hours in organizing meetings. They risk arrest during marches, are brutalized by police, and a number of first-time activists struggle with psychological trauma as a result. They take time off of work to volunteer. Many live with economic hardship. And just as importantly, a question lingers with many: Are the sacrifices I’m making in terms of friendships outside the activist community, as well as family relationships, worth the effort?
After the Occupy National Gathering – in which I acted as a media organizer in the interest of full disclosure – I was exhausted and had nearly depleted my savings account. Most of us had been going full steam since September 17th. I decided I had to stop. Others with whom I closely worked, and who put in far more energy than myself, were emotionally and physically depleted. Hours upon hours of meetings, often stressful, plus self-doubt and more than a touch of paranoia thanks to “pre-arrests” and police harassment of organizers well documented across the country, took their toll: Marriages were on the verge of disintegrating, movement friendships were greatly strained, and some were approaching nervous breakdowns.
I decided to reach out to other activists and listen to some of their experiences. Several spoke of the uncertainty they felt about carrying on the struggle.
I exchanged emails with a longtime activist who I’ll call “Sam.” Sam is a military veteran and Occupy Boston participant. They relate their struggle being queer in a socially and religiously conservative family, and how their activism strained that relationship:
When I came out to my Mormon parents as bisexual, the results were disastrous. They could have lived with it, I think, had I not been an activist. But the fact that I lived to see equality drove them to disown me.
Sam continued their fight for equality, facing instances of harassment by Christian fanatics for working to get a civil unions bill passed in their former state’s legislature, and later by law enforcement while participating in Occupy Boston. To make matters worse, Sam was sexually assaulted multiple times while on active duty. Then came the last straw:
In January, I left OB altogether during the now infamous “sex offender” proposal. As a rape survivor, sitting through the discussions at GA and hearing every rape apology in the book trotted out pushed me over the edge. I was in a deep depression, and began hearing voices and hallucinating from the stress of reliving every sexual assault. I finally sought psychiatric help, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and started comprehensive treatment. I’m doing much better now. I’ve backed away from OB completely. My activism is now limited to the occasional research crawl when others of our friends need some extra eyes. I’m taking care of myself, and trying to put my world back together into some semblance of functionality.
Sam concluded with:
Activism is not a “safe space.” It’s a world that will eat you alive, particularly if you have suffered some kind of trauma. And let’s face it, most of us in the activist community have. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be activists. If we’re not being targeted by law enforcement, we’re being hurt by one another.
Social and political activism has destroyed my relationship with my family of origin (and good riddance, I say). It’s destroyed two intimate relationships. It’s also brought me a new family, and new relationships. My life has been threatened. My career was destroyed by it. I nearly killed myself due to mental illness greatly exacerbated by it.
And I can’t give it up. It’s too important to keep raising my voice, building community, helping others. I’m taking a break from the hard core stuff in order to get better and put myself back together, but I’ll be back.
My exchange with Sam led me to find another remarkable soul, which came in the form of a letter lifelong environmental activist Tooker Gomberg wrote to his therapist on Earth Day in 2002. His career as an activist included multiple acts of civil disobedience, including breaking into a NATO airbase in the Netherlands to prove the existence of nuclear weapons in that country, a stint in Edmonton’s city council, and a failed 2000 mayoral run in Toronto, Ontario. In March of 2004, Gomberg took his own life by jumping off of the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge in Halifax, Nova Scotia. His widow discovered a suicide note. Authorities found his bike on the bridge, but his body was never recovered. His death was partially attributed to an adverse reaction to the anti-depressant Remerol. He was 49 years old.
Tooker’s 2002 letter is tragic yet remarkable. It provides a portrait of what committing one’s life to a cause can do absent any balance. The missive is also a potent warning to current and future activists. In full:
It’s another strange day for me. Things have been strange for 8 months or more. I used to be an activist. Now I don’t know what I am. Did you ever read the Kafka story about the guy who wakes up and he has turned into a cockroach?
My mind is in a fog – I can’t think very clearly. Making a sandwich takes a long time – I have to concentrate on every step along the way, and I am moving very slowly and deliberately. I feel like I am stunned, and spaced out most of the time. Today is Earth Day, but I feel I am on another planet.
I have been spending lots of time in bed, mostly sleeping, dozing, and dreaming.
It feels like my mind has melted down, though I am told that it comes back once the depression lifts. Whenever that is. For some people it seems to be months, for others years, and others never get out of it.
But I am writing to you about activism, not the frightening impacts of depression.
Amory Lovins, the great energy efficiency guru, once called me a Hyper-Activist. I guess that’s what I was. I lived, breathed, and focussed 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 I never developed. This makes me sad and despondent.
I used to enjoy cooking, but stopped. I always liked kids, but never really thought about having kids of our own. Changing the world was more important, and having a kid would interfere with our life’s work of changing the world.
I didn’t develop my mind in a broad way, learning about music and art and theatre and poetry, for example. It was focussed on changing the world. I never really thought about a career – I was living my life, not worrying about the trappings and credentials of the boring, status quo world.
Maybe I was living in a bubble of naiveté, doing my own thing, unconcerned that my perspectives and actions were so different from “normal”. I never wanted to be normal, anyway. Normal got us into the mess we’re in.
So now I find myself, with my sliver of being smashed to smithereens after being assaulted by police in Quebec City, a security guard in City Hall, and various other security guards during the mayoralty race. And numerous arrests.
Or maybe it was the tear gas, and last summer’s smog. Maybe I pushed my brain too hard, and overstressed it with the run for Mayor of Toronto, or the passport burning, or 20 years of pushing against the juggernaut. And maybe Sept. 11 firmed up my worries into a real fear that working for change was really dangerous.
Or it could be a physiological response to too much coffee, stress, and smog. Maybe I’ve burned out my adrenal glands. Maybe my brain is poisoned from so much thinking about tragic ecological issues, pondering bad air, and getting frustrated at the slow rate of improvement and the rapid destruction of the living world. Could my brain have been damaged when I was close to dying with heat stroke in Vietnam in 1998?
I should have developed a deeper kinship with my family and with people. Don’t get me wrong – I had lots of friends and acquaintances in the activist world. But they were not deep friends of the heart. I neglected my heart, and how I was feeling about things, about people, about situations. 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, and you’ll be energetic and enthusiastic about the activism. Don’t drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental if you are to keep going.
I never really understood what burnout was. I knew that it affected active people, but somehow I thought I was immune to it. After all, I took breaks every now and then and went travelling. And all my work was done in partnership with Ange, the great love of my life.
But in the end, when burnout finally caught up to me, it was mega, and must have been 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 beware. Take this warning seriously. If you start slipping into the hole of depression and you notice yourself losing enthusiasm and becoming deeply disenchanted, take a break and talk with 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!