Radical Self-Care

Alicia sat across from me at one of the outdoor tables at Commonground. I finally had her to myself. It had been six years since I last saw her, and I remembered her as being full of life and energy, with a gorgeous big smile and a twinkle in her eye. She still had the gorgeous smile, but she now seemed subdued. Perhaps she was just tired — she was a mother of a small child now, with another on the way. Or perhaps there was something more.

Alicia had invited me to Commonground to have a special chat with her about burnout. But it wasn’t until the afternoon of the second day that I’d approached her and we’d arranged to find a quiet place to meet before dinner.

I’d first met Alicia in 2011. I was a newly minted community organiser in Perth, and was organising a two-day training camp for a fresh batch of volunteers. I reached out to the national team for help with running it and they sent Alicia. Young, dynamic and an experienced facilitator, she was practically bouncing off the walls with energy, getting the participants all fired up with games and making the training workshops fun.

Two years later I moved to Melbourne to work in the same office as Alicia, though in different organisations. I would bump into her in the corridors and she’d always have a big smile and be up for a chat. I then moved to Sydney and hadn’t seen or heard from her since. Sitting outside at Commonground, Alicia filled me in on those missing years. It turned out her life had followed a similar trajectory to my own.

She went through repeated burnouts as a campaigner, experiencing exhaustion, fatigue and sleep trouble, as well as chronic back and neck pain, but she held onto her work and life for as long as possible — until things finally became so overwhelming and desperate she had to get away. She couldn’t understand it, as she’d always been so capable and in control before. ‘It was this sense of loss of my identity, along with the physical symptoms, that was the hardest for me to work through,’ she said.

She ‘went to ground’ for three years, moving with her partner Belly to a rural property and building an off-the-grid Tiny House. She began living a totally different lifestyle, hiding away from the world and reconnecting with herself and the world around her. She described the depression and desperation she went through at this time, feeling incredibly lost, helpless and hopeless, causing her to spend a lot of time and energy on her own physical and emotional healing

Eventually she was able to start to rebuild and was now slowly getting involved in things again. Her confidence had been shattered, so she had to really work herself up to applying for roles. Just recently she finished a role as an organiser for a big campaign, which went well and renewed some of her old confidence.

But the experience of burn-out had had a profound effect on her and caused her to deeply question and reevaluate how she could best contribute to making positive change in the world. It inspired her to follow a new direction in her life and career: to help others in their own journey of health and healing. She trained as a yoga teacher and was now studying to become a wellness health coach, allowing her to provide self-care coaching to other activists going through similar experiences.

Alicia’s story echoed my own, and I felt less alone upon hearing it. I was learning that we were far from a rarity — the environment movement was rife with people burning out and developing stress-induced health issues.

Burnout is described as a state of severe exhaustion caused by overwork or stress, with recovery taking a long time. The prolonged stress wears down the body, leading to chronic illnesses such as skin conditions, chronic fatigue, gut problems or chronic pain. When deteriorating health forces many activists to stop working, they can be hit with an identity crisis as well, losing their sense of purpose and plunging them into depression.

Canadian activist Tooker Gomberg wrote a piece about his burnout on Earth Day, 2002, as a private exercise for his therapist. In it he wrote: ‘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… 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.’ At the time he was suffering from severe depression and later committed suicide.

On my way through Melbourne I had met up with a woman named Holly Hammond, an experienced activist with her own burnout story. She noticed many other activists experiencing similar struggles, and it led her to set up the online blog ‘Plan to Thrive’ as a platform for sharing information and resources about activist burnout and self-care. One of her resources described burnout as ‘the dirty secret of the environment movement’.

It was a cool afternoon, the sun dropping towards the nearby hilltop. Gum leaves hung down from the tree above us, and our table on the hillside terrace looked out over the small valley, with its dam below and surrounding woodland. Alicia’s child wandered over from the main building to join us and climbed up into her mother’s lap.

I raised the question with Alicia: ‘Is burnout just part of becoming an experienced activist and working on issues we care about?’ ‘I don’t think it should be,’ she replied, ‘or at least we need to avoid people experiencing it really badly.’ We were both able to think of various friends who had left the environment movement after burning out, and who didn’t seem likely to return. ‘We’re losing these people,’ Alicia said, ‘their skills, experience and energy; and that is both sad and a huge waste for the movement overall.’

The environment movement had come a long way. Instead of just mobilising communities for short-term campaigns, we’d learnt to take a longer-term approach. There had been a shift towards ‘community organising’, where we invested in people and communities by training them and helping them to get organised, so that with each successive campaign the movement could grow bigger and more effective. But what if we started thinking really long-term and prioritised activist well-being as well, giving our activists the tools, training and support to understand and avoid burnout? Could we stem the drain of people and create life-long activists?

Alicia didn’t want to see other activists and campaigners go through what she’d been through, and was wanting to start training them in self-care. She was at a stage where her plans to work directly with organisations and within the movement were just starting to crystallise, so our discussion together came at a good time for both of us.

But what would such a training involve? We agreed that a big and important part would be simply teaching an awareness of burnout, what it is and what the symptoms are. There was still a strong stigma, and people didn’t tend to talk about it. This was a big problem, because it meant that young activists didn’t know about it until it was too late.

Then there were the causes of burnout, and understanding and preventing these.

We talked about the difference between being ‘busy’ and being ‘stressed’. A story that had always stuck with me was of a former manager of mine who was the National Director of our organisation until she left to have a baby. Meeting up with her a few months after the birth, she was exhausted and sleep-deprived, yet she said she was the least stressed she’d been in years.

Not to say that mothers don’t get stressed or burn out (in fact, many do!), but her comment highlighted to me how complex stress is. It’s about the ‘mental load’, the pressures of over-ambitious goals and deadlines, feeling overwhelmed by too big a workload and a lack of resources. There can be conflict with colleagues and infighting within organisations, further adding to the stress load.

Activists also often grapple with feelings of despair and anxiety due to the size and urgency of the environmental problems they’re working on. Many feel they’re supposed to be self-sacrificing, that their cause is too urgent and important, and they’re undeserving of self-care.

There are subtler challenges as well. For example, being part of a group or movement can feel good, but you can become drawn away from work that matches your values or interests, subverted for those of the group. You can end up feeling inauthentic, disengaged and no longer true to yourself, causing inner tension and conflict that adds to the stress load.

Alicia particularly wanted to increase people’s self-awareness and their ability to do self-reflection. With training, people can become better at identifying their stress levels and how well they are coping. Self-reflection can also be a powerful tool for identifying and changing problematic thought and behaviour patterns.

We discussed some of the tools and practices that can help, from building downtime into your routine, unplugging from electronic devices and taking regular holidays, through to yoga, meditation and mindfulness retreats. It was also important to have a balanced diet, regular exercise and good sleep practices.

Some activists who think they might be approaching burnout probably need to stop and take a longer break — though this can seem particularly hard for people who feel the weight of the world on their shoulders, who have others relying on them, or who derive so much of their purpose and identity from their role.

Alicia had come to believe in the concept of ‘radical self-care’, which referred to how prioritising self-care was a radical act — because it was so countercultural to how many people operate today. It was also a reference to the work of feminist and civil rights activist Audre Lorde who promoted self-care as integral to sustaining activism and social change: ‘Caring for myself is not self indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’

Another way to think of it is: If we are going to plunge our hands into the fire of environmental and social change work, then we need to take more extreme measures than usual to protect ourselves from getting burnt.

Alicia reflected on how she used to feel proud of living an intense life, with high highs and low lows, believing that the lows helped her appreciate the highs. Now she preferr a much more steady and sustainable pace of life. Her demeanor may have changed, now seeming more reserved and subdued, but she didn’t see these changes as negative. ‘Some changes I have been able to turn into a positive,’ she said. ‘I’ve become a more calm and grounded person now.’

The call for dinner came, and we ended our discussion to head inside, promising to touch base with each other again later.

I didn’t know it then, but after saying farewell to Alicia and Commonground and continuing my journey north, I would meet many more activists with burnout stories of their own. It highlighted to me that Alicia’s self-care training for activists was more vital now than ever.

But it also dawned on me that self-care was only one side of this, and I couldn’t shake the idea that we should be doing more than putting the onus on individuals to manage it all themselves.

I still had more questions, and these I would carry north with me.