Overcoming Burnout

Overcoming Burnout, Part 1 – Confronting Denial

This blog was originally hosted at Empty Cages Design.org as part of a series on Overcoming Burnout from 2016-2017. It has now been turned into a book that is available at: https://solidarityapothecary.org/overcomingburnout/

This piece has felt hard to write, because I have prided myself on never ‘burning out’. I’ve pushed myself to exhaustion and back again, I’ve been hospitalised, collapsed into prison and wept in relief of the respite. But it’s never been prolonged. I’ve been organising since I was 10 years old and somehow managed to keep my energy as I’ve powered through campaign after campaign, experiencing quite intense personal traumas (losing people I love, prison, repression, break-ups, friends’ suicide attempts, you name it) yet somehow staying strong and focused. That’s an 18 year stretch.

This winter I felt myself unable to keep up the pace. It’s been like a slow rot inside of me. A fear in my subconscious creeping into my everyday thoughts. The dreaded ‘burnout’. The place where people disappear from our movements and never seem to return. I had never fully empathised, to be honest; I always thought if you care about something enough it will sustain you to keep going. (I know this is problematic, I’m just being radically honest). I have enough anger and rage inside me to fight this system for my next one hundred lives.

But somehow over the last couple of months, my desires and intentions just haven’t been matched by my physical ability to cope, to make decisions, to stay on task. I’ve blagged through by having the odd energetic day where I complete some key tasks, or produce some tangible results. The remaining days I’ve felt a quiet despair while I’ve struggled with basic things, like responding to emails, or listening to my voicemail.
It’s been visible to the people that care about me. Who really do beg me to rest, to slow down, to stay in bed a bit longer or cancel whatever it is that’s dominating my time. My mental health went to shit. I cried a ton. Nightmares returned. I even hallucinated in front of some friends because I was so, completely, utterly exhausted.

I took a break at Xmas. Went to a warm country and slept for 13 hours a night for 10 days. Yet I still didn’t feel like I could face the world when I returned. There was nothing but dread inside of me thinking about the endless list of next actions, and the projects and campaigns on my plate.

In January 2015 my best friend, Gilly, died. After several months of intense care relating to her broken pelvis, the pneumonia in her lungs literally took her breath away. I had no idea it was coming and the shock of it all shook me to my core. I coped the only way I knew how: to organise into oblivion. For sure it’s a healthier habit perhaps than alcoholism or drug addiction. I kicked total ass, organising international camps, weeks of action, several tours and events.

But I denied myself rest, because rest meant feeling. Rest meant grief. Rest meant accepting that Gilly is not here anymore, and that another person I loved who has loved me with all their heart is gone. Is dead.

This follows the bereavement of other close friends and my Nan who’ve died in recent years, and the grief I feel in losing the campaign that was the centre of my life for a decade. Stopping and feeling means missing my best friend in prison. It means beginning to process the anger, and the rage, and the fear and the pain of the injustice she experiences and I bear witness to every single day in HMP.

So I tell myself I’m not burnt out. I’m just feeling very legitimate, understandable emotions that are inevitably going to affect my abilities to function. This gives me permission to not address my workload. To not scrutinise the impact of organising against the prison industrial complex, and the emotional weight that involves carrying. I remain addicted to the archetype of the infallible Nicole Rose, who people don’t seem to understand, because she seems to have unending energy. My mum calls me ‘Little Miss Whirlwind’. My energy has been probably what I’ve been most proud of. I share tips with others about the herbs I use, the food I eat, my strategies for managing my time and promises.

Yet that energy is zapped. Like a spiral of erosion. My last speaking tour in Europe was a physical nightmare, as I spoke at ten events while struggling with a chest infection. I’ve strained the muscles in my ribcage (the intercostals) – it basically hurts to breathe in and out. I’ve lost five days of work and two prison visits. I’m lifeless, tearful and in pain. I have no idea how I’m going to get back ‘up to speed’ and get through the ever growing list of tasks that I’m responsible for.

I always remember Andy Langford from Gaia University saying that the main thing about burnout is not about being burnt out, or pushing yourself hard, it’s about your capacity to recover. I arrogantly used this as a way to justify my intense workload, because I always thought I’d bounce back. For the first time in my life I’m doubting my capacity, or at least I’m not trusting my innate reserves. It’s time for interventions. The following blogs are going to track my journey through this process.

There is one thing I am clear about, I am never ever leaving this struggle for a freer world. But I know that if I’m going to contribute to this struggle, be of use and have impact, I have to not only take care of myself but let other people love and support me.

I have to let some things go and accept, for once, that I really can’t do everything. This isn’t the first time I’ve explored these issues; I’ve not burnt out in 18 years thanks to a lot of wisdom and self care. But for now, I’m admitting defeat and I’m taking the bravest step I can – disclosing what’s happening and re-designing my life so I can nourish my health, regain my strength and return to kicking ass as soon as possible.

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