May is Mental Health Awareness Month + Activist Self Care

By Brandon Juhl

I consider myself an activist for the rights of animals—including human beings—and the environment. I think most people probably care, to varying degrees, about the same issues about which I am passionate, but I probably take action on these issues more often than most people do. That is in part because I feel an overwhelming sense of urgency and responsibility to try to end (or better yet, prevent) injustices and to protect the ecosystem that allows all life on Earth to exist.

There is no doubt that our window of time to protect Earth’s ecosystem is relatively short, and that every day, staggering numbers of sentient beings suffer unnecessarily. This knowledge often feels like a responsibility and a burden, increased by the sense that so very few people are doing what needs to be done to solve these problems. And it is probably worse for activists who have viewed the images and footage that document how awful the oppression and the ecological destruction really are. Often we develop PTSD or exacerbate our existing PTSD from witnessing that kind of trauma being inflicted on others, which can pour salt in the wounds of our own personal traumas. I know that I often feel like a voice in the wilderness, trying to get people to not only care about these problems but to do the (often difficult) actions that are necessary to solve them, like becoming vegan.

So I feel a great deal of anxiety and stress about these global-scale problems, and it often grinds me down. I feel exhausted and overwhelmed, and this was the case even before the lockdowns. And I have incredible privilege in every conceivable way, and have had that throughout my life. If you are an activist who resides at the intersection of various forms of oppression—racism, sexism, classism, ableism, anti-queer bigotry, anti-trans bigotry, bigotry targeting one’s religion, and so on—then the stress you feel already from dealing with all that garbage is horrifying, and to add the stresses and pressures of trying to save the world on top of all that, plus doing chores, running errands, and maybe also trying to raise a kid or kids, and do a paying job or perhaps multiple jobs … well, that kind of stress is so vast that I don’t even know how to adequately convey it in words.

The hard lesson I had to learn, and that I think a lot of us have to learn, as activists, is this: my burning out, my feeling crushed under the weight of responsibility, my spiraling downward until I just can’t deal with anything any longer, is not going to help me or my fellow Earthlings or this planet. I have to take care of myself, too. And that isn’t always easy. I feel a tremendous sense of guilt if I “take a day off” from activism, because I know that the suffering is there, every day, and the environmental devastation is happening, every day. But relentlessly pushing myself beyond my breaking point will not serve the greater good; such a sacrifice on my part would be in vain. If I am going to be able to stay the course and be in this for the long haul, I have to pace myself. When I go on a hike, I don’t run at top speed the whole way. I’d never make it to the end of the hike. I go at a pace I can handle, and I take rest breaks when I need to. The same has to apply to my activism. If I go all-out, all the time, I’ll never get to my destination. So self-care is an essential part of activism. I have to keep reminding myself of that. It’s not “being lazy” (I have to fight back against that infamous Protestant work ethic that so permeates our culture and that insidiously tries to colonize my mind). If the cabin pressure in an airplane drops suddenly, and those oxygen masks descend, you are supposed to put on your own before you assist anyone else with theirs. In that situation, to literally even be capable of helping others, you have to first make sure that you are okay. Help yourself, and take care of yourself, so that you can then help others. This lesson is so much more broadly applicable.

  Self-care looks different for everyone. I can’t tell you what works for you. For me, self-care sometimes means just reading a book for fun, or rewatching a favorite movie or a TV show, or calling a friend I haven’t talked to in a while just to chat, or going for a bike ride. For others, it might mean seeing a therapist, or meditating, or praying, or participating in ritual, whether that ritual is religious or not. Some people find solace in baking or cooking, gardening, hiking, walking, swimming, or scrapbooking. Once the lockdowns are over, and a majority of people in this country have gotten their vaccinations, I look forward to getting a real, professional haircut, as opposed to doing the best I can to cut my own hair. Eventually, a massage or a manicure and pedicure, or all of those, would be lovely. And a lot of times, self-care is not just one person caring for themselves, by themselves. Often, it’s people actively caring about each other. There’s a great activist support group (conducted via Zoom, for now) NARN sponsors that has helped me get through these absurd times in which we’ve been living for what now seems like a decade, at least. Connecting with others and having that network of mutual support are so vital.

And sometimes self-care means doing less. Overextending oneself is all too easy, especially as an activist. I get at least 150 new emails in my inbox every day, and most of them are activist-related. I often have to just indiscriminately delete about 130 of them at a time, en masse, checking all the boxes and deleting them without even having read the subject lines. I then focus on about 20 or so, then delete the ones that are asking me for money that I cannot afford to give them right now, and then open and read about a dozen that are asking me for something quick and easy—to click a few places to send a pre-written email, to sign a petition, and so on—and I do those. Autofill is also very much my friend. The emails that ask me to make a phone call to someone like an elected official or a CEO of a business, I save for when I have the time to do that, and then I’ll often make one phone call to one decision-maker (like a senator) about several different issues. Most of my activism in the last year has moved to my laptop and my phone. I have gone to very few in-person protests—well, very few by my standards (and of course I did my best to stay socially distanced and I always wore a mask). But this last year or so, I have had to get over my innate sense that online activism was somehow not as important as in-person activism. (I have somewhat internalized years of people putting down “slacktivism” as “not real activism,” and I have to continue to fight that internalized bias.) It all matters. And sometimes, fellow activists have asked me if I would be willing and able to help on a particular project, and I have said no, because it would have been too much for me to have taken on at that time. And I no longer feel guilty about that.

So I have had to accept and respect my own limitations. I can’t do it all, all the time. To paraphrase some words of wisdom that Oprah says Maya Angelou once shared with her: I am just trying to do the best that I can, under the circumstances, until I can do better, and then … I do better. And in the meantime, I am caring for myself, too, in addition to caring about and for others. I feel better, and I’m still doing good in the world. Doing good shouldn’t have to come at the expense of doing well.

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