Activism & Depression

Section: 

originally published in Off Our Backs,  Jan/Feb 2005 

by Bexxa

I've struggled with melancholy since early youth-ranging from suicidal crisis-to blanketing sorrow-to months of numb depression. Sometimes sadness comes when I see a styrofoam cup and think about the environmental damage our society is causing; when I think about rape and war; or when I think about a friend in an abusive relationship. Sometimes I'm sad for no clear reason. Feeling sad about the world, and tending toward depression in general, has been a major motivating force for my activism, yet conversely, that same sensitivity can have a paralyzing effect which prevents me from being the non-stop activist I idealize. Learning to work with my depression, rather than against it has been necessary. I learn to try to flow with my moods, fighting the sorrow less, accepting the melancholy into my life as a teacher who keeps me in touch with the destruction of the planet.
Slowly, I've learned that not everyone tends toward depression, and not all activists are depressives. But mental health is everyone's concern, especially in activist communities where a lot of what we do and think about is emotionally challenging. In addition to the "activist part" of us, we've all collected painful experiences in our lives that become part of our emotional stew and need attention and healing. Many of us have friends who have killed themselves. Many of us have friends who have tried to die or we ourselves have attempted suicide, and/or we struggle in numerous other ways. We activists must recognize that whether we are inclined to depression or not, dealing with police brutality and media distortions, combined with our awareness of global atrocity and our individual histories can be very difficult, and we need to take care of each other. We must be responsible for each other, responsive to different peoples' boundaries, and take active roles in support. If the world's in flames, we can provide emotional support as a group while we fight to end the fire. Otherwise, we'll be eaten alive.
  I want to share some of my experiences with depression, ways I use to cope and my wishes for radical communities/groups in the work of making our lives as mentally healthy as possible.
I protested the world trade organization in Seattle in 1999.1 was heavily gassed and a cop pulled my hair. Unlike the activists in videos about the Seattle protests who expressed euphoria and an energy boost from the demonstrations, I was wounded spiritually, emotionally and physically. After the protests, isolated in my hometown in Maine, I was traumatized, desperate and suicidal. I felt brain-damaged, devastated, defeated. (In retrospect it was a very successful direct action that has had consequences for the corporate world, and added power to the global citizens’ voice, but it still hurt.)
When we return home to our sometimes small or non-existent activist groups after huge demonstrations, we can feel a lot of sadness, either from what we experienced at the protests, or the drop in energy from the mass movement to our smaller communities, and other factors. I wasn't fucked up for being suicidal/outraged after experiencing the violence of the state, but that's the message I told myself, heard from most of my affinity group, and many of the people I spoke with in Maine. I went to a leftist therapist at this time who was helpful, but kept referring to me as a "strong young woman," and encouraged me to accept the world. I didn't want the "woman" qualifier attached to my strength and experiences, and I refuse to accept the world as it is. I'm deeply grateful and indebted to the work that second wave feminists did in espousing women as strong people, but at this point in history I'd rather be viewed as a strong person.
I could have easily killed myself with all the rage, sorrow, loneliness and self-destruction I was carrying after Seattle. I wish there had been a network of people to help me process my experience with, and to put the protests in a historical global context. An activist support phone number would have helped. One night I called the local crisis line; it was alienating and not helpful.
I've dealt with depression differently over the years. I used to feel it was my duty to refuse to be happy-someone must bear witness to the misery, inequality and realness of the world! I wanted no part of the fake society where we were expected to put on a smile no matter how we actually felt (especially for people socialized as women); I refused to join the tyranny of happypancakeclones. I would maintain a sad face partly because that was how I felt inside, and partly to remind people that things weren't as perfect as they pretended. I believed that no one in the world could truly be happy; I believed my friends shared the same amount of sorrow as me, especially when we were into drugs and sad/raging activist music. This method was a trap because after a while, putting on a sad face for the purpose of exposing the falseness of the society wore away at my own ability to feel joy.
For years, I dismissed my sorrow as "just teenage angst," and when I wasn't a teen anymore I beat myself up for not having "moved on" from that "infantile" stage of being a teen (as if deeply feeling sorrow and/or anger is reserved exclusively for infants in U.S. society). I told myself I was a privileged whiny brat who deserved to die, who didn't have real reasons to be sad, etc. I felt guilty for having light skin, for living in the U.S., for being human. I wanted to save the world, but the way I dealt with my depression enforced my self-hatred, and I became more depressed and less useful. It was a trap that got worse the more I struggled to leave depression.
My recent method of dealing with my despair is accepting it into my life. Rather than fight it and fight myself, I try to respect my sorrow (at least from a distance!), and listen to it. I don't always need to be the bleeding heart on display bearing witness to atrocity in otherwise happy-seeming situations anymore. I keep a pretty big space in my life for depression, but I try to enjoy life when possible too. I'm sure I'll find other coping strategies. I have no idea why, but it seems I've (at least temporarily) left behind the past frequency of major suicidal crises. And perhaps some of my early depression was about being a teenager-not from an innate (biological cross-cultural phenomenon) "teen angst," but because I had few choices: I hated school and its salute-the-flag-in-the-morning, don't-conform-and-you’ll-be-punished/raped, anti-emotional landscape which produces a rigid culture of gender: cute, slim popular girls, and tough, jocky boys. School was a hostile environment; walking the halls was frightening. I never fit in, and eventually learned to say "fuck you" to the whole establishment of conformity and authority as a self-schooler and drop-out, but it scarred my spirit forever. Anyway, the point is that school was another trap/jail without any room to breathe, so it makes sense that I was especially sad as a teenager.
  Over the years I've made choices in an attempt to avoid deep depressions. In 1997, I decided to go mostly sober-not for any anti-intoxicant reason; it was simply that I couldn't tell if I was sad due to withdrawal, or the drugs, or when I was "just sad." Which chemicals were messing with my spirit? (I should add that I credit my use of drugs in high school for helping me avoid suicide.) I also try to get 8+ hours of sleep a night, eat plenty of food, get plenty of alone time, and cultivate supportive friendships which include actively dealing with conflicts. I've learned to recognize pre-bleeding despair, and sometimes crisis. Previously I refused to recognize blood-sorrow as a reality in my life because the misogynist Christian (anti-body) society wants to use pms as proof that women are in fact biologically weaker than men, and tied to our (sinful) bodies (again, as if feeling emotions is somehow weak/infantile/irrational). I don't want every angry/sad emotion a woman expresses to be easily dismissed as "some biological 'woman thing,'" (no matter where we are in the cycle). So I fight against this analysis/dismissal, but I am affected by the blood-cycle, and it helps to approach a crisis with an awareness of where I am in my moonstrual cycle. A friend who tried to kill herself years ago later ascribed it to her pms. I want to build an alternate universe within patriarchy, but it's challenging. It's difficult to knit a healthy space to talk about bloodrelated things without in some way affirming the patriarchy’s biologically determined anti-body destiny of women, because there is no alternate universe in which emotions are valued, where emotions are a teacher, a guide, rather than the enemy to be suppressed.
Another thing I've come to is that it's not safe for me to have dietary restrictions, though it would be more in keeping with my politics. For years I was vegan; at some point the veganism combined with misery and a desire to get love or be hospitalized or something (around the time of protesting the wto)-so, basically, it led me into self-starvation practices, even while accompanied with a fierce feminist critique of diet culture, an embracing of fat-positive activism, and, at least, a voiced rejection of some punk scenes’ valorization of skinniness. While that time of my life has passed, I think it might still be dangerous for me to have any sort of dietary restriction.
I've found that I can't be very flexible with my mental health guidelines. I have to accept that I can't live out the punk hitchhiker hobo dream I used to want, which is a good realization because that fantasy excludes a lot of people who simply can't live that way. Sometimes I feel like a nerd with all my guidelines, but it's too dangerous to let them go just to try to fit in to an activist scene.
I called last year my Mental Health Year, giving myself permission to withdraw from overt activism, to focus on depression, and figure out how to sustainably approach lifetime activism. The year was great! Living in a rented house-The Witchouse-with supportive friends who hung out downstairs laughing over popcorn and tea kept me from miserable isolation. I was always drawn downstairs (if sometimes reluctantly-who wants to voluntarily leave their cozy cocoon/nest of knives and self-hatred?). Yes, I still struggled with suicidal thoughts, cutting myself, the challenging aspects of living in community, and the urge to be out in the world stopping bombs, healing wounds, killing rapists, but I was in an emotionally safe space.
  I watched the way feelings change and move, sitting with them until they pass and I get the energy to draw, dance furiously, masturbate, sing loud, indulging in joy and laughter wholeheartedly when it arrives, but letting sadness take me, too. I had no serious lover, it gave me the space to know that the ups and downs are in me. I couldn't scapegoat a relationship. My mental health includes crying, yelling/singing times, signs/graffiti, screaming at harassers in cars, marches, food, sleep, friends and acquaintances (Some friends find the unpredictability of my moods unsettling and/or annoying. Some don't understand my sadness, and don't want to hear about it. I've found that I have much richer friendships with friends who are able to hang out with me when I am sad as well as joyful), spontaneous dancing, painting angry/funny drawings, making desperate phone calls, getting massage or other healing work, a low-key job, solitude, chocolate, water. I have a kind of maintenance game-if I feel myself getting "too sad," I will actively try to get out of it.
During the year, I raided the library for the self-help books I'd always rejected as yuppie navel-gaze panacea. Some of them were surprisingly helpful, and not all were yuppie and anti-activism. Speaking of Sadness by sociologist David Karp (a depressive himself) contains interviews with depressives in the U.S. I was surprised to read how many things depressives have in common in terms of how we learn to see and cope with our depression. The book fails to investigate society itself as a cause of depression, though there is a chapter that touches on that, questioning particularly why people socialized as women have a much higher rate of depression than people socialized as men (It can't just be biology, can it???). Joanna Macy's Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age affirms that it is valid and absolutely real to suffer from deep despair as a result of the fuckedupness of the world that we live in. I would also recommend When Someone You Love is Depressed for practical information about how to take care of yourself while you are caring for someone with depression.
Last summer I went to the North American Anarchist Gathering. My favorite part was the workshop on mental health in radical activist/anarchist communities. In a huge circle, each of us talked about our relationship to mental health, suicide, despair, hospitalizations, pills, manic depression, etc. We talked about ways in which the protest scene is similar to the general U.S. culture, and ways it could be improved. We're all different, and we bring different gifts, skills and wants to activism. We need to keep talking. We need to tell our friends what is and isn't support for us, and create a scene that takes mental health seriously.
While we can work to make large-scale activist mental health networks, I think the best support comes from yourself and your local community or travel companions. I would love to see an international database of feminist, activist-ally, trans-ally, queer-ally, poor-ally counselors, doctors, and healers. I want mental health and healing be seen as an integral part of the radical activist community. This would lessen the concept that activism is typified by temporary heroic actions, and open room for activism to include more things. Yes, action is a necessity. But action might be a house meeting, or a year of rest. What defines activism? Is it not activist to be a single parent? To live in a community? To clean houses for a living? To reject your family's wealth? To have sex in your wheelchair? To take up guns in the communities in which the police imprison men of color at a higher rate than they can go to college? To reject college entirely? To join the military to be the first person in your family who goes to college? To fight to survive cancer? To work against domestic violence?
We need dialogues about what motivates our activism, and what world people want to live in, so we know whom we are working with. We can't just assume we all want the same things. We need to expand the definition of activist out of a temporary street-action centered situation. We need to have these dialogues, even as the U.S. government is destroying our kids and kids all over the world, as well as the Earth. I do not want to be part of an activist movement that perpetuates what I most hate about the independent-minded/play the game and you'll be rewarded/macho-dominated/divide-and-conquer society. The work we are involved in is challenging and wonderful, and while we each deal with different issues around mental health, we need to find ways alone and together so that we can survive and take care of each other.
Now that my Mental Health Year is over, the Witchouse is closed, and the Bush administration is killing and hurting everyone but themselves, how am I doing? Well, the Year never really ended., and the point isn't how happy I am, but how well I can sit with my depression, and how to make the best use out of the rage, instead of becoming paralyzed. I'm lonesome, and I long for a community that reflects all of my wishes, dedicated to mental health.
I invite people to contact me on these issues. For the continuing anti-capitalist pro-diverse feminist revolution: rifka@riseup.net.
  This article is dedicated to Yareak and Amilia and others who thought they needed to leave life. For everyone: Please, love yourself deeply, and get help when you need it. These are hard times we live in. You deserve years of nurturing and healing. If you do need help, call the (crudely titled) crisis hotline 1-800-SUICIDE.
Some Mental Health ideas for (radical) communities in general:
*Make retreat spaces: could include a network of safe houses for recovery; collective houses include rooms for healing, yelling, crying, whatever; plug into the intentional community network and find places that are willing to invite activists in for rests
*Respect that some people can’t always go to big demos, can’t always do certain work; are still fabulous activists/friends,etc.
*Respect that some folks do need big-pharma meds to stay alive and for other reasons
*Create free or inexpensive holistic health clinics
*Trade massages, energy healing
*Sp      *Spend equal time debriefing, processing difficult actions/experiences/conflicts, as planning them…One great radical faerie structure for this is a Heart Circle: people in a circle/often with candlelight/an object that denotes speaker/each person can say whatever they want for as long as they want without interruption and an option to not be responded to
*Try to see mental illness as a part of life; not necessarily bad/scary/negative/weak
*Make alliances with mental health patient liberation groups in your area
*Create alternative care systems to psych wards, etc, but definitely make use of existing systems such as crisis hotlines, counseling, counseling groups, and hospitals if needed
*As a supporter, get lots of support for yourself
*Do fun stuff
*Take sabbaticals from activism
*Get to know your boundaries, respect them, and voice them
*Talk about your experiences with mental health/mental illness
*Maintain an easy to find international database of activist/trans/queer/poor-friendly counselors, doctors, healers
*See where mental health/illness issues overlap with fights against sexual abuse and all other types of abuse and injustice
*Acknowledge that activism can be very challenging and can be painful
*Read helpful books; I recommend …Unholy Ghost: Writers on Depression; When Someone you love is Depressed; Speaking of Sadness; Despair and Empowerment in the Nuclear Age; Mad Pride; Willow, Weep for Me
*Experiment; find out what works for you-try herbs; foods; listen to your patterns

Note January 2008:
This article was written in a different time in my life- began it in 2002. Now that I have experienced suicides of close connections, I have a somewhat different view of depression and I’m sure this article would be different if written now. I also feel less part of any sort of big ‘movement,’ though my ideals remain the same. I think I had to learn to keep my idealism under wraps because it was too painful to continuously feel that it was unattainable. Activism is important to me, and I guess it’s true that even then I was questioning what we viewed as ‘activism.’ I remain committed to my mental health as well as the mental health of others, and to having societies perceive the many varieties of mental-ness in better ways. In the past few years I had great experiences with some good counselors. My best to you as we traverse our lives on earth!