Burning Up: On Political Activism and Self-Care

As 2018 comes to an end, it’s safe to say everyone’s feeling a bit of political burnout. We speak to three activists about how they balance self-care with politics

Feature by Katie Goh | 22 Nov 2018

Earlier this year, in May, I burnt out. I lay in bed for a week, unable to write and barely able to read, rewatching season after season of Gilmore Girls. My mental health was as wrecked as my physical health. My burnout came as an aftermath from Ireland’s referendum on the eighth amendment – the law that made abortion illegal in the country was repealed in May by public vote. While I couldn’t vote (I was born in Northern Ireland, where abortion remains illegal), I threw my full weight behind the pro-choice campaign. In three months, I wrote nearly 10,000 words on Irish abortion laws. When I wasn’t writing about it, I was talking or tweeting or emailing politicians about it. It was emotional, cathartic and completely exhausting.

While political turmoil is hardly new, the last few years have felt especially draining. In the UK, post-Brexit, there was a sharp increase in race-related hate crime and acceptable xenophobia while, in the US, there is an openly racist, sexist, transphobic, anti-immigrant liar sitting in the White House. In Brazil, a far-right president who once declared, “Yes, I’m homophobic – and very proud of it,” has been elected. Millennials have been smacked with a lack of job security while rent increases at a rate no other generation has experienced. Oh, and then there’s global warming. The world is, quite literally, on fire. 

As politics became increasingly outwardly aggressive, protesting has become great again. Anti-Muslim ban marches, anti-Trump marches, anti-Brexit marches, repeal the eighth marches, and who can forget Kendall Jenner’s Pepsi commercial march. But as the knee-jerk anger has died down with the realisation that while protesting is essential, it doesn’t change legislation overnight, a sense of weary fatigue has struck. Politics is burnt out.

In a year of political hellfire, the Irish referendum to repeal the eighth was a success story of how a grassroots, inclusive, community-led campaign can change legislation through activism. While the movement peaked with this year’s referendum, for many Irish pro-choice campaigners, this has been a lifetime of emotional and difficult work. 

Lauren Crilly, part of the Scottish Irish Abortion Rights Campaign (SIARC), was active in the lead up to the referendum, fundraising in Scotland and campaigning on the ground in Ireland. She had a similar experience to me in May. “The whole campaign was the best thing I have ever been involved with and I am so proud of us all,” says Crilly, “[but] it almost killed me."

She explains: “Post-referendum, I came down with a bad virus which lasted for a week and then I was super fatigued for two and a half months after that. [It] was like a quiet burnout, one in which I wasn't completely out of action but it also felt a bit like my limbs were made of concrete.”

As well as the SIARC, Crilly works at the Repair Café Glasgow, a community-driven project focused on reducing waste and providing people with new skills. She also works at Kinning Park Complex, another community-focused hub, and organised the demonstration against the mass evictions of refugees from their Glasgow homes by SERCO in August. Crilly’s work and activism are interchangeable, and her many spinning plates mean that finding a work/life balance is difficult. “I used to work unpaid overtime pretty much every week because I felt so committed to the job,” she says.

While being passionate about your job can be a great motivator, it can also make it harder to turn off or take a break. Rianna Walcott – a researcher, activist, and editor of The Colour of Madness, a book about BAME mental health – says that for her, work and personal activism inherently overlap “as a black woman in academia with mental health issues.” Walcott co-founded an initiative called Project Myopia that “seeks to diversify and decolonise university curricula and pedagogy.” As a result, she says that she doesn’t have a healthy work/life balance – “my work and life are far too interlinked.”

Walcott explains that politics, particularly the rise of xenophobic, racist, and anti-immigrant politics that has become acceptable in the mainstream over the last few years, takes a personal toll. “I think I speak for most marginalised people in this moment when I say that constantly seeing hatred directed at you for simple factors of your identity like race, gender, sexuality or religion is a constant wear on our health,” she says. “People who are unaffected by politics are usually those who stand to lose nothing.” Political activism, then, is personal activism.

For those underrepresented in their fields, particularly BAME people, being an unofficial and unpaid consultant on issues of diversity can become a second job. Layla-Roxanne Hill, a Glasgow-based activist who campaigns on Blackness in Scotland and trade union organising, explains how being pigeonholed as a “diversity consultant” within political movements can be draining. “One of the things I struggle with is when I’m asked to speak and write on realities related to diversity, race, racism and ethnicity. Though I have advocated that Black and people of colour can and should be speaking/writing on those subjects, I also feel that we can and should be speaking and writing on subjects outside of these areas, which are still political.” 

So, how do activists cope with burnout? For everyone, mental health is a journey and there is no fix-all solution. Hill explains that “care changes with what knowledge you have of your mental health and stressors as well as the time and resources you have access to.” She explains that in the past, she would take on commitments, “particularly those that involved the emotional well-being of others,” as a means of self-care. “When I couldn’t cope with feelings of failure which inevitably came from not being able to do these things, I would attempt to alleviate these thoughts and feelings by getting pretty wasted! That would inevitably result in more guilt and feelings of failure, but I would re-enter that cycle of doing as I thought it demonstrated how well I was coping with my mental health.” Now, her self-care is a quest “to be more vulnerable; to feel the feelings I have; spending time in a place that’ll feel nice.” Oh, and also, “I sleep,” she says. “For days on end.”

While mental health and physical health are perceived as binary conditions, one is dependent upon the other. When Crilly became ill post-referendum, her burnout manifested physically. “For me, my mental health is very dependent on my physical health; if I am sick I can go into very bad mental places,” she explains. Crilly has Crohn’s disease, an auto-immune illness that affects the digestive system, which impacts her mentally as well as physically. Learning to say no – “whether it is meetings, campaign tasks or just things like going to the pub” – have been important for managing her health.

For Walcott, managing burnout is about small steps. “A lot of the advice is often near impossible to achieve in the midst of a depression – eating healthily, exercising etc,” she explains. “I’ve found it more helpful to think of self-care as what you can manage in that moment. If that is clearing out your room, going to the gym, cooking a gourmet meal and sorting through a backlog of work then congratulations! If on another day that is just making a Pot Noodle and writing a to-do list that is actually attainable when you’re moving at a fifth of your normal speed then that’s amazing too.” 

Activism is a privilege. So few countries have the freedom to campaign and protest without fear of detainment that, in the UK, we have a responsibility to speak out and show up. However, while being political is essential, so is mental well-being. As 2019 drags its baggage around the corner (hello Brexit deadline), now is the time to recuperate. Take care of yourselves and rest up over the holidays, because next year we have much more work to do.