When Activist Burnout Meets Anxiety and Depression

As a committed feminist and social justice activist, I am constantly in touch, in communication, online, on alert, engaged. There is rarely a moment where I am away from my computer or iPhone for longer than 30 minutes – what if something is happening right now that needs my attention? – and my social media accounts serve not only as a lifeline to other activists, but as a central part of my own activism. To say that constant connection gets exhausting is an epic understatement.

If you are involved in social justice activism in any way, you likely know of “activist burnout,” the feeling of sheer mental (and often physical) exhaustion that catches up with you after spouts of perpetual tuned-in-ness. But for activists like me, this burnout is magnified by an ever present undercurrent of chemical forces beyond our control: my burnout is coupled with my depression and anxiety.

I’ve battled depression and anxiety for years; it’s a part of who I am and the life that I lead. It has manifested in various ways, including an eating disorder and stretches of deep feelings of futility that make it difficult to even attempt to do anything. There have been stretches of time where I couldn’t escape the dark pit of pointlessness that pours over my body and washes away my wells of energy and passion. I have lost days to depression, unable to leave my home or, on occasion, my bed.

In the work that I do and the activist movements of which I am a part, it is almost a requirement that you never disconnect, never disengage, never stop paying attention. At this incredibly tenuous moment for women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, minority rights, immigrant rights, among others, it almost feels like activists have to be one step ahead of the next battle that will inevitably arrive at our doorsteps. It becomes very personal, very quickly.

So when Texas State Senator Wendy Davis took to the floor of the Texas Senate on Tuesday to filibuster the omnibus anti-abortion bill SB5, I had to watch. I knew I could not look away. While I was covering the filibuster and the bill as a professional writer, I was also paying attention because of my deep and committed activism in the arena of abortion rights. I knew what this bill entailed, I knew how it would affect the women of Texas, and I knew how incredibly dangerous it was. I also knew how special what Senator Davis was doing. If she could stand and speak for 13 hours, I could at least sit and watch her.

As the hours ticked by and the drama unfolded, I began to feel the anxiety sneak into my body. I began tapping my foot, twiddling my fingers, pacing the floor of my one bedroom apartment, holding my tightly knotted stomach. My appreciation for Senator Davis’s effort and desire to see this dangerous bill defeated became physically manifested in the anxious energy of my own body. I steadily became more pessimistic and fearful, and I felt my body becoming ever more paralyzed by feelings of despair. So when Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst finally succeeded in cutting off Senator Davis’s filibuster, I broke down. I wept. I sat on the floor, heaving guttural sobs, softly shaking into the quiet night.

I stayed with the feed and my roaring twitter account until well after the special session ended, emotionally whiplashed between the conniving end of Senator Davis’s filibuster and the incredible strength and passion of Senator Davis and Senators Leticia Van De Putte and Kirk Watson, as well as the pro-choice protesters who ultimately helped bring the filibuster home in the final 15 minutes. When I finally went to bed at 2:30am, I slept a brief but violent sleep, and awoke in a panic a few hours later to an email from Senator Wendy Davis, declaring that the bill had been defeated.

I smiled and rejoiced, but it was too late for my body and my mind. The burnout had blended with my depression. My day was shot.

The work that I do is deeply personal, and the passion and conviction that I have for it never truly waver. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t distinctly difficult moments where the bigger picture becomes fogged, where the fight seems endless, where I feel like everything I do is ultimately meaningless.

On Wednesday night, after Governor Rick Perry announced yet another special session to ram through the unconstitutional and unwanted Senate Bill 5, I broke down yet again. I sat on my couch and sobbed for 10 solid minutes, while my boyfriend quietly held me. “It feels like it never stops, like it will never get better, like everything we do is for nothing,” I cried, trying to reconcile the dichotomy of my logical mind that knew better and my bleeding heart that could no longer hold back. I cried. I skipped dinner. I cried some more. And then I slept.

Depression manifests in various ways, and is different for everyone. But for me, it becomes most pronounced within the political issues about which I care the most. When an anti-abortion bill is passed, or a trans woman loses her job because of her gender identity, or the Supreme Court rules to disenfranchise minority voters, my heart becomes heavy with the weight of injustice.

Activists often talk about self-care, and for me, an activist who also deals with depression and anxiety, it becomes even more important to try and find moments of quiet and peace. I am no good to any cause or anyone if I cannot take care of myself, and as I have become more engaged in social justice activism, I have become more acutely aware of how integral and truly revolutionary it is to value and care for oneself. In a society that delineates between deserving and undeserving citizens, it is imperative that we care for each other, but also for ourselves.

I try to allow myself to feel those feelings, to have an hour, an afternoon, a day, to tune out as much as possible. I try to find ways of coping: an hour at the gym, a fluffy romantic comedy, a cuddle with my dog, anything to beat back the feelings of futility. And I try to remember that even if bills like SB5 ultimately pass, and even if the Supreme Court can gut essential legislation like the Voting Rights Act, I am but one of a vast group of activists who continue to fight for justice and equality. I am not alone.

If Wendy Davis can pick herself up and recommit to the fight, then so can I.