“Self-care is subversive. Our culture expects for us to not take care of our needs in a self-aware, proactive manner. The systems of oppression thrive on our denial of our needs. Smash the state, know yourself, love yourself.”
Feminist Coming Out Day has completely taken over my life. I just spent the last ten days in a sweatshirt, no pants, and unwashed hair, because I have literally been folding t-shirts and stuffing envelopes from the second I wake up until the moment I go to bed. Hamlet has pretty much given up on trying to get my attention for anything but the most urgent of requests. I haven’t been to the gym since before California. I’ve cooked exactly twice (and burnt my food the second time). I have still not caught up with any of the friends I missed over the holidays. I routinely choose sleep over foreplay. And this is after I already spent the second half of February splitting my time between Boston and New York.
In principle, none of this sounds super terrible or at least no more appalling than the sort of stuff I put myself through during final exams in college. Besides, travel is fun, right? I can show up to New York at 10pm on a Friday with four different party invitations accumulated during the span of a car ride. Well, I didn’t think I could get sick of going there, but the city is significantly less fun when you have to travel via Chinatown bus or when you’re getting sick and dread the idea of rallying in the cold for hours the next day or when you show up to New York at 10pm on a Friday and have a presentation to finish for your talk in the morning. At that point, it’s not fun. It’s just work. Unpaid weekend work, at that. So although I am an avowed atheist, I can only assume that a divine force is responsible for my coming across a body of literature discussing self-care and activism. (Luckily, I lack the time to deal with a spiritual conversion right now.)
So. Here is my life: I am working on Feminist Coming Out Day through the end of March, with this coming week as my busiest period. Doing a panel on the 10th at Harvard, a workshop at Brown on the 17th (which happens right in the middle of another New York trip — already dreading travel logistics), and as of yesterday, an event on the 31st in California. Yup, I’m going to San Francisco again. I just returned from California three weeks ago, and I still don’t feel recovered. That was already really bad timing for a trip (I’d gotten back from Germany a mere week before), but I desperately needed to visit my father, who I hadn’t seen since my graduation eight months ago, and I didn’t want my mother to spend Chinese New Year alone since my sister just left home for college. The whole time there, I was distracted by the deadlines looming over me and couldn’t wait to get in front of a computer again. Ever since I’ve been back, however, it’s been an endless series of emails, projects, speaking gigs, and new travel obligations. This blog post might actually be the first time in weeks that I’ve worked on a single piece of writing for more than an hour at a time.
But if I’m going to throw myself a pity party, I should really mail out invites, because I know a lot of people who do this and much, much more. I know people like my Harvard classmates who are bankers with non-stop hours and no weekends and vacation days that no one dares take, lest they get shafted on their yearly bonus. I know activist colleagues who do a million projects for free after they come home from low-paid day jobs at small non-profits with less funding than a Harvard student group. I have freelance writer friends who don’t have health care, because paying for insurance would literally mean not being able to make rent. I don’t make a ton of money, but I have a regular source of income (thanks to long-term freelance contracts), a growing client list of financially stable publications, and free health care from the state of Massachusetts. And on top of that, I get to do work that I enjoy and believe in. I’m a lot luckier than other people.
And the thing is, I know all this, I know that things could be much more stressful and that nothing going on in my life right now is insurmountable, but it doesn’t make me feel any better about my lot or feel any less burned-out. A couple weeks ago, as I was starting to get sick, a friend asked me why I didn’t just stay at home the weekend instead of going to the Planned Parenthood rally in New York and wearing myself out even further. And my answer was something along the lines of, “Just because I’m not getting paid for it doesn’t mean that I can just not do it. Just because I’m my own boss doesn’t mean that I can just not show up.” There’s a sense of obligation I feel toward my work that I don’t think my friends in finance feel toward theirs. When your employer is the Man and your presence has little to no impact on the bottom line, then you don’t feel as guilty about skipping work or leaving your job altogether. You know you’re perfectly replaceable so you’re not invested. The same can’t be said for social justice work. You can’t just quit or not pull your own weight. You’d let down the expectations of your supporters, and even if there are others to pick up your slack, redistributing your responsibilities would seriously impact the workload of your fellow activists. It’s akin to failing the cause.
That’s how I feel when I sleep in until 11, even though I know perfectly well that I’m tired from working into the early morning. That’s how I feel when I consider getting a manicure or a massage or heading to the gym, even though I understand rationally that taking breaks relieve stress and improve concentration, that if I don’t take care of myself and wind up sick, then my projects are screwed anyway. But I’m hardly the only person in this line of work who overcommits and has a problem with slowing down or saying no to things. I’m just one, not-even-very-extreme example. I agree to help out even when I know I don’t have the time. I take speaking engagements even when they don’t pay and I am tired of and tired from traveling. I do this because I believe in the value of this work, because I feel like I have to do it. And when I say I “have” to do it, I mean that in the most powerful sense of the word. I feel like I have an obligation that transcends contractual responsibility or financial necessity. Forget Catholic guilt. Activist guilt is way, way worse. And that’s precisely because there is always someone who’s more stressed, more overcommitted, even more totally fucked than you are, and you know it. So you don’t even feel entitled to your own fatigue and anxiety. Almost every person I know who does work in social justice feels this way at one point or another, yet all of us feel guilty for not being strong enough to handle it all.
Which brings me to this: Don’t be fooled by the vacation photos. I’m not feeling particularly happy at the moment. Long-time readers know that I used to get way more personal, that I became Internet-famous more for my screw-ups and screwing around than for what I “accomplished”. Yet despite having previously written quite a bit about my depression at Harvard, I’ve all but stopped talking about similar topics on this blog. In part, it’s because my confessions inspired so much vitriol and harassment that I didn’t feel like painting a target on myself anymore. But another reason? I also don’t feel like I have the right to talk about it. I don’t feel like I have the right to be dissatisfied now that I’ve graduated and lead what a lot of my friends characterize to be “the perfect life” with the “ideal relationship”. Oftentimes, I feel like I have to cover up my own discontent lest I be seen as ungrateful for all I have.
Quite honestly, though, there are worst things to be called than “ungrateful”. So whether you consider it to be selfish or subversive, I’m going to try to get better at this whole self-care thing. Because while I have food, shelter, and even affection, I’m not happy or really appreciating the moment, since the prospect of tackling the next month and a half makes me want to hide under my pile of “This Is What A Feminist Looks Like” tees. I try to be relatively self-reflective and I know that much of my discontent stems from not being able to write. That’s why I’m not looking forward to this month. Despite the various cool opportunities coming up, it’s starting to look like the next six weeks are going to be a literary wasteland with zero time for writing anything meaningful. I’ve already resigned myself to the idea that my book proposal will have to wait until late April before I can take a break to complete it. Shoving aside the stuff I really care about is totally the wrong attitude, and I know it. I just don’t know how to actually cut back. I feel like I can’t prioritize my personal writing because it’s such a self-focused effort. No one else has a stake in it, and the only thing it accomplishes is that it gives me a sense of satisfaction. Theoretically, that alone should make it a worthwhile endeavor, but next to everything else? It’s another distraction from all that I have to get done.
At this point, I can’t even remember the last time I wrote something other than an informal blog post. Back when I was 19 or 20, I wrote almost everyday and it was always part of a bigger project or narrative (even if that project was just Sex and the Ivy) that I felt compelled to complete. No matter how much I wrote, I never felt like I was ever quite “finished”, but that was part of the motivation. Chasing down this goal left me feeling exuberant, because even if I never “got there”, I was constantly getting closer by honing my skills and becoming more self-aware through confession. I was deeply invested in my writing, sort of the same way I’m invested in feminism now, but I’ve found it difficult to keep the latter from consuming the former. The blog I keep today perfectly reflects that shift. Instead of discussing anything truly personal, I use it to answer reader questions, promote my various projects, and comment on feminist issues. It portrays me as the opposite of everything I once was, as a survivor, rather than a victim. But unlike writing, feminist work doesn’t leave me feeling rejuvenated. I get a sort of validation from it too, but it leaves me exhausted. Because when I say that I never feel finished with my writing, I mean that I’m after the next elusive goal, which I can’t quite define but am excited by the prospect of reaching. When I say I see no end to the struggle for gender justice, I mean that my work often feels futile, given all that I’m coming up against.
Burnout isn’t just physical. It’s everything. It’s all-consuming. It’s an accumulation of responsibility coupled with the denial of pleasure. It’s writing off your hobbies as luxuries, because they create no added value for society. It’s second-guessing indulgences like taking the high-speed train instead of the bus, even when you’re traveling for work purposes. It’s putting your partner last because they should “understand” that you’re responsible for something that’s bigger than the two of you. It’s not showering, not eating regular meals, not calling home, not seeing your friends, not going to the doctor, not doing or even considering doing anything fun for days and weeks at a time. And what happens in the end, if you don’t end up breaking down altogether (which happens to a lot more people than you think), is that you become too sick or tired to physically do more work or too emotionally exhausted and bereft of hope to see the point in going on (which, in itself, is kind of a breakdown). Sometimes, if we’re very lucky, we realize just how run down we are before we reach that breaking point. I don’t think I’m at mine. Really, I’m not even close. But I think all of us could use a reminder that sometimes, the best thing we can do for the Cause is to just take a fucking break.