‘A feminist, a squatter, an environmentalist and a human rights activist speak: how does taking action affect mental health?’
I remember the wonder, after spending my teenage years alternating between Bangalore and Teesside, of finally discovering people who were politically conscious, filled with activist fire and committed to working for change.
We took action against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We opposed attacks on civil liberties taking place in the name of the ‘war on terror’. We supported survivors of domestic violence, working towards an anti-racist future.
The shift from alienation to belonging was profound. Even when other parts of my life have been difficult, I have always had my activism. It has been responsible for giving me energy, optimism and purpose. It is through activism that I have made most of my closest friends.
Even now, ten years later, I still can’t believe how lucky I am.
So, what’s the negative? There is an emotional cost to being conscious. Working on injustice means you’re focusing your energy, rage and frustration on taking action. This can leave you feeling energised when you see things change. But it can also be draining, especially if your actions are in response to something that has happened to you personally or to those you support. You work for years and it feels nothing changes – or that it’s getting worse. You wonder if all that effort, time and sacrifice is worth it.
Then there is ‘activist drama.’ Common to all movements, this is part personal and part political – linked to differences in opinion and issues of power and control.
Recently, the furore over inclusion and diversity has led me and many others to disengage from the feminist movement. Or we have to psyche ourselves up to participate. But this is hardly new. I was having conversations as to how much longer we could carry on, given what was happening, long before the recent conflicts started. Maybe it’s a question of how long you have been involved in a particular movement that determines when the negative outweighs the positive.
You end up choosing carefully what you choose to engage in. You limit your involvement to certain groups and people, to protect yourself.
In activist communities, it’s called “burn out”. But we all build walls against the world. It’s impossible not to. To confront each day knowing it’s filled with war, death and slavery; that someone, somewhere is being raped and someone, somewhere else, is being tortured; that a handful of people have more than they can imagine what to do with while many millions don’t know where their next meal will come from; to wake up each morning under the looming shadow of the now arriving climate crisis and to go to bed each night guilty about a starving baby you’ve never met: this would be to live in perpetual trauma.
And so we all build our bunkers. We have to. We force ourselves to become ‘well adjusted’ to a brutally unjust world.
Full throated political activism requires running from these bunkers. It’s impossible to make a powerful case for change without gripping and articulating the scale of the injustice you challenge. But if you keep your eyes focussed for too long on such horrors, if you spend too long running from your bunker, you become exhausted.
This is most obvious when people who are usually vocal and politically active feel unable to cope with a while, and take a step back. When this happens, people in activist communities (or at least those I’m more familiar with) are usually pretty good at acknowledging it as burn out. What we don’t acknowledge is that there are many other kinds of bunker besides: cynicism, nihilism; getting caught in strategically useless routine and failing to break new ground or engage with those who think differently.
When it’s acknowledged, burn out can be a useful thing: it is often when people confront traumas they have always felt; when they rest and reflect and, to steal a line, build up strength in their broken places. What’s more damaging is how many people are walking wounded: pouring scorn on those who seek to make change, push themselves into more and more conflict not for strategic reasons, but because it makes them feel better, or just get stuck in a rut.
At 21, I was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, depression, alcohol dependence and anorexia.
I’d spent two years leaving the end times church I’d grown up in. I felt completely lost. It had started with rebelling against sexist rules like not being allowed to wear trousers or having to cover my head in church, but in the end I left because I simply didn’t believe in God anymore. And if the world wasn’t going to be magically saved, what was the point of living at all?
Trying to help myself, I started volunteering for Amnesty. Volunteering became human rights and peace activism, and the world began to make sense again. Inequality and injustice weren’t going to simply disappear, I had to make them change.
I went to meetings, organised protests, got petitions signed, met with MPs, and I made friends who cared about the things I cared about. Activism helped me heal, and for many years, it kept me in recovery.
At 28, I was involved in a number of activist groups, organising a feminist conference, promoting Women’s History Month, and campaigning for women convicted of murdering their abusive partners. Activists know that conflict is par for the course, but in one group we had a serious disagreement over ensuring safe spaces for trans women.
To my shame, it was an issue that I’d barely thought about before. It challenged my own privilege and prejudices. But the view I finally came to (in support of trans women’s inclusion) got me, and others, kicked out. I was angry and upset, but we got on with organising. Activism felt different though. The heavy numbness returned, the world was pointless and I yearned for oblivion.
It was a year before I acknowledged that the conflict had triggered a relapse in my depression. I went back on medication, got counselling, and talked to friends. I took a break from the activist groups I was in, but started blogging instead.
I’m a lot better now, but sadly, I still find myself avoiding feminist activism.
I have been a squatter for about three years and have come to view supporting and defending others in their struggles for housing as a calling. In Britain there are 50,000 homeless people and a million disused buildings. Squatting is a natural response to this crisis.
The popular narrative likes to differentiate between those who squat out of desperation and those who do so for ‘lifestyle’ reasons. The implication is that if you squat ‘just’ to avoid working tough minimum wage jobs and to minimise your involvement with money, you are a parasite.
My reasons for squatting are ultimately rooted in my mental health. The last time I had to routinely time-keep, I was struggling through university. My attendance and work submissions were rarely punctual, yet I was constantly sleep-deprived. I earned the contempt of my supervisors and even more so, of myself.
My grades and self-esteem dropped every term until finally, in my fourth year, I had to stop. I felt worthless. As my supervisor liked to remind me, in the world of work, this kind of behaviour would quickly get the sack.
Three years later, I live in an abandoned chapel. I sleep eccentric and varied hours, waking up naturally, whenever. I have no bosses and have had no income of any kind for years.
Squatting contains its own challenges and has impacted my mental health in other ways. I have been threatened with weapons and traumatized by sudden, violent evictions from my home. Distant banging now triggers panic. The work involved in finding, securing and properly fixing up a building for a home or social centre is exhausting.
I dream of a day when shelter will not be viewed as a privilege to be earned – always subordinate to the sanctity of private property. But in the mean-time, I feel more happy and secure now than I ever felt living under the tyranny of rent.