I've had the craziest year and a half. I would say the craziness started when I finally became employed full time in my field. I was super psyched to be working on really exciting projects, projects that could really change how universities operated and how they incorporated sustainability into their operations. Unfortunately, it meant that I had three part time jobs which somehow together added up to about 40 hours a week (and I didn't take lunch breaks).
At first, I found it a little challenging to juggle so many things. This meant that I had three work email accounts, which I had to check every day (often I checked them on weekends - I couldn't help myself) and answer time-sensitive emails even if it wasn't on the day that I was supposed working at that place. You can see how this is already a little hard to keep track of. It meant that I had four bosses (one job had two supervisors), a ton of really great coworkers (I won't even try to count how many), and received about 50 emails a day between all of the work accounts. Since I was managing projects and teaching, I tended to have a lot of responsibilities, and I had to fix problems. I love problem solving. But there were always problems that needed solving. I tended to still think about them when I was watching tv, when I was showering, when I was drifting off to sleep, when I was a romantic dinner with my partner - I couldn't stop thinking about these problems, even when I tried to stop.
Because I worked three part-time contracts, I had no paid vacation, no sick days, no paid lunch breaks (so therefore I didn't take lunch breaks - it meant I would have to work longer in the afternoon), and I often had evening meetings since I work with student groups. Sometimes I would have to leave one job and walk a few blocks to my other job for an important meeting, then go back to the first job (although I really tried to avoid this - it was insanely confusing for my brain). Most of my friends are also pretty busy, but when people would say "we need to hang out, Shona!", I'd be like "yeah! Uh...let me whip out my agenda. I have an hour next Tuesday between 4:30 and 5:30. Then I have meetings and plans the rest of the week, then I'm going to the cottage on the weekend...how about the week after?" I wouldn't even try to remember my schedule; it was so confusing that I needed my agenda open at all times.
As the months progressed, I felt myself turning into a caricature of a girl who was insanely busy, rushing from one university to another with her notebook, her agenda, and a cup of tea (usually in a mason jar, but always a cup of tea. Caffeinated.). I asked my partner to draw me a picture of this caricature. All of the days kind of blended together and I had a really hard time keeping things straight.
I was super busy, super stressed, but I was doing good work! I was working on things that I cared about, projects that I genuinely loved. After years of working jobs that I was less than thrilled about, it felt amazing to get paid to make the world better. I wrote a Sustainable Event Guide, taught some wonderful and inquisitive students about environmental science, and worked with a great team of 40 McGill students to assess a heritage building and make a 5 year Sustainability Action Plan. I think somewhere in there I also fit in starting a business, tweeted, went to yoga, canned food for the winter, kept some beehives, gardened, and went to the cottage every two weeks (this is the only thing that kept me sane). Also I had friends, family, a cat, and a partner which needed or wanted various amounts of time, mostly which I was unable to give because I couldn't justify spending time on "fun" things when there was important work to be done. You can see me slipping off the classic activism burnout cliff.
Then, somewhere in November, I realized that the Montreal - Portland pipeline reversal was going to be happening a few miles away from my cottage. I suddenly felt my home, the only place I really had an attachment to, was under attack from an inevitable future oil spill. I had to do something; there was no way I could sit back and wait this fight out, it was too important to me. Somehow, I would make this fit into my schedule.
I knew that I couldn't keep up this level of intense working and activism - my brain felt constantly fried, I would tell the same people the same anecdotes because I couldn't remember who I told them to, or I would completely forget what other people told me. I could hardly relax, let alone sit still for an hour and a half to watch a movie without constantly checking facebook or attending to some "crisis". I knew I had to cut things out of my life, but I couldn't see what I could simplify. Everything was too important.
Instead of delegating tasks or asking people in my life to help me out, I felt that I could or should somehow take on more work. This doesn't make sense, and I know coworkers would have happily taken over certain tasks; my partner would have quite easily done the grocery shopping instead of me. But the more productive I was, the more I felt anxious and the urge to be even more productive. I got such a sense of pride and high off accomplishments, and the stress made me feel that I was doing essential work. I felt guilty if I had an afternoon of being unproductive. I could tell that people wondered how I did it, but the fact that I did keep it together for so long was also a source of pride for me - yeah, I'm working on all these cool projects, I'm pretty organized, I'm hyper-productive, I have a million different things going on, and I still sleep 8 hours and eat three times a day. Meetings with other activists often incorporated kind of a subtle bragging of who was the busiest, who was the most overwhelmed or productive. Instead of realizing that this is actually kind of unhealthy to glorify being a workaholic, I finally felt that these people understood me.
At some point, I realized that my relationships were deteriorating. I didn't really have time for friends, and often they didn't have time for me either. I wanted to spend more time with my family, but I was way too busy. I knew my partner, although very supportive and understanding of my three job situation, was becoming resentful of my lack of time and emotional availability. But I knew it wasn't forever - one day, I would get this illustrious full time job with dental insurance and paid vacation. It would pay off.
And then, my job contracts were all slated to end by the end of May. There was finally a way out, to wrap up projects and courses without having to leave before they were completed. Around this time, I also got into a car accident, got my wisdom teeth pulled out, went through some relationship changes, and moved. These were all pretty tough to deal with. Instead of reaching out to others, I kind of just kept it in. I crashed pretty hard at one point. But then I realized that I was extremely fortunate to have friends and family that were there for me, if I would get over my pride and just ask for help. I finally felt like it was okay to rely on other people, that I didn't have to do everything. This probably seems super obvious, but after months and months of feeling like I was the one who had to keep everything together, at work, at home, I realized that things would be okay if I took a step back. And they were fine.
At first, when my work hours dropped from 50 (since I was also doing about 10 unpaid hours a week with Climate Justice Montreal stuff in an attempt to stop the pipelines) to 20 during the summer, I didn't know what to do. I knew I was in a transitional stage, I knew I should be looking for more employment since working full time is what one is "supposed" to do. What was I supposed to be working on? What projects was I supposed to be doing, how was I supposed to fill every minute of my day? I didn't know. I felt super lost.
But as the days went by, I rejoined the gym (I finally ran up the top of Mount Royal!), I hung out with friends in the park, I reconnected with some friends I hadn't seen in a while, I actually read a book and watched some movies, I spent more time outside, I listened to music. I didn't really have a schedule outside of my work week, I did whatever I felt like. These were all "unproductive" things. And they felt amazing.
I know soon I'll be ready to jump back into things, but it is only with these past few weeks of doing "nothing" that has given me perspective. It's not normal to work 50 hours a week. It's not normal to feel hyper stressed and overwhelmed all the time. And if these things are normal, they shouldn't be.
So why share all of this? It's not flattering.
Although I had heard about activism burnout before, I didn't feel like it applied to me. I was fine, I could keep being super productive without crashing. And if I felt like it didn't apply to me, I'm sure there are other activists or passionate people who also feel like they're fine, they can keep on going.
But something I can realize only now is that it's okay to say no. It's okay to say "sorry, I would love to, but I totally don't have time." or "Hey, can you do me a favour please?'. It's okay not to work full time; it's okay not to work at all. Although I try not to follow convention or social norms just because they're there, I did definitely feel pressure to be this person who had their life together, worked full time, was on a path to "success." I kind of let other people's vision of success pull me away from my happiness.
So, it's okay. I know there are a whole lot of bad things going on with the world - more and more every day, it seems - and you're going to help fix it. That's awesome- we need so many intelligent, passionate people who care enough to do something. But the key word is help. Help fix things. Not just you. We'll be okay if you relax for a little bit, play with your dog, go to the movies.
We'll be here when you come back, and then you can take over when we need to take a break. Maybe this is a better way of fighting.
I'm an eco-conscious girl from Montreal, Quebec. I'm currently an adjunct science professor at Champlain College of Vermont (Montreal Campus). I'm interested in any opportunities to expand my experience with grassroots activism, climate change legislation, or environmental education.