One of my proudest accomplishments was waiting to take Physics in high school until my Senior year. My classmates in the smart-kid classes all loaded up on Math and Science as Juniors so they could have more off periods their last year of high school, but I decided I had enough on my plate. Sure enough, most of my classmates burned out while I coasted along as I always had. I recommended this plan to an upcoming Sophomore and she went on to be Valedictorian of her class (and even made a point of thanking me).
Activism and understanding have shifted much of the narrative above in my mind (for example, I’m pretty frustrated by the way smart-kid tracks marginalize “average” students academically and “honors” students socially), yet I retain my pride because of my capacity to choose an unusual path and avoid burnout. The topic has come up often for me: I scraped by on cheap food in college because I knew a job would be more than I could handle; the nonprofit for which I worked in D.C. advocated sabbaticals and self-care as a part of every activist’s strategy; I even skimped my hours early on during political campaigns because I knew I’d be working plenty of overtime by the end and getting paid the same.
If perspective is my superpower, avoiding burnout is one of its fringe benefits (like Magneto being able to “fly” by lining his boots with metal).
Becoming a caregiver has changed everything I thought I knew about myself, though. For the first time in my life, I am responsible for another human being, but unlike my child-rearing peers, I am watching a delightful human being recede into an infant. And unlike my activist friends, who have campaigns and victories and defeats and weekends and vacations (whether or not they use them), I have a crushing amount of stability. You see, when your “work” includes watching someone die very slowly, the good days are ambivalent at best. Bad days are the days where there’s something to do, something to clean, some goal to achieve; if you fuck up, if you learn something new, if you wear yourself out, you at least have somewhere to direct your angst: guilt, action, emotion. Good days have a heartache all their own because nothing happens; every day they don’t get worse is another day you have to wonder and wait and stand ready, because some day they will. Bad days may be exhausting for the body and the mind, but good days are exhausting for the spirit.
It’s hard to be an honest, earnest optimist when your life is lived amid the therapeutic fibs of Alzheimer’s, but it’s even harder when you have a lot of time and self-awareness to navel-gaze over the whole thing. It’s really rather insidious, because there’s rarely a clear turning point, never a conscious decision in the matter: “This is going to be a good spring, so I shall take up pottery and get out of the house more;” “That new neuropathy treatment is going to frustrate and exhaust us, best to minimize my diversions and focus on extra sleep.” If I’d been a little more conscious of what was to come, I totally could have accommodated the ups and downs better, but I wasn’t, and I almost always feel like I’m using my time poorly: “He’s feeling rotten and I’m not available enough because I’m dealing with a dozen outside stressors!” “He’s feeling great and I’m sitting around twiddling my existential thumbs!”
Having perspective as a superpower makes me kind of dependent on all the little things that came with that superpower; what do I become when I lose that power in the most important aspect of my life?
Apparently, this is what happens… Anxiety, stress, restlessness, frustration…
It’s starting to sound like burnout.
Except I can’t burn out.
What I can do, though, is check and recheck the other aspects of my life and shift my choices in directions I might have thought too extreme before. I have been anticipating this process all along, I just assumed it would be bad days that would bring the big changes to the fore. Last year I made the painful choice to leave a community I’d helped build, but that decision was helped along by internal strife and gut-wrenching loss. Stubborn as I am, I usually have to actually land on the “Day of Reckoning” space before I do much reckoning…
Last week, my heart was captured by the discussions blossoming around #notallmen/#yesallwomen. The more I read, the more I wanted to say something of my own, to pick up that last little bit where other sympathetic cismen seemed to trail off. I wanted to confess my male sins and start a movement encouraging other men to do the same. I drafted something eloquent and meaningful, tagged in a loved one who blogs to keep me accountable, and…
…and nothing. I had the time, I had the energy, I had the passion, but I just couldn’t get it done. The more I guilted myself to finish, the more I knew I wouldn’t. A couple of tangential conversations came up on Facebook, but I left each feeling unreasonably drained. Actually, that’s been happening a lot lately, on a lot of activist-y topics…
I just don’t know if I’ve got it in me any longer. I’ve been seeing activism as my supposed respite from caregiving, but that’s a lot of worry to welcome.
I believe in personal change AND I believe in global change, but if I have to let go of one I must let go of the will to influence others. I will unpack my privilege and live kindly by example and be available for those who come to me with questions, but the devotional part, the pro-active part, the ACTIVIST part of me may be too big to feed.
Which is not to say I won’t have it in me again; the time has simply come to remind myself I have a choice, and I will always choose caregiving over activism. He needs me and I need me, and as long as I have me, I can always come back to this when my caregiving days are over.
I asked my friends (on Facebook) whether they’d hate me if I took the month of June off from activism; I got very supportive responses, including, “if you burn out, don’t take time off, and don’t return to it, you would end up losing a lot more time in the long run,” and “the struggle will be there when you get back!”
Part of me feels guilty for even thinking about it: there goes another person of privilege dropping out when the going gets tough, leaving the people who don’t have a choice in the matter… but activism is and will always be a part of me; it’s just that who I am is kind of broken right now. Everything in my life is shrinking, but that which is too small to see is not necessarily too small to exist. Right now, this is the one thing I might be able to live without (or, more accurately, at a much smaller intensity… geez, how on Earth am I going to do that?), and I owe it to this other human being — to whom I have committed my life — to try. He wants me at my best. He deserves me at my best.
I do have dozens of friends who are working hard yet; some of these even credit me for their level of understanding or involvement, so maybe I get partial credit. I mean, hell, I have been known to say the best move for a white cisdude in activism is to shut up and let someone else talk, so maybe I should spin this as just activism 2.0…
The truth is, I don’t know. Maybe I’ll come back at the end of June with a fresh perspective on how I can balance being a caregiver and a passionate agitator. Maybe I won’t “come back” at all, just continue to live out my values, to self-examine, and to support other people doing great things in private. Probably, the answer lies somewhere in between. But I need to let it be whatever it will be, and I hope my friends, loved ones, and (dare I say?) allies will understand.
My private philosophy for personal change has for years has been, “Do what you can. When that gets easy, do a little more.” I guess there’s a corollary… “If it’s too much, do a little less.”
Go get ’em, yall. I’ll be along when I can be.