Part 3: Personal Accounts
“The key thing for me was to allow people to help me...”
I used to over-analyze to the point of minutiae why I get depressed. I have had periods of depression for as long as I can remember and sometimes they’ve been utterly disabling. I’ve come to the conclusion that there is no actual answer; I think I was looking for a definitive cause so I could definitively put a stop to it. I suspect there’s a whole combination of factors, probably brain chemistry comes into it, emotional trauma—I had an abusive childhood, which I know had an enormous influence on my thought processes growing up, which then carried over into adulthood.
I’m never sure whether having radical politics is a help or a hindrance; sometimes when I’m having a bad time, the general sorry state of the world just adds to it. I call them my “It’s all too big” days, when I can’t deal with what’s going on in the world. On the other hand, at other times I find it a positive resource, knowing that I’m not the only person who thinks we should be doing it differently, it’s kind of optimistic. I’m sure that societal pressures come into play too, life is incredibly stressful, it’s hardly surprising that it would have a detrimental effect on my mental health. I also think that depression is sometimes a perfectly normal reaction to traumatic events; I don’t feel that it’s reasonable that people should carry on as normal when dreadful things happen to them. Anyway, I stopped trying to find a magic bullet and started looking at it as a mostly manageable condition.
One aspect that I’d like to touch on is the incredibly isolating nature of depression. Largely I’ve managed to overcome this, but it took a long time. When I was younger I just felt so lonely in my own head. I found it absolutely impossible to discuss this with anyone. It’s got a little better, I feel. People are more receptive to talking about mental health these days, but back then it felt like there was such a huge stigma associated with it that I didn’t dare disclose how I was feeling.
The way I grew up I developed enormous trust issues and I didn’t want to expose myself to letting anyone very close to me emotionally. I find it quite difficult now to fully understand what was going on in my head back then, but I think that in an effort to shield myself from getting hurt I disallowed myself the opportunity to let anyone help me. It’s not as if I didn’t have lots of friends, but as soon as they got too close I would run a mile. Looking back I can see that there were lots of people who offered their hands to help me, but I wouldn’t take the chance to let them. I also had a crippling insecurity that if I let people fully understand what made me tick that they wouldn’t like it, and would judge me or reject me. I have no idea what it was that I thought I should have been but I had a debilitating sense that people would find me wanting.
The only way I got out of this was to actually let someone in. I actually sought medical help at one point, but because I tried doing it on my own without any support, or even letting anyone know I was doing it, it failed dismally. In my case it took a friend who was just too tenacious to let me get away with running for the hills when I thought that would be my best option, someone who recognized my depression, who’d been there, and with great sensitivity chipped away at the wall I had constructed, a wall which I thought I was protecting myself with. Then I found that once I’d let someone help me it was far easier to let others do so.
So the key thing for me was to allow people to help me. It meant admitting that I was vulnerable, which was so frightening, but it turned out that there were people who cared about me and wanted to help. I look back at that young woman that I was with some sadness now. I put up a good front for public view, but I was so incredibly lonely and my loneliness and insecurity just fed off each other. And I find it so unfathomable that I would do this to myself because it’s really not the way I am now. So, everyone’s different and my experiences don’t necessarily relate to anyone else’s but I think it’s really vital that people don’t try to deal with their depression on their own. Sometimes it’s really hard to ask for help, and although not everybody is able to offer it, it is really worth persevering.
A few thoughts on seeking professional help: I found in my experience and through talking to others that the mental healthcare profession can be really hit or miss. It can depend on having a sympathetic doctor (I had one GP basically telling me to stop whining and get a job once) and what is available in your area. Also, it’s not a one size fits all thing, some treatments or programs work better for some than others. I had group therapy at 19 which was awful. There was no way I was going to sit in a room full of strangers, most of whom seemed to be in a worse state than me and disclose deeply personal information. I used to have anxiety attacks just thinking about it.
In my experience, if one approach isn’t working, try something else. I know this is problematic because what is available is so dependent upon what healthcare services are available in your area and the last thing you need when you are depressed is to shop around and have to fight to get the care you need (which is where having support is useful). It can be really dispiriting to seek help and find it’s not working. See if you can find an advocacy group in your area who’d be willing to help you cut through the bureaucracy and honestly show you what treatments are available.
“To refuse the feeling that I only deserved bleakness...”
Depression is not always feeling sad. Most of the time it is feeling nothing. If I shut down my emotions then it becomes a weight that presses down on my entire life but one that I can almost pretend isn't there as I listlessly stare at a screen, without the patience to get to the end of the webpage I am 'reading'. I flick between websites and inane games while a video plays. When you don't pay attention to anything you don't mind watching the same video five or six times in a few days. I don't call my friends; I know I have nothing to say to anyone. I don't want them to know how shit my life is. I can barely sleep. The only way I can get myself to work is the sheer terror of losing my job and being evicted.
So after a week of sleepless nights, of screaming at the shower as it runs hot and cold in the morning I finally hit the weekend. I drink, but I can barely manage a beer before falling asleep on Friday nights. I don't sleep through the weekend and catch up, if it were possible, on my sleep. I laze around my flat.
I look at the boxes that I haven't unpacked yet, I've been here for months. I didn't manage to unpack them at my last flat either. The flat is a mess, nothing is organised and everything is covered in dust. I hate living in shit but I can't seem to find the energy to do anything about it. Every few days I do the washing up and if there's a stain in the toilet I chuck some bleach down it. Apart from that I don't clean or maintain my flat. I don't do much for myself. I have a shower each day before work. I've grown a beard because I can't face shaving and my hair has grown out because I can't face looking for a barber and trying to talk about what I want. My friends sometimes mention that I seem a little down, but mostly we all just ignore it. I don't see them much anyway so I can usually summon up something approaching who I used to be. I've always had a dark sense of humour so I feel like the stream of gallows humour isn't going to upset people too much.
I see no future. Every day is just putting off the crushing endless weight. Everything I do is not good enough. Terror gets me to work and nervous energy keeps me going through the day, just about. I don't make plans, I don't want to see anyone, nothing really cheers me up and I don't want to bring down the people that care about me. When someone mentions visiting me or invites me somewhere I feel unable to cope with it, I can't see myself having the energy to buy a train ticket, get to the station, or tidy my flat. It's beyond me to phone a friend most of the time, actually seeing one seems almost impossible.
As long as you tell people that you are fine it's ok. Even when I have openly told my boss everything is falling apart she offers me bland assurances rather than going through the effort of helping me; then she can hear the sound of her own voice as she tells me irrelevant anecdotes. I have mostly given up trying to get help and I can't even manage to get angry about it.
Depression makes you feel alone, it makes you feel as if you will never get better, it makes you think that this is how it is for you, it turns you against yourself, it shuts down your ability to fight it.
My whole life is stripped down. This dullness that lays upon everything. I feel crushed and drained. I feel like I have to keep going, but I have no idea where, I can't see how anything will change or improve.
I had been a heavy drinker a few years previous but I am so exhausted that I have pretty much stopped drinking because I am tired of pouring it away. One glass of wine was thrown away after three nights of attempting to drink it. There are bottles of decent wine in my cupboard waiting for me to feel capable of drinking a glass. There are books on the shelf that I don't feel I will ever read, considering
that a page's worth of text is more than I have managed for weeks or months. I have films I haven't watched, I know that I won't be able to concentrate long enough to enjoy them.
Three Sundays in a row I was almost in tears, saying out loud "Life isn't supposed to be like this." I was at the end of my tether, with a nudge from a friend I called in sick, I went to the doctor for anti-depressants the same day. I spent almost all of that first week asleep, I was exhausted in every sense, but there was a sense of satisfaction. After more than a year of barely feeling alive I had finally managed to refuse the feeling that I only deserved bleakness, I could laugh at how ridiculous this realisation was; but I was able to start seeing it as one of the most important moments in my life.
It's been a while now, but things are looking a lot better. I don't have most of what I want, and the depression still comes, but I know what it is, I know that it isn't me. I had been under the shadow of depression for a very long time, so long that I had no real idea who I was without it, if there was anything else. Over the course of years it had taken more and more from me until that last year; which apart from a few moments of joy, was lifeless; joyless and it was me, alone with my depression, having trouble realising that there was anything in the world.
“Be Good to Yourself”
I was diagnosed with dysthymia when I was thirteen, the same year I learned who Emma Goldman was. I tried committing suicide with the cables that came with my PlayStation. My mother found me in my closet with a terrible excuse for a noose wrapped around my neck.
Ninth grade: vice principal overreacted to me being in the library during my free period. I was a hair away from leaping into the stairwell in my high school. Instead, I went to the social worker, who called my mother, four hours later, diagnosed with regular ol' depression.
Freshman year of college, first month: I felt rejected by my peers, crammed as many Prozac as I could fit into my mouth, watched five minutes of Glee, walked onto the quad near the women's center, hid behind a bush and called someone. I honestly can't remember who. Came to at a crappy hospital in the city, was given charcoal to drink so I could puke the pills back up, thought "This is pretty fucking goth of me to puke up pure black." Then was admitted to the shitty hospital’s even shittier psych ward for two and a half of the most agonizing days of my life. Had I not wanted to kill myself before, I certainly wanted to inside that psych ward. "They should have taken you to the children's hospital," the on-campus psychologist said to me, "You would have felt more at ease." More rejection by my peers when I came back to campus a week later. Can't stand Glee. Diagnosed with severe depression.
Sophomore year of college, the entire academic year up to around March: I was raped the summer between freshman and sophomore year. From August on, took any drug I could find, drank anything that was given to me, my breakdown was more intense than any hardcore song. Finally fucked it up spectacularly with my then-live in partner, took as many Tylenol as I could, turned on the TV and laid down on my couch. Woke up hours later in the worst pain of my life, realized my mom was coming up to visit, didn't tell her nor anyone else about this suicide attempt until about a week later, when I went to the oncampus psychologist again. Finally started going to an amazing therapist on the wealthy side of the city, diagnosed with major depressive disorder and post traumatic stress disorder.
Currently a senior in college, I haven't acted on a suicidal urge since February 2011. That isn't to say I don't have urges, I do, but I've trained myself to not act on them whatsoever. My depression will always be with me, until the day I die. I've accepted this. I feel no shame in it. It runs in the family, both sides. It was pretty much doomed from my disjointed, yet happy, childhood.
How the fuck did I make it to 22?
Realize that your mental illness/disorder/whatever it may be is not the same as others'. Nor should it be. There is no strict adherence to what your personal mental illness is going to be like. It's more of a "loose guideline" sort of deal. Much like food poisoning, you know when you have it. Unlike food poisoning, shitting or puking your brain out doesn't get rid of it. I think.
There is no one way to treat your mental illness. Some people take any assortment of meds, some meditate, some take vitamins, some smoke weed, some do nothing or everything.
Don't fucking shame anyone about how they manage their mental illness because that's just fucking rude as hell. I know that my money (rather, mommy dearest's kickass insurance) lines the pockets of fucked-up rich fucks, but that money is well fucking spent for me to survive in this twisted pisshole known as planet earth. I'm a privileged little fuck for having what I have to treat my mental illness. I know I have thousands of weird chemicals keeping me functional, but frankly, it fucking works. Diversity of tactics.
Keep your mind open to other ideas regarding treatment and management, but always exercise caution. If your gut instinct says, "hey this sounds safe" go for it. Do your research regardless, though.
When it comes to illegal drugs, keep a diligent eye. I know that I can tolerate weed and booze, and I should avoid pretty much everything else. It sucks I can't trip the light fantastic, but thems the breaks. If you’re concerned about your usage of any drug, talk to your psych, doctor, friend, anyone you feel safe with.
When it comes to your mental illness, tell those you feel comfortable telling. If anyone gives you shit about it, try and stay away from that person. And if anyone uses it against you, call that asshole
out. That shit ain't right. My usual rule is: replace 'depression' with 'lupus.' If what that person is saying is now fucked up, it was fucked up to begin with.
Self. Care. Eat a bag of tortilla chips. Masturbate. Get a tattoo. Whatever makes you happy, keep a mental scrapbook of it (or an actual one!), do it when shit gets tough. Treat yo'self.
Realize that things you might find really ridiculous or goofy might make you feel better. I think meditation is cheesy as all get out, but it works pretty well for me. Sometimes I post my hard lows on a message board I frequent (they have a designated section for that, actually). It’s embarrassing and I hate it, but the advice I've gotten has really helped me out of some terrible places.
Solidarity. You aren't the only one going through this. Even statistically, at this moment, someone is feeling something pretty damn close to how you feel. Sorry Morrissey, but Somebody Can Possibly Know How You Feel.
Among your organizations, if you feel that you need to share that you're going through some tough shit, share it. But keep it on a need-to-know basis and possibly out of public view. It's usually the best. If you don't feel safe, don't do it.
You can't go to every march. You can't burn down every cop car. You can't attend every meeting. This is perfectly okay. Sometimes you need to stay in bed. You may not be the most perfect radical, but you don't have to be.
But socializing can be good. I sometimes have to push myself to go to one fucking rally. Even if it’s me hiding in a crowd, being surrounded by people can sometimes help.
Sometimes fellow radicals say really terrible shit regarding mental illness. If they're near and dear, tell them directly (or through a safe third party). Maybe surreptitiously post something on Facebook about mental illness stigma. Or scream at that fucker if they just don't get it (use this as a last resort).
Mental illness sometimes just happens. There may be no rhyme or reason to it. This isn't your fault. Could be genetics, could be fate, could be something in the water.
Stay safe, smash the state, be good to yourself
“My sensitive heart...”
I've struggled with depression, anxiety, the consequences of substance misuse and chemical dependence, and eventually was diagnosed with bipolar NOS (“not other specified”, i.e. that my bipolar symptoms do not fit neatly into the categories bipolar I or II). I am not just my diagnosis though. I’m a fierce queer woman of color and an anarchist. I’m a fighter and I’m a survivor. I have anarchy in my heart and in my writings. I am a relapsed political activist who has been involved in protests and demonstrations for a better world.
However I, like the rat in the cage pressing a lever to get sweet liquid or drugs, know what it’s like to be an addict and to struggle with depression. I grew up the oldest daughter from immigrant Chinese parents. Alienated with the suburban life, overwhelming political apathy, and conservatism as well as my own social anxiety and depression, I turned to substances, politics and music. I remember days I would frantically scour the cabinets at home for anything to bring a sweet release, any pill—yellow muscle relaxers, white sleeping pills, bottles of dissociatives and deliriants, anything to get high, to get away from this alienating suburban life. Of course this all started as a happy accident.
At 16, I unhappily tried to end my own life with some pills. Instead of needing to go to the hospital or having my parents realize what had happened, I had parental loving concern at the rash of hives I got and got mindblowingly, uncomfortably high. Since then, I experimented with numerous substances for 7 years before being hospitalized for a manic/psychotic episode.
So what does a class-privileged misfit have to say about the working class and depression? I’m not even currently a part of any formal or class struggle organizations, instead picking and choosing protests to show up masked up in with my comrades by my side. My sensitive heart wants to help others drained by depression and anxiety. Whether your heart beats fast in social situations or whether you can’t sleep at night and stare at the numbers of time ticking by, I’ve been there. I haven’t been with you as you break down from anxiety in a bathroom stall, scared that other people will find you. I haven’t been there with you holding your hair as you vomit from a night of trying to fit in. I haven’t been there as you struggle out of bed and wish for suicide in the morning. But I wish I was there for you, comrade.
I wish I was there to tell you to take time for yourself. Slow down a little bit and practice mindfulness, meditation, yoga. Make yourself a cup of tea. It’s okay if you hear voices or are so scared of some situations that you think you can’t face them. What’s not okay is letting it prevent you from being the beautiful bursting-to-live radical you are. The world deserves to have you around because you are a great person. You deserve to sleep 6, 7, 8, or how many or little hours a night you need to function. You deserve to eat good food with good friends and family, chosen and biological. You deserve so much more out of life than this shitty broken ugly capitalist patriarchal system.
“I can’t afford to wait until after capitalism has been abolished to be happy, and I doubt you can either.”
Class struggle and depression: these two concepts are like mental buzzwords to me as they have both played a major role in defining who I am, as much as I hate to admit it. I have never actually used the two of them in the same sentence because I never made a substantive connection between the two—class struggle is political, depression is personal. But when I saw the call for submissions to this text, I knew that there was probably a deep-rooted connection that is imperative to understand if we are going to effectively fight in the class struggle. Unfortunately, but not coincidentally, many of us involved in the movement have suffered from depression and/or any number of emotional/psychological issues. Even worse, these are typically the factors which contribute to a range of internal problems in our organizing work, and many times can lead to burnout.
So, how do we begin making the connection between depression and the class struggle, and to what end? I could begin by telling you my personal story, about my life-long battles with depression and the smorgasbord of related issues, but, as therapeutic as it may be, that would individualize what is in fact a societal problem.
Or I could begin by stating the obvious, that our emotional and psychological problems are consequences of social stratification, patriarchy, and the other dysfunctional elements of society, and follow this with a Marx quote. But many of us are already aware of the societal reasons why we are unhappy. Just understanding this doesn’t help much in finding a way of coping with the battles we face every single day, at least not for me. I personally can’t afford to wait until after capitalism has been abolished to be happy, and I doubt you can either.
Instead, I want to form a better understanding not just of how to understand what our problems are and what has caused them, but how we can use our anger to fuel our struggle. Or, to paraphrase the anarcho-punk band Crass, turn the nature of their oppression into the aesthetic of our anger.
In my experience, I’ve found that many of us understand the problem and do our best to make things better for ourselves—to make life comfortable at least—yet sometimes it’s never enough. We try mainstream medicine and alternative medicine and low-cost therapy and the best therapy our city has
to offer, sometimes we even read zines or commercial self-help books, but none of these seem to provide satisfying, long-term solutions.
I’ve learned that while there is no “cure” for the emotional and psychological issues which I have to cope with on a day-to-day basis, I can use my understanding of its root causes to engage in activity that makes the personal political, and that drives me into action, especially on bad days. Having this understanding doesn’t make me feel better, it just makes me angrier, but as a class struggle anarcho-syndicalist I have certainly learned what to do with my anger. Perhaps this sounds cliché, but engaging in the class struggle is what keeps me driven, it helps me spring out of the feeling of drudgery when I’m at work, it gives me a solid network of couches to sleep on when I’m traveling, and it gives me the feeling of being connected with like-minded people in an otherwise alienating society. Our organizing work is not just a fight against the bosses, but it involves building a community of people who we are fighting alongside.
When we support each other as we fight together, we’re one step closer to curing depression.
“Remember that there will be a day when the lights start to get turned back on again...”
The problem I’ve found with depression is that… well, it’s lifelong, and as such sneaks in and takes much of your life away. I’m not involved with any groups, I don’t attend any meetings… I’m politically aware, yet have no real engagement with any campaigns. Gradually, over the course of my life, I’ve withdrawn from more and more things.
Depression isolates you. It isn’t just being sad; it’s a complete lack of hope or inclination, usually accompanied by misplaced and indefinable anxiety. How do you take part in a struggle when you can’t even see the point in changing your clothes? How do you attend a meeting or a protest, when just the idea of walking into a room full of people—or even leaving your house in the first place —fills you with cold-sweat fear? Even if these are people you’ve known your whole life, it can drive an invisible wedge of humiliation and fear between you. I’ve driven people away from me, people I’ve loved, because I couldn’t
cope with who and what I become when I’m depressed.
When the depression is clinical, as mine is, you’re told again and again that you are incapable of work, that your horizons must be lowered to take into account your actual abilities (versus your desired abilities). So how can you take part in a struggle for workers when deep down inside you, you feel that you are not a worker, that you are a failure? How can you define yourself in the class struggle when you have been declared ‘classless’ in the worst way— you don’t belong anywhere, except on medication… How can you stand up in front of a group of friends and declare your heart is in the cause, when just last week you were shouting at everyone that the whole thing was bullshit and pointless—it’s just all-round humiliating, makes you feel shallow and inconsistent. But it’s not you, it’s chemicals in your brain temporarily disrupting your patterns.
Groups like libcom.org are excellent for the likes of me. I didn’t grow up around anyone politically aware or active. My parents were Tories. Luckily my grandparents were socialists, and though they died when I was young, they pointed me in the direction they could see I should be headed in. But depression has isolated me, and as a result I don’t even know where to start…
My advice if you have depression? Flag it up. Speak out, not for pity, which you won’t want anyway, but just as a fact that should be out there. Reclaim your depression as a part of your wiring—it’s one of the reasons you are able to see the truths in the world. Depression is part of us, otherwise evolution would’ve driven it out by now! It gives us new perspectives when we come out the other side, but the danger is that on the way through you retreat and push everyone away, so when you re-emerge there’s no one to tell your insights to, which makes you isolated, withdrawn—and more prone to depression.
More importantly for those in groups who want to support depressives… keep an eye on them. Watch out for signs that depression is winning and that a feeling of pointlessness is taking over—not attending meetings, coming up with excuses not to socialise (most of my friends wouldn’t know I was depressive— they’d just think I had a full timetable of other engagements, all of which are invented), withdrawing…
How to help? Remember that there will be a day when the lights start to get turned back on again, keep that person involved in any small way, so that when the lights go back on it’s not embarrassing for them to re-emerge (I’ve found that to be the biggest problem—getting back involved makes you feel awful for dropping out). Bring them stuff to read, fire them up. Music always helps, the lighthearted and the simple always helps. A cup of tea and some new music, together with a bit of tub-thumping rhetoric can re-ignite a tiny spark somewhere. Remember that we can still spot ‘patronising’; treat us as the person you know we are, remember that our temporary insecurities will makes us feel needy and pathetic. Make us feel useful (personally, when I’m depressed, long, drawn-out repetitive tasks work wonders for taking me away from myself!).
“The Personal is Political”
Since becoming convinced of the need to overthrow capitalism and the state and replace it with a more just, egalitarian and sustainable system, I have made that struggle the primary focus of my life for over a decade.
When comrades cautioned me to slow down and take it easy in order to avoid burning out, I dismissed their advice. When others said they were burnt out, or needed time to recuperate and gather themselves, and took a step back from being directly involved in the movement, I inwardly thought that they lacked commitment, or had lost their conviction. Burnout, I thought, was a bourgeois luxury.
The last few years prior to writing this article have been probably the most difficult of my life—from the depression caused by failed romance, the death of some family members and the life-threatening illness of others, to physical and/or mental health problems—certainly the last three or so months before I left for abroad had seen me hit an all-time low. Ordinarily, under such circumstances I would have invested more of my time, energy and focus in political work in order to distract myself. But with my own political organisation going through somewhat of a crisis, this didn’t seem to help; throwing up even more difficult questions with which I felt I had to deal. Not knowing how to, and sometimes not feeling as though I had somewhere or someone to turn to for help and advice, or even for comfort, I frequently found myself turning to alcohol as a means of escape, dulling-down of the senses or just to pass the time. Other times I simply found myself trying to sleep the day away, as though what I was experiencing was a bad dream from which, I hoped, I would soon awake.
Feeling unable and unwilling to deal with external pressures I occasionally severed communication with other people and comrades, or at least couldn’t bother myself to respond to attempts—however urgent—to reach me. I mention this only because I have witnessed similar behaviour in other comrades and have concluded that such behavioural patterns are peculiar neither to myself nor to people with mental health diagnoses, but can be experienced and expressed, to varying degrees, by anyone.
Consequently, for the final few weeks or months before leaving South Africa I found myself unable to perform my duties or meet expectations. I faltered on mandates and constantly felt that I was letting myself, my comrades and, by extrapolation, the class and its struggle down. This fed into a cycle of self-loathing, depression and inability to properly function on a personal or political level.
Had I just been faced with a personal crisis, or just been faced with a political crisis I may well have been able to cope. After all, I’d been confronted by and overcome both before. But, finding myself at the intersection of the two, I was lost for a way out. As the old feminist dictum goes, “the personal is the political”.
I was lucky to have been able to go to Brazil when I did, although that in itself brought new challenges, uncertainties and insecurities—both personal and political. But had I not, I’m not sure how I would have coped. I think I narrowly avoided burning out which, I’ve seen, it can take years to recover from.
Being abroad I had the opportunity of conversing with some truly knowledgeable and inspirational anarchist socialist militants that recounted similar experiences—of losing brilliant minds and militants to burnout, depression and addiction—reminding me that I was not alone and that, like everyone else, we socialists are human. We go through ups and downs, have good times and bad ones. Sometimes we cope, sometimes we don’t.
This is maybe even more true of socialist militants, as not only are we living under the odious yoke of class society—with all that that entails—but we are actively trying to change it, against frightening odds. Perhaps even more so than socialists in general, could this be true of anarchist socialists, whose ideas and vision are even more alienated and isolated—contemporarily speaking— not just from the popular classes we seek to convince thereof, but from much of the rest of the left as well. In the case of anarchists in South Africa one could add to this political isolation from much of the left, our geographic isolation from most of the rest of the international anarchist movement— mostly concentrated in Europe and the Americas. This political and geographic isolation can be compounded still when militants feel a real or perceived personal isolation as well, one sometimes even self-imposed.
As with the popular classes as a whole, which fluctuate between periods of heightened class consciousness and combative class struggle, and periods of decline in both; so too might individuals go through periods of fluctuating levels of militancy or activity.
When class consciousness and struggle are at a low ebb, the popular classes become more susceptible to opportunist threats in their desperation to alleviate their own suffering and misery—from power-hungry politicians to parasitic organised religions and reactionary ideologies. So too may individual militants become more susceptible to the dangers posed by loneliness and depression, addiction and disillusionment that could be spurred on by the increased alienation and isolation of both themselves and their ideas in the context of decreased levels of consciousness, politicisation, and struggle. It is in such a context of decreased class consciousness that we find ourselves today, and it is the accompanying threats faced by individual militants against which we need to guard.
It's imperative that as individuals and organisations we understand these issues and that we actively seek to alleviate them as much as possible. I don't claim to have easy answers, but simply having these discussions is surely a step in a positive direction. From there we can begin to build structures of support and develop our own capabilities, as individuals and as a movement, to create strategies for
defeating burnout and keeping alive the flame of anarchist-socialist resistance.
“The revolution will wait for you.”
The last time I went into the hospital was because of a mental crash that occurred while I was working at a school in the poor French town where I live with my wife and our son. At the time I was very dedicated to my job and to my union. That year I'd been on strike many times, fighting against a director who was willing to fire the whole supervisory staff, of which I was an employee. I defended my colleagues on a daily basis and was under pressure every minute that I spent at work.
Unfortunately, I also had to fight against the kids. It was (and still is) a school with a very violent and confrontational environment. As an anarchist, it's not easy to yell at kids. But when a fight occurs, you don't make suggestions. You say something like, "I order you to drop the knife now!" That's an extreme example, but it does mean you end up acting like a fucking cop, sometimes resorting to physical coercion. I can assure you that it makes you feel bad.
This stress followed me home and I was always in bad mood. When I wasn't angry, I was depressed to the point I wanted to vanish off the planet. I went to the doctor often and took time off work. Going out for a walk wasn't really a good idea as the inevitable yelling and street fighting only increased my stress. It came to the point that I had to take a month off, staying in my room, feeling totally crazy.
My doctor then sent me to a public mental health center. I accepted a stay of two weeks. It was difficult. What made me feel better was to help the other patients. I fed a woman who had refused to eat for three days, shared my cigarettes, tried to calm down a guy who was in crisis, and listened to the sad stories of other patients. The medical staff were cool with that. I wasn't trying to interfere, just trying to be kind in a very sad and unpleasant place. Some comrades tried to reach me regarding union-related questions. I told trusted comrades about the situation, made it clear that my top priority was a healthy mental state, and gave up all responsibilities. I tried not to feel guilty about it.
Mental health has been a lifelong issue for me. I was first sent to a psychologist at age 9 and again as a teenager. Even with this, I dropped out of school. It changed a bit a year later with my first job and my increasing interest in politics. But the depression has always been there: the feelings of loneliness, the impression that my life has no meaning, that I will never feel serenity, and the often and all-too-real sentiment that I've lost touch with reality.
This scared me to death sometimes. Paradoxically, the only moments I've felt really good were when I took drugs. I started smoking pot at 12. I've done all the drugs I could try since. Can I say, today, that my mental issues are linked to my drug consumption and vice versa? Yes, of course. But it's taken me a long
time to admit it.
When I got out of the mental health center, it didn't go well. I went back to work, took too many days off and finally got fired. I then decided to drop the union. The job was tough but I loved it and it was hard to accept that I wouldn't be a militant in the workplace. So I took a year to take care of my mental health and to find a profession that would fit my personality. I still have a psychologist and a psychiatrist who've helped me ith every step.
After one year of treatment, I've found another job. It's not the kind of work most people would enjoy, but I'm perfectly happy with it.
My family was the main reason I fought so hard to improve my situation. It was very painful for me to be unable to take care of them and support them through their own problems. I have to admit that we didn't tell our child about my issues while I was in treatment. I didn't want to scare him or make him sad. I will wait to tell him until the day that he will be able to understand. I'm trying to be a strong person for my son, someone that he can count on. It's very hard sometimes.
If I'm writing down my story, it's because I want to tell people with mental health issues that you have to accept your own weakness and seek the help you need. Keep faith in yourself and your loved ones. You shouldn't feel guilty if you stop organising.
Some people think they can forget their problems by giving all their time to activism. That's unrealistic. You can't expect mental stability from activism. If you are in a good organisation with good people they should understand that sometimes a comrade needs to quit union or political activities. If they don't, they don't deserve you.
I still have ups and downs. But I have identified those phases and I know that when I'm feeling bad it won't last very long. Now I have a lot more good moments than bad ones. I'm a mentally ill person; I have to live with that fact and it's fine. The pain is not as strong as it used to be and now I know
where it comes from. Now I can make long-term plans for my life and I have even started to write a book!
While I was in the mental health center I created a kind of code of conduct and it helped a lot. Here it is:
Psychologist and psychiatrist: Give the pain a name
You should have one person to talk to and one doctor to give you the right treatment. You have to be the one to choose them. Give them a try for a month. If you don't feel comfortable talking to them, try someone different.
You should try to think about your conversations with your psychologist once in a while (not too often) and be prepared with ideas that came to mind between meetings. In the case where you don't have anything to say, it's not bad at all. It's a part of the process. Don't feel ashamed or frustrated, those silences mean a lot.
It will take time to find good medical treatment. You will have to be patient before you feel better. If a treatment makes you feel bad, change it. We all react in different ways to medication. The most important thing is to feel stable. The pills you take won't make you a happy person. Stability is key. You need mental stability to think and to act rationally. Mental stability will help you identify the source of your pain. Your doctor should tell you what it is and you will talk about it. You will have a name for it. It will help you a lot
for the next steps.
Avoid the guilt: Do one thing, be proud of it.
If you're feeling so bad that you don't have the energy to do anything, accept it. You have to admit that you can't act as a stable person would. It's ok. But if you don't clean your living space, don't wash yourself and do nothing at all, you will start to feel even worse.
You should at least do one thing a day. Not necessarily something useful. Find one good guitar riff, write a few words in a personal diary, take a shower, vacuum your bedroom, watch a good movie, draw your pain… Take five to ten minutes to do one thing and give yourself some rest. Remember: you did something today and you will do one thing tomorrow… be proud.
If you have important things to do, write them down. Try to achieve one of these tasks per week. Just one per week. If you can't do it, that's ok. It only means that you're not ready yet. Maybe next week, maybe next month. Take the time you need.
The whole idea is to avoid feeling guilty and to be proud of yourself. If you try and still can't do anything, you're still trying, you are a fighter. Be proud.
Activism: Only if you're feeling well.
Maybe depression is linked to the capitalist system, to patriarchy, to the bad environment. Maybe not. We don't know when we will put an end to these systems of domination and destruction. Our depression won't wait.
You can spend your whole life in demonstrations, public meetings, going on strike or handing out flyers. It won't heal you. Most of the time you will be frustrated because whatever you do, it won't generally go the way you want. It won't go as far as you hope. Sometimes you will even fight against your own comrades. Sometimes something good will happen. In any case, it will take time and energy. Depressive or not, it can be too much to give at certain points in your life.
Sure, it can help to have friends who understand your politics. They can give you the strength to do incredible things, a true friendship and a community that shares your sense of solidarity. That's why you shouldn't hesitate: If you're feeling the need to take a break, take that break.
Anti-authoritarian politics is about freedom and you should feel free about your involvement. There's a huge difference between being unable to do stuff because you're not serious about it and being unable to do stuff because you can't. A revolutionary activist should know that we need to be stable and rational to make good decisions. But the most important thing is you, your health and your wellbeing. If your mental health is suffering, forget the rest and focus on your own problems. The revolution will wait for you.
"We must create our own messages of self-respect and pride in our humanity. “What the spectacle has taken from reality must now be retaken from the spectacle.”
I am recovering from a mental problem. I’m not sure what it’s is called. It’s mentioned somewhere in a David Foster Wallace book. I hear he suffered from something similar. He had this problem where he would sweat at the slightest mental trigger. And if he worried about sweating it would only make him sweat more. And this might not seem like a big deal to people. We all sweat; it’s not so bad right? But it’s not like just a little sweat would break out and he’d be just a bit wet, he would start sweating big huge puddles of the stuff. Imagine if every time you were in a room with someone and they could see your body you would just start to uncontrollably sweat. And if you think about the fact that you are sweating you only sweat more. And then you start worrying about how people are going to perceive you for sweating constantly, creepily, horribly. It’s so horrible it’s hard to communicate. You start to worry about it all day, every day.
It gets to the point where you base your life around the issue. You avoid any and all situations where the outbreaks of sweat might occur. Class. Class is a mental strain you can just barely take. Trapped in a room for three hours at a time in close proximity to your classmates. Nowhere to hide, the sweat pouring out of you, the occasional glance from disgusted classmates. Every day. And forget about getting laid. Not only are you a mental wreck, but suppose somehow you did manage to get laid. What would you do when it came time to cuddle with your partner? Would they ask about the sweat? If they did, what would you say? Would you start bawling to this person you barely know and tell them all about your never-ending nightmare of a life? That’d be a real turn on. No. No. Out of the question.
The question is how to cope. Well one thing that can help is music and books. These can be very therapeutic. They didn’t make me happy but they did make me want to live. They made me feel the beauty behind all of my pain. Who could deny the beauty of a Chopin Nocturne or, for that matter, a great Radiohead song? I listened to this stuff and I realized that despite my depression, despite my being ostracized I still had something quite wonderfully human in me. The sadness expressed in the books I read and the music I listened to helped me regain my humanity. They left me with the firm belief that I would one day regain some level of self-respect and maybe make it out of this madness alive.
After I found out about anarchist-communist politics, I began to realize that the spectacle of modern consumerist society teaches us to hate ourselves for being depressed. Our society is rife with messages that insist that sadness and loneliness is a problem created because of some sort of individual character flaw instead of a structural one. The spectacle forces everyone to desperately try and meet some standard of human behavior that nobody can actually attain and those that do attain it are often quite miserable. If you are depressed right now do not feel like it is your own fault. I know that me saying this will not completely make everything better, but start today by thinking about how you are told you are a contemptible worthless nobody, when in fact, you are a human being who deserves to be treated with care and compassion.
You may have fucked up in your life, but who hasn’t? This world is merciless and creates insanity in people. You are not to blame. If you think there is a part of you that is morally reprehensible try to fix this but also understand that no matter what you should still treat yourself with respect.
We are bombarded all day long with messages on the television, the internet, movies, everywhere, that tell us to hate ourselves. We must destroy these messages. We must create our own messages of self-respect and pride in our humanity. “What the spectacle has taken from reality must now be retaken from the spectacle. The spectacular expropriators must be expropriated in their turn.” Depressed comrades of the world, read, listen, sabotage, and destroy!