Tending to our gardens: Stress and burnout

Several days ago, I received an impassioned plea via Instagram to use my platform to talk more about what is happening to the Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli military. My initial response was one of irritation at being asked once again to do something in addition to all I’m already doing and, in a moment of irritation, I vented on another platform. There I was met with a response that, given my work as an anti-racist, I should absolutely be doing more to show my support for the Palestinians. 

While still in a highly annoyed state, I replied to the person who sent me the original message and asked why they thought asking a stranger to do something felt appropriate. Especially a stranger who has been pretty open lately about the severe stress and burnout they are dealing with. 

I received a thoughtful reply. The woman was of Palestinian descent, she followed my work, and she hoped that by using my platform, I might be able to create greater awareness of the situation. 

In the end, she apologized for disturbing me and for not realizing that I actually have been posting in my IG stories about the horrific slaughter of Palestinians and not knowing that through my day job, I actually am involved in activist efforts that I simply don’t feel the need to publicly share. 

While I was mildly embarrassed by my anger at this seemingly innocuous request, it did drive home the reality of just how frazzled I am at the moment. 

The truth is, I am beyond frazzled, to quote Vincent from Pulp Fiction, “ I got a threshold, Jules. I got a threshold for the abuse I’ll take. And right now I’m a race car in the red. I’m just saying that it’s fucking dangerous to have a racecar in the fucking red. It could blow.” 

Friends, I am the race car in the red. I am rapidly approaching my tenth anniversary as the executive director of one of the oldest anti-racism organizations in the country. It has been a ride. In the first seven years of my tenure, I not only managed to stabilize the organization, I tripled our operating budget. Had I been smarter, once I achieved that I should have left. Instead, I had more goals to accomplish and stayed on. Unfortunately, life and organizations have cycles and right now, this cycle sucks! 

I share this to say that I am dealing with some heavy professional shit, on top of the fact that spending the last 10 years running an anti-racism organization has been emotionally and psychically heavy. From the Ferguson days to Trump’s Muslim ban to Breonna Taylor to George Floyd. These weren’t just stories to write about. These were moments to program and activate around, and I have been there for all of it. Nevermind that as a Black woman with Black kids, race is never far from my mind. 

Over the years, I have written how family outings and vacations have become racialized. To be Black in America isn’t just to know rage, it’s to know that at any juncture, racism is a real thing. Not just a protest or talking point. It’s forever wondering if my Dad might still be alive had he been a white man and not a poor Black man. 

Writing about race and racism is easy, it’s almost cathartic for me. It’s the unspoken racism in philanthropy, its self-appointed allies and accomplices who demand more of me as a Black woman than any of my white peers. It’s knowing that even in anti-racism work, I still have to play the game. It’s the side of activism that isn’t seen on a meme or social media. It’s the underbelly and intersection of movement work and how that work is funded. It’s soul-sucking to work twice as hard to get half as much as white person in my position would get. It’s soul-sucking to have my decisions and judgment questioned in ways that my white peers never experience. It’s the inherent lack of trust based on my race and gender. It’s the veiled critique that is actually a judgment based on my Blackness and not my performance. 

I’m two months away from 51, and the inherent bias and racism baked into our so-called change-making work has pushed me to my breaking point.

Even more than my situation, it is knowing that the business of change requires literal human sacrifices. The humans who believe enough and are passionate enough that they will keep giving until they are like that damn tree Shel Silverstein wrote about, with nothing left to give eventually. 

It’s knowing though that we are part of a larger culture that still doesn’t make space for radical honesty when we are on the brink of collapse and pushes back at those of us who dare to name this state. Who dare to say, “no, I am not okay, I need time. I need help, I need support.”

It’s the inhumanity baked into the so-called humane work that penalizes those who dare to say, “I need to tend to my personal garden and get right.” It’s a system that means we have to weigh our options and for many of us, the only option is to keep stuffing things down. 

The thing is, burnout is real, stress is real and when we don’t address it, or half-ass address it, it returns. Sadly, I have realized that a few days here and there to get away is not a substitution for actually taking the time and space to recover. It’s a stopgap measure that temporarily lets the steam out of the pot, while never actually turning down the temperature, so that the simmering stops. 

As I journey through navigating burnout, and being loud about it, I realized, I am not alone. Many of us are struggling with burnout whether we run organizations, families or just the struggle of running our own lives. Society has bamboozled us into returning to an apocalyptic normal in the face of COVID, but our bodies and souls know that nothing is normal. Three years ago, the world literally came to almost a standstill but there has been no large-scale efforts to grieve or heal, just the admonishment to return to normal. Nothing could be further away from normal. 

Instead, there’s a frenetic, almost manic vibe that I am picking up from the external world. People are racing, trapped in their minds, but there is a growing underbelly of anger. You see it in how we treat one another, how people drive and in a myriad of other ways. It is the general lack of consideration and inhumanity for ourselves and those around us. It’s the growing sense of foreboding that even the least woo-woo amongst us are feeling. It’s knowing that even nature senses the disconnect.

The only way to even begin to do better is to acknowledge what we are feeling and how we really are doing. Not the superficial code of the culture of whiteness that propels us to say we are fine when, in reality, we are barely hanging on. It’s holding multiple truths: the acknowledgement of global injustice and the injustices in our own yards. More importantly, it’s creating space for realness and vulnerability without judgment. 

In some of my recent posts, I have laid myself bare in ways that I rarely have ever dared to do. I also heard from several readers that what I shared made them feel uncomfortable and that perhaps I had shared too much. The gag though, is anyone who knows me intimately in either my work or personal life knows I am struggling. My type-A workaholic style has shifted into an unprecedented slowness, because moving slowly is the only way for me to metaphorically breathe. 

To pour into my kids and not work is the only thing keeping me from not going off the cliff. To know I am heartbroken over a man who until recently I thought might be the one I rocked with until I beam off this dusty rock isn’t too much. It’s to know that there is a woman who despite her public persona has a very real soft and gooey center. A soft and gooey center that only one person other than my children has ever managed to fully see. As my brother often has joked, that man did what our parents never thought any partner would ever be able to do for me, crack me open and make me want to be fully present with them.

People love the idea of a strong Black woman so much that it is easy to forget we are actual people; people who are also capable of breaking down. Really, we are all capable of breaking down when the pressures are too much. Furthermore, many of us are breaking down, how else can you explain the explosive popularity of cannabis amongst the adults? Cannabis users aren’t all trying to recapture their youthful stoner days. No, many people are using edibles, gummies, and weed to get through the days. It’s why women are the fastest growing demographic for alcohol use, women are drinking too much

We are masking our reality and playing it cool, because society frowns upon the truth. Which is that we are a collective hot mess, our world is a hot mess and it’s easier to stay high or get high often enough to avoid that truth. 

I have lived that life too and frankly, it’s not healthy, and for the perimenopausal set, alcohol can worsen your symptoms. Sorry to bear the bad news.  Look, the leaders aren’t coming to save us. In the end, it is our connections to ourselves and those around us that will save us. It is the connections we nurture that will be with us in the heavy moments. It is allowing ourselves to be real enough to be in relationship with our community and build strategic coalitions that will fight the forces seeking to keep us tethered to inhumanity. An inhumanity that as we are seeing wants us to look away from the horrific. But none of this will happen if we can’t be real with ourselves and those around us. Vulnerability and realness are not weakness, and anyone that dares to judge or weaponize vulnerability isn’t worthy of our time or energy.

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Image by Danylo Suprun via Unsplash

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