The piece below was written by the late eco activist Tooker Gomberg on Earth Day 2002. He was suffering from severe depression at the time, and this was a private exercise for his therapist as he battled burnout.
It's another strange day for me. Things have been strange for eight months or more. I used to be an activist. Now I don't know what I am. Did you ever read the Kafka story about the guy who wakes up and he has turned into a cockroach? My mind is in a fog. I can't think very clearly. Making a sandwich takes a long time. I have to concentrate on every step along the way, and I am moving very slowly and deliberately. I feel stunned and spaced out most of the time. Today is Earth Day, but I feel I am on another planet.
I have been spending lots of time in bed, mostly sleeping, dozing and dreaming. My mind has melted down, though I am told that it will come back once the depression lifts - whenever that is. For some people it's months or years. Others never get out of it.
But I am writing to you about activism. Amory Lovins, the great energy efficiency guru, once called me a Hyper-Activist. I guess that's what I was. I lived, breathed and focused on activism. It kept me thinking, inspired, interested and alive.
But it also allowed me to ignore other things in life that now, suddenly, I realize. This makes me sad and despondent. I used to enjoy cooking, but stopped. I always liked kids, but never really thought about having kids. Changing the world was more important, and having a kid would interfere.
I didn't develop my mind in a broad way, learning about music and art and theatre and poetry, for example. I never really thought about a career - I was living my life, not worrying about the trappings and credentials of the boring status-quo world.
Maybe I was living in a bubble of naïveté. I never wanted to be "normal" anyway. Maybe it was the tear gas and last summer's smog. Maybe I pushed my brain too hard and over-stressed it with the (pro-Kyoto) passport burning or 20 years of pushing against the juggernaut. Maybe 9/11 firmed up my worries into a real fear that working for change is really dangerous.
It could just be a physiological response to too much coffee. Maybe I've burned out my adrenal glands. Maybe my brain is poisoned from so much thinking about tragic ecological issues and being frustrated by the slow rate of improvement and the rapid destruction of the living world. Could my brain have been damaged when I was close to dying from heat stroke in Vietnam in 1998?
I should have developed a deeper kinship with my family and with people. Don't get me wrong. I had lots of friends and acquaintances in the activist world. But they were not deep friends of the heart. I neglected my heart, and how I was feeling about things. Now that I'm in crisis, I don't really have the language to connect with people. The silence is easier than trying to explain what I'm going through, or to relate to other people's issues or problems.
So what advice can I offer? Stay rounded. Do the activism, but don't overdo it. If you burn out or tumble into depression, you'll become no good to anyone, especially yourself. When you're in this state, nothing seems worthwhile and there's nothing to look forward to.
It's honourable to work to change the world, but do it in balance with other things. Explore and embrace the things you love to do. Don't drop hobbies or enjoyments. Be sure to hike and dance and sing. Keeping your spirit alive and healthy is fundamental.
I never really understood what burnout was. I knew that it affected active people, but somehow I thought I was immune to it. After all, I took breaks every now and then and went travelling. And all my work was done in partnership with Ange, the great love of my life.
But in the end, when burnout finally caught up with me, it was mega. It must have been because of the accumulation of decades of stress and avoidance. And now I find myself in a dark and confusing labyrinth, trying to feel my way back to sanity and calm.
So take this warning seriously. If you start slipping, notice yourself losing enthusiasm and becoming deeply disenchanted, take a break and talk to a friend about it. Don't ignore it.
The world needs all the concerned people it can get. If you can stay in the struggle for the long haul, you can make a real positive contribution and live to witness the next victory!