Written by Erin Kirsch
Graphic by Steph Beer
TW: talking about mental health, injustice
I get angry a lot. I’m a stereotype within myself; a red-haired, angry feminist, who cares about the environment.
I planted the seeds for anger during high school, and I’ve gotten to a stage in my life where I’m not afraid to speak out about issues I care about. I’ve been known to vocally express my opinions in our college dining room, accompanied by appropriate slamming of the cutlery, ensuring everyone at the table next to me hears my loudly voiced opinions.
Unfortunately, at this stage in our increasingly endangered and globalised world, there are plenty of things to get angry about. I have to also acknowledge that I am privileged enough to have space, time and energy to be this angry. It’s exhausting to acknowledge and recognise basic human rights violations, deficits in women’s rights, queer rights, climate change, animal abuses, environmental damage, ableist people, the far right, the far left.
Having grown up without a TV, starring at the news for a while is a struggle, and often completely demoralising and heartbreaking. I was told in an international relations course last year that we had to be checking the news every day, and like any good student, I went away, downloaded the ABC News app, and was soon hit with a crippling wave of existentialism.
This app chose to give me push notifications, accompanied with a lovely ‘ding’, so if I had the misfortune of forgetting to check the app the moment I got up, I received the notifications in the car, in the shower, during study sessions and when I was eating lunch. Whilst this may have been a complete oversight and lack of technological prowess on my part (I could have just turned notifications off), I felt in touch with the world and secure in knowing if (or more to the point, when) the next great disaster hit, I would know straight away.
In some ways, however, knowing every time the latest cyclone hit or someone else got convicted of a horrific crime, was just another hole in the naive armour of my person, the same person that once refused to keep track of the outside world.
The other chinks came in the form of being involved with an environmental group on campus. Learning every week about the decisions our politicians were making, or in many cases refusing to make, and how that directly impacted my future was incredibly disheartening.
Activist spaces and the feelings and reactions they incite can often feel like banging your head against a brick wall; a brick wall that is conscious of the damage it’s doing to your head and refuses to give way. However, you just keep banging away, hoping that somehow you can change its mind. I channeled this frustration and injustice into passionate discussions with friends, which I will admit could be better classified as ranting.
My anger often stretches to bewilderment, particularly at the fact that public figures with larger platforms than I, are not speaking up about issues, instead choosing to promote products for consumerist purposes or to increase women’s’ insecurities (I’m looking at you Kardashians). I came up with a list at one point of all the things wrong with our world: single-use plastics, anyone who still thinks shopping at H&M is an ethical way to spend their money. The list felt infinite. All of this boiled away in the back of my empath skull and slowly but surely, this anger ate away at me.
That’s why this year, I’ve decided to give up. I stopped going to meetings, putting up posters, talking about events and calling people up trying to get them to join in the fight against climate change. To put this into greater context, I study environment and sustainability – climate justice is one of the biggest issues that I’m passionate about. Stepping away from these issues is near impossible. I’d arrived at the point where it felt like nothing was being accomplished. I went to an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change event, where someone from the government actively chose to stand up and ask people to not be political when asking questions concerning their future. However, as someone in the audience soon pointed out, we are completely running out of time. Of course, we’re going to get political, when no action is being taken and politicians are running their own agendas whilst ignoring the looming climate crises. I came away from that event feeling completely disheartened.
Activist burnout is real, and it is important to recognise that it’s valid even when you are not on the front line. I felt guilty for feeling disheartened, especially as I’m yet to run any big campaigns or dedicate immeasurable hours to one specific cause. How do people who dedicate their lives to activism cope with this pressure?
Apparently, I’m not alone in feeling this way. In October the ABC released an article about climate change and existentialism prompted a letter from a 27 year old. Following is an excerpt:
“I’ve been having several panic attacks a day, can’t concentrate and just have a constant overwhelming feeling of impending doom…
When I’ve been out and about I’ve been looking around at people and thinking, why are we just going about our normal lives?”
I went to a counsellor last year to deal with anxiety and the strategy she gave me was to look at what you think is actually happening, compared to what is actually happening and then come to a nice, neat point in the middle where you recognise the reality of the situation but also make sure you honour the way you are feeling.
But what happens when the reality and what is actually happening are one and the same and there is no control over what is happening? This was one of the most demoralising, heartbreaking moments ever. These feelings are perfectly captured by the meme of the dog sitting in the burning room saying ‘everything is fine’. Except I am the dog and the burning room is the whole world.
Unfortunately, I have no real words of wisdom. I’m seeing someone about it, but my cynical and pessimistic side that is very strong within me says that the reality is just too grim. Alcohol on a Thursday night only numbs my panic for about 12 hours in a week, and my budget, nor my liver, will stretch to drinking every night of the week.
So what can you do?
The list of usual coping mechanisms for something like this is meditation, focusing on the now and being grateful for your current situation. Talking to people who are likeminded can also sometimes help, but it is equally important to make sure you step back and practice self-care, and don’t focus on activist work all the time. Doing things that you enjoy, to distract you from the imminent doom is also recommended. Playing music is my pick usually.
Anger is incredibly valuable if it gives you the passion to be the change that you want to see, but it is equally important to make sure it doesn’t come at a cost to your health and wellbeing. And if it is, take a step back, potentially away, and go and talk to someone about it, ideally a professional, but if not, a friend.
And given the declining state of humanity, make sure to enjoy and treasure every moment while it lasts!
It sounds corny, but your memories and experiences will one day be all you have.