May 31, 2007

Burnout, Depression, and Trauma in Animal Work

Posted in animal advocacy, burnout, recovery, trauma, violence at 5:31 pm by nevavegan

I must be a really bitter person, or maybe it’s my birthday coming up, but I seem to be just full of negative posts lately. I’m so sorry.

NOTE: This post contains descriptions of violence which may be upsetting or triggering to some.

Disclaimer: The following will just be some personal observations on this topic, as I’m not really qualified to discuss this beyond my own experience.

As Pattrice Jones has written, activists are particularly prone to trauma and need help in dealing with it. As animal advocates we are often in situations that are not healthy for anyone and naturally psychological stress is the result.

Pattrice states in her abolitionist-online interview that much of what we refer to as burnout in the movement is actually depression. Long years of discouragement, seeing horrible things over and over, it all adds up. That depression can be paralyzing and hold us back from action. It can also spur non-productive or even self-destructive action as well.

I don’t want to name names here, so I will be purposefully vague, but I have seen a number of leaders in the animal rights movement give small presentations on coping with burnout. In other cases the question of burnout arose in discussion periods following some other talk. While I appreciate the sincere efforts of those individuals I often found their comments rather unhelpful. Over and over I heard “We all suffer burnout and depression, but we just need to remember that the animals are suffering more, and so we should pull ourselves up by our bootstraps and keep going.”

At the time I found such a statement something that’s very easy for a person in a position of power to say. I don’t doubt that these leaders also suffered depression and stress and trauma, but as they were steering the ship, so to speak, their experience differed. Because being in a position of power gives that person a feeling of control and purpose. That can to some extent counteract the helplessness some of us in the ranks felt. I do think it’s harder in many ways to keep up the level of involvement, despite crippling depression, if your only role is to follow instructions. Especially if sometimes you doubt the wisdom of those instructions but know that you have no say in forming policy or direction.

I do also think perhaps these leaders should think twice before taking their own advice. I firmly feel that the way to deal with trauma, depression, and other mental and emotional health issues is to get help. People don’t realize when they’re in this fog how distorted their thinking might be, but I don’t think people who ignore their own mental health will make very good decisions or ultimately be terrific leaders or role models. It’s possible that people who are ignoring their own mental health and suffering crippling depression might treat others very badly without even realizing it.

I also suffered depression related to my work with animals, but my post traumatic stress disorder was something else, relating to an unconnected attack. One thing that is important to know about someone suffering trauma is that additional traumas tend to hit in different ways and can be particularly destructive.

As an example, I participated in a protest where I was asked to handcuff myself to a door. I did this, and within seconds of handcuffing myself to the door a security guard grabbed me by my neck and I blacked out. When I woke up I was in the street lying on my face, only I actually didn’t know where I was for a little while. And again, like the last time I was knocked out I was so incredibly nauseated and my head hurt so badly on coming to that I pretty much could not speak and couldn’t think about anything else. After a little while I remembered where I was and I realized that my hand had been pulled out of the handcuff a wide strip of skin was missing from the back of my hand and I had a smaller cut on my wrist. The police arrived asked the security guard if I was alive, and he said I was drunk (I was not, but he was hardly going to admit he’d knocked me out) and so the police kicked me (not hard) to try to get a response out of me, but I was still unable to respond.

This was a particularly bad experience naturally, made worse by my traumatic memories of what had happened to me the last time I’d been knocked out. When the police realized how badly I was hurt, they let me go, and I had to find my way back to the organizer of the protest so I could reclaim my purse and keys and go home. He didn’t voice any concern about my injuries and expressed no sympathy or regret, just the usual platitude that sometimes people get hurt at protests and of course the animals suffer more. Then he said he was in a big hurry to get to a party so he couldn’t speak to me further.

I naturally knew the animals suffer more, but I was not in great shape for a while. I also had no health insurance at the time so I just went home and poured alcohol over my hand and bandaged it up the best I could. I tried to use my really old, bad camera to take some photographs of the bruises on my neck, but no charges were ever brought against the security guard.

That was the last protest I did for that particular organization because I came to believe that they put their activists in dangerous situations (I was told prior to the protest that this was no big deal, it would go very quickly, and while there was a chance I MIGHT be arrested, most likely nothing was going to happen) and then couldn’t even muster a sympathetic word for them when they got hurt.

But the end result of this was that some time later I was asked to participate in another protest for a different group and ended up getting a little roughed up at this one as well, though not badly. And though I was not the only one roughed up by any measure, it just hit me really hard and I had a full blown panic attack.

Sigh, I know this is starting to sound like all I ever did with my time was get beaten up, but this was at a time when I was going to so, so many protests, often several a weekend, and so out of hundreds literally, two went bad, one of those very, very bad. So it’s not like I was getting hurt at every, or even very many protests.

After my panic attack I wanted to continue volunteering for that particular group, but I just knew I couldn’t any longer participate in protests. However, while I was expressing my desire to help in somewhat safer ways to another activist with that group, he said that probably it was not a very good idea because the leader of that group apparently was not happy with how I’d conducted myself. What I was told was that it had been said in a meeting, in front of all the “important” people with that group, that I was “a stupid fucking bitch who fucked up everything and shouldn’t be allowed to work with this group anymore.” And so I didn’t do anymore work for them.

While I was sad that my panic attack may have created difficulties for anyone, I can also look at it objectively and know that because my panic attack was internal (ie I wasn’t screaming or out of control, I just absolutely had to get out of there that very second) and because it took place outside of the public eye (no potential members, or employees of the store we were protesting, or passersby observed it) that in the larger scheme of things it was probably not that bad. Furthermore I thought I was being proactive in identifying something I shouldn’t do (protesting) and trying to find something else I could do.

Now this would simply be a sad story about how I messed things up and couldn’t work with a couple of groups any longer, except that I started hearing similar stories from other activists. They felt shunned if they mentioned that their particular emotional issues precluded them from certain actions, while they thought they were just being honest about what they could and couldn’t do. Others felt that if they asked for any kind of consideration or sympathy after bad experiences they were treated as if they were whiney or weak, and similarly felt excluded from participating further.

It used to be (and sometimes still happens) that when activists feel pushed out from another group where they volunteer or work, they try to go form their own group, so they can be in charge. But I can’t say that the proliferation of groups has done much to help activists deal with trauma or depression. Instead I’ve seen many examples of the new leader of the new group now turning to his or her new volunteers and telling them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and stop whining. So the cycle perpetuates.

I can’t really come up with any explanation for it except for this one article that says people in charge often simply can’t empathize with those working under them. But it seems largely ineffective to completely neglect the emotional health of volunteers and allow them simply to be driven out from the movement or fade away. I suppose most groups just hope for continuing new crops of fresh, young volunteers to replace those that simply can’t go on.

Additionally I have to wonder if some of these seemingly unpleasant reactions from those in charge are related to their own levels of trauma and depression. If these leaders are themselves suffering from post traumatic stress disorder or severe depression, these mental health issues can flatten their experience and distort their perceptions. They may find themselves so stretched to the breaking point that they are really unable to spare a sympathetic word or thought for anyone else. Their depression might push them to a point where they are seeing the whole world in black and white, ie you’re either with us or against us, you’re either part of the solution or part of the problem, you either agree with me or there’s the door. It seems terribly inefficient to me for people to ignore their own emotional wellbeing to this extent.

To go back to the comments also that we just need to get over ourselves or pull ourselves up by our bootstraps seems to me to represent a fundamental lack of understanding of post traumatic stress disorder. We’d all love to simply push it out of our minds, and I was successful in doing that much of the time. The very nature of flashbacks however is that they force themselves into the conscious mind at inopportune times. These are vivid memories of trauma that feel extremely real and like they’re happening right now. Nobody can simply pull themselves up by their bootstraps to deal with that, people with PTSD need help. You wouldn’t try to fix your car by yourself with no training or experience and how much more important is your mind?



  1. jasmin said,

    I am so sorry that happened to you! It sounds awful, really. And the lack of support you got afterwards from the organizer and then again from the next experience is so understandably upsetting. And again, I’m so sorry that you had to go through that.

    You don’t sound bitter, just REAL, and you really have nothing to apologize for.

    It is horrendous how much the animals suffer. But as you know and have experienced, we’re animals too. So to compare, to say “we suffer less than them” unfortunately isn’t productive for anyone, and, I agree, it would be great for some of those “experts” to maybe realize that. In order to help the animals, we have to take care of ourselves, and again I agree with you, not enough AR activists are paying attention to that. As a result, sometimes these same activists mistreat other human animals. Seems counterproductive.

    As an AR activist, I’m REALLY GLAD you shared this story. I admire your ability to be honest and vulnerable about this. This kind of trauma needs to be addressed, and we need to take care of ourselves and each other. So, again, thank you for this brave post.

    You said your birthday was coming up. I hope it’s wonderful. Happy Birthday.

  2. Neva Vegan said,

    Thank you Jasmin, I’m glad you took it in the spirit I meant it, that there are problems we need to address and the first step is to admit they exist. It’s easy for me to be mad at the organizers, but then I realize most of them also suffered trauma themselves and are likely burdened with that and depression. And of course also they are only seeing their little bit of the puzzle, not the way everything adds up. But if nobody wants to work on those things then we get into a really bad cycle.

  3. Deb said,

    I’ve never had experiences like that myself, but I think you’re absolutely right that we need to address this, get training to address it, really. I think you’re also right that chances are the peopel who weren’t showing compassion for you and should have been, were probably stretched too thin emotionally themselves. Which pretty much means they should not have been in a position like that. In a better world, there would be more sharing the burden.

    Of course pattrice talks about this in aftershock as well. That we need to provide sanctuary for each other, exactly for this reason.

    Online one of the “great leaders” said exactly what you just said in response to people dealing with depression/burnout. “I just think of the animals, and I know they have it so much worse.” I call bullshit on that. Seriously, someone pulls a line like that, and my skepticism knows no bounds. It is probably that pressure to be the strong leader with no weaknesses, but it is damaging to the rest of us.

    Well, it was online in an area I was comfortable, so I said “I disagree 100%. Read pattrice’s book, aftershock.” something along those lines, anyway. I thought it was important to say, very baldly, that I disagreed. It did spark a small discussion, which was good because it was a “leader” who is not often questioned by those who agree with his AR philosophy. (but hey, he might be great at AR philosophy, but he knows nothing about psychology. he should have admitted that right from the start)

    So (ramble ramble) I think that one of the issues is the iconification of leaders in the movement. It doesn’t do them or us any favors. it probably bleeds down to the smaller scale local level, as the local leaders try to emulate those they admire, who appear to show no cracks.

    We all have to help each other, and I think we really do need training of some kind, or at least a set plan pre-determined, so that when we’re in the middle of stuff, dealing with everything, we don’t have to make the decisions, we just follow what we decided in calmer times was a good way to handle things. (that would have its own danger, if people get too stuck on following the plan with no deviations, but it seems a way to start, to learn the behavior that is most helpful)

  4. Neva Vegan said,

    Thanks Deb,

    While of course we all realize that the animals have it worse, and in fact live in conditions that are hard to even comprehend, the comment is unhelpful because of how trauma and depression distort our ability to think and to handle things. I need to go back to the earlier entries because I used the metaphor of trying to rescue kittens. There have been times where I’ve been trying to get kittens from a street or parking lot and I’ve just been chasing them trying to grab them, because it’s just too dangerous a situation to use a trap. So, if my PTSD was like a 90 pound weight on my back, how many kittens can I chase and grab and save in that situation. If I find a way to put down the weight, won’t I be much more effective?

    As far as local leaders emulating the “big leaders” I think you’re right. We all look to certain people to show us how to act, and if the example isn’t that great, where does it lead?

  5. Anonymous said,

    I too am sorry, although not surprised, that you’ve had this series of experiences….

    I think one thing that doesn’t get said too often in these conversations is the fact that the trauma inherent in AR activism affects different activists differently.

    The bottom line is that if you’re one of those lucky people who had a great home life, supportive parents and siblings, no past abuses or assaults to speak of, blah blah blah, then quite frankly, when the cops beat you up and throw you in a van, you will NOT feel as terrified and scared as those who were not so fortunate.

    When the lucky ones see animal suffering over and over again, they quite simply will NOT endure the same kinds of scars as those who were not so fortunate. They just won’t feel these things the same way.

    THIS is the reality of PTSD. Our past experiences lead us to code and make sense of our current experiences in particular ways — and this is, I think, one of the biggest ways PTSD (and related emotional and mental issues) play out in this movement.

    There are tons of us who are drawn to AR work because, in part, our past abuse has led us to empathize with non-human animal suffering. And this is a qualitative difference — a BIG qualitative difference — from those who are drawn to AR work SOLELY for other reasons. I think this difference plays out in a million ways, including those described by Neva Vegan.

    When I was directly active in the movement, I got REALLY SICK AND TIRED of these so-called leaders — we all know who they are — blathering on about how unscathed they were by encountering brutality of all sorts, as if the reason they were relatively untouched was because they were superhuman or something (and not because they were privileged enough to lead happy lives), and how we all needed to butch up and deal with it.

    Easy for them to say. While I don’t believe such people are completely untouched by both witnessing animal suffering and experiencing traumas themselves in the course of their activism, I truly DO believe they are NOT as touched (in adverse ways) as those of us who are survivors of past trauma.

    Does this mean survivors need to pack it up and go home, forget about conducting direct AR activism? NO INDEED. But it DOES mean that survivors might want to get angry instead of beaten down, call people out when they act like assholes (pardon my language), and confront this problem head-on. Too often survivors are told that if they speak out, they will be hurting the movement, and too often, survivors buy into this.

    Of course, those who level this charge never think about how divisive THEY are being — they never think about how many people THEY are driving away — but that logic is always lost in their oh-so-seductive rhetoric about personal strength and commitment.

    Anyway — just some thoughts from one of those angry survivors who drove herself away from direct action (for this as well as other reasons)…. Clearly, my anger didn’t lead me to stay and fight in productive ways either, so I’m not judging those who make other choices.

    Just my thoughts and feelings, for whatever they’re worth.


  6. Neva Vegan said,

    Thank you Miriam. There’s a lot in your comment to think about and respond to. It is an important point that trauma hits people who have already been traumatized harder sometimes. Of course sometimes someone can have had a really normal, healthy life and be completely shattered by a single incident of trauma, so not everything is an exact science. I think also how we view events and ourselves has an effect. For example, someone who goes into an encounter with the police at a protest might view themselves as heroic, and find their ability to remain passive in civil disobedience, despite police violence to be some proof of power. From that they might feel empowered and heroic, rather than feeling victimized. But that’s just theory.

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