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?