Activism Burn Out — It’s More Common Than You’d Think

Although we frequently associate exhaustion with Hollywood celebrities sneaking off to Promises for a month, it — along with burnout and stress — is more common among us regular folk than you might imagine. WorkSafe Victoria acknowledges that stress can be caused directly by employers overloading their staff with tasks and responsibilities too demanding to manage alone; while MediBank found that workplace-related stress drains $25.7 billion from the economy every year. Employees of large companies and organisations generally have the option to speak to Human Resources if they start to feel burnt-out or overloaded, but for freelancers — such as myself — who often work from home, usually alone, stress and exhaustion can be an isolating experience.

A few months ago, I found myself in the kind of position most freelance writers dream of. I had steady work from a number of top publications, I had recently been given a monthly column in a national magazine, and to top it all off I was working on a memoir that had both publishers and my agent calling me up for regular progress reports. In only a year, I had sped through the goals I had set for myself in my five-year plan, and had reached a point in my life where I felt professionally and personally secure enough to do something I had wanted to do for years: speak publicly, for the first time, about my experience as a sex worker.

The weeks prior to the publication of the piece were understandably fraught with nerves that I assumed would vanish once my words, and my secret, were set free into the universe. But it didn’t quite work out like that. Twitter gobbled the piece up and the responses came thick and fast: many positive, some totally neutral, and of course, some wildly negative. It surprised me that the replies that affected me the most weren’t the men hiding behind egg avatars who tweeted me with violent predictions of the future they had in mind for me; but comments from other activists, all women, from whom I had previously received nothing but support — until I decided to ‘come out’.

I found myself instantly blocked by many women with whom I had once had fantastic online friendships — their feminism, which had previously seemed to extend to all women, no longer reached me by virtue of my career choice. My email inbox filled up with requests from editors who had once asked me for words on pay disparity and rape culture, but now wanted me to write for them about ‘the weirdest thing I’ve ever had to do at work’ and whether or not I would be interested in naming any celebrities I had slept with on the job. One sex worker, who had previously retweeted me and shared my work extensively, called my piece ‘transparent as hell’ in seeking publicity, following up with, “so disappointing to see yet another woman try to trade off backs of hardworking sex workers”. . The experience left me feeling dehumanised, sad, and tired all the way down to my bones. I felt as though the person I was, sitting behind a computer screen and dealing with the very real and intense personal ramifications of revealing this part of my life, had been reduced to the two-dimensional 140-pixel avatar that accompanied each of my tweets, ripe and ready for consumption as the media cycle grew around me then ebbed away.

It wasn’t too long after this that my friend Brandon Cook, a freelance writer and commentator, exposed a man named Lindor Jonuzi for stealing and sharing intimate photos of a seventeen-year-old girl that were posted to a closed, female-only Facebook group. Jonuzi boasted that he accessed the group with a fake account and could get more photos if he wanted; and Brandon’s post naming him, sharing a screencap of his comments, and tagging the man’s employer was shared so widely that it made national news and saw the man fired from his job. In a piece for MamaMia, Brandon summed up his feelings about the experience: “…putting oneself in the spotlight can sting your eyes. I don’t know if I’m a strong enough person to do it again. I don’t know if many people are. I think the people who presume it’s a publicity thrill ride are those who have never experienced it.” The piece resonated with me heavily.

“The aftermath of the public shaming incident led to a lot of death threats from men who felt I’d ruined someone’s life,” Brandon told me. “I was receiving torrents and torrents of hate mail and vitriol on my Facebook and other forms of social media. It was a bit like adrenaline: at first you’re sort of rushing from it, going, ‘I can’t believe this is happening’, but after a while that adrenaline fades and you start to notice how tired you’re feeling.” Much like I did, Brandon found himself feeling exhausted by his experience. In the weeks following my piece, I found myself missing deadlines, ignoring emails and phone calls, and cancelling on friends who had set aside time to see me. On a whim I typed ‘burnout’ into the search bar of my browser, and the symptoms listed couldn’t have applied to me more if I had written them myself: fatigue, insomnia, forgetfulness and impaired concentration, loss of appetite, anxiety…I was as burnt as a struck match, and I realised that activism, especially on social media, was the perfect breeding ground for it.

Regardless of whether your cause is the feminism, the environment, or just finding a great vegan alternative to blue cheese, taking it to a forum where everyone has the opportunity to challenge you will inevitably find you at the mercy of people who want to do just that. And unlike fifty years ago, when the printing presses slept for some of the day and it was easier to step away from a media cycle that you yourself might be a part of, the 24/7 nature of social media means that even when Australia switches off and falls asleep after reading your sex work confessional or Facebook call-out, another audience is waking up on the opposite side of the globe ready to react to the news of the day. The effect is that of a never-ending Q&A session with an audience you may not have prepared for, and it’s taxing, especially when the topic is dear to your heart. “I couldn’t write,” Brandon says. “I couldn’t do any of the things I usually did. It made me feel fatigued and less responsive to communication. It sort of traps you inside your head and keeps you in an immobile state. It made it hard for me to communicate with clients and get work done, because the stress left me not wanting to do much at all. You think about doing work, but then…you don’t. You just don’t, and can’t, and you wish you could, but you won’t.”

Activist and writer Ally Garrett found herself feeling burnt out as her blog I Am Offended Because gained traction. Her commentary on feminism and fat activism became widely circulated and was even republished on feminist site Jezebel, but the comments section began to take its toll. “I was heavily into ‘call out culture’ and I’d often screenshot comments that I deemed fatphobic/misogynistic/whorephobic and take those people to task,” she says. “It was pretty ‘high and mighty’ but at the same time I was running my own comment section. This was fairly exhausting — there’s only so many comments you can read that tell you you’re disgusting, you deserve a roundhouse kick to the face, and that you should kill yourself before it has an effect.”

After a move from Wellington to Sydney and a four-year break from activism, Ally has only recently returned to writing. “You have to trust that your passion and your strength will come back,” she says. And her advice for fellow activists feeling burnt out? “If you’re hosting your own content, don’t have a comments section on your website. Or swap with another blogger and moderate each other’s comment sections. If your work is published somewhere that runs comments, remind yourself that part of your work is attracting those comments but your work isn’t reading them. Change your Twitter settings so you get mentions from only the people you follow. Declutter your online life and unfollow everyone that you’re hate-following or hate-reading. And do all of that self-care stuff like exercise and bath bombs, because it works.”

As for me, I took the suggestion of ‘decluttering your online life’ to the extreme, and quit Twitter after spending more than four years on the medium. Although the app still occasionally lights up with a private message from a friend or professional contact who missed my farewell tweets, I’m somewhat proud to say it doesn’t get opened aside from that. It wasn’t the negative responses to my piece that scared me away for good, although witnessing how quickly the activism tide turned against me was a harsh wake-up call. Plus, the prospect of spending the rest of my life respondent to something that was a constant demand on my time and emotional energy but gave very little in return seemed less and less appealing the more I thought about it. During a short Twitter break before I left for good, I asked myself questions about how I saw my work growing in the future. Leaving Twitter meant leaving behind a highly responsive, guaranteed audience for any of my future writing, but it also meant stepping out of my comfort zone and challenging myself to find new ways to engage audiences on issues that mattered to me. Most importantly, it gave me the opportunity to recreate the kind of activist I wanted to be, on my terms: someone who is strong, engaging, curious, and passionate, but most importantly, someone who is a whole lot less burnt out.

Credit: May Waver

Originally published by Kate Iselin at The Vocal