on activism and executive functioning

how to do the work when your mind can't seem to do anything

[Note: I have struggled with sending out my personal newsletter at a time when I think allies should focus on listening to and amplifying Black voices. But after a ton of thinking about how to best use the small platform I have, I thought it might help fellow allies if I were to share a bit about how executive functioning issues have at times made me an ineffective activist (as well as an ineffective everything) and what I’ve been doing about that.]

An ex used to say that he could tell the state of my mind by the state of the apartment. Long before I ever got an official diagnosis, my depression, anxiety, and executive functioning issues had the seemingly magical ability to take on physical shape.

First, it would be the appearance of a new “carpet”: one woven together with letters from healthcare and financial institutions that always seem to defy categorization.

Then the doorknobs would disappear, overtaken by towels suspended in a permanent state of dampness, and clothes that could not do what I needed them to do: transform me into a person I could tolerate or my world into one that made any kind of sense.

And, of course, there would be a maelstrom of books—books on the bed, the floor, the desk. Facedown books opened to a page I would get back to eventually. Piles of books by novelists, activists, and scientists would give the impression that a great act of intellectual synthesis was underway—until you factor in my inability to process a single word.

What horrified my poor mother and unfortunate roommates only became a “magical ability” when I realized the mess was something of an alarm system.

Now that I see it for what it is, I can do something about it.

I can put things in their proper places—and once I do that physically, the mental things have a way of following suit.

How could I not start to see my signature slide into domestic chaos this week? I have spent entire days in mourning and anger over state-sanctioned murders of Black people. I have watched a white woman use her privilege in a way my fellow white women have been using it for centuries—to put an innocent Black man’s life in danger. I have watched our disgrace of a president respond to this racist violence not with compassion or calls for justice, but rather by quite literally encouraging violence against protestors of white supremacy.

If your mental home isn’t in a bit of disarray right now, I have to ask you why the hell not.

But I can do nothing about injustice from this place of chaos.

So first, I clean. I do what I can to make sense of the papers, I toss the towels into the wash, I put the books back on their shelves and vow to take only one at a time from now on. There is so much to read, but only one mind to read it all. The rest will be waiting.

I remind myself I’m not just doing this for me, which is the only thing that ever gets me to do anything.

Then I process. I cry for a good half hour. I’m not exaggerating when I say this. I often cry as a way of processing, but this was more intense than anything I’ve experienced in a while: I coughed the whole time and the crying was so painful I wanted it to stop, but I knew this needed to happen. My boyfriend brought me a wet cloth to put on my face and that helped, but I explained through my gasps that I didn’t need or want sympathy—this wasn’t a cry for help; it was a physiological processing of grief and rage I’ve been holding in for god knows how long.

When it was done, I felt five pounds lighter. Some chronic pain that I’ve been experiencing for weeks seemed to disappear altogether.

Today, I feel lighter still, and even more ready to take action.

And so I talk to my boyfriend about our plans for anti-racist action. (My boyfriend has major health issues, and while I’m okay with putting my own body on the frontlines of protests—and have been arrested before because of that—because of covid-19, I’m not in a position to do that this very moment. But that doesn’t mean I’m not taking action. I’m focusing on seeking out resources for how at-risk people and caregivers can mobilize. As much as we’d like it to, this is not a fight that I see ending anytime soon, and we will need people playing many different roles at many different points in the fight, so take care of yourself—but also: take action.)

For as long as I can remember, I have cared deeply about social and racial justice. But untreated executive functioning issues meant I have not always translated that care into effective action.

Treating my mental illness with the help of professionals and creating my own process for moving into action has been a lifelong and ongoing journey, and now that I can see a direct correlation between mental health and effective activism, I know I’ll be more inclined to take care of myself.

(I remind myself I’m not just doing this for me, which is the only thing that ever gets me to do anything.)

I am someone who learns best in a classroom setting where there is some group accountability, which is perhaps why I have been so drawn to the work of public academic Rachel Cargle. Her public syllabi for education and action should be required for every American, and I am so grateful for her hard work, focus, and brilliance.

In fact, please stop reading my words right now, and head over to her Instagram. She’s giving a public address tonight, and I hope you’ll be there.