An Exposition on Organizing & Mental Health, Part 1: My Story

When I tell people today that I used to be an introvert with paralyzing social anxiety, people generally don’t believe me. They don’t believe me because it’s taken years for me to get to the point where I can (usually) talk with new people comfortably and with ease — from a place where stuttery 10-second “hello how are you” greetings could send me down a spiraling self-hating, socially anxious depression to a state where I joyfully talk with random workers every day for a living.

My first year of college, when my social anxiety and depression were at its all-time high, I was part of the center of a national news story: the UC Davis pepper-spray incident. It was completely unwanted attention that gave me panic attacks and sunk me further into depression. But also through that trauma, I found close friends who kept me going. And it is in college that I discovered the political Left.

Finally I had lots of close friends with whom I could have hours-long comfortable conversations about our alienation: capitalism, patriarchy, colonialism, intersectionality, Marx, etc. It felt so redemptive. I had lots of friends. I could have conversations. I could have conversations about what had collectively all fucked us up. Wow! Love.

And when I saw that a union organizer on campus (who told me he too used to have social anxiety) was able to talk with random non-Leftist service workers and build deep relationships with them to the point that he could get 100s of them to risk their livelihoods and go on strike — all through talking and building deep relationships — the next four years of my life were set: I was determined to learn how to socialize with people and build deep relationships by constant practice/repetition, by constantly talking with people, and by eventually becoming (I had hoped) a great union organizer.

It sounds ridiculous, but it’s what I did: for the last 4 years, I have spent most of my waking hours organizing for the labor movement, most days working more than 8 hours, and some days working 12-16+ hours. I eventually even dropped out of school to pursue organizing. And at the time I felt it was worth it to fight the trauma of my social alienation. My career has taken me everywhere from community organizing to support Walmart workers, to helping organize a hospital in SoCal, to helping organize a community college in rural North State — constant social practice. Indeed, through that process, I’ve been able to fight off the majority of my social anxiety by learning social tools that help me ‘do social fullness’ like a natural extrovert might.

But reflecting on the last 4 years recently, I found that I still wasn’t happy. Even as I got better and better at organizing, winning more and more campaigns — it was never enough. I just always wanted more and more and more and more, desperately trying to find happiness. (Or after winning a campaign, I might feel great for a few days, but it never lasted.)

I think the answer lies in the difference between ‘doing’ and ‘being’ — for in all these 4 years I’ve created a codependent relationship with organizing. ‘As long as I keep practicing social skills and organizing,’ I tell myself, ‘I will be OK. I will be happy.’ (Hint: It will never be enough.)

The problem, though, is that using organizing as a means to cope with not being socially full is unhealthy — for while I’ve been able to fix many of the symptoms of my social alienation, I have created other problems as well (for example, I can start to see my normal everyday social interactions as organizing conversations, which is unhealthy and alienating to other people), but not just that: I have not addressed the deeper underlying issue — that I need to find closure to the social alienation I’ve felt for the majority of my life and that instead of ‘doing’ social fullness, I need to just ‘be’ socially full.

And here’s the thing: the social skills I learned through organizing — ‘doing social fullness’ — definitely used to be necessary for me to cope. But I no longer want to cope. I’m already doing that. I want to thrive. And that means getting to the point where I feel totally ‘socially full’ without doing anything extra in the first place, to just ‘be,’ and to just be natural.

I have to get to the point where I feel totally happy, totally OK, and totally socially full without organizing. To the point where I don’t ‘need’ to organize. But rather, that I simply ‘choose to.’

Which is so powerful so let me say that again: for me to find true healing, I have to get to a point where I don’t ‘need’ to organize, but that I feel good regardless, that while I don’t need to organize to feel happy, I happen to ‘choose to.’ Simply because — totally independent of my social alienation — I believe it is the right thing to do.

It’s no secret that the Left is filled with people with depression, social anxiety, personality disorders, mood disorders, addictions, etc. The reason the Left is filled with this stuff is because the Left is filled with people who’ve found the correct analysis — oppressive systems like capitalism, patriarchy, racism, etc. alienate us — for how we’ve experienced so much trauma. And it is also no secret that the Left, being filled with so many people with mental health issues, that trauma often begets more trauma, and so there ends up being so much infighting and drama and unproductive codependency in our interpersonal relationships, within organizations, and between organizations.

So much codependency with organizing and within the Left. In many ways, it is those unhealthy relationships that keep the Left from growing quicker.

The ultimate solution in my story, I think, is to try to derive happiness, self-worth, meaning, and social fullness totally from the inside. That will be my liberation.

My deepest urge if you’re reading this is that if you feel like you need organizing to be happy or that you feel deep inside that you ‘need to’ organize — that you need organizing to cope and feel self-worth or meaning — that you totally do that, and also see for yourself a vision that maybe one day you won’t ‘need’ it. That you’ll feel so healed that you can ‘chose to’ organize. To not only ‘do healing’ but ‘be healed.’

If you can get there, not being codependent on organizing or the Left — ironically — will make your Left organizing even more powerful.

What a world that would be.

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