Emotionally Present / Personal Is Political

Addiction To Activism

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been involved in several activist communities. Almost all of them have at some point turned dysfunctional, and until fairly recently, I’ve been left wondering why. But now that I’ve seen the answer, I can’t unsee it: activist communities are literally plagued with dry addiction; most often constituted entirely of dry drunks or dry addicts, and sometimes even led by people who are active in their addictions.

A dry drunk or dry addict is someone who, like myself, has the psychological make-up of an addict despite rarely (if ever) picking up a bottle of alcohol or narcotic substance. It’s someone who, unlike myself, operates unaware of deep-rooted anger issues they have yet to confront—which are often rooted in our childhoods, as many of us were raised by parents who themselves are either actively using or dry drunks/addicts. Sometimes, like where I came from when I entered into my activism, these individuals are on the very brink of becoming consciously aware that one or both of their parents possess(ed) the psychological make-up of an addict. This ephiphany usually occurs when one realizes that their parents’ addict/enabler psychology manifested throughout their upbringing, and thus has now become their problem to deal with as an adult. That is, now that the dysfunctional coping mechanisms they developed as a child to deal with their parents don’t work in the adult world with other (sober) adults, they finally realize they have recovery work to do (and will have this burden to negotiate with for the remainder of their lives). Essentially, if and when we become fully conscious of the fact that we’ve inherited the psychology of an addict, we become fully conscious of exactly how dysfunctional our behaviour is.

Assuming we get there at all.

We gravitate towards each other, those of us who have yet to face it, let alone deal with it. Where we gravitate towards each other is in the streets, for full public view, where we immediately congratulate each other on what an obvious success our protest is — often simply because there are other people present with us, and not because we actually learned something, taught someone else something, or engaged a new audience to join us in the cause. In fact, most often, we are organizing with the same people over and over and over again, and when this happens, we seek some of the strangest and most absurd justifications for doing so (e.g., intense paranoia of being “infiltrated”, “sabotaged”, or “monitored”; causing us to automatically distrust anyone who doesn’t “check out” through at least one other person). We also put on a set of blinders that allows us to automatically dismiss or negate any feedback that isn’t supportive; such as the several times I or my allies in the struggle have been baited into a highly abusive shouting match in the street, threatened with battery, or directly accosted and severely battered. We selectively take in feedback based on whether or not it gives us a sense of accomplishment, and ignore (or even violently suppress) any and all indications that we have failed ourselves, each other, or our cause.

What the public doesn’t see, however, is where the dysfunction finally manifests in full scale. Our best behaviour in the street might rub most people the wrong way as it is, but if we behaved in public like we do in private, I suspect at least half of us would be swiftly beaten down by police and thrown in holding cells to cool off overnight. In private settings where we organize, it often begins when we get unnecessarily terse with each other, and before long, major “political differences” result in entire factions of activists splintering off to form their own picket lines where they think they can do it better somehow (while they bitterly gossip about the people they refuse to organize with any further). What happens in between is often anyone’s guess if you didn’t see it yourself, but if you have and are even marginally aware of what is happening rather than swept up by it, it most certainly orbits around a single, overinflated, self-important, far-too-delicate and easily-bruised ego constructed entirely out of a victim complex (sometimes complicated further by an actual lived experience of trauma). Sometimes this lateral aggression is incited by an insensitive remark, but more often, it is incited by someone who simply does not know how to live outside of constant crisis mode, and thus literally needs to fabricate drama if it doesn’t manifest on its own in time for their next anticipated melt-down.

In one group of activists, during the pinnacle moment of splintering, a fellow activist described the environment in which we were all doing our activism to be “highly triggering” — not on account of the stimulus we were countering, which actually was very much highly triggering — but because of the behaviour of our fellow activists, and in particular, those of the male-presenting genders. I attempted to convey to her that I hear her concerns loud and clear, and find what I perceived of her observation, of particularly sexist behaviour by men among our small community, to be quite astute. I offered an analogy that relied on a similar experience to communicate to her that I understood what she was saying. She, however, immediately accused me of being passive aggressive, a bully, of “triggering” her, and of attempting to “silence” her. As these are all trigger-words for feminists, social justice advocates, addicts, and people who are dealing with trauma alike, she subsequently mustered such a significant amount of “moral support” from my fellow activists that she was able to pretty well single-handedly dismantle nearly six months of weekly protests by dropping these few key words in rapid succession, indicating to others that I was untrustworthy and that anything they organize or participate in with me will be inherently “unsafe”. Those very same words were soon repeated back at me by others, after I published something on my blog that they didn’t like, which had made vague references to their behaviour (leaving out any details of their personal identities, because that kind of information was irrelevant) while holding these behaviours up to the light of accountability.

I’ve now observed over the past two years, and even attempted to intervene several times, as this same individual (and her personal troupe of enablers) repeatedly steamrolls one activist community after another with her incessant need to dominate other people through her iconic passive aggression coupled with her own personal brand of Victim of Oppression Status™ and a fairly transparent addiction to her own story, all neatly codified in the language of social justice. Though she and I actually share a rather remarkable degree of similarities in the ways we experience social marginalization, she behaves as though she owns a monopoly on the experience of being marginalized. And she’s hardly the only person I share the same experiences of marginalization with, who insists on behaving as though she were a fucking snowflake. Her latest exhibit of active hostility even manifested in what can only be described as coded racism and racially motivated microaggression or, ironically, the very antithesis of everything to which she gives ample lip service. Simultaneously, I’ve distanced myself quite deliberately from all but a few among her troupe of enablers—that is, if they have not already performed the service to me of separating themselves from me permanently over some petty disagreement (usually involving an issue of their accountability to others). And what a refreshing service that is to receive!

Until I could put a diagnosis on the problem, I just filed all this shit variously, under “diversity of tactics”, “petty personal differences”, “psychic vampires”, and “incredibly vexing shit people do when they are prone to conspiracy theorizing”. I’d watch as an utterly astounding number of people begin to sacrifice family dinners and proper childcare to make it out to these events, while certain individuals would come out for the express purpose of antagonizing anyone who is vulnerable and then feeding off of the reactions they get from their inherently confrontational behaviours. I’d wonder when the communities that arrived in solidarity would start moving into work beyond marches, rallies, protests, and endless repetitions of the same tired old speeches and mantras for the same audiences week after week. I’d be left scratching my head, wondering why the fuck their regularly scheduled demonstrations seem to lose support just as suddenly as attendance was sky-rocketing. I’d be perplexed that after all the support they gained was lost, all they had left was a menagerie of… well… bloody fucking idiots who can’t organize their way out of a paper bag and who try to hijack everything they get involved in with conspiracy theories that paint everyone within the bounds of the demonstration as fucking lunatics who think that the government is secretly conspiring to poison everyone on the planet while constantly showering us with mind control dust when the central issue actually is and always has been systemic racial injustice—and yet, somehow, we are collectively thriving as a species with a longer life expectancy than at any other time in our history, are existing at even more than double the carrying capacity for our species as a whole across the planet, and are managing just fine with not spontaneously dropping dead no matter how much fucking Kraft Dinner we consumed as children. But somehow, we’re pushed to the desperation of street demonstrations, demanding labels be slapped on our allegedly poisonous food so that we can avoid eating it (even though we already “know” what not to eat by virtue alone of the Evil Corporations responsible for making it), all while “raising awareness” that we can’t actually think for ourselves with the constant spraying of fucking magical particles that erase our capacity for free thought and replace it with advertisements and complacency.

Yeah fucking right. Tell me another one, shit-for-brains.

I have often walked away feeling depleted, run down, burnt out, or utterly exhausted. I have even at times felt like the only option I have remaining is to just give up and move on, because the amount of energy it requires far outweighs the energy I have to spare. I have often sought a self-care method proportional to the amount of work I’m engaging in, that creates additional strain by taking away from my already finite resources — at times including my very means to live. I have often sought to build more dynamic and enriched relationships with my fellow activists, outside our activism, and found it conspicuously difficult to find anything in common, if not outright impossible to even pry out of them the opportunity for collective decompression time together in a sober environment. I have even often become vulnerable, along with several other fellow activists, to highly manipulative, sexually predatory, and extremely abusive fellow activists in private settings—individuals who are smart and skilled enough at sparing anyone from this behaviour except in isolation—in ways that it takes those of us who have fallen prey a considerable amount of time to come forward with this extremely sensitive information (by which time, it is often far too late to act). This last experience is far too common among activist communities, and now you have an idea, as I do, of exactly how and why.

Now that I can perceive of what is literally an epidemic of dry addiction among activist communities, suddenly everything just makes sense, and there isn’t even a single detail unanswered. Now I understand where the trolls come from when they show up on the event pages on Facebook, and why so many people persistently feed them despite all reason commanding the opposite. Now I understand how the opportunistic antagonists who try to incite a riot—or at least an assault—come, as if compulsively attracted towards these communities whenever and where ever they are operating in public spaces.

Now I understand the epidemic of lateral aggression, lateral violence, and horizontal oppression among activist communities with a wide diversity of people from different backgrounds and experiences. And now I understand why I felt so pulled in—like gravity pulls a satellite out of orbit, given enough time—by the almost magical promise of activism within these specific kinds of communities, where just by getting involved, you will be perceived by those who choose to stand on the outskirts (or were forced there through their own bullshit behaviours), as deliberately and purposefully pursuing “activist cred” to boost your own ego, rather than accomplish anything meaningful. And most importantly, I now understand the desperation with which so many “activists” cling to the sensation of being “triggered” instead of doing the work to de-escalate themselves or teach each other the skills to do so on their own — and this last point is important, because this constant crying out of the words “I feel so triggered” often rapidly reaches the point that, if they were genuinely feeling fully re-traumatized by what amounts to some of the most insignificant things, that the most appropriate place for them to be is the walk-in psych clinic for a group therapy session — not a fucking street demonstration where there is often shouting, swearing, aggression, threats of violence, unpredictable and spontaneous eruptions of startlingly loud noises, and even sometimes manifestations of violence, such as by scuffles between activists or police descending upon activists like a ton of bricks.

You need a thick skin and a strong spinal column to enter those spaces. The same applies to where the thick-skinned and upright-walking are organizing and preparing themselves to go there. Sometimes, there just isn’t enough fucking time, energy, or resources to hold someone’s hand, coddle them, and nurse them back into being strong enough to return after being “triggered” by the most arbitrarily chosen stimuli of the week. And that isn’t discriminatory—it’s holding people accountable to know, rather than wait to be told, where they are useful and where they aren’t.

Any addict or alcoholic who has done the work of becoming sober and walking in recovery will tell you that it is a long road. They’ll also tell you it’s not found at a street corner paved with picket lines.

To racially marginalized communities already plagued by drug addiction and alcoholism, the epidemic of dry addiction among activist communities is especially important to take note of, because many elderly members of those communities withdraw their support as soon as they catch so much as a whiff of what they’ve already lived through several dozen times over their lifetime. And we should all be taking notes from them.

3 thoughts on “Addiction To Activism

  1. This explains “trigger-warnings” on stories, videos, gifs, etc, that are posted online. It seems that maybe an addict will go ahead and watch it, despite the trigger warning, just to get a quick fix. Maybe trigger-warnings are a good thing, and a responsible thing to do, but I’ve always had a creeping suspicion that they are propagating even more drama by doing so.

    • What a trigger warning is supposed to be put on is things that legitimately would re-traumatize people who have endured trauma. Graphic depictions or descriptions of violence or aggravated sexual battery, for instance. Overusing anything dilutes its power, and honestly, what once was useful now seems to be ridiculous.

  2. Wow, this is very true in my experience! I came across this while searching for addiction and activism- though I was thinking more in terms of being addicted to activism, or rather the savior/martyr complex stuff. Many smart, artistically gifted, emotionally intense (i.e. the sorts of folks who often engage in activism) often have addictive personalities or mental health stuff going on. That is not to say that activism is by itself a sign of pathology, but like every human activity it can have its extremes. Many people don’t deal with their issues (granted I realize access to care that is both affordable and culturally competent can be difficult) but still, your community organizer is not your therapist.

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