I’ve always been a sensitive person. Even as a child, I seemed to be affected by events happening around me much more than my peers. I deeply felt the plight of others going through pain or struggle to the point where I’d be overwhelmed.
But I also learned early on that the best way for me to handle my overwhelming empathy was to act. I was the kid who set up a lemonade stand to raise money for the local homeless shelter, wrote letters to the editor of my local newspaper, and organized donation drives to our church food pantry.
When I stopped drinking, advocacy was practically the last thing on my mind. I was barely functioning, and I had to focus all my efforts on getting myself healthy. I was a parent to two young children, starting a small business venture, and simply trying to keep myself afloat. Although I missed my service work, I knew that there was no way I could be an effective leader or ally if I wasn’t taking care of myself.
In 2016, I found myself leading an advocacy campaign. I’d gone to Greece to photograph a Syrian refugee camp and the informal school within its grounds. At this point, I was a few years into my sober journey, which was the right time for me—I needed time before I stepped into such a big opportunity. Had I jumped back into advocacy in year one or year two, I’m sure I wouldn’t have made it through without a relapse—it would have been too much too soon. I needed to have a steady care plan for myself, and to feel like I was on solid ground before I could give so much of myself to any cause.
To this day, self-care is my most significant struggle as a sober activist. Although many of my colleagues wind down from a long day with a glass or two of wine at happy hour, that’s not an option for me. Alcohol is all over the advocacy world, from large fundraisers with bottomless drinks to intimate, late-night strategy sessions fueled by a few beers. I understand the allure, especially because at this important moment in our history, there’s so much at stake. It’s difficult not to get caught up in the intensity of everything—and the instinct to numb out to survive.
Sober activists are extremely valuable in the advocacy world. We are kind-hearted, fierce, and strong as hell.
5 Keys to Effectively Integrating Sobriety and Advocacy
To continue doing my work in the world, I’ve found I have to take preemptive steps to ensure I don’t get so deep into the hole that there’s no climbing out. For me, that means boundaries. I’ve set guidelines for myself and do self-checks daily to stay on track.
These are the keys that keep me engaged—and sober, too.
1. Create and keep social media boundaries.
I’ve learned I don’t function as well when I’m checking social media all day long. This consistently fuels my anger and overwhelms me. It usually doesn’t lead to anything productive.
Now, I check once in the morning and once before I end my work day, and only get back on social media if there’s something I must respond to (like a reporter asking for a story quote or a retweet from an organization I’m involved with). I’ll also check once before I settle in for my evening routine, usually after my kids go to bed, but before I start to wind down myself.
I absolutely do not check social media within an hour of going to bed or waking up in the morning. I’ve found this strongly impacts both my sleep and the start to my day, and there’s nothing so important on Instagram that it can’t wait.
2. Fuel your body with sleep, food, and exercise.
You know it as well as I do: As empowering as it is, the work of advocacy and activism is extremely draining, too. Although part of the reason I’m good at what I do is because I care so deeply, this also means that I’m constantly exhausted by the work. Often, I look around at my colleagues and feel like they have endless energy. I feel guilt over my need to stop and rest. But without sleep, exercise and food that nourishes me, I’ll burn out. We all will.
I must make these things a daily priority in order to keep going. I often remind myself, This is not a sprint, it’s a marathon. I have to be able to stay the course for a long period of time, which means doing all I can to ensure my body, mind, and spirit are healthy for the long haul.
When I say yes to everything, it means I’m saying no to myself.
3. Learn to say no.
This is absolutely the hardest task for me. I want to help with all the things. (Have I mentioned that I’m a Type 2 on the Enneagram?) I am a helper at my core, and I hate saying no or letting people down.
But when I say yes to everything, it means I’m saying no to myself. No rest, no refueling, no quality time with my family. This is not sustainable. To add insult to injury, I’m what’s considered an “outgoing introvert,” so constant interaction with other people and attending social functions drain me.
When I’m asked to attend a fundraiser or lead another initiative, I have to remember my “no.” I remind myself that when I take charge of all the things, I’m also taking those opportunities away from others who might’ve stepped up had I stepped back. I have to remember I’m not always the best person for every job, and it’s just as imperative to leave work open for others, so they’re able to contribute, share their talents, and grow in their own activism.
4. Make time for play.
It’s easy to bog down my calendar with volunteering, especially as there are so many groups that are in crisis right now. But making time for play is just as important as doing the hard work in the world.
I’m instantly rejuvenated by a night out with friends or a date with my husband. When I’m feeling overwhelmed, stopping and taking time to have fun immediately lessens my load. And when I’m calmer and less anxious, I can continue my work with renewed passion.
Sacrificing my health and sanity won’t help anyone, and it certainly won’t produce good work.
5. No martyrs allowed.
My ego can balloon in size when I’m neck deep in activist work. In the world of advocacy, working yourself sick can be seen as a badge of honor. I can’t get lost in that idea.
Sacrificing my health and sanity won’t help anyone, and it certainly won’t produce good work. We all have to remind ourselves of this on a daily basis. I know that I do, or I will be at risk for major resentments.
For me, resentments lead to numbing, and numbing leads to the bottle. It’s just not worth it.
Sober activists are extremely valuable in the advocacy world. We are kind-hearted, fierce, and strong as hell. I’ve already beaten down my demons and survived something that should have killed me. I am a warrior, and anyone would be fortunate to have me in their corner.
However, we must also be diligent in taking care of ourselves, so we don’t get lost in the causes that matter most to us. We have to check our egos, practice self-care, and make time for play and rest.
The world needs warriors for the light, and we must be ready to get to work.