Another episode with anxiety knocks me to my bedroom floor. Rational thought forsakes me. My body shakes with the strangled sobs of a man ashamed of his tears. Alicia bends over me. Her dark brown eyes – normally calm with the consistent rationality characterizing her personality – are wide with concern and weariness. We’re only several nights removed from the last episode. She must think, “Oh god, not again.”
Alicia seeks to hold me. I find a deep comfort in her touch – and a deep revulsion. It’s not her. The contradiction is born from the lies fear instills in me. Somewhere in the darkness, a voice reminds me that I am unlovable. I crave love but the voice whispers my lack of reasons to be loved. The closer Alicia gets to me, the closer she’ll get, I fear, to hearing those whispers, too. The closer she’ll get to realizing a man who cannot love himself should not be loved by anyone.
I crawl towards the space between the ground and the bed seeking to hide in the shadows offered there. A burn forms on my face where I grind it into the carpet. The pain provides a strange relief in its reality. The rash, the swollen skin, the heat pulsating on my forehead are sensations I can understand. The mental anguish exists nowhere that can be touched and yet hurts everywhere. This is a pain I cannot understand. I cannot locate the pain’s source to alleviate it. My only meagre power is the power of transformation. I force the emotional pain to materialize as physical pain on my face.
Memories, threatening to cross the boundary into hallucinations, condensate in my senses. I see my mother’s face, streaming tears, when she visited me in the psyche ward at a hospital in Milwaukee, WI after I tried to kill myself. I see her face again, this time in a psyche ward in San Diego after I tried to kill myself a second time. I see my father’s shoulders slumped as he sinks into the plastic of a hospital chair as I attempt to explain what I’ve done. I wonder if he’s given up on me.
I see the troubled glimpses my loved ones give me when they think I am not looking. It’s a look of bewilderment and exasperation. It’s a look that asks, “When will he try to kill himself again?” I see the twitches in my loved ones’ faces when they think I am going to explode into a mess of fear, worry, and despair.
How long can anyone love a human they perceive as a ticking bomb? Everyone would be better off without me, I imagine. If I could just disappear, they could get on with their lives. If the ground would swallow me up or an ocean wash me away, everyone would be relieved.
Eventually, I exhaust myself sobbing. The anxiety subsides. My mind quiets down. The tears slow and stop. I am still alive. The fear has not killed me.
The next morning, I rise from bed to brush my teeth. I cannot avoid my own gaze in the mirror. My loved ones tell me my blue eyes always betray the truth of my emotions. Some days the blues of my eyes are soft and accepting like warm waters to swim in. Today, the blues I see in the mirror are frozen and sharp. They are steely in their resolve.
I do not want to live like this. I am sick of being afraid. I am sick of anxiety. I am sick of cycles of worry stealing my life from me. Personal civil war makes a battlefield of my mind. I’ve been getting my ass kicked. But, that stops now.
My friends recently invited me to an event, Extraction Resistance: A 3-Day Direct Action Training in Eugene, OR over the Fourth of July weekend. The event will focus on developing skills related to all aspects of a direct action and will teach land defenders how to engage in the effective confrontation of those in power.
I almost said no. The whispers reminded me that it would be expensive to travel all the way to Eugene. They asked me if I wouldn’t prefer to stay home and relax on the Fourth of July. They recalled the depressed exhaustion I sometimes experience and they pointed out how fighting the anxiety takes much of my energy.
I could have used these whispers as excuses. My friends are deeply compassionate, and I’m sure they would not have pressured me. The whispers are lies, though, and I refuse to let them rule my life.
We are running out of time. Polar bears, coral reefs, and North Atlantic cod are all running out of time. Kiribati ran out of time . So did Golden toads. So did Monteverde harlequin frogs.
Climate change set the clock. It is ticking. If we do not stop climate change right now, we’re all finished. The good news is we know how climate change is caused, so we know how it can be stopped. Humans burning fossil fuels cause climate change. To stop climate change, to ensure the planet’s survival, we must act quickly and decisively to stop the burning of fossil fuels.
So far, most of the tactics used to stop the burning of fossil fuels have proven inadequate. We sold our cars, started biking to work, and bought city bus passes. We voted. When we learned the lesser of two evils was still evil, we signed countless petitions begging governmental leaders to take action. We sent checks to non-profits and then wondered what happened to our money. We boycotted Shell, Chevron, and British Petroleum. We bought into the idea that so-called green technology would allow us to continue our current lifestyles free of the guilt accompanying environmental destruction.
But, it hasn’t worked. Achieving personal net zero, reducing our individual carbon footprint, has done little to slow the worldwide consumption of fossil fuels. Focusing too much of our energy on personal consumption habits has reduced each one of us to single consumers. Playing by the government’s rules leaves each one of us only the meagre power of a single vote.
Too many of our tactics rely on someone else to stop climate change for us. Voting and petition signing relies on politicians to do the right thing. Boycotts rely on corporations to voluntarily halt fossil fuel development. Even if every individual American achieved carbon neutrality, the US military would still be the largest institutional consumer of fossil fuels in the world burning over 100 million barrels of oil a year. This means that changing our personal habits is only a tiny piece of the solution.
We have learned that we cannot trust others to stop the madness for us. If we’re going to stop climate change, we’re going to have to do it ourselves. We can remove others’ ability to burn fossil fuels if we prevent oil, gas, coal, etc. from ever leaving the ground. Once fossil fuels have been extracted we can preserve them in unburned states by blocking their transportation to worldwide markets.
We must re-evaluate our tactics and recognize that escalation is needed. We must physically intervene to stop the destruction of the planet. We must place our bodies between the destroyers and those we love. We must cut the destroyers off from the fuels they require.
So, what’s stopping us?
Fear is stopping us. The processes destroying the planet are destroying our strength of heart. While ice sheets melt so quickly that rising sea levels sink entire nations, while intensifying storms destroy coastal communities, and while salt water poisons freshwater sources, climate change floods the world with fear.
The murder of species is coupled with the murder of hope. Whole species are being murdered at a rate the planet has not seen since an asteroid crashed into Earth 65 million years ago. Over the last 40 years, half of all animals have been killed including 75% of all freshwater species. Scientists predict that if present trends continue 41% of all amphibian species and 26% of all mammals will disappear into the eternal night of total extinction. If drastic changes are not made quickly, humans might be one of those lost mammalian species. In fact, some scientists already doubt that humanity will survive the end of the century.
We have seen what happens to those who effectively resist. Effective resistance often brings confrontation with police and soldiers. This confrontation can be understandably terrifying especially when you know 4,800 Americans suffered arrest-related deaths from 2003-2009. We know, too, that at least 116 environmental activists were murdered in 2014 . We’ve heard the clack of batons on bones, watched crowds scatter before the thud of rubber bullets, and seen faces swollen with terror and pepper spray.
There is so much to fear that too many of us have become paralyzed. Too many of us are stuck in the knowledge of the atrocities too terrified to act. We must overcome this fear. The continuation of life on Earth depends upon it.
As you might have guessed, I experience the debilitating kind of fear diagnosed by psychologists as general anxiety disorder and major depressive disorder. For most of my adult life, I have felt too much fear, for too long that it developed into an illness. This summer, I plan on keeping this Direct Action Journal chronicling my experiences struggling to overcome fear while striving to participate in effective actions. I hope the narration of my experiences will help others.
I was diagnosed with mental health disorders while I practiced as a public defender in Kenosha, WI. I was under constant stress. I worked under the fear that my mistakes would send my clients to prison. The State of Wisconsin mandated that we accept close to 3 new cases a day. I often worked 12-hour days and brought my case files home. When I woke up at 3 AM horrified that I missed a detail in a case scheduled for the next morning, I jumped out of bed, put on some coffee, and worked some more.
At the same time, I lived three blocks from Lake Michigan’s shore and I watched in horror as climate change drove the Lake’s water levels to ever deeper lows. Walking the beach trails, I saw countless bass and perch carcasses – their homes destroyed by the Lake’s recession. I followed global environmental news and knew the scene was similar everywhere.
Eventually, a constant sense of dread dominated my consciousness, even when rationality recognized no threats existed. I became exhausted and tried to kill myself twice. I have not tried to kill myself in 3 years, but I still experience extended cycles of anxiety.
Psychiatry teaches the best antidote for despair is action. Doctors now understand that the brain is flexible and malleable. Experiences literally form the brain’s structure. Experiencing intense fear or stress for a long time or at frequent-enough intervals can cause malfunctions in the parts of the brain responsible for responding to threats by releasing hormones to support defensive, physical actions like fighting for our lives or running away.
With too much fear, too much trauma, the brain can develop a hypersensitivity to anything that might be a threat causing the brain to more-or-less constantly release the fight-or-flight hormones. The greater this hypersensitivity becomes, the more likely a person is to exist perpetually in the fight-or-flight mode. This can be paralyzing. People suffering from general anxiety disorder often hesitate at the verge of action because they see potential threats in every course they could take.
Climate change and the possible destruction of the planet is a constant, serious threat. In fact, it is the most serious threat confronting us today. It follows that living with this ever-present nightmare is producing the symptoms of general anxiety disorder across the human species.
To live in this fight-or-flight mode constantly, to live perpetually in fear, becomes exhausting. A person can forget that there was ever a time she existed outside of the exhaustion. She could develop the belief that her life will forever be exhaustion. Despair sets in. Where there was once only fear, there is now an absence of hope and a belief that bravery in the face of fear is impossible. This is major depressive disorder.
Depression is the inability to envision a future worth living in. While water is being poisoned, air polluted, and species eliminated, the building blocks of life are being pulled from under us. While our future is being stolen by environmental destruction, is it any wonder more and more people are being neutralized by despair?
The good news is the brain’s malleability allows new habits to form. If, instead of reacting to fear with hesitancy and paralysis, a person chooses to act and creates a habit of action, the brain will reform itself to support that habit. Anxiety and depression, then, can be reversed. Fear’s domination can be undermined.
The invitation to participate in the Direct Action Training event coincides with my commitment to release the grip mental illnesses sometimes take over me. I believe there is significance in this. I have prayed for help and Life is answering.
What is Life suggesting? My personal fear threatens to destroy me just like our cultural fear threatens to destroy the planet. My struggle to overcome fear is bound up with the struggle to return the planet to true peace. Winning my struggle and bringing all my power to bear will benefit Life.
Engaging in direct action terrifies me. The old whispers stir. I hate their lies. I refuse to let the lies terrify me. The more often I resist their lies, the closer I come to silencing the whispers, forever.
Climate change terrifies me. Despair rises as I confront the global situation. I hate despair. I refuse to let it’s exhaustion overcome me. The more often I resist despair, the closer I come to ridding myself of it, forever.
I know that anxiety and depression are emotions. I know from my experiences that emotions by themselves cannot kill me. Physical action can kill me. I can swallow a whole bottle of pills, jump from a bridge, or put the gun to my temple. But, in each case, it would be the physical action – and not the emotion – that would actually kill me.
If it is true that only action can kill me, then it is true that only action can save me. It is not enough to hope the anxiety will go away. It is not enough to pray for the depression to disappear. If I want to get better, I have to act. It is armed with this knowledge that I’ve started seeing a therapist again for the first time in 2 and a half years. I’m being treated by a psychiatrist and have started a medication regimen that is helping. I will pair personal therapy with the therapy of direct action.
Climate change causes a cultural anxiety disorder and widespread despair, but these emotional states by themselves are not what is destroying the planet. Real, physical processes – like fossil fuel combustion – are destroying the planet. To survive, we must act in the real, physical world. To survive, we must make fossil fuel combustion impossible. This will be scary, but we must overcome our fear. When we overcome our fear and end this nightmare of climate change, we will overcome the greatest fear of all: planetary destruction.
(May 8, 2016)