Last week was tough. After feeling better for a few weeks, my mood dropped for no obvious reason. Someone mentioned to me a GP surgery that prescribed volunteering for depression, resulting in reduced antidepressant prescribing. I haven’t been able to verify it, but I said to them, “If I went to my GP for treatment for depression and was prescribed volunteering, I’d scream.”
They don’t know I’m depressed, nor that I’m on antidepressants. And I wouldn’t actually scream at my GP. When I visit the GP I’m pretty much polite and compliant to a fault. And the last time I had depression, volunteering was actually an important part of my recovery. So much so that volunteering, and specifically activism, have become a central part of my life and identity.
This time though, the stress of group dynamics within activism was a partial trigger for my depression, and feelings of responsibility towards my volunteering commitments increase my anxiety. So I’ve reduced these commitments to give myself time to heal. That doesn’t mean switching off completely though, and last Sunday, I did volunteer. There was a commitment to attend two meetings last week and then all day Sunday and I felt I could manage that.
I volunteered at Silver Action, a performance by artist Suzanne Lacy at the Tate Modern Tanks. Over five hours, 400 women over 60 years old gathered in the performance space to talk ageing, activism and feminism. They sat at tables draped with yellow tablecloths, in groups of four, sharing stories of their lives as activists and reflecting on the challenges of ageing as women. I listened in to their conversations at various points during the afternoon, and what I heard was transformative. Not in a “my depression is now cured” sort of way, but it did transform some of my negative thoughts.
Conflicts within activism have left me feeling that I have nothing to contribute and that all I’m doing is fighting others within the movement. One woman completely flipped those thoughts for me though, without us ever actually interacting. She said that at the start of second wave feminism, they all thought they were part of a sisterhood, that they all wanted the same things and they’d fight together. But they weren’t all the same, they had disagreements and the movement fractured. In her view, this was exactly what needed to happen. They did fragment, they moved into smaller groups, all starting different campaigns on the issues that were important to them, and she felt that the movement was stronger and more powerful because of it. When she said that, with the benefit of 40+ years experience in the movement, for the first time it didn’t feel like someone just putting a positive spin on conflict, but actually made me believe that conflict and disagreement is integral to change.
Across all the conversations I heard, women talked about the sexism they experienced as young women. In my most negative moments, I feel like nothing will ever change. But these women changed their lives, and they changed mine too, before I was even born. I heard lesbians talk about having their children removed when they came out, a woman talk about not being able to open a bank account, another not being able to list her partner’s name on her child’s birth certificate because they weren’t married, and another remembering being asked to leave the room so the men could drink port. Things have changed and that didn’t happen by chance, it happened because of these women.
One woman said something that I found hard to hear. She felt that younger women have taken their gains and are sitting back and theorising about it. While most of these older women are still active in different ways, they also spoke of not having the same energy for campaigning that they did in the past. Right now, my depression means I don’t have the energy for it either. I know that I need to care for myself and focus on recovery, and this means scaling back. But it will only be for a little while: I’ll be back, because there’s still so much left to do.
You can catch up on what happened at Silver Action on twitter