How is your heart doing?
“How is your heart doing?” I started asking people this question a few years ago because I thought it would prompt them to pause and think a little more about how they really were doing and maybe offer a response that allowed for greater connection other than “fine”. Last Fall, I couldn’t answer my own question. The work we do to ensure health equity requires significant shifts in culture. It requires not just buy-in and support of our framework, but action from ourselves and the partners we engage. It is both rewarding and infuriating in the same moment, across many moments. For several years I have been doing this work and wasn’t taking the time for me. Burnout and overwhelm were creeping about and my mental health started to decline. It was such an intense time mentally and emotionally I wasn’t able to recognize these transitions occurring within myself and unable to see how my work and relationships were being affected as a result. The idea of taking leave emerged in conversation, but I brushed it off, a defense mechanism. I didn’t even think it was an option, that leave was something you were permitted to do after dedicating decades of your life to the work. I realized my hesitation also stemmed greatly in how I valued myself based on my work. That translated into the following thoughts: I am being asked to take leave because I am not doing this right or well I am being asked to take leave because something is wrong with me How obviously distorted is this thinking? But that’s where I was at the time. I decided a leave from work was a gift, an opportunity, and three months felt like a dream. I’d never taken such an extended period of time off before and made myself a promise: From April to June, leave means no work. No work email access, no social media awareness, no conversations from friends about work, no attending events hosted by community partners even if they were my friends and there was free food and the content sounded interesting. Lest there be temptation, nope nope nope. I also promised to spend time thinking about and doing things that brought me joy. I think I did that part pretty well, too. I was cooking and hanging out with my cat and working out and making smoothies and writing bad poetry and biking to Mount Tabor and potlucking and reading in the sun and drinking tea and watching scary movie matinees by myself and learning to sew and sewing my first garment (a dress!) and practicing movement and dancing in performances and sleeping at least 8 hours every night and art seeing and museum going and witnessing queer commitment ceremonies and installing huge sculptures made of CDs and caring for babies and visiting loved ones in the South and Midwest. That’s just part of it and trust me, I had a great time. I also ended a relationship that wasn’t all that healthy and spent a couple weeks listening to sad songs, crying at my cat, and writing more bad poetry. Trust me, that was also great.
After being back for a few weeks, I am just starting to see how taking this time has opened up different ways for my brain to think about and perceive and interact with the world around me. I have been more generative in staff discussions, more creative in thinking through problems, more engaged with partners than I had for months prior to my leave. I am more connected and committed to the work of health equity, of dismantling oppressive systems born of White Supremacy. I think it falls to us to take care of ourselves, but we need support to do that. Do our organizations offer paid time off? What are the policies for taking leave and are they equitable? Are systems set up that remind people to take breaks, not to take work home with them, to ask for support without shame? Health equity is not a priority for those who hold positions of power, so I wouldn’t expect them to think about the ways in which systems of power keep people tired, exhausted, frustrated, anxious, and unwell. But our health is a priority and ensuring our systems are set up to center people and everything they need to be healthy is both why we do this work and how we are able to continue doing this work.