Burning Bright or Burning Out?

I’m sharing this insight because the dark side of community development does need to be acknowledged. Others who experience this pain will know they are not alone in it. It happens. We get over it. We move on.

I have had a saying from George Bernard Shaw on my kitchen wall for decades. It reads:

George Bernard Shaw community quote-page-001
George Bernard Shaw

This is another saying I have written above the Shaw quote on my fridge “It is better to be hated for being yourself than to be loved for being someone you’re not

Both of these sayings have travelled through life with me and bring me back up when I get down about how my work is received. Trouble is that these days I’m finding it much harder to get back up. That may well be side effects of the medication I take for Epilepsy so I keep expecting it to be okay. Then again last year saw at least 3 personal rejections of my work which pretty much floored my confidence and shine.

We are a society of volunteers. Amazing people doing amazing stuff every day for free to better our community. Of course we wouldn’t do it unless we wanted to but at the end of the day it is community service. There are different dimensions worth knowing here. There are the volunteers who do the regular stuff – sport, youth clubs, day care, toddler groups, pretty standard across the board entities. All dedicated amazing people who keep our communities going.

Then there are the change makers. The volunteers who take on new paths within a community or the world. This is the category I now fall into. I’ve been a cub scout & youth club leader, trained the camogie team, run parents & residents association, coordinated toddler groups and been a tidy towns volunteer in a few places too but now with the changes to our environment and the knock on effects I have shifted a gear. Now I instigate and facilitate change. As one community development worker in a funding programme once told me – I’m an agitator. I was initially offended but have come to understand what he meant.

Last year I took on some change making locally. There were some great supporters and passive observers. There were the usual knockers and those not quite knowing what to think. There were also people who inevitably felt threatened – these people very often knock you to others or undermine your work. I’ve come across it all before. What many people don’t get is why. People can be very suspicious. Why do I do it? What am I really after? What’s in it for me? Sometimes those people get to you. I quite publicly burned out last year and by the third time my actions had been seriously questioned I called it a day. My mental health was in shreds.

So to 2018 when I decided I would take a break from community work for a while, at least until I do the right thing by looking after myself and my family. Then the direct provision centre saga began and I couldn’t sit by and not use my skills to help my community. I had absolutely no intention of getting involved but the fact that I did by chance was enough to tell me it was the right thing to do. I felt a responsibility to engage and help.

Now as I process the past couple of months I realise how traumatised I am by the whole experience. Being a blow in and change maker can be pretty isolating. I undertook a facilitator role and helped refine and make sense of the community response. I wore my systems analyst hat and put a LOT of thought into the process. I worked with the community at large, community reps, relevant state agencies and the media. At the end of the day I had to really consider all of the possible scenarios, especially of a vote. I had to consider damage limitation. I applied my media training by refining the message and put a lot of thought into our media response which I helped others with. Then there was the far right.

However during the whole time I had nobody at the end of the day to discuss it with. Everybody else involved was talking with their colleagues, neighbours, friends, partners, families etc. I had the occasional interaction but far from enough. I probably appeared on top of it as I’ve plenty of experience with the media. This was different. I had no real support group so I just put all my energy in and got on with it.

In the past couple of days some things have triggered that trauma. A lovely quote “you don’t realise how lonely you are until it’s the end of the day and you have a bunch of things to talk about, but nobody to tell them to” and a throw away, borderline racist comment from a family member which left me speechless. So while I was feeling isolated by my community I was now reminded of how family also lack understanding of change makers.

The following day it hit me like a tonne of bricks. I had shouldered this responsibility from chaos to organised response with little or no support. Now having brought the welcome response forward with LINKS Lisdoonvarna Nurturing Knowledge & Solidarity I will never be alone in this matter again while I remain involved with it. There is an amazing group of people dedicated to social inclusion addressing rural isolation, loneliness and integration. That is now. I just hadn’t realised the toll the process to that point had on me.

I’m still not really in a place to discuss it. Every time I take a walk I think and I end up in tears – not that anyone would know. That inner Irishness telling me to get over myself, stop feeling sorry for myself, what’s your problem – everybody plays their part. That’s why I’m sharing this so that if you ever feel like this know that you are not alone. Especially in Ireland where we suppress our achievements; where people don’t readily acknowledge your change making work never mind appreciate it; where people would rather find fault with you than praise; where self pity is a sin but bad mental health is a stigma. You see, that George Bernard Shaw quote is all well and good when your community supports you back, then it can bring joy. For a good while there it didn’t but I sense a change, a new understanding , which makes me smile 🙂

Now to heal and I know writing this has helped.

Theresa O’Donohoe

May 2nd 2018

Published by Theresa OD

Change maker and mother of 5 living in the west of Ireland

8 thoughts on “Burning Bright or Burning Out?

  1. I’m sure there are people out there that appreciate all you have done and will do in the future. Meanwhile the sun really is going to shine this holiday weekend and you have a garden to work at – few things are more therapeutic.

  2. Theresa i am glad you wrote that all down, its very important what you are saying.

    AAh that loneliness is a divil
    Also trying to hold your own frame and sustain your own wellbeing while challenging your own expectations of yourself not alone everyone elses expectations of you ..

    You have done tremendous work around DP Theresa, i congratulate you on it and i heartily wish you well .


    Have never done this before so am excited that replying might actually work

  3. Sent from my Huawei MobileDear Theresa,Thats a powerful read! I heard you on the radio the other day talking about what you have done with LINKS in helping both the people of Lisdoon and the refugees. Be so proud of yourself! Breaking out of the crowd and being a leader, is a very scary, difficult path. We are a nation of begrudgers, of those small minded folks who cannot imagine anyone acting for altruistic reasons. But there are also the big hearted, generous folk, and I hope you ccontinue to get your strength to ‘make a difference’ from them.With all good wishes,Cathy x

  4. Thanks for sharing Theresa and I hope the sharing does help you.

    I’ve had similar experiences – was hospitalised twice during college from schizophrenia. I’m doing well now but find it tough if I take on a lot at once.

    Shortly after my final exams i was working 40hrs+ a week in the bookies and going for several interviews a week for actuarial/accounting jobs plus walking the dog every day while my parents were away for a few weeks. At one stage I slept in and missed an interview with AIB – I couldn’t think to just say I was sick and I rang the vet asking them what could I say was wrong with the dog that would give me a reason to miss an interview. The bemused receptionist just said why not say you’re sick. It then hit me that I was starting to behave irrationally. I was taking my medication but I decided to take the week off work (it was only a part time job after all). I met some friends that night had 1 drink and when I got home turned on the music channels and Metallica ‘Nothing Else Matters’ was on. I took that as Nothing Else Matters but my health and I’ve learnt to put that first. That was also the first time when a song had meaning for me when slightly unwell that it wasn’t some form of word salad crazy nonsense.

    After taking the week to recover I was fine and eventually got a job in a bank – one of which I still work in now.
    Sorry for rambling, but I guess my point is sometimes you have to put your health first.

    All the best,

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