Burnout and the Millennial Condition

Hi, my name is Robyn, and I’m a millennial.

Hi, Robyn.

Millennials are the generation that people love to hate. We’re lazy, immature and largely responsible for the failing state of economies all over the world, especially the cow’s milk industry. We’re liberal snowflakes and angry pussy-hatted protesters. We’re progressive, artisanal and a good number of us still live with our parents.

We’re also depressed, anxious and burnt out.

Yes, burnt out.

If you’re a millennial and you haven’t yet read the Buzzfeed article ‘How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation’ by Anne Helen Petersen, go and read it now. I’ll wait.

Done?

Did it feel like a gut punch? No? High-five for being a well-adjusted human being. But if Anne Helen was strumming your pain with her fingers and telling your life with her words, you are not alone. We are even less alone than I thought we were when I first started writing this because yesterday BBC Three ran an article featuring responses from fellow millennials about how burnout looks in their lives.

Click here for commiseration. Also here.

In case you start thinking ‘Millennial Burnout’ is just another one of those disorders that only affects rich kids from first world countries – stop. Don’t think that. What is wrong with you? I’m a not-rich adult from a developing island state and let me be the first to tell you, that shit is real. Perhaps even more real in an economy that depends heavily on unstable external support and where I’m the first person in my immediate family to pursue tertiary education.

The pressure to perform, to achieve, and to never stop never stopping can easily lead to feelings of overwhelm and underachievement. You have to be on your A-game at all times – opportunity only knocks once. In a fractured health care system where most workers only have baskets to carry water, you have to go above and beyond to help the people who need it. In a society where Facebook and Instagram are as ubiquitous as breadfruit trees you are constantly comparing yourself to everyone else.

We know it’s unhealthy. The lines between work and life have become so blurred that for most of us work doesn’t end when we leave to go home. At home we’re answering work emails, work phone calls, taking work home with us to get it done in time. We – I – sacrifice family time and rest to get a little further ahead on this project or that meeting.

And even though we realize that something’s not quite right, we keep doing it. Sleep suffers, our concentration starts to slip, fatigue starts to drift in. But how can we stop? We’ve got to keep on keeping on because there’s more work to be done, more achievements to unlock, and you’re never going to get that promotion if the boss thinks you can’t handle the job.

I only go to sleep after dragging myself away from the work I brought home. I dream about work meetings going awry. The first thing on my mind when I wake up is ideas for Powerpoint presentations. I reply to work emails at 5 in the morning, and most days I am so tired that without coffee I barely function. I can’t remember how to relax, I obsess over to-do lists and I feel guilty if I take a night off to rest because there are so many things that need doing.

And it’s not just work, it’s the whole shebang. Bills and student loans, grocery shopping and car maintenance and all the little things that add up to keeping us afloat and financially solvent. We call it ‘adulting’. Our parents would have probably called it ‘life’. But life in 2019 is very different from “the way things used to be”, as Granny likes to remind me.

In every corner there’s another concern to preoccupy our thoughts: climate change, the environment, human rights, motherfucking R. Kelly, crime and violence. I live in St. James and even though the State of Emergency supposedly expired in January, I drive past cops at checkpoints twice a day. Not exactly a low-stress work commute.

This morning I texted my best friend, all the way across the world, and asked “Do you ever just feel tired?” To her everlasting credit she immediately demanded to know what was wrong. As I spilled my guts about the mental and emotional fatigue that have plagued me since med school she listened and reassured me that I wasn’t a crazy perfectionist snowflake. And then she told me her own story of overwhelm and I felt less alone.

It’s not just us and the readers over at BBC Three. Petersen’s original article went viral because it resonated with thousands of people. While I’m sure we’d all prefer to have something less depressing in common, it’s clear that this isn’t just some excuse for lazy, entitled failed adults. Haters, step off now.

True to form, millennials have gone all out to find ways to re-pep our step: #selfcare mani-pedis, meditation apps, a smorgasbord of life-changing ‘magics’. But in her essay Anne Helen asserts that no amount of self-help books, life hacks or yoga retreats will fix us. Houston, we have a problem.

Instead she invites us to find joy and meaning by living life, instead of optimizing it. A difficult concept for a generation used to curated social media streams, helicopter parenting and efficient schedules. Can we really stop moving long enough to simply enjoy things as they are? Are we even built that way?

As we millennials move into middle age, a time of life where the dirt settles and the patterns form a picture*, will we get a grip on the subconscious motives that drive us to burn out? Can we stop the imminent crash and burn in time to avoid debilitating illness? (Fibromyalgia is a legitimate concern). Will we ever move out of of our parents’ houses??

Tune in next time for the thrilling conclusion.

__________________________________________________________________

*Quote paraphrased from Yrsa Daley-Ward’s poem ‘Mental Health’. Go and read it now. Thank me later.

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Women’s Bodies Make the News (again)

Lately I’ve been spending my time taking deep dives into the arena of gender analysis. Holed up in a small classroom for 3 hours a week in a recurring debate on the privileges of the penis may not sound like your idea of fun, but to me it’s absolute heaven. Feminist intellectual stimulation, stinging repartee and a whole bunch of new words to add to my vocabulary. It doesn’t get much better than this.

But the perspective comes with a shadow, cynicism. The niggling fear that the status quo (which is far more pervasive and sinister than I realized) won’t ever change because so many people are invested in keeping it the same. The concern that despite our promises as a country and despite our claims as a society, the day to day culture of Jamaica thrives on the subordination of women and other non-masculine groups.

Close to my heart, the topic of healthcare: reproductive rights and abortions. Recently in the news again thanks to MP Juliet Cuthbert-Flynn (In 2018 I learnt a bunch of useless US politician names, maybe 2019 is the year I learn Jamaican ones) who tabled a bill to decriminalize abortion.

Not a bill to let women kill their children.

Not a bill to give women an excuse to be promiscuous.

Not a bill to hasten the decay in Judeo-Christian morals and values.

(all points that were raised and shot down)

The bill was tabled to allow easier access to safe abortions – because women are literally dying.

As I read the discussions helpfully Tweeted out by groups in attendance (the revolution will not be televised because there is no revolution), the points raised by pro-lifers kept circling back to the idea that women do not own their bodies. Their bodies must be offered up for the greater good ie having babies and if they die in the process well it would have been a worthy sacrifice. The MPs who responded challenged the speakers to provide data to back up their claims (they couldn’t) and questioned the right of the Church to make decisions for a pluralist society.

I happen to follow mostly ‘woke’ people on Twitter: feminists, LGBTQ folks and advocates, pro-choice supporters. So my news feed lulls me into the false sense of feeling like maybe the progressive bunch scored a win.

But then I see pictures of the pro-choice stand/march that happened before the debate started – a handful of lovely women (and men, and I think maybe non-binary persons too) clad in black with shirts and placards bearing slogans like ‘NO WOMB FOR PATRIARCHY” and “MIND YOUR OWN UTERUS”. Catchy slogans, very clever, but not a big crowd.

And then I take note of the Members of Parliament who they Tweeteed about actively participating in the discussion. Again, lovely people, but only three maybe four names are repeated.

And then I realize something. It’s great to feel like a part of a movement. It’s great to have people who agree with your values and outlook on life. It’s nice to be included (I get such a thrill when WE-Change retweets me). But the shadow, cynicism, clouds the warm fuzzy feelings.

Culture, society, Parlimentarians in the majority aren’t ready to allow women full control over their own bodies. We might get ideas. The road to change is long and hard, and it will probably continue long after we’ve passed on the torch. This ‘gender thing’ is a huge obstacle to human rights, social development and nation building. We gotta start looking at these problems fully cognizant of the biases and privileges we bring to the table. We have to stop accepting the status quo and start challenging it.

I gotta get off woke Twitter and start changing the world around me.


Just in case anyone was wondering (I was) – the only news article that spoke about this debate was a brief piece in the Gleaner that basically recounted an emotional story from a Catholic nun about overriding women’s choices for the patriarchy. You can read it here.

for the Sake of Social Media

January was a whirlwind of a month – a far cry from last year where the weeks seemed to slog by. It probably went by so fast for me because despite my best efforts I get sucked in to social media feeds the second I pick up my phone. Even though I assigned Twitter and Instagram a 15 minute limit (combined) per day, I’m too often guilty of clicking that ‘Remind me in 15 minutes’ button over and over and over. . .

But I have a good reason!

Don’t we all.

In the latter part of 2019 I tried to curate my feeds so that I would feel more inspiration and upliftment* from the mindless scroll, instead of the usual frustration, comparisons and disappointment. This worked out way easier with Instagram than with Twitter; that place is just an angry quagmire that gets mud on me way too easily. I’m sure you can relate.

One trend that crops up as I reflect on the first month of 2019 was how much value social media actually added to my life. I’m not sure if the scales completely balance out (in terms of value and time that I’ll never get back) but I’m getting to a place where I can accept that, for all its flaws, social media allows us an infinite number of ways to connect, practice compassion and grow as human beings.

Youtube – the home of countless cat videos – is also the home of my first completed (by no means the first attempted) 30 day Yoga Journey. The daily practice of yoga for the entire month of January kept me grounded and mindful, even though it was hosted on a traditionally mind-numbing app/website.

WhatsApp status updates – which I had sworn off cold turkey back in November – became a recurrent source of inspiration and a catalyst for some bookish conversations. Of course not every status update sprouts holy wisdom, and honestly some people upload like 30 of the most trivial photos in quick succession and make you question why they’re even in your contact lists –. Suffice to say, there is a mute button for a reason.

Instagram – home of envy – awash with pictures of immaculate houses, children, outfits, lives. I stopped following every account that – through no fault of their own – made me question my own self-worth. Until I can get a good grip on my worthiness it’s probably for the best that I stop ‘liking’ every single one of Yendi’s posts and then beating myself up for not being such an amazing mom/actress/model/consultant?? I’m not actually sure what Yendi does for a living.

The Instagram accounts I follow now are mostly comic artists, podcasts that remind me to reaffirm my intrinsic value, book lovers and those people from high school who I would feel guilty about un-following because they all followed me first and that’s just being polite.

Twitter. Oh, Twitter. It’s hard to justify my continued use of Twitter, on the heels of all the positive vibes I just talked about and especially in light of the latest angrily-tweeted about abortion-debate-that-wasn’t. I mean, for health reasons alone I should stop using Twitter because it definitely sends up my blood pressure. But I find myself coming back to it because of the instant flare of connection that happens when someone likes or retweets or responds to one of your tweets. I know this is a false feeling. There’s no real connection between a tweet and a like – I’ve liked enough posts by accident to know that it means literally nothing. But I keep going back.

Twitter keeps me informed about a side of Jamaica I don’t often talk to in real life – the ‘articulate minority’ as one unfortunate MP said a few years ago. My attraction to Twitter is your basic FOMO*, and not a habit I’m likely to kick any time soon.

Despite the many, many, many silly, depressing and sometimes spiteful reasons that people do things on social media, I think these platforms still have options to offer that are positive, meaningful and compassionate. Whether you’re looking at community hashtags like #womeninmedicine, fandom tribes like Harry Potter or the Bloggess, Instagram accounts like alex_elle or Youtube channels like Yoga With Adriene, the good stuff, the soul-filling stuff is definitely out there too.


Happiness can be found in the darkest of times, if one only remembers to turn on the light

Albus Dumbledore

*Did you guys know “uplift” is a verb and a noun?! Mind-blowing.
*FOMO = Fear Of Missing Out

I tell stories. I write poems.

I hold on to things.

I come from a family with pack-rat tendencies. My grandmother still has most of her furniture, luggage and household items from her time in England in the early 60’s and 70’s. My mother refuses to get rid of our old school notebooks (I’m talking primary school) and my father doesn’t throw anything away. Ever. And don’t even get me started on my aunt.

Things tell stories. Things have memories attached. A wave of nostalgia lies waiting among dusty old pictures, recital programmes and yes, even those old school notebooks.

My notebooks (and legal pads, and journals) from high school hide treasures in their bindings. I sweep cobwebs and dead insects off the cover a notebook labelled ‘Music’ and halfway through explanations on semi-claves and metre I wind up in a story about a teenage girl trying to survive high school. Not me. A girl in high school that I made up.

I wrote a lot of things back then. Short stories with weird foreign narratives, long stories that I never finished, poems, songs. Emo poetry and songs. The early 2000s were a strange and trying time. For everyone, not just millennials.

But I never shared any of these stories and poems and songs. I didn’t enter any competitions, didn’t read them aloud to my friends (and this was a thing we used to do. Every lunch time, at the netball court behind the auditorium), didn’t share them with a confidante (as other used to do with me). I just kept them locked up in lines of notebooks that now lay forgotten in cardboard boxes.

Even now when I write stories and poems (I got over my emo phase so there are no more sad love songs) I tuck them away into neatly organized documents and computer folders. I journal, flexing my muscles in private writing with the hope that the strength will be built without any tests of endurance. Like a marathoner training for a race he never runs.

Among my limited displays of writing skill, there are stories of success and failure.

(Disclaimer: I’m only talking about original writing. In my heyday I used to write fairly entertaining Harry Potter fanfiction. Not all of them embarrassing either).

For about two years I semi-regularly contributed interviews and book reviews to Susumba.com. It was my writing on display to, how did my editor put it? Build a portfolio.

Last September at a poetry event hosted by my high school alumni I read three of (what I thought were) my best poems. Crickets.

But just last month, I learnt that I’d been shortlisted for an award I didn’t even remember submitting pieces to. I had spent 2018 half-heartedly submitting polished up old and new poems to different open calls ad hoc. Okay, two. It was two open calls. And one of them thought my writing was good enough to be shortlisted.

I say all this to ask. If the writing only stays in a closed up book, if the words stay in my throat or just behind my fingertips. Am I still a writer? If I long to tell stories, if characters come to me unbidden on beautifully lonely country roads and linger suffocating in my subconscious. Am I still a writer? If I neglect my creative space for months on end because I’m too afraid that the words will not be perfect. Am I still a writer?

Of course I am.

I’m a writer whether or not the words come out. I think like a writer, dream like a writer and pluck words from pictures like a writer. Writing isn’t only what I do, it has always been a part of who I am.

Stories are in my blood, I just need to open a vein.

Self-invention vs Self-discovery

The way I see it we’re all moving through life trying to figure out what the hell this life thing is any way. Some people choose a path of discovery, learning about who they are. While some choose to invent themselves, from scratch even, if they don’t like what they’ve discovered.

Self-invention has only recently become part of my vocabulary, inasmuch as it relates to the process of choosing one’s identity, perceptions and actions. Merriam-Webster isn’t much help with a definition

the act or an instance of inventing or creating one’s identity or conception of oneself

Merriam-Webster

Everyone knows you can’t use a word to define itself, Merriam-Webster

When I reflect on the differences between discovery and invention I think about the various aspects of my life right now. For example, I discovered that at the ripe old age of 27 I have inherited my grandmother’s arthritic knees. My old self would gripe and moan and generally wallow in self-pity, but the new self-invented Robyn chooses to exercise*, take an Advil and get on with life. 

*think about exercising, often.

Or I’ve discovered that I am generally not a clean person, as evidenced by the armies of dust bunnies that have invaded my apartment. But I can choose to be a person who cleans more often. Or, more likely, choose to be a person who has higher priorities than dust bunnies. Like making sure the cats are fed. Which I do. I feed my cats. Regularly. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you otherwise.

I like the idea of self-invention more than self-discovery because it gives us this idea of agency. As if we have some modicum of control in a universe that often tends to spiral in the opposite direction. Victor Frankl spent the entirety of his career preaching the idea that man can rise above or sink beneath whatever circumstance he is presented with. (And if you haven’t read Man’s Search for Meaning, I highly recommend it as a textbook for life). As delightful as it is to figure ourselves out, it’s equally wonderful to realize we can change the things we don’t like. Most of them, at least.

Self-invention isn’t easy by a long shot. Personal development is hard and painful and frankly more than a little repetitive. Like Sisyphus pushing the boulder up that hill, over and over again. But it’s a worthy mark to aim for, the invention of a self you can be proud of. Your best self. Like Michelangelo with a block of marble, you get to chip away at the excess and discover/invent the masterpiece that was in there this whole time. 

2019 is gonna be MY year

How many of us have said that to ourselves?

“This is the year I get that degree/that promotion/that baby. This is the year I get my shit together.”

Well, guess what. They’re all your years. 2018 was your year, and so was 2017. And 2020 is going to be your year too. Because the years are your life, and getting that degree/promotion/baby isn’t the full stop at the end of the novel. It’s barely even a chapter break. 

This is a good thing.

This frees us from the limiting idea that we only get one year to do The Thing. It frees us up to realize that all those years that came before 2019 were necessary building blocks to get to whatever achievement you’ve set your eyes on. And all those years beyond 2019 are even more groundwork that you climb on to get to even more achievements.

Because the world doesn’t stop in 2019. The story of your life doesn’t end like a novel, with success, or a sunset horseback ride or a wedding. The story of your life keeps going, and isn’t that the exciting part? Turning the page after triumph or disaster and finding that the story hasn’t ended just yet. That you get to write more story, better story, sadder story, more brilliant and blinding story. That you get to continue learning and self-choosing, that one year does not cannot make or break you. 

I used to think time was against me. It just keeps going, keeps making me older (ugh), keeps dragging me through milestones that in hindsight are pretty silly (I should have been married/promoted/postgrad by now!). But the endless march of time is a gift. It drags us forward, through mistakes, through heartbreak, through painful immaturity. Time drags us (kicking and screaming usually) into knowledge and healing and wisdom.

It takes more than a year to build a life. And trying to cram success (whatever it looks like to you) into one calendar is about as useful as cramming the night before an exam. But we can choose not to do that. We can choose to look at life as a marathon, not a series of sprints. In this world of filters and customization and targeted ads we can choose the perspective that the journey, however long it takes, is just as important the destination. 

If 2019 is gonna be your year, let it be your year to hop off those crazy societal bandwagons and start walking your own beautiful, winding path. 

Between a rock and a hard place

Does anyone else struggle with the feeling that life is happening someplace where you’re not? Maybe it’s fear of missing out, maybe it’s an insecurity complex, maybe is bad min’. Maybe it’s just me. But I get so frustrated when I feel like I’m living in a ‘second class’ city on an island less than one tenth the size of that floating trash continent. 

Mobay people, you know what I’m talking about. 

Despite our avid loyalty to the Republic of Mobay, Kingston remains the hub of several sectors: automotives, business, art, theatre, literature, government, civil society. Most organizations and movements start in Kingston and then slowly trickle outward. I have to wonder if they don’t all feel cooped up down there in the little 480 km² that is Kingston parish. 

I don’t want to have to travel to Kingston to see a nice play, or join a book club, or volunteer with a youth organization, or grow my career. I want those opportunities to exist for people in the West. I want activism and art walks, infrastructural development, ideas, nightlife that is accessible to more than just tourists. I want variety, options. 

I can’t honestly say any more that nothing happens in Montego Bay. If you look hard enough we’re teeming with activities. The Rasta Village hosts a gathering every last Sunday (it’s called Irits and it’s great). UWI’s Western Campus has a couple public forums every semester (on interesting topics). Service clubs exist, and though networking is limited it’s there. (if you know of any others please, leave a comment). 

Maybe Jamaica is too small to have more than one thriving city, or maybe I want too much or maybe I’m selfish. Or maybe I’m venting on my blog because I’m too lazy to be the change I want to see. I haven’t quite figured out yet what to do with this yen for greater things. Some tasks are too big to tackle alone, and some feelings are too nagging to just go away. I want change, but I don’t know how to make it. That’s my rock and my hard place.

Someone hand me a chisel.