Activism and Anxiety
By Erika Jensen
One constant in my life is anxiety. For as long as I can remember, I have struggled with this invisible monster. My childhood environment was not a healthy one, and for a long time I was ashamed of the things I went through and the anxiety they created in me; but not anymore.
I never really had the support I needed to believe I was good enough or capable of accomplishing anything. I grew up in a home in which I didn’t always feel comfortable or safe. I was talked down to, ignored and forgotten at times, often mocked, and made to feel like everything was my fault and that there was something wrong with me. I endured both physical and emotional abuse in my home, and sexual abuse outside of it. It took me a very long time to even begin the process of attempting to love and accept myself. Fortunately, despite a lot of negatives, I was able to take everything I felt and turn it into something positive. Because I knew what it was like to suffer, I was always full of compassion for others, and I never wanted anyone else to suffer. That desire and passion in me to stop the suffering of others was a big part of why I was able to survive and to stay strong.
When I describe my anxiety, I tend to call it debilitating. It affects every aspect of my life. What are everyday tasks for others might as well be climbing Mt. Everest for me. Even just writing this, my heart is racing, my palms are sweaty, and all I can think is, “Am I good enough to write this? Would my words even help anyone? Isn’t there someone more qualified to do this? Will people question my anxiety because of the things I have been able to accomplish?” I can’t seem to ever escape my own mind’s endless questioning and self-doubt. The physical symptoms, while different depending on the situation and the level of anxiety felt, are just as unpleasant. They typically manifest themselves as a racing heart, sweating, shaking, breathing rapidly, feeling weak, chest pain, nausea, and a general out-of-control sensation that is hard to put into words.
I experience all of those things before a DxE action. I am also stuck in my head wondering, “Is this it? Will this be the time I fail?” When I am out there speaking for the animals, I am not doing it because I love speaking in front of people, talking to people I don’t know, or having any sort of attention on me (all things that cause a great deal of panic in me), but because the stakes are too high not to speak. Every moment counts; every moment could potentially make a difference.
I have done so many things in the last few months that are completely out of my comfort zone. Traveling alone, participating in public disruptions at restaurants, several solo speak outs—including a half-hour of just speaking by myself in front of Whole Foods—among others.
There are two specific moments that stick out in my memory— moments in which it became clear to me that I was going to start my own DxE chapter in Cleveland. One mid-November evening in 2014, after a trip to Chicago to meet its amazing DxE team, I walked into two very different restaurants in my neighborhood. One was an upscale Italian restaurant, and the other was a bar/grill. I spoke out at both—my very first (and second) time doing it. My voice came out loud and coherent—which, to be honest, surprised me, as I am very soft spoken and don’t typically articulate very well.
The second moment was in early December 2014, when I participated in another disruption with the amazing Chicago folks. We needed to go upstairs to Trader Joe’s on a different floor, but there was only an elevator and no stairs to be seen. Part of my anxiety is that I have a lot of different phobias, a big one being elevators. I will walk up twenty flights of stairs if necessary before ever getting on one. So, in situations like this, normally I would panic and search for stairs while unintentionally inconveniencing everyone with me; instead, I told myself to just get on because I had to go fight for the animals—and I did.
To this day, it’s rare that I feel comfortable in my own skin or believe that I am capable of doing anything. It is a work in progress; but I'm speaking up for those who need my voice, and that is the one and only reason for everything I am doing. I am not thinking about myself when I speak for the animals; I am only thinking about them and their suffering.
Can you imagine what we could accomplish if people would stop thinking about themselves?
There is one, and only one, reason to do what we do; and if you are focused on that, all the other stuff just isn’t important. Suddenly you become this person doing all of these things you never thought in a million years that you would be doing. I feel like, if this is something I can do, then it is something anyone can do. I’ve realized that being an activist— being their voice—is someone I’m meant to be.