In her Own Words – Ashleigh Streeter.. “Why I Needed to step back”.

Last year was my biggest year of growth and learning so far.

From awards and media interviews, the year included sustaining the first year of Jasiri Australia (running the Trailblazer program, a training and development program for young women of colour, arranging self-defence classes including the launch of a partnership with Merici College, classes at Dickson College and a class with Beryl Women’s Shelter as part of a pay it forward component, AND the Girls Take Over Parliament in the ACT, WA and Tonga). Not to mention a board traineeship with YWCA Canberra including membership of the Membership and Governance Committees, speaking at events from the Women in Election conference to the BroadAgenda report launch with Clementine Ford and speaking to multiple groups here in the ACT, contributing to multiple podcasts, attending the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia event in Hong Kong, writing articles, contributing to our Global Shapers Canberra initiatives, launching Jasiri Australia officially, being accepted as a Young Social Pioneer in the Foundation for Young Australians program where I had to deliver a pitch for an idea I had to create in three weeks, leaving Jasiri Australia, supporting friends of mine with their organisations and start ups, starting plans to write a manifesto, AND starting my first professional full time job.
…needless to say, last year was absolutely flat out. And that’s not including being a friend, partner, sister, daughter, attending talks or networking events, professional development having a chronic pain condition, adulting or anything else.

ash panel

There’s a lot of things that don’t make it to social media. And while I try and maintain a degree of transparency on my social media channels (particularly my activist.ash Instagram account, which is reserved for discussions around social equality and documents some of the things I’ve been doing), it can be hard to appear authentic when things aren’t going well. However, I’ll be honest, last year was incredibly tough.

Working a full time job, running an organisation and participating in other projects/ organisations on the side is not a walk in the park. I was trying to be everything to everyone – including myself – and as a result, I wasn’t doing any of it well.

I traditionally haven’t been great at recognising my own symptoms of anxiety or burn out, and I’m fantastic at dismissing those who can recognise them for me – particularly my best friend, who’s a social worker, or my partner, who has a post-grad qualification in psychology. I’ve always been an anxious person, and I’m terrible at relaxing but for years, I didn’t recognise this for what it was. The first time I was forced to confront my poor mental health was when I was going through a bad period back in 2013. I was experiencing terrible reverse culture shock following a confronting trip to India with World Vision and wasn’t coping. I was working full time, studying my honours full time AND running a volunteer team with VGen, World Vision’s Youth movement, on which I spent about 30 hours unpaid. To no one’s surprise, I hit the wall.

Last year wasn’t too different. I went from feeling energised and uplifted to feeling like I was on a hamster wheel, always going. Going because people were counting on me, going because I had an organisation and a co-founder to support, going because I didn’t want anyone to think I wasn’t competent, and most of all, going because I loved what I was doing and working on.

I hit burn out twice last year. Once around July, and another time around September.

I remember the time in September more clearly. It was a Wednesday morning and I had to go to work, was due to launch the Merici partnership and speak at the BroadAgenda report launch. I got out of bed, took myself to the bathroom, sat on the floor and cried. I couldn’t do it. I ended up calling in sick to work, taking a mental health day, and managed to get everything done. I came home feeling energised and excited by things to come. I made it to work Thursday, but Friday was even worse and for the two weeks afterwards, I had to leave work early to collapse in bed. Fortunately, I had a kind team who, while I didn’t expressly tell them what was going on, arranged a meeting, asked how they could help and organised some more flexible working arrangements, releasing me from some the pressure I was placing upon myself. I couldn’t quite express how grateful I was for this.

The reality was, I’d been ignoring my symptoms for a while. I wasn’t sleeping (although as a chronic life-long insomniac, this wasn’t new), my pain levels were through the roof, I was constantly dizzy and trying to navigate through brain fog, I got a spike of anxiety every time my phone went off, I had no boundaries between work and my out of work activities so was on call all day, I was rarely present and eventually, I couldn’t do anything. Whenever I picked up my laptop to send an email or action something, I felt paralysed. I physically could not bring myself to do it. I was miserable, anxious all the time, and wasn’t myself.

I wasn’t just letting everyone else down, I was letting myself down. I wasn’t giving 100% to anything in my life, and I’d stopped turning up to many social events and cancelled many meetings – any spare time was spent working, sleeping, catching up with friends where I was barely present or sitting on the couch in a state of mental paralysis. Something had to give. In November I stepped back from Jasiri Australia and only scheduled essential meetings, walked 40 minutes into the city after work instead of taking the bus, and prioritised both social catch ups and spending time with my partner.

In December, I went overseas for three weeks to spend some time with my partner and my family, and I felt – feel! – like a whole different person. For the first time in years, my pain was non-existent. I slept better. I was present. I was consistently happy. And I loved it.

However, lying in bed battling European jetlag on Sunday night before turning to work, I felt something familiar creep up. Anxiety. I reflected– where was this coming from? Then it hit me. I wasn’t worried about returning to work. I was worried about returning to my old lifestyle, the one which made me stressed, a bad friend/ partner/ sister/ daughter and a bad activist.

So, I’ve made this pledge to myself. This year I must prioritise my health. Listening to an episode of The Guilty Feminist, a quote jumped out at me – “if you don’t make the time to take care of yourself now, you will need to make the time to be sick later.” And it’s true. Many passionate people I know cite being time poor as a reason not to take care of themselves, me included.

This year, I want to be good at what I do. I want to be a good employee. A good advocate. A good partner, sister, daughter and friend. And I’ve learnt the hard way that being good at these things means putting your health and your happiness first – after all, you can’t pour from an empty cup.

So, here’s to more walking. Here’s to trying to find a form of exercise I enjoy (so far I hate all of them, not just because it’s hard enough being in pain all the time but because I genuinely don’t enjoy them). Here’s to thinking more consciously about what I eat, and drinking less. Here’s to having boundaries between my paid and volunteer work, and to (hopefully) spending less time on my phone. Here’s to spending more time enjoying the company of people I love, helping my best friend plan her wedding, helping my partner transition into a new career, supporting my sister’s new found love of boxing, and going home to Melbourne more often. Here’s to giving myself permission to say no. Most of all, here’s to encouraging and supporting others I know, other passionate people with big dreams and big visions to be the best they can be through having a sustainable balance.

Here’s to a healthier, happier and successful 2019. And please, hold me accountable – I’ll need it.

ash family

About the author: Ash is an incredibly committed activist and human being. She motivates and inspires so many whether it be through her work, her courage and honesty and through her willingness to collaborate with others working towards equality and justice. Her Facebook profile tag states: “passionate change maker fighting for equality”.. and how true that is. Werk!

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