By Will Falk
Three months ago, I packed up my 80-litre pack with my tent, sleeping bag, four t-shirts, two pairs of pants, two pairs of thermals, five pairs of underwear, my toothbrush, and six collections of poetry (only the essentials) and made the journey from San Diego, CA to the Unist’ot’en Camp on traditional Wet’suwet’en land in so-called British Columbia.
I fell in love with the Unist’ot’en Clan, the Camp, and their work. I decided it was time to dig in to defend the land and I’ve been in Canada working to support the Camp ever since. It took me 27 years, two degrees, two suicide attempts, a failed romantic relationship, and a deserted legal career to finally devote myself to radical resistance.
It is becoming increasingly clear that one of the many reasons the environmental movement is losing so bad is we suffer from a lack of committed individuals determined to resist for as long as it takes. I am committed to saving what’s left of our burning world because I am deeply in love.
I have finally arrived at this commitment and I hope you will, too. Here is the first in a series of pieces I am calling “Do-it-Yourself: Resistance.” These are my reflections on my path to resistance. Everyone’s path will be different, but people who embark on this path should know that the trail has already been blazed. They should know they will not have to walk the trail alone and in darkness. There’s a community of us and we are growing stronger.
The first step is falling in love.
It is true that falling in love may make you vulnerable. Destruction rages on around us. When you’re in love and you shed the armor of denial, the truth might wound you. When you’re in love and you seek the filthy corners of this culture, the truth might stain you. When you’re in love and you dare to peer directly into the flames consuming life on this planet, the truth might burn you.
When you’re in love and your beloved is dying, how can you do anything but try to protect your beloved?
Opening yourself to love may make you vulnerable because destruction rages around us. With global temperature averages rising, clean water disappearing at astonishing rates, and human population growing exponentially, the planet’s ability to support life is in serious jeopardy. Every thing we love is under attack.
I must be honest: learning how to love dragged me into the deserts of severe depression. I think many are too scared of the truth and their own reactions to the truth to visit this desert. It can be dangerous.
Sometimes depression will not quit. Mine won’t. It’s been 16 months since my first suicide attempt and just under a year since my second. Because depression is characterized as an illness I reasoned that I would eventually recover from my illness and live a healthy life. The darkness would simply be a tough time in my life that would fade in my memory as the course of my life pushed forward.
In many ways, this view was encouraged by my therapists and doctors. After my second suicide attempt, I was checked into an intensive Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) program. The National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) describes the methodology of CBT in treating mental illness, “By exploring patterns of thinking that lead to self-destructive actions and the beliefs that direct these thoughts, people with mental illness can modify their patterns of thinking to improve coping.”
What were the “patterns of thinking” that lead me to “self-destructive actions?” As a public defender, I loved my clients so much the thought of them in jail compelled me to work harder and harder, longer and longer hours until I was exhausted. As a member of a natural community, I loved my land base so much that the continual degradation of Lake Michigan by industry sometimes caused me to weep.
And, “coping?” Through CBT I was taught that if I could just learn how to cope, I’d heal myself of depression. The popular proverb “If you can’t change the world, change yourself” comes to mind. I’ve always hated this expression for the way it encourages inaction. If the world doesn’t change, so much of what I love will be destroyed. Therapy based on changing individuals instead of our destructive culture puts the patient in the horrible position of either ignoring her love or changing what she’s in love with.
And what could be more depressing than that? In some senses, isn’t denying the love you feel a sort of death in itself?
To me, the only true therapy will come from stopping the dominant culture. We all know what the consequences might be for seeking to change the world.
Sister Dorothy Stang, a Roman Catholic nun standing up for indigenous peoples in Brazil, received perpetual death threats from logging companies before she was shot six times on her way to a community organizing meeting in Anapu, Brazil. Anna Mae Aquash – a Mi’kmaq activist with the American Indian movement – was found on the Pine Ridge Reservation with a bullet in the back of her head. Fred Hamptom, the Deputy Chairman of the Illinois Chapter of the Black Panther Party, was drugged by the FBI before they sprayed his bedroom with automatic gun fire and fired two shots into his head at point blank range to make sure he was “good and dead, now.”
I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to think Sister Stang, Anna Mae Aquash, or Fred Hampton developed mental illnesses through their work. I can even imagine a therapist asking them if their habit of demanding justice might be causing some of their anguish. But, Sister Stang, Anna Mae Aquash, and Fred Hamption never gave into the comforting acceptance encouraged by coping. They were in love with oppressed peoples. They wanted to change the world and they went about doing it.
I still feel suicidal sometimes. Death is a seductive whisper at the edge of my consciousness. I suffer from situational and spiritual vulnerabilities. I’m completely broke. I’m not sure where I’m going to live in three weeks. I’m not sure when my family is going to get sick of me being away and make their anxiety felt. I’m afraid that my new Canadian friends may discover the darkness my mind tends to and decide its too much work to be around me.
My heart turns the shade of gray that comes from profound weariness. I’m haunted by the sight of forests at Unist’ot’en Camp decimated by climate-change induced beetle infestations. The worst part is the way the once proud, tall, green pines are left standing when the beetles are done with them. The pines stand as towering grave-markers warning of the disaster this world faces if we cannot stop the destruction. My stomach fills with the gnawing acid of anxiety and anger as the radio lists the dead in Palestine. When the mangled bodies of children make it to my newsfeed I wonder how my stomach will keep the acid from burning a hole through my guts.
Besides being suicidal, you know what else I am?
Alive. I am, despite feeling all this, still alive.
Being alive lets me strip to my underwear and dip in the freezing Salish Sea. I step on sharp rocks watching crabs with delight. They play their own version of “King of the Hill” competing over pieces of seaweed on a submerged stone. As the green shadow of seaweed approaches their perch, crab siblings bump one another off the stone before snatching the seaweed in their pinchers and gobbling it down. I cut my heel on a rock and a gang of fish comes to investigate the blood. Their mouths are soft as they press against the cut. Before long the blood stops, and the fish settle in the warm spaces between my toes.
Being alive lets me enjoy the contrast of the hot sun on my back when I emerge from the cold sea. Being alive lets me taste the fresh ginger molasses cookies we brought to snack on. Being alive lets me hear the cries of wheeling sea gulls overhead.
Most importantly, being alive empowers me to be in love. I will not give into suicide because I’m in love with the Salish Sea, the crabs, the school of fish, the sun, the taste of ginger molasses cookies, and the cries of sea gulls on the beach.
Love will give you the strength to travel through the spiritual deserts of depression and even suicidal ideation. My continuing survival is proof of this. The continuing survival of countless others struggling with the emotional ailments facing us in these times is proof of this. Stand with us. Fall in love. Learn how to love at whatever cost. Love may make you vulnerable to feelings of despair. This is natural. It means you’re alive – and being alive is everything. It means you can resist and resistance gives your beloved a chance.
John Lawrence says
As a depressive myself, my early quest in life was to find an “antidote.” You know in the old fairy tales when someone was given a potion of poison, there was always an antidote which if taken early enough would counteract the effects of the poison and the person would be alright. I’ve always found that my discovery of the antidote which worked for me made my life worth living. For me it was basically exercise. I’ve always been an exercise addict and this has kept my depression in check. I’ve been a runner, a swimmer, a weight lifter. It’s been a lifelong method to counteract depression. The physical benefits are a mere by-product.
Also changing my lifestyle from one that was basically sedentary to one that was more active. At the same time getting my depression in check has allowed me to think more clearly and to appreciate what in life is truly valuable, to get beyond conventional thinking which is pretty shallow and think for myself, to be independent and go my own way, to get to know who I really am as a person.
I think, Will, that you are on the right path to finding out who you really are, and what’s valuable in your life. It should get easier as time goes on, but there are no guarantees. The darkness is always there waiting, but if you keep on keeping on, the positive things you are doing should come to outweigh it and counteract it. Good luck!
Will Falk says
Thanks so much for your insights, John. I’ve found you to be exactly right about exercise. I’m not sure if I was depressed in college, but I played college football and we practiced or conditioned or lifted everyday. Maybe the endorphins were counteracting any depression that might have been there?
Many people older than me have told me that things really do get better. I take a lot of comfort from that. I do believe that depression is a natural reaction to desperate situations and we are in a desperate situation. While it may sound depressing in itself to accept that depression will linger for my life, I believe it will linger not because I’m crazy or have a chemical imbalance in my brain, but because I’m in love with the world and therefore sensitive to the world.
Being sensitive, of course, is way better than being crazy.
John Lawrence says
Will, I’ve found for me personally that there is no cure for depression. However, as time goes on, I have learned how to manage it better and better. And it’s not a totally negative thing. Most creative people are also depressives or manic-depressives. Without their contributions, the world would be a much more banal place. It seems that you have to be a little screwy mentally in order for the creative juices to flow. And depressives usually are on the side of the underdog and the downtrodden because they know what it means to experience pain.
Malcolm Glazier says
This article is too surreal. Its an almost exact mirror image of what I have been going through. Like you, I have also been on the verge of completing suicide and like you, it is resistance that has reinvigorated me and given me a renewed sense of purpose and dignity. I too have recently quit my job and am not in as dire of straights as you seem to be since I have some money saved and some other income prospects, but I also simply don’t want to contribute anymore to this rotten system. I want to lock arms with people like you, with the indigenous, with women, with all the oppressed and bring it crashing down. How do we best go about engaging in our new-found mission to confront power?
Will Falk says
Thanks for your thoughts, Malcolm. Hang in there against the suicidal thoughts. They will come and go, but always remember when you’re in the darkness that it really will pass eventually. And, remember that the rest of the living world is pulling for you. Life wants to live.
“How do we best go about engaging in our new-found mission to confront power?”
I think you should find your skills. Find what you love to do and then use that skill in defense of your landbase. I think it’s also important to work in concert with others with strategic and tactical goals. Find a strong organization working to dismantle systems of power. Find where you can plug in.
Then dedicate yourself to resistance.
Respect for sharing, Will. Like you, I’m a depression and suicide attempt survivor and have been an environmental and social justice activist for decades. Your approach is completely logical and in line with having these kind of values. The dominant culture forces people like us to the edge. I found CBT helpful in dealing with internal interpersonal issues. But you’re correct in that there are limits. I’ve been listening to earthmovers today trash a tiny fragment of woodland/scrub near my house (Penang, Malaysia). The pain and tension I feel is something I am sure you would understand. I’ve been writing a blog post today on how people come to step outside the system, and will share your post. I hope things improve for you. When I was in a very difficult financial situation I explored different income streams. Don’t know if that’s possible for you…maybe something online (elance and similar)? Stay strong.
Will Falk says
It’s really great to hear all the way from Penang, Pamela. I understand how difficult it must be to hear another natural community being destroyed. Thank you for the words of encouragement and support. I’m looking forward to reading your blog post.