Yesterday I won an award. Yay to that. It was an award for lifetime achievement in disability advocacy. As I walked up to the stage they read out a bunch of my various achievements. I have quite a lot of them these days. In fact my complete advocacy CV is 26 pages! The interesting thing about this is that I am currently an inpatient in the psychiatric ward and have been for the past six weeks. I was on leave to attend the awards. I felt totally overwhelmed and emotional most of the evening and found it very difficult – wonderful, but difficult. In my speech I talked about how it is actually OK to not be OK. I am an overachieving advocate AND someone having a really tough time and that is not only OK but quite common for those of us in the disability advance space.
Leadership for Disabled people often involves a fair amount of not being OK. The issue is there is an expectation for us to push through, to put on a mask of being super people and being able to do everything and when we are not OK to dismiss it. I have done this for years and I can say it is not only unhelpful but it is dangerous.
On Tuesday I was set to be part of another event. I was meant to MC the National Awards for Disability Leadership. The organiser had put in place measures to ensure I was supported – namely a co-MC who could take off the pressure. The co-MC ended up taking off all the pressure as I cancelled. It was a really hard thing to do. I felt like I was letting down the organiser and felt guilty but I knew if I had done the gig I would have not done a good job and it would have had a negative impact on my mental health. So I said no and it was absolutely OK to do so. This was a liberating experience and I think actually demonstrated some good leadership despite conventional wisdom saying that my cancelling was ‘failure’.
This last six weeks I have had to tell a lot of people and organisations that I cannot do things due to being unwell. The world has not ended. My reputation as an advocate is still intact and I even still have 10,000 followers on my Facebook page! I simply told people that I was unwell and unable to do the various things they had asked me to do. Maybe some organisations I cancelled on will not book me as a speaker again, I’m not sure but it actually doesn’t matter. That has been an important lesson for me to learn.
Leading up to becoming unwell I was working the equivalent of two full-full-time jobs – my actual full-time job and a bunch of advocacy things. I now know that is not OK for me to work that much. I also know that others can do things and I don’t have to do ALL the advocacy things myself! I can decline something. In fact I am planing to adopt a Marie Kondo approach to advocacy and only do the things which spark joy.
I was talking to a similarly overly-achieving friend facing similar issues about this and I said that we needed her to be around to be a leader. Burnout for many if us can be life-threatening. We need to stick around to make a difference and not run ourselves into the ground overworking and taking on a bunch of responsibility. It is OK to say no and it really is OK to not be OK.
People with disability – and especially leaders in the community – often feel we need to prove ourselves and demonstrate that we can do EVERYTHING. It is actually helpful to ditch this attitude. We come with great strengths but we shouldn’t have to somehow convince others that we are superhuman. Accessibility is about having the right supports in place to do what we do rather than glossing over times when things are tough.
It really is OK to not be OK. I think this is an important message for everyone. It is one I have needed to heed myself for some years. Rest assured that I will be keeping it front and centre of my thinking and I will say ‘no’ when I need to say no. I am not ashamed of being not OK. It is part of me and it really is OK.