Written by Praneetha M
Trigger warning: Suicidal themes
As I sat back to write this piece and tell the world about some of my darkest, weakest moments, I had intended to focus on just one particular incident. However, I soon realized that it was a cumulative turn of events and my efforts towards them that had led me to a complete and utter burnout 15 years since I started working for animals and the environment. I was 6 when I first knew I wanted to work with animals; 10 when I decided to dedicate my life to the protection and preservation of the environment and planet for good. So, my path was clear. I knew the courses I would take, the Universities I wanted to attend and the work I needed to do. Irrespective of any turmoil in my personal life, whether problems at home, in relationships or friendship drama, my professional life was always balanced. It was too important to let anything affect it, and all these years it wasn’t really hard either. I found peace in my work and it hasn’t ever been just a career. It’s been being in love with it and passion, and soon turned into my purpose.
Cut to 2021, post the successful release of a long term rehabilitated wild animal, I found myself completely exhausted. To give a bit of background, a sub-adult Bonnet Macaque was found with extensive and fatal injuries by electrocution. In our parts of the country, this species is as much considered a pest as they are revered as Gods. The local shelter that has the space and license for wild animal rehabilitation is ridden with multiple infections, staff that doesn’t really want to nurture an animal in need, and tens of animals drop dead there every month. The other authority responsible for the local wildlife does not have the facility or the expertise for wild animal rehabilitation. Some other “rescuers” do not have the permits or training, species-specific arrangement or awareness, and fail to provide the right tools during rehabilitation or end up relocating the animal. Now, no authority or organization wants to admit to any of these shortcomings, so I was given permission to carry out this rehabilitation on my own with none of the resources or funding they had. I was also told, “if anything happens to this monkey under your care, it will be your head on the line.” Thankfully, I could rely on my years of experience with animals, their ecology, my studies and training. I later discovered that another animal welfare worker had found themselves on the authority’s radar for questioning a rescue gone awry, and now they were looking to make an example out of anyone else. I was in the crossfire. At the same time, someone I counted on for departmental support also put it to me bluntly – if push comes to shove, they wouldn’t have my back. I pushed through all of this because that little monkey needed me to be stronger than any number of attempts to threaten me. So began our 3 – month journey of healing and recovering. During this period, I also had to shift back to my mom’s as I had moved out a while back and temporarily stayed at my grandparents’ because the former wasn’t exactly the best place for my mental health. Continuing from the previous patterns, every little act of help that was given to me during this time was followed by a guilt trip for “doing so much” for me. I was constantly hassled with “why can’t you leave him elsewhere?” or “why can’t someone else take care of him?”, as has been the norm with any rescue that comes home with me. Any invested, ethical rehabilitator who has been doing this work for as long as I have will tell you why. Nurturing a life isn’t about us, it’s about the animal in question. It’s a responsibility and if there isn’t another person that can be trusted with their life, you don’t take the chance. Medically, we didn’t know if he would make it because his condition was beyond putting a time frame on.
For the next few months, as I slowly nurtured him back to health along with the medical treatments and vet visits, I also had to make sure he was alive – one, for obvious reasons. But, two, because I also had a sword dangling over my head by the authorities who had threatened me with a legal trap if he were to, in simpler terms, die. I was racked with guilt for even having the thought that I did not want to be making rounds to offices and courts if his health did head in an untoward direction. How could I think of myself when this little guy was in such excruciating pain and confusion? That’s how most conservationists and rehabilitators, or at least the ones I have met and spoken to, feel. We don’t let ourselves dwell on our own well-being because obviously, the planet’s needs far exceed our own. But a conversation with 2 of my friends really changed me for the better for the rest of my life. They said, and I quote, “Dedicating yourself to the environment and wildlife does not mean burning yourself for other people’s actions. It is completely okay to want the animal to be safe and free, while also being concerned for your safety and well-being. The 2 aren’t mutually exclusive and feeling afraid for yourself isn’t selfish.”
As I navigated through the authorities and my situation at home, I was also working on a permanent solution to this electrocution problem. The main lines were insulated, spacers placed and soon, the grounding work was also done. Thankfully, the electricity department was very co-operative and quick. Although I had faced dire, pressurizing circumstances before, this time was different because of multiple reasons – The pandemic, my work of networking for Covid affected individuals, coordinating passive rescues and helping people care for more animals around them that couldn’t be transported (keeping in mind different situations and prioritizing the animal’s needs), being stuck in a mentally and emotionally draining household, managing my own PCOD symptoms that would flare up every time my stressors fluctuated and constant anxiety for the people, environment and animals everywhere. I realized I needed some form of external help to understand how to deal with all this pressure at once. My mom introduced me to therapy and I’ll forever be grateful to her for destigmatizing mental health help from a very young age. I have been seeking professional therapy voluntarily since I was in my undergrad, but my regular therapist was not accessible to her patients due to the pandemic. I had to look for a new one, who said I should drop my animal welfare work because she hadn’t seen anyone care so much about something else other than their own lives, especially other species that they would push through many, many struggles just to ensure that wildlife would have a chance. It’s hard to drop a therapist when finding one is so difficult, but it’s harder to stick with a therapist who doesn’t get you, your work or understand where you’re coming from. My search for another professional was unyielding so I spent the remainder of this time doing little things on my own that seemed to help.
The day the little monkey went back all healthy to his troop, non-humanized and risk-free of further electrocutions to himself and all other animals in the area, I felt extremely heavy. I was relieved and happy about the successful release and to have had no further incidents with the main lines in the area, but something inside me felt amiss. The first thing I did was move back to my grandparents’ after calmly explaining at home that I needed a break. I also hadn’t been to the forests or mountains that I so loved, in about a year because of the pandemic and a huge part of my soul was feeling like it hadn’t been nourished. I had firmly stated that I need some time for my mental peace and I have to be able to find that, but I also needed to work on my exhaustion first and listen to what my body and mind needed. I am an empath, and energies everywhere affect me in a way that I have to frequently regulate and understand what I’m feeling and why, to be able to maintain healthy energy levels. In spite of multiple requests and explaining over and over what I needed, the toxic patterns kept repeating themselves. 48 hours in, I had had 2 panic attacks, hyperventilation and my heart rate had skyrocketed, all the while I was alone in the room with texts and calls, the contents that no one should have to receive when on a breakdown. My grand-mom was in the other room, unaware of my condition and I couldn’t reach out to her due to the fear that she would end up panicking and not know what to do, which in turn would affect her health immensely. That wouldn’t help anyone. By the end of my episode, I was physically, mentally and emotionally beaten. My body felt weak and I couldn’t bring myself to move. My emotions were all over the place and the tears just kept streaming down my face, and mentally I could think of only one thing. I had become dangerously suicidal. My mind was foggy and the easiest way out I could think of was to turn it off and end it all. I vaguely remember writing a note to the handful of people who knew me and my struggles, apologizing for giving up, but I couldn’t go on. At that moment, when I was completely out of it, there was one tiny sliver of courage that I could muster. I picked up the phone and made a call to my sister, a sister not by blood but by love, loyalty and bonds of the family we had built over many years. I remember absolutely breaking down for the third time in the night, bawling my eyes out, seeking refuge in her warmth over a call while she held me tight from a thousand miles away. That night, she saved me from across different continents while the ones who held me by blood had pushed me to the edge of a cliff. For hours I went over all the trauma that I had endured and as the sun’s first rays raised up my windows, so did my resolve to do better by myself and my overall wellbeing. I had previously tried to keep relationships intact for the sole reason that they were blood while balancing my mental health. I had previously pushed through toxic work cultures for the reason that there were other lives in need, and I was in the position to help and work towards their betterment. It had taken going to the brink to prioritize my emotional and mental well-being over patterns that I realized would never change unless I took the step out. In the next few hours, I had packed my bags, made the excruciatingly painful decision of leaving behind at home the only points of control they had over me (my 2 rescued babies who mean the world to me, who I had decided to later bring with me or find a better home for) and left to the only family I had known in a city 4 hours away from my current one.
Once there, it didn’t get better all at once. I still had anxiety attacks, was blank to anything external and plain exhausted. I thought a few days of rest would help me get back on track but I didn’t realize the complete extent of my burnout until things I could regularly do were becoming cumbersome. Previously, working on my laptop for article research would be free-flowing; now I could hardly sit and focus for more than 15 or 20 minutes. Simple, small things like sharing an Instagram story about all the things going wrong in the world and sharing my opinion or resources for it was an everyday thing once; now, I would just swipe through, not having the energy to write or invest anything in it. I would take a few dozen passive rescue calls every week, but now, taking a single call would hurt my head and make me feel deprived of the very little energy I could manage to have each day. So, I sent out an update saying I wouldn’t be taking any cases since I was working on my mental health. All I did for months after, was spend time with the people who were really invested in getting me back on my feet. I have been extremely fortunate to have this tribe because it took a lot of unloading of my emotions, them coaxing me into at least eating a bite or going out on a drive and slowly bringing back the fire that had dimmed inside of me. I was also feeling extremely guilty because I remember constantly pondering over how I could need a break from something I have always loved doing. How is it that I could no longer bring myself to do the bare minimum towards my life’s purpose? Was this field not meant for me? And that thought scared me because this has always been my path and I couldn’t ever imagine myself doing anything else or being in any other field. Was I selfish to hang around with my family while the world was going up in flames and the animals and environment were still under fire of climate emergency?
I openly speak about all this because when a physical part of our bodies is hurt or injured, we give it the time, treatment and rest it needs. Sometimes, for months and years after, we still treat it with care and caution, building healthier lifestyles and avoiding a repeat incident. We need to treat our minds and emotions the same way, if not with more commitment. As conservationists or animal welfare workers, we feel, the weight of the planet and its protection lies solely on our shoulders. I know I do. Taking a break feels criminal if I’m not in some capacity working towards improving myself or trying to make the planet a better place for at least one other life either actively or passively. We don’t give ourselves enough credit for the knowledge we have, the work we do and how much of ourselves and our other relationships we set aside just to be able to contribute to preserving our planet. Very few people in our lives understand this and it can sometimes get lonely, not being able to share with someone the urgency or anxiety you feel.
When I see a sick or diseased dog on a street, I make sure to find a local – resident, shopkeeper or vendor, have a conversation and if they agree, give them some basic medicines, my number, a reliable local shelter’s number for the well – being of the said dog, which in time translates to them being neutered (considering age and health) and eventually themselves taking responsibility for others around them. When I see a conflict situation, I always make sure to at least initiate a conversation with facts, emotion and consideration for both sides. More often than not, when my well-meaning friends see this, I’m met with “you know you can’t save everyone, right?”. How do I explain to them that that is where change begins? At the beginning of little actions. In the initiation of conversations. And the fact that when I see something that can be and should be changed, as someone who is constantly aware of the world’s state, letting it slide seems like a massive opportunity for spreading compassion, lost?
Being a rehabilitator also means that some animals reach me in the direst of circumstances, on the brink, with no guarantee of whether they will make it. Each one gets my undivided attention and commitment, not just for the duration of their nurturing but towards ensuring that neither them nor others around them or within their species will have to face the same situation (applies only to human inflicted causes). When I do lose an animal under my care, or one that I have been passively helping takes a toll on me. Even when an animal that I have never met dies because of human inflictions in one way or another, or when a massive forest is being destroyed or when the ocean’s lives are suffocating, it breaks a little part of my heart. A lot of my fieldwork also takes me to remote areas with no network for long durations. It’s inexplicably difficult for someone looking to be your partner to understand why my heart can break over the planet so frequently or why I need to go out to the field when it has fewer luxuries than our urban settings can provide or why I feel not understood when they ask me to come home as soon as possible. How do I explain that the planet feels more my home than the city I grew up in? Is it possible to tell them that being in the wilderness and the bonds formed within nature make me believe in the magic of connections, transparency and reinstate in me the confidence I have in our people and the planet, and they actually relate or even understand what I’m saying?
So many questions, emotions and we don’t always have answers. Throughout this journey, what I have understood is that we need to listen to our body, mind and soul. Feed it with what nurtures it at the deepest level we can discover. We need to listen to someone when they express what brings them peace and stand by them for it. I’m still learning that it’s all a process. A lot of the trauma inflicted upon us by others is the result of a lack of self-awareness or the lack of recognizing their own traumas. Every person at some point in their lives needs to heal, mentally and emotionally. Heal from the pain caused to them by things that they could or couldn’t control. Once I started recognizing my own destructive patterns of pushing myself extensively, not resting, burning myself out, not drawing a line between cutting off and giving another chance with the human relationships (not only romantic but familial and friendships too), it got plainly easier to stabilize my mental health. Since then, I’ve made choices that have been difficult but right, and they’ve been paying off. I’m healing, setting boundaries, recovering and defining my own strengths. At the end of the day, it takes a village.
Like I always say, the fact that you care is your biggest strength. Don’t let anybody convince you otherwise. Honesty, passion and love should be basic human qualities, not the highest level of them. I truly believe in the beauty of human bonds; they can be as beautiful as they can be terrifying. It doesn’t have to be destructive or tiresome. I’m no expert but people aren’t perfect, none of us are. We all have our flaws and traumas. We’re all fighting battles and learning every day because easy isn’t always right and fairness is hard. The weight of the world is shouldered by us all together but combined with compassion, it will eventually seem less like weight and more, a journey with its own ups and downs. This is what I have experienced. I promise, there are good people out there who will not give up on you when you are at your lowest or feeling at your worst.
The strongest advocacy I can share is to keep your tribe close. When you’re at your lowest, hold on to the people who really show up. Not out of obligation, but out of love. No one should have to go through their moments alone. Know your people; those who help you grow and those who bring you down. Whether they’re blood or not, whether they’re friends or family or a community; uphold others, and let others uphold you. Not only because the world could use more of that always, but because we know what it feels like to be on the other side of it. But mostly, because there’s already so much fear, doubt and being closed off, we don’t need any more of it! Sometimes, it’s hard to ask for help, be vulnerable or admit that we need support. But please, understand that being strong also means accepting the limits of our bodies, minds and emotions. Asking to be held, literally or metaphorically doesn’t make us weak. Needing a break doesn’t make us selfish. Yearning for someone to understand us in our burning passion as well as our broken hearted-ness doesn’t make us desperate or lonely. It makes us human.
Set your boundaries, but don’t overstep those of others. Reach out, but don’t settle for anything less than absolute truth and compassion. Understand when to leap, when to stop. Understand the triggers. Seek help, have conversations; professional and personal. Show up for yourself, and others. If there’s one thing my sister has taught me (who I have spoken about in the beginning), it is to be someone’s first and loudest cheer when they’re doing well, and their first hug and pillar of support when they’re doing not so well. It is also of paramount importance to be self-aware and understand the importance of taking care of ourselves, in an all-around way. Little lights make the brightest homes. Every person trying to make our planet a better place for all the lives in it are the ones who will one day make that change shine bright. And shine it will. Because strength in its truest form is love, kindness, empathy and being a voice!
Each of us gives hope, strength and love in a world that can constantly feel like it’s breaking apart; and everything slowly becomes a little happier and more hopeful. You and I, we’re all together in the pursuit of a better, kinder world. May your light never fade and your spark never be lost! Build a tribe for yourself, and be one for another. The only thing our world needs most of is love and compassion. Spread the support, cheer for one another, and be someone’s rock as well as yourself. Rest, take a beat, heal. And then you get back up; loving and living more fiercely. Living the truth and building compassion unapologetically! Because love and kindness spread in the world never goes in vain; it’s never lost! As Luna Lovegood says “Things we lose always have a way of coming back to us, if not always in the ways we expect.” My mantra is simple – Shine bright, love hard and choose kindness for all lives around you, always. Including yourself.
For more of Praneetha, check out @the_biophilic_world on Instagram