You're king inside your head

“What’s your self-care routine?” the workshop leader asks the room. The answers – drinking herbal tea, sleeping 8 hours, exercising, calling a friend. All pretty obvious. As it is obvious to have a discussion about self-care among volunteers. Every organisation does it, and so they should. Yet, even after all of this discussion and advice, what’s now been dubbed as “self-care” is in reality still relatively absent from the lives and work of many volunteers. Or, in my experience at least, it doesn’t exist to the extent that it allows for a totally healthy mental state for a consistent period of time. It seems plausible that in reality there is no way of keeping a completely balanced mind-set when you are working with refugees. Of course, it would be nice to think that it's possible, and perhaps it is what we should be aiming towards; but there are a number of elements to this work that might be too powerful to nullify with a few cups of tea and an episode of Peep Show.

The nature of volunteering is very different to employed or paid work. There is no “boss”, the working hours are more changeable, and perhaps most importantly, there is always more work that could done. During my time in Nea Kavala, I can safely say that not a day went by where there was not an extra job waiting in the wings. Of course, as is consistently advised, you can’t do it all, and you have to stop at some point. Over time, this does become easier to accept and integrate into your attitude, but that constant sense of lingering work is still very difficult to shift from the mind. The fact that that work would probably be extremely valuable to someone were it to be done deepens the sense of responsibility you feel for not doing it.

Another unusual aspect of this work, which might not apply to every organisation, is the lifestyle of living with the people that you work with. From my experience, this is perhaps one of the most enjoyable aspects of volunteering – the sense of community is like none other that I’ve experienced, and the support that comes from sharing this experience with a group is hugely enriching. Of course, this is also a very intense way to live. If you have had a tough day, it can be hard to take space without feeling as if you are drawing attention to yourself. When you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t yet feel ready to talk about it, it can be exhausting to feel as if you have to hide this from the people around you. Then again, when you do take the space, you also feel a sense of guilt if others in the group are taking that time to do project-related work. Without a strict working schedule, there will almost always be someone in the group doing work, and it takes a lot of practice not to let this bother you.

Working as a volunteer probably also means that you are working alongside some seriously great people, by anyone's standards. For myself, this can in itself be very difficult, as I end up holding myself to an extremely high standard. I always feel like I want to keep up with those around me, and contribute my fair share (or maybe even more) to the group effort. But everyone, inevitably, has bad days and bad weeks. And at those times you might have to take more time in your room, or on walks, or doing absolutely nothing. Ironically, although I can recognise when others are doing that and completely respect them for doing so, when I do so myself I feel as if its undeserved for one reason or another.

When speaking with volunteers and ex-volunteers both in Greece and at home, there is always a common theme of conversation about the sense of guilt that comes hand-in-hand with this line of work. It’s not something that exists only when you come home, but also when you’re on the ground. As well as the obvious existential guilt about the situation, you also feel guilty on a more personal level. You feel bad because you could have done more, or handled something better. You wish you'd spent longer on a lesson plan, or stopped in for tea with a person you haven't seen for a while. Often one might even feel guilty for not practicing self-care enough - not going for a run, not calling your parents. When you aren’t working towards a specified quota, you are your own biggest judge.

On both the individual and the more global level, I’ve often found myself overwhelmed by the seeming injustice that the people who are attempting to help with something in their own wee way are the ones who become wracked with a guilt that not everybody seems to feel. That’s not to morally exalt one group of people over another – it’s more to recognise that this feeling isn’t extinguished simply by working more, doing a stint of volunteering, or practicing more self-care. That deeper sense of responsibility is a feeling that is quick to build up, but very difficult to shift. Perhaps it ought not be shifted - or at least not entirely. Guilt can be a positive thing, when it is used to motivate positive action. And yet becoming enraptured by it, at least in my case, can also be extremely demobilising. There might be some sort of balance to be found, and in my case I'll be spending the next wee while searching for it.

Self-care is, from my what I can tell, an ideal. It’s something that volunteer organisations should work towards and try to make provisions for, but it might also be something that, without a lot of practice (which nobody really has time for), can never be fully realised. Of course, it's still a discussion that's very much worth having, and the practice of self-care ought to be respected and taken extremely seriously - by volunteers, ex-volunteers, and really anyone who's having a bit of a rough time. It might simply be that in reality, as with many things in life, we attempt to shoot for the stars, and try to get everyone into a perfect headspace; and then we actually end up reaching the moon, where everybody does their best and muddles their way through with a little help from Mark and Jez.

(Song - Belle & Sebastian, Play for Today)