By Ben Cartwright | Back out with Benny
I celebrated my 38th birthday last week, and rather than a big party with lots of gifts — as I have done in previous years — I decided to give a gift to myself. Realizing that 38 means that I have legally been an adult for 20 years, it felt like it was time to reflect on those last two decades and think about what lies ahead for me.
While I’ve done pretty well and been fairly lucky in my endeavors, it’s certainly been the result of a lot of hard work. I made the decision many years ago to dedicate my life thus far to serving others, and I don’t see that ever changing. Whether it be in a professional capacity as an employee or leader of an LGBT organization, or by continuing to support causes I care about with my time or resources, I will always be there for my community.
When I entered San Diego State University (SDSU) as a freshman in 1998, all I wanted to do was go to college, study music education and get out in four years. I didn’t plan to make my gayness too big of a deal, though I did pledge to myself that I would be out of the closet to everyone I came into contact with. However, after I was on campus for a couple months, I realized that plan wasn’t as easily said as done due to what I perceived to be a not-so-LGBT-friendly campus culture. I joined the LGBT Student Union in late October 1998, and while I didn’t realize it at the time, that decision changed the course of my life.
Realizing that music wasn’t in the cards for me (in high school I was a talented fish in a small sea, but in college I was just an average fish in a giant sea), I changed my major to “undeclared” and found myself immersed in LGBT community activities. Through being involved with the LGBT student group, I learned so much about the local LGBT community and beyond. I also had the opportunity to meet and learn from many of our community leaders. Because of the work I got involved with, I ended up staying on campus as a student for nine years (I might have purposefully stretched out my time there), and then had the opportunity to be on staff at SDSU for another five years after that. I’m proud of the work accomplished on campus during those years, especially when I see what a great place SDSU is for LGBTQ students today.
That early experience that started 20 years ago really solidified my commitment to my community. Over the years, I’ve learned so much about the diverse parts of our community. As I continue to do this work, it’s incredible what I learn from those around me every day. I love seeing people go from struggling with their identity to being open, proud members of our community who support others. I love when our community comes together to lift each other up. I want to do this work forever in some capacity.
But in my personal reflections on my 38th birthday, I also learned I need to take better care of myself. Many people who do this work spend so much time taking care of others that they forget that the most important person they can take care of is themselves. Without taking care of oneself, it can become nearly impossible at some point to take care of others. Burnout is common in this type of work and I’ve experienced it a few times.
A birthday gift I gave myself truly was to myself. I decided to take some alone time and reflect. I decided to pay better attention to my finances, health and exercise habits. I’m taking a minimum six weeks break from drinking alcohol (as of the date of this publication I’m on day 20!), and I’m re-evaluating the relationships I have with other people. I’m going to stand up for myself more in group settings, at work, and in spaces where I deserve to be heard, while continuing to advocate for those who have less privilege than me to be heard.
It’s all part of focusing on that thing we call “self-care,” although I look at self-care differently than many of my friends and colleagues. People often make pledges to themselves to engage in more self-care, but that often means scheduling time for a massage, bubble bath or glass of wine. To me, scheduling time to relax just seems like additional work and stress. I think self-care is a daily process ingrained in
everything I do. I take short breaks throughout the day, ensure that my work is meaningful so that I actually enjoy it, and make sure that the people around me are loving, supportive, and just good people.
I’ve still got a lot of learning to do, but in my 20 years of adulthood, I think I’m finally ready to take the advice I’ve given so many people over the years: take care of yourself first. I’m ready to practice what I preach. Happy birthday to me.
— Benny Cartwright is the director of community outreach at the San Diego LGBT Community Center. He can be reached at 619-692-2077 ext. 106 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Note: Byline photo by Rob Lucas Modern Aperture Photography.