It’s been months since I wrote for my blog. Months during which many good things worth writing about have happened:
- I celebrated my twentieth wedding anniversary
- I vacationed in Newport and Martha’s Vineyard
- I cut off eight inches of my hair
- I enrolled my third grader in an award-winning school
- My husband turned 50 and is still as sexy as ever to me
Despite these awesome things, I couldn’t bring myself to write a word until today. Writer’s block isn’t to blame. Rather, I’ve come to the conclusion that I either came very close to or reached the point of burnout. This happens sometimes when one experiences long-term, sustained stress, and then it ends.
Have you ever worked like a dog for months or even years without ever getting sick, only to come down with the flu when you finally took a much-needed vacation? Burnout is like that. It sometimes doesn’t hit until the stress finally stops.
Over the past few years, while working a full-time job, I experienced the following chronic stressors: Started and completed a master’s degree; dealt with my husband losing a couple of jobs and the long-term financial fallout; discovered my teenage son was using drugs and sent him to rehab; became estranged from my father for several months; had my heart broken over a beloved couple’s divorce; amongst other things.
Throughout it all, I kept going like the Energizer bunny. I’m sure many people can relate. After all, isn’t that what we Americans do? Many of us take pride in being overly busy. “I don’t have time” has become a favorite mantra.
The one time I came close to losing it, I told an acquaintance, who like me had dealt with a son’s drug use. She told me explicitly and firmly, “You can’t lose it.” And so I made sure that I didn’t.
I didn’t lose it by becoming numb. I stopped doing most of the things that brought me joy and made me feel alive. Things like creative writing, yoga, exercise, regular intimacy with my husband, getting together with friends. I drank too much wine on weekends and stuffed my face late at night with cheese and crackers, bread and butter, while watching mindless television. I gained 10 pounds.
I knew that if I felt the good emotions, I’d have to feel the unbearably painful ones, too. So I tried to stop feeling altogether, and became like a robot.
My days became an exercise of going through the motions. At night, I would awaken from sleep, seized by fear and worry. Sometimes it took hours to fall back asleep, and usually by then it was morning.
When I completed my master’s degree in December 2014, I attempted to revive myself. I started this blog as a creative outlet. I lost 12 pounds through healthy eating and exercise. I headed back to the yoga studio. I reconnected with friends. I read countless self-help books. I got massages. I resolved to find joy in life, to count my many blessings, to choose happiness, to practice gratitude. Adding to this, my husband started making money again, and our son seemed okay.
Life got good again, which is why I’m so frustrated that despite all this, I still feel lifeless and exhausted. This is one of the long-term after-effects of burnout: Your mind, body, and spirit have to be re-trained to feel energized and alive, to know true joy.
Something funny has been happening to me lately, though. The numbness is slowly giving way to stirrings, some of which resemble rebellion. This kind of scares me because I was a really naughty, rebellious teenager. Part of me thinks that I am totally screwed if I regress to that girl; another part is fascinated that she is trying to exert herself after 30 years of silent compliance.
For example, when the alarm goes off in the mornings to remind me to go to work, instead of dutifully turning it off and getting up, I linger in bed, seized by overwhelming sensations of dread and resentment. Damn it, my mind screams, can’t I just sleep in until I naturally wake up?
Nearly every day, either on my way to or from work, I cry.
I daydream often about quitting my job to stay home and tend to my long-neglected family, marriage, house, and self. Finances be damned! Would I rather be broke or die a slow death?
I ponder what would happen if I simply didn’t show up to work one day without explanation, and find the notion of doing something so irresponsible liberating.
I imagine pretending to my family that I’m going to work, but really I escape to a stranger’s house in the woods, where I spend the day curled up in bed. The stranger is always a man, but instead of being in bed with me he is in another room, allowing me to sleep, ready to make me tea and breakfast when I awaken.
I went so far as to write my husband a letter asking for his blessing and permission to take a temporary career break in order to fully rejuvenate. That was weeks ago; he has yet to respond.
At home on weekends, though I have countless housekeeping tasks to tackle, I can’t bring myself to do any of them. It’s almost as if I’m paralyzed. This, I realize, is a form of passive rebellion.
The problem is not my job; my job is one many people would love. Nor is it my family; they rock most days. The problem is me.
I desperately need time to recover from what I have come to conclude is burnout. The cumulative effects of the stress from the past few years took their toll, and not even a two week vacation this summer left me feeling rejuvenated. In fact, it was the opposite; it made me desperate to stop working temporarily in order to rekindle my energy and passion for life.
I want to pursue old passions with vigor and discover new ones. I want to feel fully and completely alive again. I want to wake up energized and enthusiastic about the day ahead. I cannot do this with the residue of burnout still on me, or when I spend 10 hours a day, five days a week, preparing for, commuting to and from, and being at a job.
No more can I tell myself things like, “This, too, shall pass.” No more can I say, “If you can’t change the way things are, change the way you think about them.” No more can I convince myself that shifting my attitude will transform my life. A positive attitude is critical; it attracts more positive things into your life. But one cannot wish or hope a life they love into existence. One must create it through self-directed action.
Sometimes, though, doing nothing for a while is the best and only way to completely heal, and to reclaim your power. This is vital because I have come to realize that to feel burned out is to feel powerless.
Each time we allow circumstances beyond our control or other people’s actions and choices to control our lives and crush our spirits, we give our power away. When we sabotage ourselves, we give our power away. When we engage in unhealthy behaviors and habits, we give our power away. When we blame others for our shitty lives, we give our power away. When we look outside of ourselves for meaning and happiness, we give our power away.
The madness ends here.
Today, I reclaim my power. I take full responsibility for creating a life that I love. I recognize and acknowledge that no one can do this for me but me. Today, I set an intention to call the shots in my life, to have control over my schedule and time, to pursue more creative work, to be readily available to my children, husband, family, and friends, and to be fearless. I aim to create a life in which work and play and family are interwoven seamlessly, fueled by the energy of my passion. Only I can make this happen, with the help of my Creator, and I can do so regardless of who or what is going on around me.
Damn, that felt good!
I end with some relevant and inspiring quotes by poet Mary Oliver:
“Listen–are you breathing just a little, and calling it a life?”
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.”
“I want to think again of dangerous and noble things. I want to be light and frolicsome. I want to be improbable, beautiful and afraid of nothing, as though I had wings.”
“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.”
“Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”