Hindsight is a marvellous thing, isn’t it? When I look back to when I experienced a major burnout, the signs are so obvious….now. Back then however, I just kept believing that “I’ll be right”, “I can handle it” and my all-time favourite, “OK I’ve got a few big weeks coming up, but after that things will slow down a bit.” But you know what? Nothing slowed down.
Are you starting to recognise yourself yet?
I’d spent the best part of 15 years as a working, studying, single parent and prided myself on my juggling skills. My nickname for a while was ‘Kimpossible.’ Sure I’d get tired every now and then but I always bounced back. Until one day I didn’t.
Looking back, I can see that it was a perfect storm. There was some family stress as well as financial stress (always as a single parent!) It was probably my work role that was the final straw though. I was enjoying managing community education programs but, as in all community organisations, there was never enough – never enough funds, not enough resources, not enough staff. I could see my work team being unfairly treated which of course then affects clients. For this reason, I made myself available to my team 24/7 trying to support them as best as possible.
Recognising yourself yet?
I eventually ended up in a PR/mediator role where I would have to smooth the relations between our organisation and another. Often it was poor decisions from those equal or above me that necessitated this. My frustration was almost a living, breathing thing.
At the same time, one of my family members was going through a great deal of pain. It was something I just couldn’t do anything about and the heartbreak and sense of helplessness I felt was almost too much to bear. Circumstances were out of my control and I felt powerless.
I have read an interesting theory that “Wellness is fairness.” Prilleltensky (2011) proposed that optimal wellness can’t be achieved unless there is a sense of fairness and a degree of control. He suggests that the wellness of those who are oppressed or experience injustice will suffer because of it. I tend to agree.
It was this loss of control and the resulting frustration that finally threw me over the edge.
It happened in an instant.
I came home from work early one day, sat on the lounge chair, and didn’t move for about six hours. When I did, it was just to crawl into bed. I have never been so tired in all my life, and to think I was just fine the day before…or so I thought.
Long story short, I ended up taking my 4 weeks’ annual leave and spent most of it dozing on a day bed I set up on my patio. I could manage an hour of activity at a time, maybe 3 or 4 times a day. I managed to just do the bare essentials and spent all of my time concentrating on healing.
When I look back, probably the most dangerous phrase I heard myself say at the time was “But there’s no one else. If I don’t do it no one will.” If you hear yourself or someone you know saying that, consider it an alarm bell. The underlying message is “I will keep going until I can’t.” Funny how the very people that I was trying to protect and support were the ones who ultimately had to protect and support me.
There is ALWAYS someone else. The most important person you need to protect and support is…you.
Read Part 2 in this series, How I made burnout my best friend – a final lesson from my dad.
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