I’m going to tell you a secret. It’s not a secret that will destroy countries or tear apart families. But I’m not proud of it. But then again, I guess I’m not really ashamed of it either. It happened, through no fault of anyone’s, as it does to so many of us, just because of Life.
I haven’t told too many people because well, it’s not something that is considered appropriate family holiday dinner conversation or water cooler chit chat. My parents know. Soldier Boy knows. A couple of really good friends know. But most likely nobody else really cares to know. Unless it’s happened to you. Then it’s always comforting to hear that you weren’t the only one.
Last April, I completely burned out. There it is. See? Not exactly earth-shattering. Though it was for me.
I ran out of fuel. I hit an emotional rock bottom. Kaput. Finito. I. WAS. DONE.
There was one moment in April that was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back and in retrospect, it wasn’t really a big deal. But where I was emotionally at that time, it was the end.
I packed a bag and ran away from my life. I am lucky that my parents live relatively closeby. I am also incredibly lucky that they are two of the most compassionate and loving people I will ever know. I drove an hour to their house, where they fed me and politely avoided talking about what really happened. They kept my wine glass full, brought an extra blanket to my childhood bedroom and tucked me in.
And so began a journey of self-discovery. Because I had no idea who I really was anymore. I was a stranger to myself. I was a robot, going through the motions every single day of what everyone else expected of me. I was lost. I was a shell. I was nothing.
Looking back, it was a very dark and lonely place to be. I cried every day. I was exhausted every day. I was angry and snappish and sarcastic every minute of every day. I hated my job. I hated going to wherever it was I was sleeping that night. I hated pretending that nothing was wrong. I hated knowing that even if I had been honest, nobody would have cared. (Which isn’t exactly true – a few people would care – but when you’re in a dark hole in your mind, you are all alone.)
How I made it to summer holidays, I have no idea. April to June were a blur. I kept myself unrelentingly busy. I lived out of a gym bag. I moved from house to house. (I couldn’t live with Soldier Boy because I couldn’t be around other emotionally pained people). I paid no heed to my worsening health conditions or to the amount of wine I was consuming every night. I had absolutely no plan for what needed to get done in a day. I said ‘No’ to everyone and everything. I was in pure survival mode.
It wasn’t until July, when Soldier Boy and I went to Iceland and got away from everything that I was able to start the slow processing of healing. Iceland, as a whole, is not a crowded country and we travelled the Westfjords, the most remote part of Iceland accessible by a regular car. It was sparsely populated and stunning, rugged scenery met us around every bend and over every crest. Soldier Boy and I spent hours in the car, driving, being silent together, soaking in the scenery, then talking and laughing with each other as we hadn’t done in months, maybe longer.
When we came home, I set up for three weeks at the cabin. I went for days without talking to people, other than texting Soldier Boy and having my dog as company. The silence, the withdrawal from life and being surrounded by nature – things more stable, wiser and greater than myself – were needed to start coming to terms with who I was now.
Burnout affects everyone differently so I didn’t actually know that burnout was what was happening to me when it was actually happening. Nor was I able to determine what caused it until much later. It wasn’t until returning from Iceland and settling in the silence of our cabin in the woods for a month that I was able to work through the jumble of ideas and emotions that had buried me in darkness. If you are a Game of Thrones fan, you know the scene in the Battle of the Bastards when Jon Snow emerges atop the surging mass of soldiers? That is what I picture when I try to describe what it felt like to come out of the fog of emotional emptiness I had been in for the previous few months (or longer). It was an everyday struggle and profound and inexplicable emotions would drag me under again on a regular basis. I slept an incredible amount and let my physical body heal from six months of illness. I sat and stared at the lake and into the woods for hours and let my mind rest and heal. I walked with my dog, reforging an unbreakable bond with him, that let my heart heal from the emotional beating it had taken. I regularly looked at life through my camera lens, recognized and remembered beauty and let my spirit heal.
At the beginning of September, I felt that I could finally cope with the regular world again.
So what caused it? Well, for the longest time I didn’t know. But after months of quiet internal reflection and then several sessions with a professional, it turned out to be, as it often is, an accumulation of things. I don’t know when it started but I know I started to unravel after returning home from the Balkans. Since visiting Bosnia over Christmas holidays, I had been feeling disillusioned with North American society. Travelling often reminds us how to live in a Tiny world. People in other parts of the world have smaller living spaces and they don’t have the excess material goods that North Americans crave. They seem to see through the bullshit of it all. Material goods don’t factor into their worth. Both Soldier Boy and I gain so much from the places that we travel. We see poverty and struggle, we see compassion and resilience. We see humanity. We often feel like we were born in the wrong country because we don’t fit into the North American model of consumerism. Sometimes this makes some aspects of our culture hard to deal with. Not only that, but having met people who survived four years of snipers, no electricity or running water and eating rotten food during the siege of Sarajevo, I had very little patience for the affluent and entitled attitudes of not only the first world but also the community in which I worked every day. It always disturbs me to see their very real and honest belief that we, people of privilege, are owed everything. It is actually quite surreal to see that kind of warped worldview in action. If you were shocked and disturbed by Trump winning the election, well, that’s the feeling I had every day for years. The thought that had been constantly coursing through my mind when witnessing blatant disrespect, lack of compassion and the worshipping of material goods and wealth was, “Is this really happening?”
For months I had felt that I had lost my purpose in life. I mourned the loss of the passionate and active fighter of human and animal rights that my younger self had been. It seemed an incredible loss of potential having turned 40 and not having personally achieved any real change for the betterment of the world. I felt utterly useless.
In the early months of the year, in hopes of alleviating the overpowering feeling of uselessness, I connected with a group of animal welfare advocates that helps Bosnian rescuers raise funds and find homes for the stray animals in Sarajevo. The endless stories of animal abuse wore on me. I know now that dealing with evil such as is wrought on the animals of the world, there is a huge emotional learning curve. Eventually, it becomes easier to bear. But in February and March last year, the constant stories of violence and cruelty scored my soul.
Throughout all of this, from the second week of January to the second week of July, I was sick. I got every single virus and illness that even remotely touched the people around me – strep throat, sinusitis twice, a flu-bug (or foreign food bacteria, still not sure which it was) that lasted two full weeks (I started to wonder if I’d ever be able to eat again), bronchitis three times, each lasting at least three weeks, the final being so bad that I could hardly breathe without spasming into a coughing fit. And one final sinus cold, while I had the final bout of bronchitis. I had used up every sick day I had in six months and had been on course after course of medication. I was even on antibiotics when I went to Iceland in July.
I was also overwhelmed and undervalued at work, as so many of us are. The expectations were almost unachievable and many of us were not recognized for anything we contributed. It’s quite a heavy emotional weight on one’s spirit to feel, day in and day out, that you don’t matter. Every day I went to work, I wondered, “What’s the point? I could disappear and no one would even notice.”
And quietly, almost imperceptibly, something else was wearing me out. I had been not just a partner but also a caregiver to Soldier Boy for almost two years as he struggled to find someone to listen to him about his broken ankle, find a solution to the pain, to get through surgery and physio only to have his ankle break again. He was in a dark, dark place as well. And I totally understood his frustration and anger at the malpractice of the whole situation. But with everything else piling on, I couldn’t be near someone who was also struggling with their own sinking emotional state. I couldn’t buoy him up anymore. I had no strength left and I was being pulled under.
And the hits kept coming. In the spring, I found out that two similar-aged colleagues of mine, who I greatly admire, were diagnosed with cancer. A week later, I learned another colleague that I had known for years had died of cancer the year before. To add insult to injury, I came to the abrupt realization that I had been used and disposed of by someone I had considered a long-time friend. While all of these things are crummy or sad – yet manageable – on their own, together they compounded. And since I also struggle with anxiety on a daily basis and obsessive-compulsive tendencies, none of these things were simple to work through. My soul didn’t ever have enough time to process what was happening before the next tragedy happened.
I know people go through much more and don’t get burned out. I’m fully aware of that. For quite some time I felt weak and ashamed for getting to where I was. But I have also learned that it’s not a competition and when you reach a point where you can’t handle anything anymore, you are burned out. And maybe it’s physical, maybe it’s emotional, maybe it’s both. Interestingly, I’ve heard of studies that show that being witness to strife is actually more stressful than being victim to it. None of what happened to me would be considered trauma, but I felt I was endlessly watching trauma of those I care for or of those who can’t defend themselves. And the only thing I could do was sit back and watch it happen. Perhaps it’s the burden and magnitude of not being able to help that is so stressful. I’ve also heard the phrase “compassion fatigue”. Maybe it was that too.
The reason I’m writing about this is because it happens more often than you think, to people around you who seem to be coping fine. I felt that I had to document the journey somehow. As I started to regain perspective, I realized that I had forgotten the Tiny Life ideals that I embraced almost two years ago, when we bought the tiny cabin and made the commitment to live the Tiny Life. I had become so busy with taking care of things and trying to do it all that I had completely abandoned the practice of mindfulness and intentional living. I was too overwhelmed to be authentic and too emotionally drained to fight for anything that mattered.
When we don’t take the time to properly process the emotional events and ideas that affect us, we end up reacting and ruminating instead of reflecting. We end up catastrophizing instead of planning. We end up with too much that we haven’t figured out how to handle. We don’t have the time to understand what it really means to us and then to integrate this new, powerful information into our lives. It takes conscious effort to fight the cultural norm that surrounds us every day to do everything and instead to keep sacred a personal and emotional space where we can nurture our hearts and souls.
So how is life different now? How do I make sure it doesn’t happen again? Well, I’ll be honest, I needed a professional to help me figure out my next steps. She guided me through dealing with my daily anxiety. We also had long discussions about self-worth, friendships, trust and finding purpose. I changed jobs. I now work in a neighbourhood where people’s priorities are different. Soldier Boy seems to be finally on the mend and feeling physically and emotionally better. I’ve become more connected with the animal rescue groups and instead of focusing on the cruelty, I focus on the celebration of every animal that is rescued, nursed back to health, or finds a forever. I remind myself daily that I am a contributing to a better world. I am part of something good. I bring less work home and have more recharge time. I also have more time to connect on a regular basis with family, friends and groups that share the same interests. We rescued another dog (bringing our total hound count up to 3) and every time I look at them, I know that I have saved lives. My health is a top priority. Because we have three dogs, I walk more, which contributes to a healthier body. The quiet time of the dog walk is also a good time for recharging my introverted soul. I make only one commitment a week to going out in the evening. Soldier Boy and I meal plan so our evenings are more relaxed and we schedule date nights to reconnect with each other.
Overall, I have slowed down. I make time to write in my journal, to keep the house fairly clean (because a messy house causes me to be unhappy), to read. I’ve realized that not everything has to get done. I’ve realized that nobody is counting on me, but in a good way. The world won’t implode if I don’t decorate the house for Christmas or have my reports done early or lead a committee. I still say “no” a lot. But always with a smile and a gracious acknowledgement of the invitation. I don’t have any expectations of what the world holds for me. This is a good thing. Because then I never get disappointed, I don’t pass judgement and I don’t create stress in my life by trying to control things that were never under my control in the first place. I now recognize the signs of stress and busyness and I stop them as early as I can.
It’s almost December now and I’m doing well. I’m happy. I have a purpose. I’m actually excited for Christmas. I’m excited to see friends and family. I’m excited to find out what they’ve been up to. I’m excited to tell them about all the interesting things I’ve been doing (the content of this post won’t be one of them). I have a better handle on the world. I feel like I know who I should be. I like who I’ve become. Quoting a meme I found this summer, “Maybe the journey isn’t really about becoming something. Maybe it’s about unbecoming everything that isn’t really you, so you can be who you were meant to be in the first place.”