Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Accepting and Dealing with Burnout


I’ve been a workaholic my entire life, and a big part of why that is deals with the fact that I struggle intensely with chronic depression, anxiety, stagnant migraines, and emotional trauma. When I work and throw myself into creative and academic ventures, I don’t think about all that ugliness, and as a result, it helps me cope and survive and do work that helps people all while giving me something to be proud of.

For 30 years, that lifestyle worked and helped me keep the monsters at bay. People were thrilled to see me at every event, at every reading. They were excited when I would travel to conventions and conferences, when I would organize workshops and events throughout the city. 

What they didn't like, however, was about two years ago when all that started to stop, when I started to say I was tired, that I didn't have the energy to keep working at that pace. I stopped going to a lot of events. I took a break from doing readings, from going to every conference, and people had no problem telling me I was selfish, that I was throwing away opportunities, that I was being a bad friend--and because I didn't want to be perceived as weak or rude, I told myself I could handle it and I kept pushing through.

And then I got sick. 
And then I got sicker.

And as they tend to do, things only got worse.



Let me talk about my average workday:
  • I wake up around 6:30 a.m., shower, get ready for work, wrestle an adorable pit bull out of bed so I can take him outside, feed him, smother him in kisses, and start my day.
  • I usually listen to an audio book during all of this (because I have to squeeze in time to read when I can), or I put on my tape recorder and talk through story ideas.
  • I have a full-time position that I'm responsible for, but I also teach an undergraduate literature class, too, and then I’m currently teaching two graduate courses online that I also have to prep for, teach, and then grade. Note: Sometimes there are more than three classes in total, but this semester, I only took on that amount.
  • A lot of my work includes me starting at a computer screen or reading non-stop, which puts  strain on my eyes, which often times triggers a migraine, and for the better part of this year (until recently because I dragged myself kicking and screaming to the doctor) I was getting migraines about 15 times a month.
  • When I clock out for the day, I try to cook dinner---not because I have to for Dennis, but rather because I love to cook and it helps me manage my stress and do something I love at the same time—and then I take a break for about 60-90 minutes.

Next, I have a list of tasks that on any given evening, I have to work through:
  • I have to prep for and grade papers for my undergraduate and graduate classes.
  • I edit for a small-press so I have manuscripts to work on, read through, and/or market.
  • I mentor/edit for another small-press so I have clients who I need to work with and lessons that needs to be prepped there as well.
  • I review books on my website, so once a month, I try to write a book review. (Please note that I do this for free because I love books and supporting authors).
  • I host author interviews on my website, so I juggle that in when I can, too. (Please note, that I do this for free because I love books and supporting authors).
  • I edit the HWA Poetry Showcase every year so from April-August, I’m usually working on that; I also juror for the Stoker Awards from time to time.
  • I have to maintain scholarly research and publications in my field so a lot of research goes into my job, not to mention to course proposals, etc.
  • Oh, and then I write. 

Please note that none of the above includes any—and I mean any—typical day-to-day stuff like: laundry, cleaning, grocery shopping, walking our dog, meal prepping, scheduling doctor appointments, picking up medication, going to the gym, doing lawn work, etc.---all of which still gets done throughout the week when I can muster up the energy to do it.

This was all easier to maintain when for years—and I do mean years—I suffered from insomnia. I hardly slept, and when I did, I slept on the couch or on the floor of my living room because the comfort and intimacy of my bedroom terrified me. When I reconnected with Dennis a few years ago, he—my forever guardian angel--helped me through this, and now I can usually sleep in our bed (with Apollo, my other little blessing) to be asleep around 10:30-11:00 p.m.---something that I’m trying to be very strict about (mostly for my migraines).

I’m bringing all of this up because I know that I’m not the only one whose life is structured like this, and mind you, I don’t have children so I have it a lot easier than most. Even still, I can’t leave my house without my planner or my cell phone because all of my obligations, meetings , and deadlines are pre-programmed into them and without that type of organization, things simply wouldn’t get finished when they needed to, and with the field that I’m in, everything depends and functions based on deadlines. Nevertheless, I write this—mostly because I need to read it and see it on the page—because I have zero time for myself, for fun, for relaxation, for general enjoyment. I’ve become so engrossed in trying to survive, and pay my bills, and keep ahead of the game, and publish, that I forgot how to live. I feel immense guilt (and shame) if I’m not working constantly, and with the amount of people who depend on me (and who think it’s okay to use me because they know I’m a teacher and an editor), my life is often suffocating.

Honestly, I find myself crying a lot these days.

Now I talk a lot about mental health every day in my day job, and let’s not lie, it’s everywhere in my creative work, too, and something that I consistently ignore--despite the fact that I tell everyone else this--is that you’re not any good to others unless you’re good to yourself first. I mean, that’s why they tell you to put on your gas mask first before helping others in the event that something happens on the plane during your flight.

Why? Because Self-care is important. 
It’s necessary.
And I’ve been giving it the middle finger for 30 years.


A few years ago, I put myself back in therapy. I’ve watched myself go through a lot of pain in my life and a lot of time it’s hard to get up and look in the mirror, to look at my scars (both real and invisible), not to mention visit family on holidays, go the cemetery to pay my respects, or pick up the phone to tell someone that I love them. It’s hard for me to pretend everything is okay, when it’s not, and hasn’t been okay for a very long time.

Some of that is my fault.
Some of that isn’t.

So here I am, writing this letter to myself and to you, because I’m tired: mentally, emotionally, and physically. I need a break. I need to teach myself how to be happy again, and I need to remind myself that I have wonderful, beautiful, inspiring people in my life who love me and care about me, and then I’m going to let myself spend more time with those people because that should be a priority, that should be on my to-do list.

I’m going to let myself sleep when I’m tired. I’m going to drink water (instead of coffee or tea). I’m going to go to the gym and nourish my body with food I spent time preparing and blessing in my kitchen. I’m not going to set a reading goal next year and I’m only going to read books I want to read regardless of whether or not they’re timely or recently published or something I’ve been shamed about not reading because I have gaps in my knowledge and reading history (just like literally everyone else does on this planet). I’m going to finish my next book when I finish it, not because I have to meet some imaginary deadline in my head (one that I put there), but because I want to enjoy writing it. I need to slow down, to learn to say no instead of always saying yes, and I need to be okay with putting myself first.

Why?

Because I told myself that when/if it stopped being fun, I wouldn’t do it anymore.

And lately, it’s stopped being fun.

So it’s time to breathe some life back into myself and my art. It’s time to realize that some things and people are never going to change, but that I’m not one of those things; I can change and I can choose to remove myself from situations that make me feel uncomfortable or bad, or from people who don’t cherish or appreciate my time, my mind, and my heart.

Does this mean I'm going to quit doing everything? No. Of course not. At the end of the day, I really love what I do, but I need to learn how to structure and manage it better.  All of this just means that I'm going to be pickier about how I spend my time, who I spend it with, what projects I take on, etc. It means that I still want to be included and brainstormed with and invited out and to things, but that I might have to say no from time to time.

I need to rebuild myself, to put my best self forward, and I’m looking forward to meeting a new version of myself, and to seeing a lighter, happier, healthier version of her, too, because burnout is real and the pressure in this industry and in this field and in this life is intense. So while I hope that you all continue to be kind to each other, I hope you’ll also remember to be kind to yourselves, too.

Because I know it’s something that I really need to work on.

And for once, I intend to put in the work.

With love and gratitude,
Stephanie







4 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing this with us! Mental health is vastly important and once things stop being fun, something has to give. Most of us think we can do it all, or accept living with unsupportive partners. We have to do what's good for us or suffer the consequences.

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  2. This is very inspirational that you actually put into words your struggles and published them, even calling out a few people, though not by name. I wish I had that courage. I deal with so much mentally and emotionally on a daily basis that I'm beginning to drown in all of it. Unfortunately, I have a shitty support system. If I were to ever write something like this, as cathartic as it would be in the moment, I'd instantly panic and delete it because I'd fear the social ramifications. I'd fear especially my mother flipping shit and telling me I am selfish and have nothing to complain about and how her life is so much worse than mine. It's frustrating. It's suffocating to bottle it all up and never be able to give these emotions and mental struggles a voice.

    Writing this is part of the healing process.
    Sending much love,
    Jeanine

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  3. Wow, does this ever hit close to home! Thank you for so honesty and eloquently articulating this struggle. I hope you find your balance and take good care of yourself. You deserve it!

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