It’s not a word I’ve actively avoided or feared, it’s just something I didn’t think applied to me. Well-meaning friend leans in with the conspiratorial whisper: “So, is it burnout, is that why you’re leaving??” “No, it’s not that, it’s…”
But last weekend I sat with a friend in her backyard, which looks very close to what I imagine the Garden of Eden would, and had a lovely meandering chat, basking in her refracted Burning Man glow. We found our way to the subject of public education, as two teachers-at-heart are prone to do, when she said something that I recognized as truth for myself: “When I left teaching, there was a lot of shame around being burnt out.”
Exhale. Yes, this. God damn it! Gentle truth can be so sneaky!! I haven’t wanted to see what is clearly in front of me. Even now I sit here thinking about how I could minimize it: explain that it’s not that bad so no one worries, focus on the positives of my current life change to the exclusion of stating it simply, remind people that it’s not the only reason I left, go through a pointless recap of why it happens. But the unaltered truth is that I am burnt out.
Time spent working in the last three months vs. time I would’ve spent at school teachering–using a conservative estimate, about three hundred hours less, and it still feels like too much. For the first few months of the summer, passing time in the camp office in between owies, I would scan job alerts every morning. Here’s what the conversation sounded like in my head: “I could do that, nah…I could do that one too, nah…and that one….” When someone throws too many directions at me at once, like my new fast talking flower shop boss, I almost instantly glaze over. On days when I’m able, I happily nap 3-4 hours a day, and then wander around at night like a happy little monkey. I find myself wondering why so much of the music is so annoying, when I used to almost always have my headphones in. If I have to face conflict or go even remotely fast on any given day, I feel it like a hangover the next day. In one conversation in particular, after a parent at camp was mildly upset with me, I got off the phone sweating, heart racing, hands shaking. It was a response that was wildly disproportionate to the conversation I just had.
So why not recognize it and say it earlier? I can’t really articulate what feels like a full and satisfying answer to that question. For starters? It feels really inconvenient to recognize myself as someone who both deserves and needs care that I may or may not fully be able to give. How do you “heal” burnout? I can’t just not work. I feel the most satisfaction right now in things that I can’t really get wrong, in things that are physical, in things that are play, in things where there is not a constant escalation of expectations. Looking at books on Amazon (my other usual go-to) doesn’t help either. Listen to these fucking titles, my personal favorites out of the first thirty or so:
Burnout: Resting in God’s Fairness (no thanks, didn’t work the first time), High Octane Women: How Superachievers can Avoid Burnout (the fetching woman on the cover in the pantsuit really speaks to me), Adrenal Fatigue: The 21st Century Stress Syndrome (great, so now it has a fancy medical name and we are all collectively fucked up by it), The Secret of Vigor (lots of people jumping up and down on this one–not great for those of us who have to deal with boob jiggle), Burnout: What is Burnout & How to Bounce Back! (this book features a man with his face buried in his hands, and the author–no joke–is Wilson Worst), Do No Work (okay, that one does sound a little appealing), and my personal favorite, Deliberate Optimism: Reclaiming the Joy in Education (I want to send Pollyanna to personally beat the crap out of you Debbie Thompson Silver).
I think the “answer” is going to be what it always is–listen and follow my intuition. I will reknit the frayed places when they reknit, there is no making it sooner than it is going to be. Until then, I take this arriving knowledge as an invitation to continue to actively participate in my life and to rewrite the rules. For example, today at work was supremely slow. It was one of those days where you make up stuff for yourself to do that may or may not actually need doing. After three hours or so I had the following conversation with myself: “This is a waste of time. You should go home.” “I can’t go home, I’m supposed to be here for two more hours.” “But you’re standing at the register, staring out the window, eating Doritos, and no orders have come in for over an hour.” “Fine, I’ll go home, but you’re a trouble maker!!”
So I asked/let Reina know I was going to leave rather than keep standing around and wasting my time and Judy’s money. She said okay with that look you give to rulebreakers, and I walked out the door. On the way home I was aware of feeling like a “bad” person. Reina had told me shop history today while we worked, and even things about her sister who works there some days. What if everyone in America all of a sudden decided to order flowers five minutes after walking out the door and I had left her stranded?
Then it hit me: my hunger for belonging is so great, that I’ve been willing to do things that don’t make sense, or don’t make sense anymore, including things that might hurt me physically, emotionally, or spiritually. This has always been the case. I sat outside my second real boyfriend’s house, many years ago, for three days in a row, crying my eyes out, intending to go in and break up with him, but never doing it. But as I walked home today I realized that I don’t have to pay those kinds of prices for belonging anymore. I can just find my belonging elsewhere.
The price for belonging in public education was very high for me, despite every gorgeous piece of magic I witnessed and created in thirteen years. I don’t have to be embarrassed that the payments bankrupted me. I still am, but I don’t have to be.