Friday, March 13, 2015

Dancing on the Edge of Burnout

It’s generally a bad sign when a professor who barely knows you stops you at the local coffee shop to say, "You look like you are heading straight toward burnout."

I tend to look back on my first two years in China rather idealistically.  In fact, I find myself holding them as a guideline for my expectations of what my life should be like in China.  I did so many useful things and spent so much time with my students. Not as much as I should have done, naturally, but it was pretty impressive nonetheless.  Especially compared with the practically nothing I accomplish now, right?

Of course, there are a few key differences between life then and now.
1. I was not just young, I was incredibly young, and just out of that "crash and burn for what you believe" college culture.
2. I was single, and more importantly, I had no children.  I washed dishes every few days and did laundry about once a week.  I'm not even kidding.
3. I was incredibly unhealthy and heading straight for burnout.

By the end of my first semester, the gloom of culture shock was darkening into a heavy weight of oppression and depression. As my first year came to an end and I felt a slight increase in my will to live, I thought I must be coming out of the fog.  

So that summer when a professor I barely knew basically told me I looked terrible, I was a little surprised. Sure, I was still crying every day, but that’s normal, right? When a counselor questioned whether or not I should return to China, I had to realize that maybe I wasn't in such great shape after all.

With the help of some medication and support from great teammates (who I finally decided to let in on my struggles), my second year in China got off to a much better start. I got to know this guy, and we started talking every day, and before you know it we were engaged.

As I prepared for our wedding and a year in the States, I was insanely happy and insanely stressed.  Also, just plain insane. I stopped sleeping. I stopped eating. I also decided that in the midst of this crazy huge transition would be a great time to stop taking my depression/anxiety medicine. I'm sure it seemed logical at the time, but seriously, what was I thinking??

That summer I was blissfully reunited with Kevin as we studied intensively at Wheaton.  I still wasn't sleeping.  I would go to the cafeteria and choke down a fourth of a sandwich because apparently I was supposed to eat. I was so ready to be married and start a new life, but I also felt completely adrift in the world. Everything was changing - again.

When my mother came to visit me (and also to check out my fiancé!), she said, "You know, I'm really concerned about you. You don't look good at all." Which is the sort of thing mothers say.

But then my roommates immediately chimed in, "Yeah! That's what we've been thinking! We're really concerned about you too!"  Okay, maybe I wasn't doing as well as I thought.  With some coercion, I made the choice to drop the second class I was planning to take and go on vacation with my family.  It felt like quitting, but I wasn't sure I could make it through without a complete nervous breakdown.  Kevin, concerned for me and also unwilling to be separated again, lovingly dropped out with me.

After a year of incredible highs -a beautiful wedding, a restful honeymoon, and the blissful newlywed stage- and crazy lows -panic attacks, semi-constant sickness, and overshadowing anxiety- we prepared to return to China. I was overwhelmed by dread. I knew it was where we were supposed to be, but I didn't know if I could handle returning.  I knew the life I had lived there was not sustainable.

That was seven years ago. A lot of things have changed since then. I no longer dread China; in fact, when I imagine my future, it is here. I spend much less time with students and much more with my children (and my laundry porch). I am a lot less productive than I used to be. I am much healthier. I mean, I still get sick all the time thanks to little germ sharers, but I enjoy incomparably greater mental stability.

Part of this is just a blessed lifting of the depression and anxiety.  Part of it is the result of decisions I have made: decisions to slow down, prioritize health, and to live sustainably.  I often think of something our Wheaton professor told us:

"You are running a marathon, not a sprint.  If you don't pace yourself you will not be able to finish."

I'm not a runner, but this still makes perfect sense. To the best of our knowledge, we are in this for the long haul.  Our lives and our work should be lived at a very different pace than a two weeker or even a two-yearer (that’s a word). If we don't live sustainably, we will not last. It's really as simple as that.

Simple, but not easy. It means letting go of expectations, both others and my own. 

It means saying no to really good things so we can focus on what we are actually called to in each season. 

It means being intentional in establishing practices that keep us healthy - spiritually, mentally, emotionally, and physically.  

It means making time for those practices.  

It means being a lot less Productive and Useful than I would like.  

It means not dancing on the edge of burnout, hoping if we can step just right we'll avoid the fall.

It means we stop trying to be God and focus instead on being with Him.

And as we do, we discover, well...Grace.

[linking up with Velvet Ashes on the topic of Burnout]


Danielle said...

Oh, I love this. Yes, yes and yes. To sustainable living, not crash and burn sprints. And most of all, yes to that glorious Grace! So glad you shared this, Ruth.

Beth said...

Great post Ruth! I especially appreciate this truth: "It means saying no to really good things so we can focus on what we are actually called to in each season." Yes!!

Nate and Molly said...

I started reading an ebook this week o.j. had picked up for free a while back, called Tell Your Time. It helps you identify your roles in your current season of life and then the type of person you want to be in those roles. Then your goals and to-do lists all stem from who you want to be. It is already helping me identify what is MOST important so that I can learn to stop filling my time with things that aren't BEST for me right now, even if they are GOOD things. Great post, Ruthie! I'm so thankful He has brought you to the place you are now!