Monday, November 27, 2017

So This is What Burnout Looks Like

“We are doing better than last year,” I told our member care specialist.
“Better than double pneumonia?” she asked skeptically, “I’m not sure that’s saying much.”
She had a point.

Last spring when I was recovering from pneumonia I thought, “You know, I’m really doing much better...Of course, I haven’t been outside yet. And I get out of breath if I talk much. And I have to rest every 10 minutes. And I’m still spending most of the day in bed... Hmm, I may be worse than I thought.”

That’s how this fall has been for us. Compared to last year, it’s not too bad. We haven’t been to the hospital yet! We aren’t sick all the time, but when friends ask if we are healthy, I find myself saying, “Yeah, I think we’re healthy. I mean, Kevin and I just had a weird virus that made all our muscles super sore. And Juliana threw up the other day but she’s okay now. And Adalyn’s allergies are causing her asthma to act up. But yeah, we’re pretty healthy. Nadia and I just have a little cold.”

We are functioning much better than last year. I am able to cook meals and clean the house, at least when I’m not sick. Most of the time I have had enough voice for home schooling. Kevin has continual headaches, but he’s still able to teach and handle what has to be done. But we haven’t been able get far beyond survival.

We toss around the word burnout a lot, but when I started reading about real burnout, I felt like I was reading a description of our lives. Frequent illness, frequent headaches, continuous fatigue, anxiety, inability to concentrate, feeling overwhelmed by needs, frustration and anger, emotional exhaustion, compassion fatigue, drop in productivity, questioning our calling… I could go on, but you get the idea. Check, check, and check.

I knew we were pretty burned out last year, but that was overshadowed by the relentless sickness and the darkness of depression. We were so far down in the pit of survival mode it was hard to see beyond keeping everyone alive for one more day.

This fall we’ve been able to see a little more clearly. We realize that some of the roles we have been in are not the best for us. In recent years I have often felt sidelined, unable to participate outside the home in the ways I would like. I am becoming more aware of roles I would like step into, but we have to get beyond survival before I can add anything else.

I have learned some important things about myself in the past year, like how I have been pushing against being an introvert and highly sensitive person, damaging and devaluing myself in the process. I have realized I have ridiculous self-expectations that will never be met – and don’t even need to be. I have realized that depression and anxiety will always be part of the equation, in lesser or greater proportion, and that prioritizing mental health is not an option.

For Kevin, team leading has been stressful, dealing with difficult people who may or may not get mad and hang up mid-conversation. He gets emails from the school at 10pm saying, “We need all of your lesson plans for the semester in two days!” (real example). He negotiates with the school, “I’m sorry but that’s impossible. We have never taught these classes before and have to make up the whole curriculum, but we’ll get you as much as possible by the end of the weekend.” Then he communicates the unwelcome news to the other foreign teachers, “Hope you don’t have any weekend plans...”

Kevin has also been the mostly-healthy one for the past couple of years. Since the beginning of my pregnancy with Nadia, it’s just been one mess of sickness and Kevin has been picking up the slack. He is tired. He has had a continuous headache for a year or more.

I knew this had been a hard season of life for me, but I am recognizing that the effects are longer reaching than I thought. My depression has definitely improved since last year, and I’d like to think I’m “over that” now, but the reality is I am not at all ready to stop taking medication. In fact, it would be a pretty terrible idea.  And I am tired of being sick so much, for no real apparent reason (except maybe stress or exhaustion or pollution or carrying around little germ magnets…). The kids are not even surprised to see me in bed because “mama’s not feeling good” is such a normal thing. That's not what I want them to remember of me.

We realize that we are yelling at the kids. Honestly, we’ll probably always yell sometimes because cute little people can be extremely aggravating. But we are frustrated and angry too much. We are not handling their emotional needs well. Things I used to enjoy doing with the kids, like cooking or doing anything crafty, just stress me out now.  This is not how we want our family to be.

And recently I realized, it doesn’t have to be this way. What if we could be healthy? Physically, mentally, emotionally. Not “okay” in the sense of “hopefully won’t fall apart in the next few months,” but actually well. Of course there will always be issues, but there have been times when we were really okay. We weren’t carefully measuring out our inner resources or questioning our ability to be here.

We planned to spend some time in the US next fall, but several wise friends kindly asked, “If you already aren't doing well, isn’t next summer a long time to wait?” If there is hope for more than survival, what are we waiting around for?  We talked it over together and with other friends and recognized that maybe our desire to stick to The Plan had more to do with pride and being in control than actual necessity.  Apparently it's not a good idea to stick it out until you are physically unable to anymore.

So we will be leaving this January to spend a year in the US. This fall has given us some time to think through what we need to return and do well here. We need to rest. We need to get in better physical health. We need to dig deep and deal with some long-term issues. We need to think through our roles and figure out how to find a better fit – doing things that are enlivening not just draining. Taking roles that we actually have a talent and passion for, not just ones that stress us out. We need to build into our family.

It is a hard decision, and I have been surprisingly sad about it. After all, we are used to leaving friends and “home” for a year or more. We say goodbyes all the time. And it’s not forever – we plan to come back. But we aren’t used to leaving China for a year. We have an amazing community – people we have known for 6 years - and we want to be a part of what is going on here. I feel sad that we aren’t doing well, and really haven’t been for quite some time. I feel sad that we have to completely uproot our lives and move to another country just to get the help and healing we need!

We will need to move our of our apartment, the only one the kids have really known as home, and find somewhere to store our things. We haven’t moved in over four years and two kids, so we’ve accumulated a good bit of stuff since then. I do love a good opportunity to purge, but I hate moving and transition.  I will miss our neighbors and our bright blue cabinets and the way the light fills our laundry porch.

But I also feel relief, knowing that we don’t have to keep pushing and keep pushing and hope we make it. I feel hope that we could actually be healthy and well. I feel hope for our future in China, that we could be effective instead of just getting by. And I feel hope for our future as people, which is important.

When I came across this song recently, I immediately loved it and felt like it was a theme for our current life. I have since listened to it enough that Nadia joins enthusiastically with, “I tust, I tust yooooooooou.”

Letting go of every single dream
I lay each one down at Your feet
Every moment of my wandering
Never changes what You see
I try to win this war
I confess, my hands are weary, I need Your rest
Mighty warrior, king of the fight
No matter what I face You're by my side

When You don't move the mountains
I'm needing You to move
When You don't part the waters
I wish I could walk through
When You don't give the answers
As I cry out to You
I will trust, I will trust, I will trust in You

- Trust in You, Lauren Daigle

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Life Lessons from Labor

When I think of never going through pregnancy again, I feel So Happy. But I am actually a bit sad about not having another labor. It is such an incredible experience. I have often thought of how helpful those breathing exercises are for every other part of life with children. Then I started thinking about all the other life lessons I learned through labor. Here are some of them.

~ Everyone says, “You will know when it is time. You will know, you will know.” And you will know...but maybe not as soon as you would like. But that’s okay, you don’t have to have it all figured out, even if you have been through this before.

~ Sharing horror stories seems to be part of human nature. Whatever you are about to experience, someone will feel it is their duty to tell you about the horrible thing that happened to them or their cousin’s sister-in-law. Seek out the good stories.

~ Listen to the truth about what is going on inside yourself. Your head may be telling you something different – I shouldn’t feel this way. It is not time yet. This is not how I expected things to be.

~ You may not handle things as well as you thought. That’s okay. How could you possibly have known what you were getting into?

~ Preparation matters. Knowledge matters. Support matters. But sometimes life still happens anyway and there is nothing you could have done to prevent it.

~ Just because things didn’t go according to your plan doesn’t mean they went wrong.

~ Other people will try to tell you how you should feel about your life experience. You should feel happy because “nothing bad happened,” but you still feel heartbroken. You should feel violated because someone else made the decision for you, but you just feel relieved. You should feel pain but you feel joy. You should feel empowered but you feel helpless. Feel what you feel. Find people who will let you feel what you feel.

~ If 1000 people go through the same thing, they will all experience it differently. Live your experience. Don’t compare.

~ You are stronger than you think. So much stronger. You are also weaker than you think, and you can be both at the same time.

~ Sometimes you just need people nearby who can hold your hand and remind you to breathe.

~ When you think too much about what is coming, you may feel your courage failing. Focus back on the moment, back on the most basic elements of life. Breathe in, breathe out, focus with all of your might. This moment is all you need to handle right now.

~ Sometimes you need to be quiet and breathe. Sometimes you need to yell.

~ The deeper you are consumed by the task, the less you care about what people think of you.

~ You have to let go of control and surrender completely to birth something new.

~ Everyone has scars. Some are visible.

~ There are some things you can control. And a whole lot of other things you can’t.

~ There is a time when the line between singing and swearing and praying nearly disappears.

~ Two people can go through the same experience together and feel very differently about it at the end. It was beautiful, it was terrible. It was holy, it was traumatic. It was the best and worst day of life.

~ In the middle of the labor and pain and overwhelm, you may lose sight of what you are even in this for. But when the end comes, it is even better than you imagined.

~ When you finally get what you were waiting for, sometimes you feel joy. Maybe you feel relief, or fear, or unaccountable sadness. Maybe you are so tired you’re not even sure you care anymore. Maybe you feel nothing. That’s okay. It will come.

~ When your whole life changes in an instant, after the hardest day of your life, in the midst of pain and exhaustion, the world expects you to keep right on with life. Hold tightly to your rest. Make space for recovery.

~ When things get really tough, you may forget about the fundamentals of life. Drinking. Moving. Breathing. You don’t need someone to tell you what to do: you need someone to give you a drink, to show you how to move, to breathe with you.

~ When you are going through something really hard, things you wouldn't even notice in normal life can drive you utterly crazy.  Noise, smells, touch, people.  What is helpful one minute might seem torturous the next.  People can't read your mind, so you'll have to let them know.  And try not to bite their head off in the process.

~ You may feel normal and pain-free one moment and doubled over the next. It doesn’t mean that the pain isn’t real, or breathing space between isn’t real.

~ You are the one experiencing all the pain, but realize it can be an exhausting, emotionally trying experience for the people around you too.

~ If what you are trying isn’t working, try something else.

~ If you are too engrossed in the process to think clearly, surround yourself with people who can think clearly and advocate on your behalf.

~ You need someone who has the expertise to handle the problems and complications. You need someone who can show compassion. And you need someone who can just clean up the mess afterwards.

~ Your mind may tell you that you can handle this, but if things are intensifying quickly and your body says this is getting out of control, don’t wait around. Get help. And it’s okay to speed.

~ Pain feels different when you can relax, when you have support, and when you feel safe. Pain does not always equal suffering.

~ When the task seems most impossible, when you are sure you cannot go on, often you are close to breakthrough.

~ The hardest experiences can also be the most awe inspiring.