Disclaimer: If you don’t live in a big, hot, humid city like New York this analogy may not completely apply to you. However, I urge you to read on and use that brilliant, colorful, imagination of yours to join me on this journey.
You know that feeling in these hot summer months? The temperature is high, the humidity level even higher making it feel at though you may in fact be swimming, not walking down the street? The soft breeze is hot, but still manages to intermittently provide a brief, slight, but welcome relief from the stale, melting hotness. The middle of your back, your scalp, your palms, some days even your knees, are dripping in sweat. The only place on your body that isn’t soaking, is your mouth which feels dry once again the moment you swallow the most recent sip of whatever iced beverage you have chosen to enjoy at that moment.
It must burn extra calories to be hot, because somehow the exhaustion is constant. You feel like you’ve walked up a mountain in the two flat blocks between your apartment and your subway stop. Each step feels heavier, like the world is weighing more densely on your shoulders than it was in the step before. It feels like it will never end, like you will never be cool again. It also feels like it can’t possibly be worse, but then it is.
As you descend the stairs onto the subway platform, the breeze is left behind, and suddenly it seems like such a gift to have had it. Now the exhaustion turns to exasperation. There is suddenly a surge of energy, negative energy in the added heat, humidity, and staleness of the unmoving underground air. The energy turns to aggression. If someone so much as looks at you the wrong way you may snap. The person preaching, snapping their gum, or playing cell phone games, volume on and no headphones makes you clench your fists. The thick air slowing you down is their only saving grace. You glance around, prepared to fight anyone who may try to cut ahead of you in line to enter the train. And even still there is the risk that when you finally do get onto the train, relieved at the site of so many open seats, you are suddenly and overwhelmingly aware that this car isn’t air conditioned today. I’m not even going to go there, because that’s just wrong and something I can’t even talk about!
Anyway, the point is, the moment on the platform dripping in sweat, exhausted and overheated, right before the train slows to a stop and opens it’s cool inviting doors, blasting your face with a rush of cold air, that moment, and the ones leading up to it are a lot like how burn out feels.
It’s suffocating and exhausting. It consumes you and changes you. Changes how you see, feel, and worst of all respond to the people and situations around you. In private, it makes you unhappy, discontent, negative, and in public it makes you miserable to be around. In the workplace, it makes you toxic, even dangerous, especially if your work involves caring for others.
Just under a year ago I began the slow descent into a period of burnout. I was aware of it, each moment as it was happening, each day as my case became more and more severe. I would try to wade off to the side of it, clinging to dry land in an attempt prevent it from infiltrating the person I was and the work I was doing. But eventually, at first in small tugs, and then like a rushing wave, it took over, the current of it was too strong for me to wade against, and it knocked me over and trampled my once optimistic spirit.
The burnout began to infiltrate everything, my personal life, my work life, even my private life of time alone with myself. What started as a little exhaustion turned into full-blown self-loathing and misery.
Find ways to cool your burnout I say with each opportunity I have had to speak to new nurses. It is a reminder I would be well served to share with those more seasoned as well, even myself. Having an escape route from burnout is important. Something that cools you off and gets you back on track feeling rejuvenated and reminded of why you do what you do in the first place.
This spring, as I spoke to young nurses in Maryland and again at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, my own alma mater, I spoke this advice being fully aware of how terribly I was struggling to apply it to myself.
My burnout wasn’t just about work, I felt burnt out of being me. Thinking about it took over what felt like every waking moment. I woke each day hating the early alarm, cursing my dependence on coffee as I squinted my way into the kitchen to brew the day’s first pot. Moments before the shower, I cursed the numbers on the scale whose digits had become an embarrassment to me. After the shower, I cursed each very limited fine hair on my head as I tried with frustration to create the illusion of a thick head of hair. At work, I sat through report burnt out on the selfish girl I had become, spending my morning annoyed with caffeine, weight, and hair while the ventilators and dialysis machines of the PICU had plugged along, trying to support the bodies of sick children; balding heads, narcotic dependent, weight so far below a healthy range.
As each day dragged on, my frustration would grow as my responses were short, my empathy inadequate, my frustrations too quickly leaving my mind and exiting off my tongue in the direction of whoever had challenged or upset me.
PICU Kate, my boyfriend took to calling me. The alias of all of the traits I wish I could permanently hide; my bossy, stubborn, and rude alter ego.
Perhaps most of all I was burnt out knowing that I wasn’t living up to the person I was portraying; the proud nurse, supportive healer, hand holder, team collaborator, self-lover. Each week as I sat down to write, I struggled to find anything honest to say. And so I said nothing.
My posts have been sparse, and for that I apologize. But the good news is this. I gave myself permission to be burnt out. I gave myself permission to slowly cool off rather than force a false fix. And it’s working. I feel like I’m ready to be back. I wake up each morning and choose to have my cup of coffee. I skip stepping onto the scale as each day I try to learn to love what my body does rather than how it looks. I’ve given up on the hair, I’ll buy some clip in extensions soon.
And as for work, I’ve gone through a bit of a transition in recent months. But as my life has proved to show me time and time again, I am once more exactly where I need to be.
I hope I haven’t lost your attention in my brief time away. But if I have, I did it for me, I needed it, and I hope you will welcome me back.
Finally, if this burnout thing seems all too familiar and seems to hit home with that churning in the pit of your stomach, know this, the next cool train is approaching the station, but its up to you to step off of the hot platform and into the air conditioned car. So take a deep breath, step on, take a seat, and breath the crisp cool air. When you are ready, get off and get back out there. I’ll be waiting for you.