Burnout

by Tim on July 27, 2010

Athletes call the moment when they completely run out of fuel and their bodies shut down ‘bonking’ or ‘hitting the wall’. But it doesn’t just happen to athletes; it happens to us, too.

For the past few weeks, I think even those terms don’t do justice to how I’ve felt. It’s been like driving into the wall, having the wall fall on top of me, and then just staying buried there. Though for such a simple-sounding word, I think ‘burnout’ covers it pretty well. And I’m ready to be done with it.

After your body uses up its normal exercise fuel, it starts consuming less efficient sources of energy inside you. Your body goes through whatever else it can find to keep going, even up to consuming itself. Even with all that, though, you can typically cease your efforts for a bit, eat something, regroup, and start again.

Burnout in daily life is not only a complete lack of energy but a lack of any fuel to restart again or any good way to get it. Slowing down, taking a breather, eating a little, and trying again tomorrow isn’t a recovery plan for burnout; it’s a joke. When a body is malnourished and all the carbohydrates and fats and whatever else are used up, your body starts consuming tissues and other cells. It will literally eat itself alive until there’s nothing left in an effort to survive. I think burnout is the psychological, emotional, and spiritual equivalent of such malnourishment.

Burnout turns you into a complete, selfish ass because your total lack of everything causes you to turn within yourself in search of something – anything – else to burn. It’s a vicious cycle, a black hole – the worse it gets, the worse it gets still. You eat yourself alive until you start feeling like just a shell.

This is how I was getting. I won’t speak for Mary, but I imagine little of what I’m saying would differ from how she’d describe her life lately. This has been a rough year for us – a lot of death and dying, health issues all around, the constant demands of parenting that rarely let up for a minute, all sorts of work pressures, and the constant refrain of autism that weaves through so much of our lives.

Just as bad is that I was losing patience and compassion with everyone and myself. The only struggle I could see and feel was mine. I couldn’t step outside myself even a fraction to empathize with what the kids or Mary or anyone else in our lives were going through. I was losing all appreciation of the wonders and joys in my own house, the goodness of people, all the living saints we spend time with and read about and interact with online every day. I had withdrawn into myself. I don’t say this to beat myself up. I say it as a realization that I was in a place I couldn’t remain so maybe some of you will see it in your own lives.

While we weren’t completely sure Dale Jr. was ready to be away from us for a few days, we knew that we were at a desperation point of complete exhaustion. We decided to take my older sister up on her offer to watch the J-Man and Dale Jr. for a few days while Mary and I went away. People suggested all these places we could go and all the ‘fun’ activities we could do. But all of our days are already doing one thing after another. All we wanted was to become unconscious for a few days.

We found an isolated cabin in the woods away from people and the Internet and just about everything else. It did have a hot tub, though, which was an absolute requirement. Groceries and whatnot were nearby when we needed them. It had enough amenities for us to be comfortable. We were only an hour away from my sister’s family if something did come up.

And there we stayed for a week. I slept 16 hours before the first day was done. I can go a good part of a week without getting to sleep that much. After a couple of days of sleeping, reading, eating, hot tubbing, sleeping, movie watching, and sleeping, I began to feel the frayed ends of my nerves knitting themselves back together again a thread at a time.

I finally got into a state where I could start to look outside myself again. I thought about all the goodness I’ve received or witnessed these past few weeks, even though at the time I was too drawn into myself to really appreciate it. I reflected too on the hardships of others, most unfair, some tragic. I had been off absorbed with my own wounds to see and understand before.

There are all of the J-Man’s teachers and therapists at school who work so hard for him and generously share so much of their expertise, wisdom, understanding, and kindness with us. They worked to get him into a two-week camp for autistic kids at a local YMCA so he could have structured activity in a supportive environment with other kids, and we could have a couple of weeks during summer break where we could get some stuff done during the day. The camp staff were so wonderful. They did such a great job with our J-Man, guiding him through a completely new experience (his first time at camp) with a much different schedule than he’s used to. By the start of the second week, he really started to get the hang of things and enjoy himself. And the camp staff loved him so much.

Obviously, family have also pitched in their kindness to help us out lately. Mary’s parents kept the J-Man for a few days, and my sister had them for our week away. These breaks are lifesavers for us. We need time to recharge, and there just are not many people with whom we could leave either of our kids, let alone both of them.

There were also painful, and even tragic, things that happened recently to friends of ours. One of the J-Man’s classmates from last year, his family lost their home and everything they own to fire. They are good people trying to do the right thing; they struggle financially already. People like them should be exempt from things like this. I cannot even begin to imagine how awful this was and still is for them.

For me, what came as grace was the response that poured out to help them get back on their feet again. The word went out about their immediate needs, and within a couple of days those more tangible needs were met by numerous people who answered that call for help. The word went out again for basic furniture and household items they’d need to move into another trailer. Within a couple more days, all the needs on that list were fulfilled. To witness all the kindness and care that poured out to this family injected a dose of new life into me. It reminded me of the fundamental goodness and generosity of others.

And this is one of the fundamental truths we hopefully learn as parents of autistic children: There are more of these good, kind, generous, skilled, loving people out there looking out for us, helping us, willing to give their time and talent to us than we can count. Sure there are always some people trying to get in our way, take stuff from us, and make our lives miserable, but I’ve found they are by far the minority. Pulling back for some perspective has reminded me of this.

As our vacation neared the end, I could feel my pulse quicken and my breath get shallower and more rapid. I knew it was fear, fear of going back to where I could be hyperstressed and exhausted and burned out again. But at least I know getting a few days away will be an option for us again down the road. I know that trying to focus more intentionally on all the great people around us opens me up to being refilled by their kindness and understanding.

And I know all that is good and perfect in my life far outweighs the challenges, frustrations, and fear. Perhaps I wrote all this to get to that one sentence, but maybe it’s the one I need to walk away from this vacation with and carry around with me from now on.

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