My husband and I stayed up two hours later than usual last night. We were talking about everything and nothing: the things we’ve been struggling with, how to understand and reframe it and maybe make a better way through it all. It was a hard conversation. I’ve been struggling for a while; we both have. I’ve tried writing about it but seem to get nowhere. Writing about the mess while you’re in it is a challenge. It’s easier when you see the ending and the narrative arc. You can connect the dots without the messy, splashy meandering of living it out.
A few months ago, I got a call from my boss asking me if I was burned out. I sat upstairs in the office, the phone pressed to my ear, and felt my face contort as I tried to answer her. At first, it came out in a no, I’m fine. But I took a minute to think and changed my mind: “I haven’t been sleeping,” I said. “I haven’t slept well for most of this year.”
It felt strange to admit, in part because I had been saying it all along, that I was exhausted and not sleeping, that I was barely hanging on by my fingernails. I knew my plate was too full, something I couldn’t understand because it just as full as it had been a year earlier but now my husband wasn’t in school full time and instead is home quite a bit.
I felt frantic all the time. Frantic is the best way to describe it. When I think of that particular word, it conjures an image of breathlessly running from one thing to the next, being stressed out by even the simplest things but somehow still trying to do it all. That was my big secret: that I was frantic inside and totally stressed out. I tried to explain it away, like I had nothing to be stressed out about and my life wasn’t that hard. But still, the stress was there, and now it was obvious enough that my boss, who I rarely interact with because I telecommute, could see it. And she wanted to know if I was burned out.
Being burned out, I’m learning, isn’t a simple thing to undo. It takes time to get to the point of burnout, and it takes a long time to peel back all the layers, all the lies, all the reasons why you got there in the first place. It’s not as simple as taking some time off work or promising to take a nap every day, both of which are helpful, but merely starting points. What it really takes is time and space.
The funny thing is that’s what I asked for at Lent: more time and space. Little did I know that saying that out loud and writing it on an index card on my desk might tip over the first domino in a chain reaction. Somewhere, someone might have whispered to me, Do you really want to do that, more time and space? Really? To which I would have laughed and said, Yes. And secretly, Someone save me from myself.
The first domino bumped the next. Sleep was hard to come by, then I noticed I had gained about five pounds. My hairdresser noticed I’d lost some hair, then my boss called and the writing was on the wall. Things needed to change because this was out of control. I was out of control.
The last two months have been about slowing down and letting go. At first, I took a week off work and spent that week lying in bed as much as possible. I read books and listened to a sleep hypnosis someone recommended. I wrote in my journal and had long, labored conversations with my husband. When your plate is too full and it’s been that way for a long time, it can be hard to sort through what should stay and what should go. All I wanted to do was throw the plate against the wall and start over.
But that frantic feeling was like an addiction. I wanted so badly to let it go, but it had its grip on me. I allowed it to define me and make me feel important. I had so much to do and, though I hated the feeling, it was giving me purpose. Maybe too much purpose. Every moment felt heavy. Everything felt like work – reading, exercise, creativity, mothering, writing, resting, and actual real-life work. There’s a difference between living intentionally and keeping track of every little thing, and I’d lost sight of that. So when I tried to slow down, I was met with internal resistance. I didn’t want to let go.
At times, I still don’t. I don’t have any answers for why this happened or what to do next. I have so many questions and doubts. I feel aimless and insecure. At moments, it’s like being in a complete freefall. That franticness gave me comfort. It was something to hold onto, and now letting it go, I watch it float away like a balloon through the blue sky and I wonder what I’ve done.
It was Rilke who wrote that we should learn to love the questions, that only through living can we ever find the answers. I return to this quote again and again, finding some comfort in knowing that I don’t have to have it all figured out and, even if I did, more questions would be on their way. That is life, and this is living. Even if we can’t see the narrative arc and we’re in the mess. Even if it’s hard to find the words and we feel alone in our pain. Even if we try to connect the dots that are scattered around and can’t arrange them into a recognizable shape.
Side note: I’ve been participating in the 100 day challenge on Instagram, posting #100daysofyesyoucan every day. I’m writing about creativity and authenticity and making space and giving myself permission to let go — you know, whatever is on my heart. You can follow along here.