INTERVIEW - KOURTNEY'S STORY
We regularly interview people who have experienced loss or burnout. Everyone experiences and responds to hardships in different ways, there is no right way or wrong way to grieve or handle stress. We share these stories in hopes that their experiences will support you in your journey – which ever side you are on – working through the process or supporting a loved one. If you are interested in sharing your story, please reach out via our home page.
Tell us a bit about yourself:
I currently live in Washington State in the greater Pacific Northwest area. By day, I work as a psychotherapist and case manager. My job involves many different hats and a great deal of my work involves crisis, structure, and diligence. For balance, I dedicate my free time to projects that allow for more flexibility, creativity, and freedom. It's not to say that each part of my life doesn't contain some elements of both, but there is certainly a different flow depending on my environment. I really enjoy activities that involve playing with color or or being outdoors. My evenings and weekends are consumed by staring at skeins of embroidery floss or acrylic paints and getting close and personal with a leaf or a slug via my camera lens.
Have you experienced a time in your life when you felt burnt out? What do you think led to your feelings of being burnt out?
I hit critical mass for burnout in 2013. My husband was critically injured just days away from Christmas after falling 20 feet and shattering both calcanei (the bone forming the heel). We spent weeks in the hospital while he underwent reparative surgeries. He was bedridden for nearly a year and then ambulated in a wheelchair for another two. He had to learn how to walk again – just like a baby – starting by crawling on the ground and getting full body support from his physical therapists as he learned how to maintain balance and bear his own weight. At the time, I was working in Seattle, nearly 1.5 hours away from home with traffic, and my husband was still considered "active duty” in the military. My job was not a good fit, because they didn't understand what it was like to be a military spouse or a family caregiver. The job was exacting, and I was barely sleeping between my own working hours, my husband's medical appointments, and the travel between all of my obligations. Because of the military lifestyle and the infamous "Seattle Freeze" we were also going it completely alone. Our families were thousands of miles away and there was no one around to share the load. We were already physically isolated, but this added emotional isolation.
In 2014, I became very sick and had to call out of work for a week. I was crashing – hard. I decided I needed to take care of myself, because it was just me and my husband, and he depended on me to be healthy and emotionally well. When I went back to work, I was greeted with a write-up. I had never been written up for anything in my entire career. I realized in that moment I had to move on because my employer simply didn't support its staff. We were either working or worthless. My husband needed me to move on, but more importantly, I needed me to if I was going to escape burnout. I think a great deal of my burnout at the time came from things that were not within my control – my husband's injury, my daily commute – but there were plenty of other things that were. When I realized my own locus of control, and some of the ways that I was maybe unconsciously trapping myself in a bad situation, I was able to break free from it.
Describe 2-3 things that helped you deal with your feelings of burnout and stress? How were you able to heal from being burnt out?
Finding a new job was at the top of the list, and luckily for me, I was able to make the switch in less than a year. In fact, the job I landed is the one I have now. The best part? They fully understood what it meant to have a spouse in the military, and they knew when they hired me that I was a full-time, stand-alone caregiver for my husband while he underwent the medical separation process. Having their understanding, support, empathy, and flexibility knocked several stressors off my list, even with the trials of learning a new position.
Another thing that helped, and one I cannot stress enough, was committing to just one hobby. Just one. I had given up on all of my own hobbies and my own needs to devote 100% of my time to my husband. The result was a slow but downward spiral into depression. When I finally decided it was OK to spend just a 1-2 hours on myself a week, and then eventually a day, it actually freed up more mental and physical energy for me to focus on caregiving in my personal and professional roles. It's such a powerful thing to carve out time for yourself. If it meant propping my husband in front of the television for an hour so I could paint, then by golly, that's what our Friday night was going to look like. Surprisingly, it worked for him too.
Third, and what I think was biggest thing that helped me take a step away from all of the stress and burnout, was when my husband shared with me that it helped him in his own coping journey to see me come back to life and devote time to myself. It was like the final piece of the puzzle that had fallen under the coffee table. Once we found it, it completed the whole picture. My husband seeing me taking care of myself eased his emotional burden of being disabled and how that impacted our lives. It was a powerful moment, and it's what started our healing journey.
Thinking about all the things you might have had on your plate during this time, if you had the choice, what would you have changed? What supported you most through dealing with burnout?
I wish I had signed us up for counseling, individual and couples counseling. It may sound funny coming from a therapist that it wasn't the first, most obvious solution. I think some of the things that we learned through trial and error may have come more quickly and easily had we gone to see a therapist to help us through all of the transitions and the struggles. It certainly would have helped me feel less isolated, less like I was shouldering the burden of it all alone.
In addition to asking for professional help, I think I would have been more assertive and straightforward in asking my friends and family to help. I would have been braver. I would have offered to pay for flights and lodging. I would have done a good many things to ensure that neither my husband or I felt as physically isolated as we were. No one should have to deal with that kind of injury alone, but I was so caught up in crisis management on the home front that I forgot some of the most basic coping skills I discuss with my clients every day.
Funnily enough, I think the thing that helped me with dealing with burnout was the delegation of daily tasks of living to professional services. We signed up for a meal service. We signed up for subscription boxes. We paid for car maintenance when we would have normally done repair ourselves. We. Let. Go. We gave ourselves permission to leave certain things up to complete strangers, and it saved us. We were struggling in so many ways, but we were the most financially prosperous we had ever been in our lives, and it was truly a miracle, because it freed us both to focus on healing our minds and bodies after the accident.
What advice would you provide others dealing with burnout?
> Give yourself permission to have limits. Seriously. Your limit may be higher than mine, or maybe it's lower than your neighbors. Who cares. Just know your own limits and respect them. When you acknowledge you have limits, it becomes much easier to ask for help.
> ASK FOR HELP. Don't try to go it alone, because it's much harder to rally support when you're in times of distress than it is when you're heading in that direction. If you can't ask out loud, send a text or write a letter. Sign up for a delivery service. Hire a babysitter. Whatever it takes, ask for help. You don't have to use it forever.
> Make time for yourself. It could be an hour once a week or maybe just 5 minutes a day. Whatever it is, you deserve it.
> Talk, talk, and then talk some more. Sharing is cathartic. There's a reason it's referred to as "talk therapy." It doesn't have to be a therapist, and it could even be your cat, but the point is to vent. Get it out of your body. It sounds hokey, but the more you get it out, the more it frees up space for positivity, willpower, solutions, and all that other good stuff that will keep you going.
What advice (i.e., tips, suggestions) would you provide those who want to support those dealing with burnout?
> Offer help. It's the crux of the human condition to avoid asking for help, so volunteer it. Make meals, offer transportation, organize a donation drive. It doesn't have to be extravagant, it just has to have heart.
> Recognize and respect the other person's limits. Their limits will be different than yours, and this doesn't make them weak or somehow less than you. It just means they may need more compassion, patience, and understanding during a difficult time.
> Listen, but don't pry or push. People are ready in their own time, and when the time comes, just listen. Being present is powerful medicine. If they want help solving a problem, feel free to jam out a brainstorming sesh. But if they're just looking to get it out, just pull up a chair and settle in.
> TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF FIRST. There's a reason we use the analogy of the oxygen mask in the helping profession. Vicarious trauma and compassion fatigue are legit. There are whole fields of study and treatment devoted to their care and healing. Keep an eye out for the signs and symptoms that you're struggling and make time for yourself. When you're ready to help others again, you'll know.