I’m in a position now where I am having to face up to the destructive ways in which I have been running my life. Not in the way of substance abuse, causing harm to others or suffering life changing mental health crisis.
On reflection I am finding that for the longest time I have been very good at coping. Throw me into a crisis situation and I can cope with it. I even thrive on it in certain circumstances. My job – which I won’t go into in any detail on this blog – literally depends on my capability to just deal with it. I am responsible, so I will cope, no matter how aggressive, harrowing or confusing the situation. I am there to stop things getting worse, then to try and make things safe, without regard for myself. It is expected. The problem with being the kind of person that is predisposed to this kind of work is that it applies in other areas of life and in trying to stop things getting worse and making things safe, it can be difficult to move forward, to develop and achieve for yourself. Reacting in this constant knee jerk way means its hard to think of the future aside from the risks and attempting to mitigate these risks. It is a little like constantly dangling from a cliff edge, just trying to incrementally increase the grip of your fingers on the edge.
But, the energy expended holding onto a cliff edge will always be greater than the energy to stand atop it and admire the view. This capacity for coping has left me a suffering the damage of being unable to say no because of how I should be. Now, for me, pairing with this sense of responsibility – for the people around me, for the situations around me and indeed, in many respects, the whole world – has become too much. It started in workplace stress but it became patently obvious to people around me it had spread out into my personal life. I didn’t realise how the effects of burn out had threaded their way through into how I spent time with the people I cared about – or during this time how I withdrew from them and hid – clouded how I made decisions in my personal life, and I didn’t realise quite how it had started to crush hope out of me. It wasn’t until I found myself late on the school run, trying to get my daughter to scoot on her new scooter at speed, that I was forced to face up to how bad the damage actually was. I remember the sensation of my heart being held in a vice, feeling like it was about to pop and stop, aware of the impending deadline of school start time. My panic grew and my little girl was just stood next to her scooter telling me “I can’t do it mummy, I’m scared.”
In this moment, I did something I have never done before and hope to never do again, I turned and screamed at my daughter: “JUST COME ON”. I just went pop.
My daughter’s face fell immediately and tears welled up in her big beautiful brown eyes. Her tiny frame dropped in a dejected fear as she instinctively sought to make herself smaller, in an attempt to deal with this unknown threat. She started to wail in a plaintive fashion, still holding the handlebars of the scooter in her hand. My vice-held heart didn’t pop, it liquidised itself. My own eyes filled with tears as my brain clouded with sadness, guilt and uncertainty. In panic I picked up the scooter, said: “Come on.” to my daughter and we ran back, both in tears to the car. As I drove around as close to the school as I could manage, fighting through traffic. I gathered my baby up into my arms after we pulled up and, running, told her how sorry I was and that I shouldn’t have shouted at her. I was so genuinely sorry, but it was clear that a trust had been broken. The only thing that redeemed me in anyway was the way that my darling girl put her arms around me and told me “I love you mummy”. She had composed herself better than I had by the time we reached the door. As I watched her go in, I saw her smile and realised that I was still in tears, heart beating at a million miles an hour and feeling like a wretched failure of a mother.
As I walked back to the car I became angry with myself. How had I let it get to this? This could never happen again – my daughter didn’t deserve to suffer because I wasn’t looking after myself. I needed help.
Prior to this incident I had tentatively tried to access help, but the response from work had felt as half-arsed as my attempts to get support. So for the longest period I just coped with the volume of work that flew at me, lurching from one fire to fight to another. I probably should have known how obvious the wrecking of my joy had become when people started buying me lots of adult colouring books.
Now though, I had no choice. I properly asked for help.
So I started therapy and started to try and learn how to look after myself.
This blog is part of a new series I am working on – called Therapy for one. It is my personal account of my experiences of dealing with stress and burnout. I’m writing it because I want to record my journey, process it in ways that work for me and also to share it with others who might be going through something similar. If you’re dealing with stress and/or burn out I really advise that you ask for support. It isn’t a weakness to ask for help. For more information on stress and support that is out there visit mind.org.uk or stress.org.uk