In my profession, burn out is a term all too often bandied about. We are taught to fear it, to be on the look out for it and to practise good self care in order to prevent it. But these vague, ambiguous warnings never really describe what it will feel like when it actually happens. Nor do they make clear that actually, it might not be your work that causes it at all.
So here I am, a thirty seven year old human being. A wearer of many metaphorical hats, all of which lift me up and enrich my life, all of which also weigh me down and deplete my emotional, physical and some might even say spiritual energy.
My first and most important, is my mother hat- or lets call it Mam hat as I am a Mam, not a mum, nor mummy and most certainly not Ma or Mother. It is permanently fixed to my head, even as I attempt to sleep at night (I never know when they may need me) even when I am bleary eyed and dragging myself out of bed each day. It sits above my sleepy brain which is already formulating lists and action plans- wake Adrian first as he needs a shower, wake Ev, make him some cereal, get his uniform ready, sort out packed lunches, don’t forget his gym kit, where has Ev put his shoes this time? ok, once I’ve done that and fed the cats I think I can have a cuppa. Ahhhhhhh.
It is on my head even when I am in work and they are miles away in school, when I’m wondering how their days are going, hoping nobody is bullying them or making them sad.When one of my young clients reminds me of them or something they’ve been through. It’s on my head when I have those rare nights away and even when I get shitfaced with my mates. It was on my head when I had a weekend away with a friend and I felt so terribly guilty as my kids would have loved it there with that beautiful blue swimming pool. I promised myself that when I had more money I would take the whole family there.
My mam hat is my most rewarding hat to wear without a doubt, but also the most exhausting. My mam hat is heavy and sometimes smothering and claustrophobic. It demands constant vigilance, touch, holding, alertness, patience, care, interest (sometimes feigned interest. That’s love – pretending to care about the third conversation about what it would be like to have a duck car that quacked) The mam hat is draining but full of love, hope and dreams of the future. It’s also my silliest hat, with lots of fun and childish jokes, tickles and conversations sure to make your teenager blush tucked inside. I will wear this hat till I die and possibly afterwards too- I know nothing of afterlife fashion.
My next hat is my partner hat, a slightly (but not much more) grown up design, hopefully a little sexier, possibly a bit more feminine than mam hat, as I am of no particular gender when parenting particularly as I am both mam and dad to at least one of them.
My partner hat definitely still has a lot of silly in it, but when necessary it’s a bit more serious. It has pockets for mundane things like forgotten shopping lists and reminders of whose turn it is to wash up. It has gaps to slide romantic notes in, storage for every I love you and is sometimes lifted up for tender kisses to be placed underneath. It has room for self analysis and room to grow (maaan). My partner hat is fit for cuddling and squishing and climbing on top of laps and laughing and kissing and leg wiggling while bed dancing along to the adverts.
I admit that my partner hat is sometimes a worrying hat because I simply can’t believe that I have found someone so wonderful and I get scared that I may lose him. Sometimes I retreat to some safe place inside me, sometimes I self sabotage, sometimes this hat covers a paranoid head that has never had a trusting close relationship before so feels scared, unprepared, vulnerable and needs reassurance. But it is a learning hat atop a head that is beginning to accept this wonderful stuff that is being bestowed on it. The hat slides jauntily to the side when passion rises and is slipped down over eyes when I feel shy. It is thoughtful, well meaning and kind and is learning to accept kindness and care in return. It also has places for ideas for nice things to do together, future travel destinations and a growing and unusual space that sees scary words like marriage as a possibility for us and maybe not an archaic, outdated load of old shite after all. Maybe, pah cynicism dies hard. I hope to wear this hat forever too, I hope our threadbare hats will still suit us when we’re old and wrinkled. I hope we’ll still hold hands and find things to giggle at and that our eyes will still shine with love.
My next hat is my friend hat and it changes colour and shape depending on which friend I am with and what our journey together has been. I’ve never been good at making new friends, I am always rather baffled when it seems to happen accidentally. But God do I treasure them. If I’m with a friend I feel truly relaxed with it lets me speak freely and with confidence and ease that would convince any onlooker that I am in fact a gregarious extrovert at all times. It holds a heap of love inside, as all my hats do. It’s a hat that says let’s be real with each other and not wear the mask of politeness. It demands real answers and does not want replies of ‘I’m fine’ when asked how someone is..unless of course that’s the truth, in which case we should probably celebrate with cider at once. In this hat I will offer a cuppa as we catch up. I’ll help a friend with anything I’m able to. I will try to think of funny stuff to make them laugh or cheer them up, I will adore it when they tell me funny stories and somehow we will always laugh a little, even if we are discussing dark and hopeless things. I hope it still has plenty of fun left in it and some adventures too cos it is happiest when its out at the beach, in a beer garden, playing music or singing, out in the countryside, in a pool hall, at a gig, talking shit, sitting under the stars and feeling free. I won’t always say the right thing, sometimes I might even offend people. It has been known. Ahem. But I hope that when I’m wearing this hat my friends know how much they mean to me and that I want the very best for every one of them.
My work hat is a bit more careful and tentative than the rest. I take my clients seriously but still pick fun at myself as it helps them feel at ease. In my work hat I try my hardest to be present and attentive and there with them in all that they say and feel. Sometimes I’m the first person who has listened and believed them and that is a real honour.
I love my job dearly, I’ve truly found my passion and ambition at last. It is exactly what I want to be doing with my life and I feel so grateful to have found my way into it. To spend my days attempting to help young people work their way through their problems and fears feels like the right thing to be doing with my life. I never dread the work itself, even if I do groan at the early alarm clock and rush to get there. I come out of work tired and sometimes carrying a lot of emotional baggage that my clients have left with me, but sometimes I walk out ten feet tall because someone has so obviously turned a corner and that feeling of sharing those steps with them is unspeakably wonderful and humbling.
I must at this point acknowledge that I have only been working in this career for the past few years and only been paid for my work for the last year. I still feel like I’m settling in, finding my feet and have gradually built up my hours and client load to three days a week. It took a bloody lot to get myself here. I was a single, unemployed mother on benefits for many, many years before this and have known struggles like …well like only someone who has been in that position would understand and relate to. It felt like I had to scramble over mountains of set backs, red tape and systemic obstacles to achieve this dream. Sometimes I still have to pinch myself that I have any job, let alone the one I dreamed of and worked so hard to get.
The training I received changed me immensely. You cannot spend six years hungrily filling your head with new knowledge and remain the same person at the end of it. They warned us at the start that many couples break up when one of them starts counselling training. At the time I was single so I wasn’t worried about that. What I didn’t know is that it would highlight how very messed up aspects of my childhood were. It would also highlight some very toxic habits, bad coping mechanisms and the unhealthy dynamics of my past relationships. I would sit in uni surrounded by classmates and cringe and try not to weep when they described emotional abuse, physical abuse and neglect and the effects it has on children. They would discuss the importance of attachment to the primary caregiver and what can happen when the parent is on drugs, depressed or otherwise unable to attune to the child’s needs. I came to a lot of realisations, faced a lot of remorse for past mistakes and had to do a lot of grieving, letting go and forgiving. Suddenly I had words like ‘fear of abandonment’ & ‘Anxious attachment style’ weighing heavily upon me. The sense of being broken, having low self esteem, depression and being suicidal at times all became clearer.
My training didn’t ‘cure me’ nor has having my own personal therapy. I still struggle with this living bullshit. But it continues to help a great deal in gaining healthier coping mechanisms, achieving more loving, trusting relationships and giving me permission to remove toxic people from my life. I have come a long way and it is my hope that wearing my work hat, I am helping others who are struggling in their childhoods to have an easier time of it. My experiences have made me who I am and they feel worthwhile if they can be used as a tool to help others.
So back to burn out. I don’t believe that I currently feel burnt out due to work but it no doubt plays a part in depleting me emotionally. When I’m at home I try to put my clients out of my head but because I care about them they still remain in my thoughts like the glow of a candle you must not forget is burning.
My friends haven’t burnt me out, but I do worry a lot about them, I do miss seeing a lot of them and I try to be there for them when they are in darkness, fear or despair and that love and concern lights a few more candles I must keep safe.
My partner doesn’t burn me out but the love, attention, energy and desire to make things work ignites another candle to be mindful of.
General responsibilities of being an adult like housework, cooking, washing, being places on time, trying not to forget things (when my brain is pretty poor at remembering) and self imposed pressure lights a church sized candle at times.
General human cognitive, ruminative exercises and existential wondering light a string of fairy lights (and you should never leave those unattended either)
My beautiful children with their different age related, personalised, messy, noisy, grumpy, naggy, hormonal, emotional, ever questioning, ever chatty, hilarious, angst ridden needs… HELL YEAH they wear the crap out of me at times- add ten more candles.
Tricky relationships with other family members- add twenty candles, a bag of guilt, a few panic attacks, a fuck-load of dread, grief and a £50 an hour counselling fee.
So yeah I got burnt out. It’s nobodies fault & it’s everyone’s, especially mine. But..Nothing is worth killing myself over and I need to change things so that I don’t lose the plot or dig myself into a hole I can’t get out of. Beginning with some rest and doing things that make me happy. I am putting myself first and trusting that the universe will not fall apart if I take a step back for a week. So far, so good. I’ve slowed the hell down, Breathed, drawn, read, meditated, sang, played guitar, been on a lovely walk with my love and taken the time to appreciate him and all that he brings to my life. I might put on half a stone in a week because I’ve hardly walked and I’ve done some bloody delicious baking, if I do say so myself. Better chubby and sane than mad and skinny I say!
I will hopefully feel more myself at the end of it. I don’t want to change who I am and I don’t want to stop wearing any of these hats, but I think I might need to make a hat just for me and it must contain love like all the others.