Let me tell you about this picture. It’s a tree, hit by lightning years before I came across it in the French Pyrenees during a morning hike. Half of the tree is dead, lying among the ferns, decaying and enriching the soil below. The other half stands, hollow, deformed, with fresh leaves forming on its branches year after year. Its deformity, and its survival nonetheless, struck me as I walked past. My family took a break a bit later, and I went back to take this picture. Something in me knew I’d be needing this image later on, but for what, I couldn’t even begin to imagine.
Years later, I heard my husband chattering away about the coming school year as we biked together through the summer afternoon sun. I had just had five weeks of summer vacation, but somehow couldn’t get my head wrapped around the idea of another school year. I wasn’t ready, I was too tired, and panic clawed its way upwards as I found myself in tears on the side of the road, because I just couldn’t take the idea of going to work and teaching one more child. My burnout was manifesting itself, and I fought it back, tooth and nail, yet again.
How had it ever come this far? I remember sitting across from my doctor, who matter-of-factually told me that I had just hit the wall that everyone hits, sooner or later. My experience was normal. In my case, as an intelligent, strong, talented woman, I had managed to hit this wall quite hard, so I may as well relax, accept this twist in life, and take the time I needed to recover. It was when my employer replaced me with two people that I realized that I really had been working too hard, and I finally learned to accept my burnout – a key step in my later recovery process.
I remember the questions asked by well-meaning colleagues and employers: the summer visit from your mom, was that too much? Was it the care for your father-in-law? What was it that pushed me “over the edge”? And of course, when could I come back, and take over my old work again? I knew that people were caring, and really trying to understand me and what I was going through, but none of them really addressed the core of the problem. I needed to get stuff straightened out in my head, and in a time when my brain was so fried that speaking in full sentences required my full concentration, this process of sorting was a challenge I could only dream of surmounting.
A friend of mine later remarked that my recovery would take at least as long as the build-up to the burnout. I laughed it off, saying I could hardly afford that much recovery time, as it had been at least five years in the making. Outwardly, I laughed it off, but inwardly, I knew that I was going to have to take a very serious look at all aspects of my life, if I wanted to avoid ever having a burnout again.
In the coming few blog entries, I’m going to take a look at what it means to have a burnout, and to explore various aspects involved. This is an important topic, especially in education, where the burnout rates are higher than in any other employment sector, but where it is taboo to speak about this openly. I will argue that only when we, as educators, dare to break the taboo on this topic, will we be able to turn the tide and actually work to prevent burnouts. It is important to spread knowledge about this topic, especially to those who have not (yet) had a burnout, so that we can learn to recognize the symptoms and undertake appropriate action. We must take action, in order to retain our intelligent, creative, and caring professionals. It is my hope to take a step in that direction with this blog.