How Burnout Prepared Me To Deal With The COVID Pandemic.
I am on the 4 millionth day of this pandemic quarantine. Some days are easier than others. Some days are just hard. The real challenge is that there is no end in sight. This will likely last through the winter and into the Spring. It would be normal to be overwhelmed. It would be expected to feel like the walls are closing in. But I am okay--not fine, not great, not excellent--okay. But that means I am surviving. And I think part of it are the lessons I learned from burnout and the fact that 2020 was such as staggeringly traumatic year in so many other years, that I am numb. Which also tells me there is another burnout around the corner.
Burnout is defined as: "exhaustion of physical or emotional strength or motivation usually as a result of prolonged stress or frustration." There are many articles about burnout, discussing its causes, symptoms, outcomes. I don't remember being aware of the term "burnout" before it happened to me. It wasn't part of my vocabulary or my understanding of the world. In fact, I wasn't aware of the term until after I had burned out and I was recovering enough to put the pieces back together.
Slowly Tightening the Vice on my Life.
In 2013 I left a Big Law firm. I had spent nearly five years there. The work life balance at that firm was actually fine-ish. My standard work day was 10-14 hours but I usually only worked five days a week. The issue, and I say this looking back, is that eventually the very structure of my life became too much. I was up early enough to work out every day, which meant being up at 5:15 am. We had to be out of the house by 6:45 am to get to the kids' schools by 8 am. You read that right: one hour fifteen minutes to get the kids to school. This usually entailed two stops: daycare and then private school, and then back to the office. Afternoon pick up was a hodge podge. I don't even remember how it worked before I had childcare but eventually someone else would pick them up and take them home. I would leave the office at 6:45 pm the dot, make it home by about 7:30 pm, be with the kids until 8:45 pm (lights' out). So I had 45 minutes in the morning and a little over an hour in the evening. Every minute of every day was planned--truly. It worked but it was completely rigid. After I left, the workload at the next firm skyrocketed and the rules of my life became even more strict. There was no room for any give.
From 2013 to 2015 I worked at one of the hardest jobs I have ever had. It was a smaller firm. My work weeks were at least seventy hours, week after week. At some point, weekends and holidays disappeared. Some of those two years is just a blur. I remember billing 100 hours one week. I also distinctly remember that day after day, I would relish those few seconds between waking up and becoming conscious of the day. It was the only moment of solace I had. I would also look forward to sleeping because it meant getting away from the crushing feeling created by constant stress--the unnamed crushing feeling I was experiencing. Again, the structure of my life was the problem. Up at 5:00 am. Leaving the house at 6:45 am. I would make it to the office by 8:15 am and stay there until at least 6:45 pm. That too, though, would eventually start to slip. Then travel got thrown into the mix. I don't have a calendar to look at, but when I took stock I was away at least two nights a week. My three sons were under five, then under six. All of this meant hiring more and more help, coordinating more childcare providers (Au Pair, daycare, overnight sitters, shifts of weekend sitters). Every Sunday night, I would spend at least an hour setting up which childcare providers would cover which days, which times, and do what. Let's add to that the fact I couldn't actually afford the childcare we were buying but it was necessary to keep the job that was keeping the household afloat, and you should be getting a good picture of what was going on.
Because we were not making ends meet, I started a translation company in the midst of this, hoping I could leverage my background, skill set, and language abilities to bring in more money. When my tank was already empty--more than empty--I found something else to burn up for. Imagine a completely empty receptacle and desperately trying to suck up more from it, for months on end, while trying to be somewhat present for three very small children. There was nothing left. Nothing.
In 2015, something happened at work that made me break. We were going broke--truly broke. I think we were about thirty days from starting to default on the mortgage. The bottom was about to fall out and working harder was both impossible and useless. I was between a rock and a hard place with no way out. So I did the next logical thing: I quit. I walked out with one client, an $80,000 retainer, and I took a personal loan of $50,000 to cover our expenses while we got started. You would think that starting a new firm would have been stressful beyond belief, but it wasn't. I was numb by then but I was also relieved to finally regain some control over my life. I have a distinct memory of walking into my new office, some time in my first month, wearing my favorite blue dress and feeling this massive weight come off my shoulders. It felt like I was breathing again for the first time in years. I've read descriptions of that feeling and it doesn't do it justice. It's transformative.
As the weeks and months went by, I slowly felt better and found my footing. But I wasn't quite where I needed to be. Some days the energy would just drain out of me: I listened, I heard my body telling me I needed something different, but I didn't know yet what to do about it. I was still following my "schedule" (that untenable schedule) and I was still tired, although the stress was less oppressive. We still had a lot of childcare, which I managed (for better or for worse). Money was still tight (although we were managing).
On the path to recovery, without the right tools.
In the Summer of 2016 I moved to Colorado to join a firm in Aspen, CO. I had a three month-old by then, in addition to my three other children. I moved to Colorado with the kids and I hired two Au Pairs to help me while I was there. I did spend money I did not have, but looking back it was the right move at that point. I had regained control over my life by being my own boss but I was not using that power to restructure my life. It would take three more years until I found a way to dismantle the very structure of my life and rebuild it into something tenable. I did, however, begin to do that when I reached Colorado.
While colleagues around me were impressed by my energy, my dedication, and my work ethic I knew I was working at a slower pace than I could. I also knew, though, that there is no obligation to work at full steam all the time and I also don't have to always use that energy for work, and only work. What I understood is that we have bandwidth and 1) I don't always have to be redlining and 2) every aspect of life--schedule, work, children, love, friends--take up bandwidth. You can redline every now and again but a lifetime at that level will kill you, literally.
While the partnership in Aspen, CO, ended on less than positive terms my time there will forever be filled with happiness. I took long walks every morning in forests and mountains. I spent weekends bathed in the glory of rivers, trees, nature, and my children's laughter (and whining! so much whining). I skied every Sunday from November through April as did my children. I would drop them off at ski school, take to the slopes, call it a day at 2 pm, eat a massive burger with a fried egg and brisket on an outdoor terrace, and watch my kids end their classes around 3:00 pm (maybe 3:30 pm). Every Friday night I took myself out on a date at one of two restaurants. I ordered my brussel sprouts, duck risotto, and flourless chocolate torte. (My husband was completing an aerospace medicine residency which took him all over the globe for 12 months so I was mostly solo). These were moments of joy. Joy.
In 2017 I moved to Centennial, CO, and started over--again. I launched The Woman's Lawyer, a law firm focused on representing women, people of color, and members of the LGBTQ community. I also centered my practice on domestic abuse and sexual assault cases. But--and this was a big turning point--I scheduled my life on my own terms.
Reclaiming bandwidth by drawing boundaries to let in joy.
You know what the answer is to burnout? Joy. But not just having moments of joy. You see, moments of joy come into our lives even when burnt out. However, if we are redlining there is no space to experience joy. When I am tired I cannot enjoy a delicious meal or my children's beauty. When I am stressed there is no space for absorbing the beauty of a sunrise. When I am being crushed by the rhythm of my life that morning jog, or afternoon tea is a rushed blur between two panic attacks. So while joy is the way to avoid burnout, the road to burnout makes it impossible to experience joy.
My new firm could have eaten up all my time and become another monster to tame. Fortunately for me, I was still way too fragile to do any of that. Indeed, my highest risk for burnout (I later found out) is not when I am at my lowest; it's when I am pulling out of the lows because I have enough energy to launch into overdrive.
I picked a home within walking distance to school so the kids got there on their own. No morning drive needed from Mommy. I put my kids in public school so we stopped bleeding funds. I ensured the kids could get picked up or make their way home on their own. I stopped work at 5:30 every day and was home by 6:00 pm. This life made more sense. Eventually, in 2019 I started working at a mid size law firm but I held on to my life. I held on to leaving me space to experience joy.
Then the pandemic hit--and hit, and hit, and hit--and I held on to the lessons learned.
The pandemic threw me into a completely senseless roller coaster ride, like it did the rest of the country. This is in addition to a near weekly series of absolute disasters which further gutted me and filled me with absolute dread. These hit me like punches starting in January 2020 and continuing to this day. But the pandemic added flavors you are all familiar with: the kids were home, I was trying to lead a team remotely while homeschooling them, and COVID-19 with all its impossible demands. So here is how I implemented the lessons from my burnout:
Performance: It's okay to not overperform. It's okay to just be "okay." It's fine to just get by. This is not the time to shine.
Mental Space: Make space for me, whatever that looks like. I went jogging as much as I could when the weather permitted. I bought a ridiculous indoor stationary bike. I created an amazing gym downstairs. Working out is my release and I made sure I have a way to get that inside the home.
Schedule: Have a work schedule (if working from home) and stick to it. Monday through Friday I start working at 9:00 am and I stop at 5:30 pm. Period. Work is work, my life is my life. I don't answer my cell for work calls outside those hours.
Sleep: Make space for sleep. Make time for sleep. Fight like hell for your sleep. Lack of sleep is a method of torture, for good reason. It messes with everything.
Breaks: Take breaks. A break entails no email and no social media. Go do something else, even if it's in your own home. For me, it's listening to lectures and painting figurines. I learned to do this when I was burned out because there was literally nothing else I could do. When I didn't have the energy to get myself into a shower or out of the house, I figured out how to make myself feel a little less devastated inside my home. The things I learned to do when I was broken (when I did not have enough energy to do anything else) are the same things I now do to stay well. A break is not just a few hours. Every now and again, a break should be several days long.
And that's why I'm okay...
I am not doing "great." I am not thriving." But I am okay and at this stage of the shitshow that 2020 has been, that's saying a lot. This post will go up in 3 minutes at which point I will turn on a lecture and begin painting figurines for Imperial Assault. I will then decorate a tree (or watch my kids do it). And then hang out with my husband. This is how I make space for joy. I go back to the things I used to do when I was so broken it felt like I was suspended in molasses looking for a life line. There is some peace in that brokenness and it taught me a lot.
If anyone wants to email or speak or needs to reach out, please do so. I'm here.