Walking the Fine Line of Burnout

Let me start off by saying first of all, this is not meant to be a whiny post about how I wish I could quit my Evil Day Job and spend all my time writing books (although I do). Nor is it a contest to see whose job sucks the most. Since I’m writing this post, chances are I’ll think it’s mine, no matter what you say. 🙂

It’s a post about walking that fine line between being able to do your job to the best of your ability and burnout–and what to do about it.

See, I think most of us are closer to burnout than we think. It’s almost a given these days. Who hasn’t heard of the newly minted lawyer or the medical resident who is worked to the bone as some sort of rite of passage, putting in over a hundred hours a week into a job that demands nothing less because they think that’s how it’s done. That’s how you advance, become partner, a senior staffer, move up in management. That one day you’ll have the corner office and the healthy paycheck and you’ll be able to catch up on sleep or your kid’s recitals or afford that really awesome vacation.

Only it’s never enough, is it? Because (at least in the US), our workplaces demand more and more from us every year, expecting us to get more done with less support staff, improve the bottom line with fewer rewards. Accept a “promotion” that is largely a title for doing the work we’re already performing. Forcing senior, experienced employees out because they can hire two new graduates for what they have to pay the veteran employee. I recently overheard employees at my local grocery discussing how everyone’s hours have been slashed to just under full time so the national chain can avoid paying benefits like health insurance. At the same time, the company is replacing cashiers with automated systems for checkout, and eating the cost of shoplifting instead of keeping the live people on staff.

And we accept it because we’re scared we’ll be the next on the chopping block.

I live in a rural area where work is hard to come by. I have a mortgage and bills to pay, which as I age, increasingly includes medical bills. I’m lucky to have a FT job which contributes significantly to the household economy. I know this. And at the same time, I resent the degree to which the job owns me.

I resent putting in 10 hour days and having that never be enough. I resent the advent of mobile technology making you accessible to your employer 24/7 with demands you fix something or take care of something on what should be your down time. Twenty years ago, my employer would have paid my health insurance in full as a perk of the job. Now I’m expected to contribute $400/month out of my paycheck every month to retain coverage.

I resent coming home at the end of a long day irritable and fried, unable to interact pleasantly with those I love. By the time I get to the house, I’m too tired to make reasonable decisions about what to have for dinner, let alone find the energy to work on the current story. I don’t like the person I am right now. And yet I scarcely know how to change.

It’s a little thing, but one of the dictates of my workplace is that management gives me the next day’s assignments before I’m finished the current day’s work so I can review them in advance. They take this one step further in that I receive the workload for the day after my day off as well. The end result is my inbox is never empty. I never get to check off the day’s assignments as complete because there is always more sitting in my inbox.

Small wonder I dream about work as though I’ve never left, nightmares in which I look out the office window to see long lines of people waiting to be seen, like the lines outside Best Buy before a Black Friday sale. I never get to say I’m done for the day.

For a while now, I’ve been saying I’m on the edge of burnout, because in my head, “burned out” is a state of non-functionality, where you are incapable of doing your job, one step away from a nervous breakdown. Not willing to declare myself a charred cinder, I admit to being close just the same. And I have to admit there are days when the idea of a nervous breakdown sounds good if it means weeks spent in an asylum with nothing better to do than stare at the ceiling.

But I’m starting to think the gradient toward burnout is more subtle than you’d suspect. Whatever it is, I think I’m nearly there.

But if I am, then what? I still have bills to pay. I can’t just lie on the couch and read books all day, though I’d dearly love to give that a shot for a few weeks.

Which was why I was glad to stumble across Burnout:The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle by Emily Nagoski, PhD and Amelia Nagoski, DMA. Various people on my social media feeds had been talking about it, and though I didn’t want to admit to actual burnout, I felt I was close enough to consider reading it.

I haven’t gotten very far into it yet, but I’m already of the opinion almost every woman I know could benefit from reading it. Not just those suffering from near burnout, either from work or their family lives, but also women struggling with PTSD, or relentless perfectionism, or just the demands that society seems to place on most of us. Men, too, with their struggle to meet society’s needs as well as those of their families, all while holding their emotions tightly in check.

According to the book, the biggest factors in burnout stem from never completing the cycle: as cavemen, if we were attacked by a saber-toothed tiger, we either survived the attack or we died. If we died, our stress was over. If we survived, there was a huge sense of relief and a celebration among our other cave-dwellers as  we shared our story of our exciting near-miss. The adrenaline spiked, our muscles expended the energy in our survival, and then it was over.

In modern society, it is never over. The saber-toothed tigers are always with us, snapping at our heels, demanding we run faster, jump higher to escape–only we never do. We nap fitfully on the ledge outside our caves, always ready to leap up and run again.

Small wonder we struggle with weight issues here in the US. Our adrenal glands are on maximum overload all the time. And how do we handle stress? We eat. It’s a physiologic drive for survival because we always feel under threat.

Frankly, I’m not sure how I can change things given I have so little say so in how management tells me to do my job. But change I must. I can’t keep dozing on the edge of my ledge, longing for the day when I’ll be able to rest knowing I am in a saber-toothed tiger-free zone.

So while I take most self-help books with a grain of salt, this one is resonating with me.

Feeling Guilty over Joy When the World is on Fire

photp by Ashutosh Sonwani pexels.com

TW for frightening world news events and the despair they cause. (I promise I’ll make it better, though)

 

 

I have a new book coming out this week, and I gotta tell you.

Most days it feels wrong to talk about it.

I’m not the only one. I think when you take the natural reticence many authors have about self-promotion and add it to the fact most days, the world news is a dumpster fire, it’s difficult to feel right about promoting something as trivial as a new book, or celebrating any event in your life. What if you line up a bunch of timed social media releases, and they hit your timeline on the same day of some horrific event? I don’t know about you, but something like that makes me cringe inside. If that happened, I’d rush off and delete the rest of any planned posts and downplay my book news.

And yet, as of the first of this month, there have been more mass shootings in the US than there have been days in the year. It’s fair to say it’s nigh unto impossible to avoid releasing your doves of happy news on a day when nothing bad has happened. Not a day goes by when we don’t learn of fresh horror: be it rampant, unchecked government corruption (honestly, there are too many stories to link here), the acceleration of climate change, the news that the same insecticides killing the bees are also affecting songbirds, another dozen stories on racial injustice, or whatever hits the news that day. With today’s social media, it’s easier than ever to connect to world events, whether or not the reporting is accurate.

Recently, I wrote a blog post about a reporter who attended a romance conference under false pretenses in order to blast the industry and those who work in it. A point this so-called journalist kept making was that these authors came together to “peddle their soft porn” while “the Amazon burns.” Essentially, she compared romance authors to Nero fiddling while Rome burned (another case of history being written by the victors).

The article by this journalist seeking a free weekend away from her kids enraged many romance readers and writers alike. And for me, it pointed out one glaring hole in her argument about the frivolousness and uselessness of romance stories: as long as the Amazon burns, ANYTHING someone takes pleasure in counts as a selfish waste of time. That includes taking your kids to Little League, being excited about a new job, sharing your vacation pictures online, or seeing the latest blockbuster movie. By this standard, there should be no sports fans, no knitting groups, no book clubs. Why bother getting a new puppy or kitten; we’re all going to die.

Problem is, that holds true regardless if the end is 20 minutes or 200 years from now. Sneering at romance is simply more acceptable than belittling diehard football fans.

Face it, “the Amazon burns” is the perfect metaphor for human civilization as a whole right now. Moderating climate change should be our greatest priority, but that requires a whole chain of events, including putting people in power who believe in science and prioritize global concerns instead of lining their pockets. To take pleasure in the little things in life isn’t a repudiation of making things better in the world.

It helps.

It reminds us the world is worth saving, that people are worth saving. That there are good things in this world, worth sharing with others.

On a more practical level, our social media interconnectedness, while great for sharing things, can also make us more anxious and depressed. And for many, reading is a stress-reducing activity as powerful, if not more so, than meditation. I know this to be true. Without even realizing it, I stumbled upon this a few years ago. I work long hours at a high-stress job, and while I’ve always been a big reader, I desperately needed to spend my 20 minute lunch break with a book each day. If I’m behind my book, don’t talk to me. Don’t expect me to answer work-related questions. I’m the taxi driver sitting at the wheel with the OFF DUTY sign engaged. That twenty minutes absorbed in a story is twenty minutes in which my brain has disengaged from a vicious cycle of worry and anxiety. And I can take a deep breath and come back to slog through the rest of the day’s problems.

The truth is, regardless of whether the world is on fire, we still have to go to work, raise our kids, take care of our elderly parents, deal with relationship issues or that cancer diagnosis, decide if we should take the promotion that moves us across country, and mow the lawn. We still have to live our lives and living without joy is no way to live at all.

So I say, revel in your vacation photos to the Grand Tetons. Celebrate your daughter’s win at the science fair or your son’s award in the local talent contest. Post your puppy pictures and make someone smile. Learn to crochet. Share images of that crafting project you finally completed. Go out to that anniversary dinner. Laugh with friends over a movie. Live-Tweet your favorite TV show or the book you’re reading.

And don’t be afraid to promote your art. It might be exactly the thing that helps someone get through their day.

The Art of Loving Yourself

(TW for fatphobia and internalized hate)

 

I have a couple of special events coming up this summer and fall, and these days, that seems to send me into a flurry of self-evaluation and determination–once more–to lose that extra twenty pounds or so. Invariably, I decide on some program–be it keto, or Weight Watchers, or what have you, that I can manage for a few days before the reality of my chaotic life comes crashing down.

Between my recent birthday, shopping for a dress to wear to an awards banquet (in which I’m a finalist, so more pressure), and planning to go to the Romance Writer’s Association Conference for the first time at the end of this month, my drive to lose weight before X date is at an all-time high. Especially since I had a recent photo shoot, and the PT for my knee takes place in a room full of mirrors. Both left me depressed at the frumpy middle-aged woman I’ve become.

Growing up, I never had to worry about my weight. In fact, I was so underweight that I could pretty much eat whatever I wanted. My dad referred to me as “a bag of bones and a hank of hair”, which felt like a bit of a nasty gibe. It wasn’t until after he passed that I discovered these were the lyrics to an old song, and meant in affection. Though I didn’t have weight issues, I had self-esteem issues just the same. Wild masses of untamed hair rioted over my head like kudzu growing out of control. Coke-bottle thick lenses in heavy glasses since I was eight years old (and I could never successfully wear contacts). A mouth like a gargoyle with teeth jutting out in all directions. I ended up having eight teeth pulled to make room for them all, but this wasn’t done until I was an adult, so for years, I refused to smile and talked behind my hand.

But I never thought twice about my weight. I didn’t even know what cellulite looked like until I hit my forties.

I was a bright kid, too. I never had to study in high school, and graduated with honors only to discover college was a very different deal altogether. College came as a rude awakening for me when I discovered I could no longer coast my way to A’s based on a good memory and a thirst for reading. I was forced to develop good study habits in order to get my degree. But I didn’t gain the ‘freshman twenty’, nor did I have to change my eating habits. In fact, I never gained an ounce until I became my parents’ caretakers, all while working FT, and caring for my own family. All of the sudden, the increased stress and the decreased physical activity caused my weight to balloon up.  And like the high school honors student, I didn’t have the skill set to deal with the changes.

Not to mention, the information out there was often inaccurate, frequently depended on a level of exercise and deprivation no one can maintain, and completely discounted a society that demands we do more on less time. Yes, I know there are people who successfully manage busy, stressful lives while maintaining good food choices and healthy activity, but face it, many of us are forced to choose between taking care of ourselves and the other demands in our lives. And even though logic dictates you should put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others, that’s not what happens for most women. We’re running around seeing that everyone else in our lives gets their oxygen mask safely in place first before we pass out from lack of O2.

I grew up in a house with a mother who had some very odd ideas about food. She didn’t believe in seasoning, and our meals consisted of a very narrow list of ingredients. It turns out she had acne rosacea, which can be triggered by certain foods and spices. I’ve since developed it as well, which has forced me to eliminate several things from a diet that leaned toward picky in the first place.

I think changing your eating habits is one of the most difficult things anyone can do. Giving up caffeine felt as challenging as how I think giving up heroin or opioids would be–complete with the withdrawal symptoms and the sudden, intense cravings years after you’ve kicked the habit. On a hot summer day, I can walk past a vending machine and visualize putting coins in the unit, hearing the rumble and clunk of the drink hitting the bottom drawer, and picture myself opening an ice-cold Pepsi with condensation running down the side of the can. I can still taste that first sip, even though I haven’t had a Pepsi in over five years now. I have to remind myself caffeine will kill me in order to prevent me from snagging a can. I’m fully convinced one day we’ll discover the soda companies have manipulated the caffeine to make them more addictive, much like the cigarette companies did.

I’ve always thought of myself as a strong person, but recently a torn meniscus has greatly curtailed my ability to do the things I used to do. I feel fragile. Useless. Old.

Worse, I’m pissed with my body for letting me down. I never used to have to think about it. I took it for granted. And now I can’t anymore. I’ve absolutely hated my body for the last five or so years now, and let me tell you, no one should have to live with that toxic energy aimed at them all the time. Not to mention all that hate has been focused on a body still giving me nearly everything I ask of it. I’m embarrassed that I’ve been so ungrateful for so long.

I’m embarrassed that I’ve been just as demanding, unforgiving, and toxic as some of my former bosses and family members when my body has done its best no matter what. I realize that just being able to say I never gave a thought to my weight or health before means I started at a privileged position at the beginning of the race. I’m ashamed I’ve been so angry at so little for so long.

I’ve tried positive affirmations in the past, but always, with each attempt, a snarky inner voice sneered at the things I told myself because I knew they weren’t true. My husband frequently calls me “beautiful” and “gorgeous” and I roll my eyes at him, or snap, “I don’t feel beautiful.”

But all that’s changed now.

A couple of revelations came one by one over the last few weeks, which led to my little epiphany.

  1. I can look at other people who have much higher BMIs than I do, and think how beautiful they are, or how great that cute outfit looks on them. Why can’t I do that with myself? Why am I so unforgiving and unkind to myself?
  2. I wouldn’t treat anyone or anything I care about with the level of animosity I routinely aim at myself. I’d intervene if I saw someone being treated the way I treat myself each and every day. I would not tolerate this level of abuse from anyone I knew, either. It must stop.
  3. The demand for perfection has never helped me achieve any of my goals. I’ve been punishing myself for not being “enough” my entire life and it hasn’t made my life better, either. If anything, it’s held me back. This applies to so much more than meeting society’s rigid (and impossible) standards of beauty. The desire for perfection in everything has hamstrung me from attempting so many things in life. It’s sucked the joy out of the things I have accomplished. Last summer I hiked up into the Cascade Canyon in the Grand Tetons. The scenery was breath-taking. It was a once-in-a-lifetime trip for me. But what I remember most about that day was the photo someone took of me and my husband with the majestic mountains as a backdrop. I was wearing a blue top and shorts and I recall thinking when I saw the photo that I looked like a Giant Blueberry. It came close to spoiling not only the day but the entire trip for me. And yet that body that I disrespect so much carried me up that canyon trail. You’d think I’d give it a little credit for that.
  4. It’s hard for me to view a meal that is packed with veggies, nuts, cheese, and an egg as “bad” or “wrong” because it’s the wrong point count or contains too much fat, or it’s not what my caveman ancestors would have eaten. You should see what I usually eat for lunch! A snack pack such as I’ve described above beats the hell out of a hot dog and a packet of chips. With all my dietary restrictions, I’m going to have to find my own path to a healthier diet. And that’s okay. I might not lose 20 pounds in 2 weeks. I might not lose any weight at all. But if I’m healthier for cutting back on the sugar and carbs, or feel better because I’m not eating the foods that disagree with me or trigger reactions, that’s good enough.
  5. This thread on Courtney Milan’s Twitter account. It made me rethink the whole sneering-as-I-attempt-affirmations thing. Go read it, and take it to heart. So much truth there, including the myth of being ‘lazy’ and the risk of over-exercising, and how changes don’t always lead to weight loss but they lead to better mental health, and that is the best reason for making them. 

So while I’m still stressed about what I’m going to wear to the RWA conference, I’m not going to stress about losing ‘enough weight’ before I go shopping. There isn’t time anyway, and in the end, it doesn’t really matter. What matters is I go and have a great time, hopefully making some new friends and meeting in person friends I know online.

I’ve started thanking my body for giving me its best despite my neglect and abuse, and promising to do better by it.

And this morning, when my husband said, “Hey, Gorgeous”, instead of rolling my eyes, I gave him a hug and said,”Thank you.”

I think I’m finally understanding it when people say one of the great things about getting older is letting go of so many negative thoughts and feelings you believed to be true in the past. It’s very liberating.

 

Creativity, Gratitude, and Self-Care in a Dumpster-Fire World

I’ve been finding it very difficult to write lately.

I know I’m not alone in this–it’s a refrain I hear from many creative types right now. It has less to do with my personal battles with depression and more to do with the constant bombardment of horrific news–especially the mounting tension as we move steadily toward the US mid-term elections. These elections are going to prove to be a referendum on so many things: where we stand as a nation on democracy, diversity, climate change, health care, decency, equality, and compassion. The stakes have never been higher.

As such, I find myself creatively holding my breath, unable to concentrate on the WIP despite a looming deadline. It feels too damn frivolous to be carving out a HEA right now, even though readers probably need the stress-relief, temporary escape, and emotional encouragement more than ever.

And yet I believe in the transformative power of storytelling.

For a while now, Supergirl has been accurately needling social issues of the day in its writing. On the surface, the show is nothing more than a little escapist superhero television action, but at the end of season 2, Cat Grant makes an amazing speech on resistance and courage in the face of fearful times, and I fistpump the air every time I watch it.

 

It’s a powerful scene that fits seamlessly with the the plot without overtly hammering the viewer over the head with the message. It’s brilliant.

But the writers of Supergirl haven’t stopped there. In another episode, James Olsen shares an experience of being accosted and accused of a crime as young black child–an experience Mehcad Brooks had in real life when he was only seven years old.

And this season, the show’s opening montage openly describes Supergirl as a refugee on our planet–and the first couple of episodes have dealt with the growing hostility and suspicion of “aliens” living on Earth and a rising “Earth First” movement. Yes, it’s a somewhat cheesy CW show–but it’s tackling real issues and I applaud them for it. I was particularly struck in this past week’s episode when the AI’s shield that allows him to look human fails while he’s ordering pizza–and the resulting hostility on the part of the restaurant owner takes Brainy completely by surprise. He keeps saying, “But you know me…” while the pizza guy calls out workers with baseball bats to beat the AI to a pulp.

The imminent violence was stopped because one person stood up–a person, it turned out, who also had a lot to lose if her own secrets were publicly known. Who wouldn’t have been spared from the same violence. That’s courage. As is telling your boss that he needs to do more than ‘tell both sides of the story’, that he needs to take a stand.

And that’s what makes storytelling compelling. It’s what moves a program beyond the realm of ‘cheesy superhero TV show’ into something worth watching.

This is the kind of writing I want to do myself. I want to bring that kind of layering and introspection to a story that is meant for entertaining consumption. Because when we start to have compassion for the Brainys and Nias of this world, then we can see them as people in our neighborhood, and not enemies to be hated. 

But it’s hard when your creative well is dry. When fear and anxiety dominate your thoughts. I’ve recently come to the realization that I can no longer support this sustained level of outrage and horror. It’s not healthy. It’s not useful to anyone, let alone me.

In some ways, it means I’m still speaking from a place of privilege, that I can even say I need to distance myself from current events. There are so many who can’t, who are living the very events I find so appalling. But self-care and distancing is not the same as turning a blind eye. It’s saying that a warrior needs to sleep before a battle. That an army must be well-fed and rested before an incursion. That this is a marathon, not a sprint, and there must be breaks along the way.

So I purchased the little notebook pictured above. I can’t say that I really believe its sentiments, but I’m making a concentrated effort to find something each day that makes me happy–something for which I’m grateful–and jot it down in this little book. I’m cultivating a sense of gratitude in a field sowed with fear and poisoned with anxiety.

WE ARE ALLOWED TO DO THIS.

No one would expect you to eat tainted food day after day without making any effort to clean it up and make it healthier. No one would demand you willingly consume poison in sublethal levels when it’s possible to filter it (unless you live in Flint, Michigan, apparently). Yes, we should be outraged at what’s happening in our country and our world. But outrage alone is ineffective. And a steady diet of outrage will kill us as surely as the things we’re outraged about.

So I’m reading more and watching the news less. Taking a little break from writing and playing around with other forms of artistic expression, such as painting. I’m having my nails done, despite the fact it’s an expensive luxury. Having nice nails makes me feel good at a time when precious little else does. As coping mechanisms go, it’s probably one of the less destructive ones.

I’m also making a determined effort not to spread fear and hate. I’m of two minds over this–I think we should be outraged. I think we should be making our voices heard. To say nothing is to be complicit. But I also fear by pointing fingers at it, we’re also fanning the flames over it and keeping it alive.

Vote. Donate your time or money, whichever you might have. Overcome your fears and participate in the process. But don’t let the fear consume you.

Remember it’s okay to tell stories that are simply pure escapism. What may be a light fluffy story to you is what gets someone else through a dark time. It’s not a crime to be proud of your successes, and share your happy news. We need more happy in this world. 

On the back of my little “Okay” notebook is an awesome quote from Jane Austen. I leave you with that thought now.