It’s taking me forever to write this blog post. I started a long time ago, writing one paragraph, then stopping again. Coming back to write another, then feeling exhausted again. Everything is exhausting these days. Writing, spending time with friends, even too much thinking or reading. I feel like I’ve been rung through the washer one too many times, one of those old hand cranked washers that have become a novelty and are coveted by radical homesteaders. A piece of laundry, pounded by a plunger, stomped by feet, and then squeezed through the rollers. That’s the image that comes to my mind when I think of my body. Clean – I suppose – but rung out and left to hang in the sun and wind.
So I go to yet another doctor, a Naturopath, for my chronic fatigue. I bring a folder full of potential diagnoses, prior treatment plans, long lists of supplements, dietary protocols, and test results. Maybe this new doctor will finally know how to fix my brain fog and lack of energy. Maybe I need a new supplement, or fewer supplements, or a different dietary plan, or some kind of pill, or – something…
I come home feeling hopeful, once again, but also dreading the disappointment of another inconclusive test. A few years ago I was enrolled in a college for naturopathic medicine. I personally saw many despairing people get well, even some who were told they’d have to live with chronic illness for the rest of their lives. How come none of the diagnoses I learned about, the treatment plans, or cures seem to apply to me?
My housemate asks me how my doctor’s visit was. “Good, I guess” I say, but he doesn’t buy it. He keeps looking at me and I break into a rant. I tell him how frustrated I am, how I seem to know just about everything and still have no answers, how I keep getting better and then worse again. “The doctor wanted to know when my symptoms started,” I laugh bitterly. “How the fungus am I supposed to answer that question?”
Do I start with late childhood, feeling depressed because I thought I was never good enough for my family? Do I talk about middle school, where I set a new record for most bullied student ever? Do I mention my confusing teenage years when I had horrific yeast infections but didn’t see a doctor because I was full of shame for having symptoms “down there”? Or do I talk about the cleanses and special diets I did, the food addictions, the heavy metal exposure, traumatic events in Bible College, my abusive marriage, subsisting on dumpster-dived food, living out of my vehicle, working for abusive borderline bosses, or the years running a business while also working a full time job?
“I saw doctors on and off during some of those times,” I say, “but I always ran out of money or time or both. So now I don’t even know how to tell the story of my health. And I still don’t know what’s wrong with me!”
My housemate holds my hands and pulls me into a hug. He’s heard some of these stories before, but stringing them all together like this? It sounds overwhelming, I admit, but I have always refused to wallow in self pity. I refuse to do so now. I’m a natural optimist, and I will not identify with the role of a victim. I’m a survivor. I am!
“Well, maybe this new doctor will-”
He interrupts me. “Annika,” he says, looking into my eyes. “Have you considered that there might not be anything seriously wrong with you, maybe-”
“Oh, I know it’s not that bad-” I say hurriedly. I will not indulge pity.
“That’s not what I mean,” he continues. “Maybe you just need to rest. I mean, really rest. You could keep spending hundreds, thousands of dollars on doctors, but maybe you should save that money and use it to let yourself recover from everything you’ve been though. Seriously. Think about it.”
I shrug and give a noncommittal answer and he leaves me alone.
The next day I have a date with my lover. I’m excited. What started with a sudden kiss at PantheaCon two years ago has blossomed into a passionate relationship. I look forward to every date. Today I warn him that I’m exhausted from my doctor’s visit, but excited to see him.
I get into the car and hit the freeway.
Maybe you just need to rest…
I keep hearing my housemate’s words. I’ve been pushing them aside, keeping myself busy and distracted. But here on the freeway, the distractions fail.
What if I let myself feel my exhaustion?
Why is it that I always feel like I am struggling for survival?
I do know how to have good times, even in the midst of the struggle. I’ve always known how to do that. Even in survival mode, there are moments when I let go and celebrate. Those feel like micro vacations, like magical festivals that set up a temporary reality, then come to an end after a short weekend. Only the struggle feels real. The struggle for survival never ends.
Except that I don’t actually need to struggle anymore. I married into financial stability. I no longer need to prove my worth to the system every day. I no longer need to convince the world how efficient and productive I am. There are no bosses watching, waiting to fire me. No single source of income dissipating suddenly should I make a mistake. For the first time in my adult life I do not have to worry about how to make ends meet. I could relax. I have the privilege to do so now. It’s such a foreign concept to me.
Suddenly I am crying. Tears running down my cheeks, my body heaving with sobs. I’m searching for an exit now, a way to get off this freeway. It’s been a long time since I have sobbed like this. I can’t stop and I realize, I don’t have to. I’ll be late to my date, but he will understand.
Next thing I know I am hunched over the steering wheel in some industrial parking lot somewhere near I-880.
IT IS OVER.
The thought hits me over and over again. The struggle is over. I have survived. I am no longer struggling to survive daily. This privilege I have now is real. It’s not going to evaporate on a whim. I could let go of the stress and the struggle. I could take a break.
I cry for an hour before hitting the road again and falling into the arms of my lover. I am exhausted, but I do feel lighter. A weight has been lifted and I feel naked without it.
Naked and ashamed. I shouldn’t let go of all of the shoulds, should I?
Through the tears, I laugh at myself. I can’t even think of letting go of shoulds without should-ing myself.
I feel like the first day of summer break. School is out, and I think now I have all of the time in the world. I powered through finals week, making plans to hike and kayak and party as soon as it is over. Instead I get sick. I powered through and then crashed. This is what college was like for me, always feeling sick the first few days of break. It’s really no surprise that I end up crashing after years of perpetual crunch time.
So where do I go from here?
I don’t actually know how to truly let go and relax. I will need time to learn how to do so. Self care is sexy, we say, but it also the hardest thing to learn. I’ve cancelled a number of commitments. I’ve put working on my book manuscript on hold. I am delegating responsibilities in my community. I won’t be able to write on a schedule anymore. I’m not going to stop blogging altogether, but it will have to be more sporadic, depending on brain fog and fatigue.
I’m learning the hard way that the only step toward healing from burnout isn’t a step at all. It is letting go of taking step after step after step and taking the time to sit down and rest. Having the privilege to be able to do so is a strange and miraculous thing to me. Now I just need to do it.