Burnout Came For Me

Burnout Came For Me

Burnout came for me about six years into living overseas. It grabbed me without any warning. Sure, we’d had family stresses, team changes, moves, a medical evacuation, changes in responsibilities and much more. Yet, we were trucking along just fine, thanks. 

Then I had a heart attack.

At least, that’s what I thought was happening. I suddenly couldn’t breathe. My left arm was numb and tingling. Time stopped and I was crushed by a feeling of utter doom. As I collapsed in my bedroom, I had a split-second realization that my kids were going to find the body of their dead mom lying on the bed. Mixed in with the frantic panic of my heart stopping, I had a wave of sadness knowing my children would have to deal with that trauma.

I didn’t die. I didn’t even pass out. My husband, not my kids, found me and managed to get me to a hospital.

The doctors there found nothing wrong with me. They suggested that what I needed was a good rest. Huh? A follow-up appointment was scheduled just to be safe. A thorough exam and round of tests with a cardiologist yielded absolutely no problems with my heart. Again, Huh?

While reviewing the results with me, the cardiologist looked at me with compassion. “I think what you experienced was a panic attack. Have you been under a lot of stress lately?”

I was confused. “No, not really. I mean, we just hosted out-of-town guests a few times this month, ran a training in our apartment, I’m homeschooling, I just got back from a conference in another country, and we were supposed to move to a new city last week except that I ended up in the hospital. So, no. Nothing out of the ordinary.” 

Although my answer seems ridiculous now, it was fully sincere at the time. It didn’t seem like we’d been going through anything particularly stressful. Honestly, the weeks preceding my panic attack had actually been calmer than many others. Everything was normal.

“Normal” also included dealing with the long list of added stressors that life overseas piles on: poor medical care, uncertain finances, being away from family and support systems, the exhaustion of daily life in a place without a car or washing machine, difficulties of operating in a non-native language, and on and on.

None of that seemed like a big deal. Certainly nothing to bring on a fake heart attack. It’s just how life was. But that day, as I rattled off the list of “nothing out of the ordinary” stuff to the cardiologist, I saw the insanity of my schedule reflected in the doctor’s ever-widening eyes. I started to suspect that our normal wasn’t normal at all.

This suspicion was confirmed as I shared the good news (“no heart attack!”) with more and more people back home.

One close friend confided, “Yeah, I wondered how long it would take you guys to break down. I’m surprised you lasted this long. You’re both very capable people, but your lives are insane.”

My sister observed that she thought we’d been living at 110% capacity for a long time. Not 100%, which would have been bad enough. 110%. Over the limit. Beyond sustainable.

People outside our expat community seemed to easily spot that we were headed for trouble – living at a breakneck pace with no slowdown in sight. Why couldn’t we see that?

I think there were many factors at play. First off, our expat community was filled with people doing life at 110% just like us. Everyone hosted lots of guests, everyone traveled, everyone homeschooled, everyone did super-wonderful-amazing things in the community, even more than we did. We didn’t look very busy by comparison.

Another factor was that we thought we were doing a decent job of preventing burnout. We took vacations, relaxed with friends, had hobbies. But given the intensity of our lives, we probably needed an even greater ratio of rest to stress than we were getting.

There were probably more factors, too. Whatever the reason, burnout came for me. In the end, I was glad it did.

It allowed me to stop – really stop – and take an honest look at our lives, then try to make healthier adjustments. We could take a deeper look at all the craziness we’d come to consider normal and re-label it as stressful, tiring, draining, too much.

I hope, dear friend, that you’re also able to take a realistic look at the things in your life and see where you need to slow down or cut things out. Are there places that “normal” is actually too much? Are there ways you can increase your ratio of rest to stress? Were you surprised by burnout or did you see it coming?

Photo by Sanetwo Sodbayar on Unsplash

12 Comments

  1. Ashley R February 9, 2020

    Oh my goodness! I could have written this post. Six years into life in China, four months into our sixth move and our third city, I started having panic attacks. Even after I knew what they were, I had many nights were I was awake in my bed wondering if my husband would find me dead the next morning. It was terrifying. And the burnout was so very real. Two and a half years into being back in the States, and my body still occasionally slips into anxiety/panic mode when life is too stressful. This story is way too common for too many of us, sadly. But He is faithful and gracious and loving, even when/especially when we reach our limit.

    1. Emily Jackson February 10, 2020

      I also wish it was not as common of a story as it is. Uncanny that it was also six years into China for you! (Hmmm…I’m trying to count because it was possibly also our sixth move?) Terrifying is absolutely the right word for panic attacks. And unfortunately, it seems like once you’ve had one, they come about much more readily. May you find good ways to keep the stress down, and rest in His grace in all the ups and downs.

  2. Corella February 9, 2020

    Oh man. I needed to read this! I’ve been wrestling with whether to let go of something I love but that just feels like a bit too much right now. And God used your words to confirm it. Pushing myself beyond my capacity will never lead to ultimate fruitfulness. Thanks for sharing your story. May we all receive the wisdom in it!

    1. Emily Jackson February 10, 2020

      So glad this post was the confirmation you needed, Corella! I struggle with saying no, not because I don’t know how to tell people no, but because there’s so much I truly enjoy being involved with. It’s very easy for me to wind up beyond capacity if I’m not careful. Thanks for your post!

  3. Diane W February 10, 2020

    I can echo Ashley that I could have written this post! I am so glad you did. I am so thankful to be beyond this point, but it brings back all sorts of memories. I am now 9 years into recovery from burnout and can truly say I feel recovered, but there are scars and joints that get achy in bad weather. It wasn’t until this year that I had the revelation (in a relationship with a new counselor) that I was STILL living over capacity. I had taken what I had determined to be a better version of “normal” right after burnout and held it in front of me as my goal….not taking into account the adoption of a 4th child (with special needs) and misunderstanding the reality that my children’s needs as they grew were not going to lessen as they morphed from mostly physical to more emotional needs – on the contrary, they have increased. I was so frustrated with myself because I was working SO HARD to NOT burnout again and not understanding why my body was responding with it’s high anxiety mode when I looked around me and thought “this is supposed to be NORMAL.” . Turns out that (a) my version of normal was still not normal for my new reality, (b) I have places in me that were injured and will never fully recover….like my ability to multi-task (more than 2 things) – and I have to be okay with that, and (c) it was time to start saying no to a whole lot more than I already was doing. It’s been so good to keep walking toward health. You nailed it when you talked about not being able to see the reality of going 110% when you’re surrounded by a whole community of people going 110%. I felt that until my counselor just kept looking at me wide-eyed (on video) and saying “you have FOUR kids. FOUR kids. For some people that’s enough to not add anything else outside of being a mom. I have two kids and can barely handle more in my life.” Perspective from the outside is so crucial. Thank you for sharing your journey!!!

    1. Emily Jackson February 10, 2020

      I agree that being in a 110% community makes it all feel deceptively normal. I’m finding that the truth is, very few of us can keep that up for long. Outside perspective helps! Thanks for talking about the long-term effects. That’s something that I don’t think many people realize burnout does to a person. I love your phrase, “keep walking toward health.” We’ll mess up and make bad choices, but we can keep on walking towards good health. Thank you for sharing your story!

  4. Monica F February 10, 2020

    Thanks for being vulnerable and sharing this piece of your overseas story Emily! I’m so thankful that we have been able to walk this journey together- no comparing, no judging, just compassion and understanding. So many people will be encouraged and challenged by what you’ve shared here. I appreciate you so much!

  5. Emily Jackson February 10, 2020

    Thanks, Monica! I hope it opens the door for some good conversations about a very important topic. I remember being surprised by how many people confided to me that they’d dealt with panic attacks, severe anxiety, and burnout. I was also surprised by WHO dealt with panic, anxiety, and burnout — many were the same people I thought were doing just fine at 110%. Thanks for walking the journey with me! I appreciate you, too!

  6. Ellie February 12, 2020

    Thanks for this post Emily. I had earmarked this to read earlier this week but only getting to it now. I agree with you all that it’s sad how this is too common in the overseas communities.. and 110% is normal.. yes.. And it’s really helpful to read in comments that 9 years into recovery there are still sore points and that our tendencies to do too much can still be there even when we’ve convinced ourselves they aren’t because “we’re doing so much less than we were before”..

    I think that the overseas things often come with so much additional stress that it’s hard for those who haven’t known that to fully understand why 3 and a half years later (3 1/2 years back in passport country) I’m still running at less capacity than I think is “normal” and feeling “frustrated” with myself.. People still think I’m doing “a lot” and I still find it hard to see it. (Two children, studying full time for a masters and another course, church work, supporting my husband in his full time ministry and work – yep, when I put it like that I see it a a lot..but in my head it’s not and there’s so much more I should be doing!)

    But that tendency can be true for others in our passport cultures too and the more I realise that I can’t take on any extra stuff right now and that the list I have in my head of things to do each day/hour is unrealistic(!) and what healthy might look like means like LESS and more quality time with loved ones and enjoying the small things and Sabbath, (Why do I have to keep re-learning what’s good?! Grr) the more I realise that if I can do this well more then I also model this and ‘give permission’ for others and we might also end up a lot more healthy overall. 🙂 The ‘we are human beings not human doings’ is something that hasn’t got very far in sometimes despite God repeating it to me in various different ways! Blessings on this journey lovely ladies. So glad VA is a place to talk about this stuff.

    1. Emily Jackson February 12, 2020

      Thank you for all these good thoughts, Ellie. I’m glad I’m not the only one who has to keep re-learning basic lessons. I’m very good at getting overly busy even though I know it’s not healthy. Sabbath rest is a great antidote to busyness. Feels soooo hard to actually get a full 24 hours of rest, but all us 110 percenters sure do need it. I’m also very grateful to have VA as a forum to discuss important topics like this one.

  7. Kate King February 15, 2020

    Thank you for this post. My first panic attack was just like you described. I thought I would die that night, far from medical care, in the country where we had served for 10 years. Ironically it was the night before we were due to fly to Australia for a much needed vacation. I think my body just couldn’t hold out any longer. Unfortunately, that first terrifying attack opens the door for more to follow, mostly the fear of it happening again. You panic about panic! It’s hard to explain to people who have never experienced it, isn’t it? I feel like I will always be haunted by this – perhaps my thorn in the flesh? I continue to serve, now in a global leadership role, based in our passport country, with different stressors to manage. Balance, rest, exercise, and healthy boundaries are essential, as is vulnerability with colleagues. Since I quit trying to pretend I’m invincible I’ve been blown away by their loving care and grace in the times my weakness causes me to need to withdraw – as in recent weeks actually. One colleague reminded me that we are all jars of clay and Christ can shine through us because of our fragility. I don’t need to be invincible to be valuable and used by God. Grace, pure grace.

    1. Emily Jackson February 22, 2020

      Thank you for sharing your story, Kate. The panic about panic is a real thing, as is the increased susceptibility. I never knew that before I had to deal with it myself. They are good reminders of our limitations, but they’re not easy to deal with. Grace, balance, and letting God shine through our jars of clay – great reminders!

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