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?