A young woman nearing burnout
Burnout is an ugly term. It brings out images for me of a gutted blackened structure that is about to collapse in on itself. Or perhaps an emptiness where all light is hidden beneath a pall of ash black smoke. When I was in the Navy, we had an exercise in survival during a shipboard fire. In one of these, we were given a gas mask to wear and told to enter a room. There were about 30 of us. The doors were closed and then the place was filled with smoke, so black that you could not see your hands in front of us. Then we were told to take off our mask and to leave the room. It was not a pleasant experience and many of us had to fight off panic since we had no sense of direction, but at least in that instance, we were safe and got out. I remember the relief of being able to breathe in clean air and the panic going away. The trouble with burn out is that there can seem to be no way out.
A few months back we had a retreatant here. She was a young woman who looked to be in her late twenties or early thirties. She was pleasant, quiet and kept to herself. She did not attend any of our services, which is what many retreatants do. She spent her time either in her room or walking around outside in the beautiful spring weather.
On the day that she checked out, it was on a Sunday and she was the last to leave, so we talked a bit. She told me about her life, well about her struggles with her internship. She was in mental health and carried a very heavy case load. She had been doing it for a couple of years and still had a year to go. She seemed very fragile to me as we talked and I got the impression that she was drowning. She told me that she spent much of the weekend sleeping and felt better because of it. However, she went on, she felt empty and had to force herself to go to work every day and to deal with all the mental patients she had to see. I understood her because I worked in our infirmary for many years and remembered how difficult the last year was for me. I felt empty, a bit lost at times and had to really work at being present to those that I was taking care of. It got worse for me when our Infirmary finally started to have fewer monks needing care. The World-War-2 generation, for the most part, had passed on. So when things slowed down my fatigue and yes burnout came to the fore.
I asked her how she brought her faith into her studies and internship. She responded that she was so busy that she had little time for anything else. I shared that when I was taking care of the elderly monks and with their deaths, it was my faith that gave me the energy and to continue in my work. I also said that when I allowed myself to drift, it was then that I started to feel drained, empty and so tired that I could not really sleep. Prayer, I told her, being in silence before the Lord helped because the Lord responds to us and comes to us to the degree that we let him. I also learned of my powerlessness to change anyone, but in doing that it seemed to lighten the load, it took away responsibilities that I was placing on myself that I had no right to do.
She responded by asking me how could she do that? Start off small I responded, give to the Lord ten minutes in the morning. Pray the best way you can, sit in silence and read scripture. It does not matter if you feel that you are doing anything worthwhile, or if the time you spent was successful; it is about you giving time to the Lord despite the distractions, being tired etc. Just do it, be open and trusting. In that way, the Lord will slowly expand your ability to receive his grace and healing. This also leads you to learn to listen in other areas of your life as well. Being a care giver has its dangers and burn out, and even suicide are two of them. She then told me that they had two interns kill themselves in one year. I responded. When we forget that we have a soul, we allow it to starve for what it was made for. A loving trusting relationship with God. If we do not have that, then our job, or money, or success will become a god for us and in the end, leave us with nothing. For grace and healing come from opening up our heart, mind, and soul to grace. If you remember that it will make things easier for you, though the profession you have chosen will challenge you to deal directly with your own compulsion to help others. In all of our gifts, there is both a healthy aspect to it as well as unhealthy and even destructive tendencies that can take over.
I shared the importance of the Eucharist because she was Catholic. I gave her a book on the Jewish roots of the Eucharist by Scott Hahn, and she was very pleased to receive it.
“Don’t take your faith for granted I told her. Study and seek to deepen your relationship with God and you will find that your ability to help others, to be with them in their suffering will grow without being caught up in thinking you have some power all you own to heal and save. God heals and saves, he uses our gifts to accomplish that. Though he will heal you through your weaknesses. He will slowly show you how to let go of burdens that you do not need to carry”.
As she left I thought of the many people in this world who give themselves for others. It is often a thankless job, but they continue in it. God’s grace works in our souls in so many hidden and wondrous ways, who can know them, or number them? One grace I received is embracing that fact that as I age, stress will affect me differently than when younger. She is still very young, I am old, and we each have to find a way to the Lord to continue to use us that is appropriate to our time of life.
Each is given gifts in which to serve,
some to heal, others to encourage,
some given the gift to accept all they meet,
some pray more and others study,
and some don’t know what their gifts are at all.
There are those with many talents,
others may only have one,
yet each called to serve and restore others,
for within each heart dwells the Lord of light
seeking to use each of us as a soothing balm
for others. For when even speaking truth
if done in love and not anger
plants seeds that will bring forth a hundred fold.