When I started this blog, I honestly didn’t anticipate that it would have any kind of impact beyond my own self-expression and exploration. I certainly did not imagine that this would turn into a thing, and yet! Here I am, and here are you. People confide in me. People hire me to talk about burnout. It’s humbling and gratifying and I am so grateful for the opportunities that have come my way because of this site, this work, and the willingness of others to share their stories.
Over the summer, I had a few guest posts in the development stage, but then I had to call everything to a halt, because I had a bandwidth problem. The funny thing about being a person who presumes to advise people about burnout is that you get to take your own advice. So that’s what I did this summer. I withdrew from everything that felt peripheral in order to focus on the essential.
And the essential was this: my mother-in-law was dying, right in front of me, in our home. My wife, mother-in-law, and I were an unlikely trio, not a threesome you’d look at and think: oh, those three women live together; they are a family. In fact, out in public, I’d been previously mistaken for a social worker, because why else would I–a younger white lady–be out and about with an elderly African American lady and this other African American lady who was visually impaired? How could these people be a family? But this is what we were–we were most definitely a family.
My mother-in-law, Addie B. Merritt, died on Sept. 1, 2016, six weeks after her enrollment in in-home hospice care. She died in our home, in the hospital bed we set up in our family room, where normally we watched television, but now instead we watched her. Those of you reading who have cared for a dying loved one know what this is like. Ever since that day, a continual thought that runs through my head is something along the lines of: I didn’t know that I would ever be a person who watched someone die. And yet! Here we are.
I am the one who closed her eyes when she died. I will never ever the be the same person again, ever.
And here we are, here, too. I have slowly tiptoed back into the work of my work. I am working on The Feminist Reference Desk, which should be making its way into the world next summer. I missed my original deadline to submit the manuscript, which under normal circumstances would crush and devastate me, but one of the many lessons of this past summer is that the only thing that is actually a matter of life and death is actual life and actual death, the end, full stop.
When I’m done with the book and it’s off my desk in February, I’m going to rejuvenate this site, reaching out the those generous and brave souls who submitted stories that are still sitting in my drafts folder all these months later. I also have another burnout speaking gig in the works, the details of which are still being worked out, but it will be official soon enough and I’ll be able to share that here.
I’m going to wrap this up by sharing an excerpt of my keynote from the Kentucky Library Association Library Instruction Round Table Retreat this past July. The day after I uttered these words aloud to a room full of lovely people in Ekstrom Library at the University of Louisville, a hospice nurse came to our home to evaluate Addie for admission. I stood there, making these claims into the world, trying to inhabit that present moment, while also intensely preoccupied by knowing what was coming next…well, I call myself a writer, but I don’t really have words for what that felt like.
It may be that when we no longer know what to do we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go we have come to our real journey.
The mind that is not baffled is not employed.
The impeded stream is the one that sings.
And my commentary included:
“The message of this poem, for me, is that the stuck places can actually be productive places, places of growth and transformation, and when the path seems hazy or obscured by weeds and I’m not sure what to do or where to go next or even how I’m supposed to feel, this is an opportunity to embrace the uncertainty and growth that this stuck place promises. In the end, a brook cannot babble if there are no stones in it. The music, the beauty, the richness of our lives cannot happen if there are no obstacles, nothing to provide friction.”
I believe that grappling with these stuck places– grief, traumas (big T and little t), brokenness, burnout, vulnerability–is maybe the hardest thing we can and will have to do. It maybe will break us in half, or in a million pieces, but we mend and re-mend, eventually, stitching ourselves back together, and maybe we’ll never be the same, but our new selves are uniquely beautiful and worthy of being in the world. I believe this to be true, and I know it to be true. It feels realer than my bones, my breath.
Because, after all, the impeded stream is the one that sings.
The spring semester is usually not as hectic for me, and this spring has seemed even calmer than usual. My mood is better; I feel consistently happier. This morning I was trying to figure out why this semester feels better than previous springs, and I realized: BECAUSE I AM DELIBERATELY MAKING CHOICES TO KEEP IT THAT WAY. I’m sorry/not sorry for the all caps, but it is important for me to realize, and to document, the ongoing impact of deliberate self-care: my life feels better. This isn’t an accident of fate or circumstance. It is, for the most part, ME.
Here are some things that I’ve been doing to care for myself and keep burnout at bay.
Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT). Originally designed for people with borderline personality disorder, which I do not have, this is an approach to therapy that involves learning and applying various skills, and the mindfulness skills have been especially invaluable to me. The realization that I don’t have to judge my feelings, or judge any kind of event, was liberating. You mean I don’t actually have to freak out and panic when something goes wrong, or when a stressor is getting me down, or when I can’t find a parking spot in front of my house, or when my wife emails me a grocery list to shop for on my way home and it has 79 items on it? I actually don’t! It’s amazing! These things that cause stress or worsen my mood are just things. I try to observe and describe them as though I were a scientist conducting a study instead of attaching myself to them and getting all worked up.
Saying no to things. This something I’ve been working on continually, and I’m seeing the results. For example: for the past few years, I’ve taught as an adjunct in various departments on campus, in addition to my actual full-time job. This counts as overload pay, which is certainly very helpful, but it is very, very tiring and taxing on multiple levels. Last fall, I taught 200-level research writing, and the stress of this, on top of everything else, made me realize that the extra money was not worth the heartache and despair. I was fortunate that my domestic life was in a place where I could say no to extra teaching, and the extra income, in the future, and so that’s what I decided. The relief is amazing. I have more room in my life and in my head for other things, things that feed me more.
Praying the Daily Office. I started doing this on Dec. 31 of last year, because you don’t actually have to wait until Jan. 1 to start a new habit, as it turns out. I use this little book, excerpted from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. I do morning prayer and compline (bedtime) without fail daily. I do noonday prayer 95 percent of the time. Evening prayer is hit or miss, because it’s at a challenging time of day for me. Sometimes for noonday prayer I use the New Zealand version, because their Anglican prayer book is gorgeous. The Daily Office feels like this little nimbus of protection that follows me around and holds my day together.
30 minute daily walks, five days a week, weather permitting. The liberating stress-relief of walking cannot be understated. I do a lot of my walking during the day as a part of my lunch break. (Oh, yes, actually taking lunch breaks, prioritizing that time and protecting it, and not just scarfing down my lunch at my desk–this matters, too.). I listen to podcasts, and I know I’m probably the last person to realize this, but y’all, podcasts are SO COOL. I’m obsessed with Gretchen Rubin’s Happier podcast as of late. I’m also a big fan of The History Chicks. I feel purposeful and alive when I walk. I find myself unconsciously improving my posture when I walk, holding myself straighter, head held higher. I feel like I am a real person in the world and it is a fantastic feeling.
Quiet time. In the morning, after waking up and saying morning prayer with my wife, I spend about 30 minutes writing in my journal, reading, or listening to music. To me, this is a self-care variation of the idea of paying yourself first; not only do I contribute to my retirement account, but I also contribute to my ME account. (Million dollar idea: put this on a bumper sticker and sell it.) Instead of jumping out of bed and rushing to begin my day and get to work, I move more slowly, deliberately. My time is mine, and I am going to feed myself before giving my time to work. I try to do quiet time in the evening, too, with dim lighting and soothing music and more journal writing (which includes gratitude journaling), to help me wind down and mentally prepare to end the day and sleep, although sometimes evening TV watching gets in the way of evening quiet time. Working on it!
These have been regular practices and habits since the beginning of the new year, and they are working. And I know that my life privileged enough so that I can do a lot of these things. I don’t have to figure out child care; my work-life is very flexible and I have a lot of freedom. I recognize the privilege I have that allows me to structure my life in this way. And I should note that my life isn’t perfect; I’m not super happy 100 percent of the time. I still have stress and worry and anxiety. But the difference is that these things don’t rule me as much as they used to. I feel more in charge of my life; I feel more steady and even. I find myself singing to myself one of my favorite lines from Hamilton, in “The Schuyler Sisters.” “Look around, look around at how lucky we are to be alive right now!” I feel less dread; I feel more distant from burnout. I feel powerful, and this is a very, very good feeling indeed.
Today’s guest post from Kaitlin Springmier offers helpful and practical tips for dealing with the burnout that can result from rejection in the workplace. These suggestions really resonate with me! Kaitlin Springmier is the first Resident Librarian at the University of Chicago. She’s still trying to understand the twitter-verse @kaitlinspring.
As the information environment is rapidly evolving, librarians have opportunities to dramatically alter what they teach, how they define themselves, and how they embrace change. However, it seems new members in the profession struggle with getting some of their more experienced colleagues to agree to new and innovative ideas. I say this because, as a member of the New Members’ Round Table listserv, this week’s discussion topic was, “How to respond to common ways of shutting down ideas.”
Currently, I work for an institution that steeped in a history of traditional intellectual pursuit. The library is branded as a place for serious intellectual inquiry. Students are prompted to wander through the massive stacks to encourage ‘serendipitous discovery.’ When the main library hit capacity, the institution decided to spend $81 million in order to keep collections on campus.
This perception means that sometimes my proposals for new ‘fun’ outreach events can be shut down with a ‘we’ve tried that before and it didn’t work,’ or ‘that’s not welcome on this campus.’ And hearing ‘no’ can be hard. It can make you feel like your ideas are not welcome, and after so many ‘no’s, you can feel discouraged and give up.
However, my past experiences in the workforce have prepared me to work with the nos that I hear. I now have a toolbox to work within the outright rejection which can sometimes eventually turn into a ‘yes.’ I’d like to share my experiences, in hopes to help my fellow new librarians be the best change agent that they can be.
So first- a little history. Before I decided on library school, I worked for a chain of used bookstores. I started as a part-time bookseller and within a year had climbed my way up to a position of assistant manager. My promotion came with a change in location, which meant new coworkers, new responsibilities, and a new boss. Most notably, though, the location change also meant a new culture.
In my 2 years as an assistant manager, I proposed a lot of ideas, and was shut down a lot. I went from working in a place I loved with friends who cared for me to dreading walking into the store everyday. I was not accepted, appreciated, or respected. When I put in my two week notice, I had turned into a person that was jaded, discouraged and unsure of my ideas. In hindsight, my presence impacted the store immensely. Employees interactions with customers improved, sales went up, and the store started buying used product smarter. It’s only in reflecting on what worked and what didn’t that I can give recommendations on how to approach and innovate in a culture resistant to change. Here’s 5 tips I’ve learned that can greatly reduce the rejection of new ideas or the burnout you feel after hearing ‘no.’
Find your wolfpack
The hardest thing to do is to change a culture all by yourself.
When starting in a new place, find people (or groups of people) who have the similar ideas who can support you and your endeavors. When I started in my new position, this meant asking people out for coffee, dropping in on committee meetings, or just sitting next to strangers at staff meetings. Once you’ve found a great support system, see if they’ll help you propose new ideas. If your superiors see that there is a group of people interested in supporting a new idea, they are more apt to say yes. And if they still say no, at least you’ll have a group to commiserate with.
Don’t let someone tell you no without an explanation.
Learn what it is about your idea that’s getting the no, and tweak it. Personally, my proposals tend to be rejected because they’re too lofty. When I hear why my superiors have said no, I can come back with a more manageable, cheaper, or smaller idea that is more likely to get a yes. Asking why also begins a conversation with your superior. You’ll be able to learn more about your library’s culture, and what types of proposals are more welcome.
Work within the system
Propose in a way that that seems to benefit them more than you.
If you’ve ever gone to a workshop on writing cover letters, you’ll know that one of the most recommended techniques is to speak directly to the expressed needs in the job ad. This is the same for proposing ideas. When crafting your proposal, ask questions like:
“How does this align with the library’s strategic directions?”
“What benefit would my supervisor find in this?”
Find your answers, and explicitly speak to them in your proposal. In doing so, you are acknowledging that your ideas are inspired by the directives that your superiors have labored over.
Make it an extracurricular
Keep that work-life balance
Sometimes, no matter how great your idea is, your library won’t have the time, resources, or support you need to make it happen. When this is the case, see what you can do to make it happen in your own life. Maria previously wrote about the importance of maintaining a consciousness of who you are outside of work. Being a librarian is a job. Make sure you keep it that way.
Find a new job
When your job is toxic, it’s time to get out.
By the end of my time at the bookstore, I knew that my only relief would be to leave the job, and move on. And while I miss my bookstore job everyday (so much so that I’ve begun to volunteer at my local bookstore), I know that I’m now in a work environment that fosters creativity, innovation, and happiness. Make sure you find the same.
I hope this is helpful in mediating the burnout you might be feeling. But I’m sure that you, dear reader, have discovered other ways to overcome the “no”s in your professional life. Please share!
I have written elsewhere recently about how I have a double-depression diagnosis–that I have recurrent major depression on top of dysthymia. (The etymology-nerd in me is amused by the fact that “dysthymia” is Greek for “bad state of mind.” TELL ME ABOUT IT.) I’ve often wondered if the fact that I am prone to depression also makes me more prone to experiencing burnout. As I’ve been reflecting on these two conditions and how they overlap (and they do overlap, according to my quick scan of PSYCArticles), I had an important realization: I think that my professional burnout masked a recent episode of depression until the depression had significantly progressed to something more severe and more terrible.
In February of 2014, I began to experience a new episode of major depression, but it felt different. It felt so utterly unlike my previous recurrent episodes that I did not recognize it as depression. I just thought I was burned out. I had been promoted and awarded tenure the year before, and my book had come out the year before, and I was looking forward to a Fall 2014 semester sabbatical. The fact that I was suddenly completely unable to concentrate at work seemed like just another burnout symptom. I would go to my office, close the door, and literally stare off into space for hours. I would look at the clock and say, okay, it’s 11:30 am. I can space out for 20 minutes and then I really have to buckle down and get to work. And so I’d space out, and the next thing I knew, a whole hour would go by.
To be candid, I found this state of mind terrifying. I’ve been depressed a lot in my life with the low energy and lack of motivation that goes along with it, but I’d never before felt this complete disengagement with reality, this compulsion to stare at a wall for hours and do nothing. Since this severe concentration problem was utterly unlike anything I’d ever experienced, I attributed it to boredom and burnout. I did not recognize it as depression.
This severe lack of concentration started to improve a little bit, but then it would worsen again, over the next few months–there were lots of ups and downs. When I was up, I was very productive and engaged. I wrote a ton of blog posts on my getting-ready-for-sabbatical blog. But then when I was down, I was down. I felt really scared about these symptoms and it finally started to occur to me: maybe this is more than burnout. Maybe this is depression. Maybe you should do something about before it gets out of hand.
At my med check visit early that year, my psychiatrist said that she was leaving her practice to work for the VA, so it wasn’t like I could just follow her to her next practice. She mentioned some names of other people in her soon-to-be-former practice that I could see, and then gave me a bunch of refills, maybe enough for six months. At the time of that visit in January, I felt fine, and thought I’d worry about finding a new psychiatrist later.
This was a mistake.
By the time I recognized it was time to see a psychiatrist to assess my medication situation, there were no new patient appointments available in that practice for several weeks out. I called other psychiatric practices in the city, and either no one was taking new patients, and if they were accepting new patients, the first available appointment for a new patient was maybe two months away. This was not helpful, not at all. It’s hard to explain the desperation I felt, how lost, how hopeless on top of hopeless, how completely unworthy of help.
It was also at around this time that I made a very poor choice: I started messing with my medication myself. One particular drug was super expensive, even with my insurance paying 80 percent, and so I stopped taking it as regularly. I would skip doses, or go long stretches without, and then I would start taking it again. I cannot emphasize what a terrible idea this was, but in my defense, I was not really in my right mind.
Things reached a crisis in early June 2014. I wasn’t actively suicidal; it was more passive than that. I wasn’t making plans to kill myself, but I was imagining how death might happen to me without my intervention, if that makes any sense. On my regular evening walks with my wife, I had to constantly fight the urge to not dart out into the busy street. I became very afraid of knives, because I didn’t feel safe around them. I had disturbing, intrusive mental images involving knives. I finally confessed to my wife what was going on, because another poor choice I made during this time was to conceal all of this from her because I didn’t want to worry her. She made me call my therapist, who referred me to a psychiatric urgent care clinic because I did not want to be hospitalized. I went to this place and they gave me a new medicine to try. But it was too late. I didn’t have time to wait for a new medicine to work. Three days later I saw my therapist, and she told me to go the hospital to get evaluated.
Someday, when I have more intestinal fortitude, I might write about the hospitalization experience, but I can’t right now. It’s too traumatic. Suffice it to say that it was a nightmarish, dehumanizing 48 hours, and I couldn’t get out fast enough, once I fully understood what a terrible mistake it was to go there. The hospital was called Our Lady of Peace*, but never has anything been more inaptly named. It was more like Our Lady of the Disturbance of the Peace. Or if we’re sticking with real names the Virgin Mary is known by, Our Lady of Sorrows would be more appropriate.
I’ve not yet mentioned what was going on with my work situation during this time, primarily because I wasn’t really doing a whole lot of work. I was going to work, but it was mostly going through motions. It was more important to me to hide my distress and give the impression of competence than it was to acknowledge that I needed help, and that staring off into space for hours in my office with the door closed was maybe not the best use of my time. I dropped the ball on lots of things in ways I would never, ever do ordinarily, which was mortifying and exceedingly distressing.
When I had to go to this urgent care place, I finally confessed to my library director that I was having a bad time and needed some time off to get my medication–and mind–straightened out. I really, really did not want to tell him any of this, because, again, I cannot bear for anyone to think I’m not competent, not smart, not capable of handling my business. I need not have worried, however, because he was supportive and completely non-judgmental. “It’s just like if you had a broken leg,” he said. And then when I updated him to say that I was being hospitalized, he was deeply concerned for me and my health. Deep down I knew that he would respond in this way, that he would be kind and concerned and compassionate, because that’s the kind of person he is, but when you’re in the kind of mindset where all you can think about how worthless you are, where you are continually assailed by troubling, intrusive thoughts of self-harm, where you feel like you are drowning in waves of despair and hopelessness, it’s really hard to have a grip on reality. During this time, a co-worker was dealing with what turned out to be terminal cancer, and I told my director that I felt like a malingerer when my colleague J. had a real illness. He shut that line of thinking down very quickly, but compassionately.
During all of my conversations with him about needing to be away, needing time off to get my head together, I asked him to please not disclose the nature of my illness or hospitalization. He respected my wishes and kept this information private, but when I was discharged from the hospital, I was so grateful to be free that I did not give a fuck who know where I was and why. Fuck stigma. The stigma around mental illness is terrible, and it only makes me feel worse about myself, and I don’t want to participate in the perpetuation of stigma.
This Fuck Stigma perspective is a form of bravery that is not always easy to summon up. Sometimes it’s more empty bravado than anything–if I say this enough, maybe I’ll feel it through and through and it will feel real and genuine. Right now, right at this very minute as I write this, I confess to having niggling doubts about publishing this, about any professional ramifications it might have, but then, as I think about it, I get angry. If anyone thinks any less of me because I am speaking openly about my experience with depression then FUCK THEM.
And also, while I’m issuing commands: please pay careful attention to your moods and emotional state if you are dealing with professional burnout. I really honestly think that I could have at least tried to arrest my terrible depression episode of 2014 if I hadn’t confused my symptoms with burnout. There was a clusterfuck of other stuff going on there at the same time–the difficulty in finding a psychiatrist, for example–but if I had paid closer attention to how I was feeling in February, I can’t help but think that things would have turned out differently.
So, this is my story, or at least one chapter of my story. My struggles to deal with mental health is one of the primary narrative threads of how I understand my life. It is helpful to remember that while in the depths of depression, the soul-crushing loneliness I feel is just another depression lie–I am not alone. I know you are out there, because you’ve told me that you know this story, too. I hate that I know it, and I hate that you know it, too, but when we tell the story together, we’re shutting down one of the many lies of that very unreliable narrator: depression. I hate liars, don’t you?
*If anyone finds this post while googling for information about Our Lady of Peace psychiatric hospital in Louisville, Kentucky, DO NOT GO. Do anything in your power to stay safe and seriously: DO NOT GO. PLEASE.
Many of the conversations about burnout inevitably address work-life balance as a form of prevention, so this is something I’ve been thinking about a lot over the past several months. This notion of work-life balance was especially resonant to me in late summer into the fall semester of last year, which was maybe one of the most stressful periods of work in my life.
One day late last year, I was packing my lunch in the morning before leaving for work, and I found myself doing my usual mental arithmetic about what I would have time to eat. Notice it wasn’t about what I wanted to eat or needed to eat, but what I believed I had time to eat. All of a sudden, this struck me as immensely absurd. Why in the world was I planning a basic human need around what my work would accommodate? Eating lunch a necessity not just for fueling my body but also an important way of giving myself a break during the day, so why wasn’t it given higher priority?
My lunch revelation opened all sorts of mental doors for me. I began to protect open spots in my daily work calendar, believing that just because I didn’t have anything scheduled didn’t mean I was free and available. If I received an email from a committee chair about scheduling a time for a meeting, and the only open time available in a given day was my only chance to eat lunch in unrushed peace, I did not offer over that time. I simply said I wasn’t available that day. I felt so powerful! I was controlling my day. Having this empowered sense of control is so important to feeling like a whole person who happens to work, instead of a worker who is also maybe sometimes a person.
Because the extensive training in paying close attention to language is deeply ingrained in me from earning two degrees in English, I also find myself picking apart the words we use about work-life balance as well. Why is “work” always listed first? It’s like Sonny and Cher or flotsam and jetsam–you never hear the order reversed, or at least I haven’t. Why isn’t it life-work balance, to prioritize life over work? And why do we use the word “balance” anyway? Doesn’t this suggest that each component should be equally weighted? This strikes me as really wrong.
I understand that there’s privilege involved here. I know that this rethinking of how I shape work to fit into my life, and not the other way around, might be considered a luxury to some. I know how fortunate I am to have a job, a job that I have the power and ability to reshape to meet my needs. But the fact that this is an example of privilege also strikes me as messed up and backwards. And I can’t help but think that maybe publicly talking about how messed up and backwards this notion of “work-life balance” is, and questioning its prevalence in these kinds of conversations, might be useful to other people, possibly leading to the kind of internal shift that happened to me.
I want everyone to feel powerful, and human, in the workplace.
This is a dark time of year, a time when I think a lot (or more than usual) about meaning-making in a world that feels so broken, about shining light on what is real and true and good, about what my values are and who I am and why am I here. You know, just the normal stuff.
So it’s in this mindset that I was recently reflecting on a #critlib chat moment. I do not participate in the #critlib chats because I find them hard to follow and process and keep up with. My thoughts aren’t always easily digestible into 140 characters, and by the time I have figured out a way to express my thought concisely, the conversation has usually already moved on. Also, there are so many people all tweeting at once, and I have difficulty understanding who is saying what and to whom. So while I will occasionally watch part of the chat, I don’t contribute.
Sometime earlier this year, maybe over the summer, when I was lurking on a #critlib Twitter chat, a participant made a snarky comment about people who go to church. I don’t remember the exact context or wording, but it came across to me as sarcastic and mocking. I felt stung and offended and hurt by this comment, but I didn’t respond.
Part of the reason why I didn’t respond was because I never participate to begin with, and I felt like jumping into the conversation to challenge this comment wasn’t really the best way to begin my participation. I also know that because of the reasons I describe above, it’s really easy to lose nuance and context in a Twitter conversation, so for all I knew, there was some legitimate context for the assertion about people who go to church that I didn’t know about. I also felt worried that chiming in to say, “hey, what do you mean by that?” might sound a bit too much like the people who protest #NotAllMen (i.e., pointing out that some people who claim to be representing Jesus do terrible, terrible things and I’m Not Like That) and that would derail the larger conversation.
So I did nothing except stew over it all night. And maybe I’m still stewing over it now. It’s on my mind because I was corresponding with someone recently about feeling like you have a minority viewpoint within a dominant culture. And maybe it’s also on my mind because yesterday was the first Sunday of the liturgical season of Advent, which might be my favorite season of the church year. Advent is all about expectant waiting, about lighting candles in a dark season and anticipating the promise of light at the end. To me, there is so much magic about Advent that has nothing to do with presents and Santa Claus and everything to do with my belief that the God of my understanding came to earth as a helpless baby in the unlikeliest of places. (Don’t get me wrong, though–I’m still super into Santa and presents under the tree.)
I was born and raised Roman Catholic and educated at Catholic schools for K-12, and I also spent two years at a Jesuit university before transferring to a state school, where I graduated. Today I identify as Episcopalian, but mostly I am just me, and I am someone who finds thin spaces in quiet contemplation, in the familiar symbolism of rich and ancient rituals, and in the life-affirming inclusive language of the liturgy. Sometimes, though, it’s not the Book of Common Prayer but a teaching and learning moment that will leave me breathless and disoriented. Sometimes, during a reference encounter or in the classroom, I will truly see a student, really see the student as a person, a human, a unique and beautiful child of the universe whose inherent dignity and worth are so precious. I’ve written here before how the spiritual dimensions of teaching have been immensely healing to me and the burnout I struggle with. The funny thing is that while my spiritual practices and beliefs are of some comfort to me, I also feel lonely in my beliefs. It’s not something I really talk about, for fear of being mocked in a manner not unlike that #critlib comment I observed over the summer.
I’m writing this in the hopes there are other people like me, spiritually-closeted or otherwise, who see spirituality as an essential component of their identities as teachers. Are you out there? Maybe we could talk.
This is a story about hearing and understanding, and it will eventually connect to burnout.
I have been dealing with what I believed to be progressively worsening hearing loss for quite awhile now, over a year, at least. I hear things, but I don’t understand. Everything sounds garbled, or I’ll miss the beginning of a sentence and spend the rest of the sentence trying and failing to catch up. Talking in a place with lots of background noise is the worst. I am constantly asking my wife to repeat herself, which is annoying and tiresome to both of us.
I finally mentioned it to my primary care doctor this summer while consulting him about other matters. He told me he could refer me to get my hearing tested, but unless I was willing to pursue getting hearing aids if indicated, there probably wasn’t much point in getting tested. At that point, I was quite resistant to hearing aids, so I did not ask for that referral. But over this past month, I found myself mentally ready to get hearing aids if it turned out that’s what I needed. My inability to understand people was not just impairing my domestic life, but it was adversely affecting my encounters at the reference desk and in the classroom. I was tired of asking people to repeat themselves, and I was also tired of feeling ashamed that I needed people to repeat themselves, because apparently it’s terrible to need accommodations. Yes, I know how dumb that sounds.
Last week, I returned to my primary care doctor, who referred me to an ENT practice. Today I had my appointment, which consisted of a hearing test with an audiologist and then a consultation with an otolaryngologist. I was totally gobsmacked to learn that I have normal hearing. In fact, the doctor and audiologist both said I had excellent hearing. The achievement addict in me preened a bit at this, of course, and then I was like, wait a minute, what’s going on then? Why am I having such a hard time hearing and understanding things?
It turns out that I have a processing problem, not a hearing problem. I am hearing people just fine when they speak, but my brain is taking longer to process the information, so that’s why it sounds garbled to me, and why I need people to repeat themselves, so I have more time to process and translate the information. My doctor said that the neurons that affect the processing of auditory input can decline over time due to the normal aging process–or something like that. I don’t remember the exact words he used, but that was the basic idea.
It was at this point that about eighty million revelatory lights came on in my head. I have always had immense difficulty understanding things like verbal instructions or verbal driving directions. When I’m making group study room reservations over the phone at the reference desk, I die a little on the inside when someone has to spell their name for me, because hearing a word spelled aloud sounds like gobbledygook to me and I usually have to have them repeat it more than once. In fact, despite my excellent vocabulary and spelling skills, I stopped participating in school spelling bees at an early age because I have great difficulty understanding a word when it’s spelled aloud, even if I’m the one doing the spelling. Hearing a word spelled out sounds like hearing a foreign language, or a grownup in a Charlie Brown cartoon.
Since nothing is real or true until I can research it, I started googling almost the minute I left the doctor’s office. It turns out that there is a thing called auditory processing disorder, which my doctor did not mention, and I don’t believe I have, because I’ve never had a speech problem, and I definitely have not had any academic problems. However, some of the characteristics strongly resonated with me.
A processing problem like mine is not fixable. This is not something that can be addressed with hearing aids. You just have to adapt. My wife almost seemed kind of excited at the prospect of helping me to develop adaptations to this challenge, which seemed weird at first, but then made sense, since she was born with a visual impairment and was educated at a school for the blind, where one of the main things they teach you is how to cope with a world that was not designed for you. My wife is the Queen of Adaptation ruling over the Kingdom of Making It Work. And looking back, I can see how I’ve developed adaptations to my difficulties over the years. For whatever reason, translating a spelled-aloud word into a typed word is about 10 times harder to me than it is to hand write it. So when I’m talking on the phone to people and they need to spell their name, or an author’s name, I take my hands off the keyboard and try to hand write it.
Another thing the doctor said was that when I miss the beginning of the sentence, I shouldn’t panic and try to figure what I missed, but instead I should pay attention to the rest of the sentence that I’m hearing just fine. If I do the latter, I probably can figure out the part I missed by context. There are some customer service encounters I have where this always happens–why is always so loud in Chipotle?–but if I pay attention and hear BLAH BLAH YOU? I can pretty safely assume that the words I missed were probably “May I,” so I need to not internally freak out so much and just do the best I can with what I do understand.
And isn’t this just like life in general anyway? It is for me. I struggle so hard to just fucking pay attention and sit with the feelings and that I end up not experiencing the actual moment I am in. I have learned and read a lot about mindfulness over the past several years, and it is something I am trying to cultivate, but it is hard. A few weeks ago, I had an especially restful and blissful and pleasant weekend, and I turned to my wife and said aloud, “I am experiencing happiness!” Everything just felt so amazing and perfect that I had to mark it in some way and bask in the loveliness of a fall day, a clear blue sky, a leisurely walk around my neighborhood.
And here’s how I’m connecting this to burnout: for me, responding to and resisting burnout involves mindfulness. It requires intentional, deliberate attention to what brings me pleasure and joy and what makes me feel alive. It was indeed revelatory to learn that I do not have hearing loss, but it was also meaningful to have my problem reframed in a way that made a thousand different kinds of sense. It was helpful to get yet another reminder that the only way I’m going to be able to continue shuffling through this weird life and feel moderately okay doing it is to just pay attention–to listen, to do the best with what I have, to adapt, to be here.