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.
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.
If you are a librarian about to go on sabbatical, I probably don’t need to tell you how lucky you are. I’m pretty sure you already know how luxurious it is to have extended paid time off to think and write and read as much as you want. But even if you are fully aware of how fortunate you are to have this opportunity and are eagerly awaiting the day your leave begins, you still might have some anxiety about what’s to come. Having experienced, enjoyed, and returned from a semester sabbatical leave, I have some words to share that may be wisdom or may be useless. Do with this what you will, keeping in mind that your mileage may vary, etc.
Do what you need to do to tie up loose ends before you leave, but try not to stress too much about it. Do the minimum required to be a good and respectful departmental citizen and move on. Don’t kill yourself over it. You don’t have to leave your office, your desk, your inbox, or your anything in a perfect, pristine state. The library and the university will go on without you.
2. Do not listen to the grumblings of resentful colleagues who want you to know how inconvenienced they are going to be by your absence. If your institution is anything like mine, your sabbatical would not have been approved if there wasn’t a way to do without you for awhile. The solution may not perfect, and yes, people will be inconvenienced, but that is for your boss/dean/director/etc. to figure out, not you. Your job is to take the leave and do the work you proposed to do to the best of your ability, so do not feel guilty.
3. When you start your leave, you may feel unmoored by the sudden lack of structure in your day. You will likely need a routine of some kind to help you make the most of your time and not feel like you’re just frittering the time away. I urge you to experiment with developing a structure and schedule that works for you so you don’t feel completely untethered. However, make your schedule flexible, because life happens, and and there’s no point in beating yourself up if you don’t read X number of pages or write X words per day. For example, I abandoned my schedule and read all 800-plus pages of Anna Karenina in great big gulps over three days, because I could, and because I wanted to, and it was awesome. Sure, I didn’t get anything else done, but I got back to work when I was done, and it was fine.
4. Read and write stuff unrelated to your project. You’ll need breaks from the intellectual labor of your sabbatical project, so try doing some exercises with a creative writing workbook. It may help stir things up and ideas will click into place when you’re concentrating on other matters. Also, read for pleasure, if you can. See Anna Karenina above.
5. You do have an obligation to do or begin to do whatever you proposed in your sabbatical application, but you also have an obligation to tend to more than just your mind. Your physical/emotional/mental/spiritual health need attention as well. You have probably applied for sabbatical after the long, arduous, emotionally-fraught tenure process. You need a rest, so take one. Sleep in for as long as you need to when you start your leave and get it out of your system, because let’s be real: you can’t sleep your sabbatical away. Go to a daytime movie on a Tuesday. Explore the wonders of daytime television. (I recommend General Hospital. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t watch it growing up like I did. You’ll catch up.) Take naps. Start meditating. Learn how to bake bread. If you are able and interested, incorporate physical activity into your routine. Go for regular walks, or get a yoga CD or DVD. Just whatever you enjoy and brings you energy and pleasure and satisfaction.
6. Don’t feel like you need a special, dedicated space to do your work. When I was on my sabbatical, I did not have a study or an office or private space. I mostly read and wrote at my kitchen table while listening to the local classical music station. It worked just fine. (Also, because apparently no one else listens to my local classical music station during the day, I kept being the lucky caller who won tickets to things. I went to the opera and the ballet!)
7. After you’ve had some quiet time to yourself and the chatter in your mind has quieted down, you might find yourself feeling lonely. This is normal. I was surprised by how isolated and lonely I felt. Reach out to people and connect with your friends. If you know other people who are available during the day, have weekday lunch dates with them. This will refresh you and help you get focused back on your work.
8. Avoid going to your campus if you can help it. Check out all of the books you think you’ll need ahead of time. (I brought home two suitcases full.) Set up an out-of-office message for your voicemail and email directing people elsewhere if they need something, and try not to check your voice or email if at all possible. I personally checked my email maybe every other week, mostly to delete stuff, just to keep things from getting out of control.
9. And since you’re avoiding campus, this is a good time to become an avid user of your local public library, if you aren’t already, and if your local public library is a good one.
I come from immigrant people. My great-grandfather was a carusu and had a second grade education. So believe me, I understand my good fortune to have had a sabbatical, and I’m sure you do as well. Your sabbatical will end before you know it, and then you have to figure out how to reintegrate yourself into your workplace and worklife. But that’s to worry about later. For now, just enjoy your time, and your space, and the quiet, and your books, and revel in the luxury of being paid to not go to work. :hearteyes:
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.
While on sabbatical last year, I read all kinds of stuff, and two works that made a big impression on me were Show Your Work by Austin Kleon and Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson. Both books convinced me of the necessity of sharing my ideas instead of my usual practice, which is to jealously hoard my ideas, or share them only with a select few trusted people. It’s not that I think that my ideas are OMG SO GREAT that people are going to steal them and pass them off as their own, although this has happened. I also know that I don’t necessarily own ideas, that my ideas have an ancestry and lineage and genealogy and emerge from specific contexts, contexts that I of course cite, because citation matters.
So it was with that perspective in mind that I decided to make this burnout project a blog instead of a lengthy IRB-approved qualitative study of some kind. It’s not that studies aren’t valid and useful ways of sharing ideas; it just takes a whole lot longer, and this project had a sense of urgency to me that I could not ignore.
My vision for the blog is that all kinds of voices will be represented in the discussion of library instruction burnout, and that it would be a safe space for talking openly about the subject. (So far, my two guest posts have been really excellent contributions to the conversation, and I’m always interested in hosting more, so please get in touch if this is of interest to you.) And I knew that by making this a public blog, it would be freely accessible to anyone with an internet connection and the know-how to track it down. Still, though, it was hard to imagine that anyone other than librarians would really care about my writing, so that’s always the audience I’ve imagined and have written with that audience in mind.
So it was very surprising and not a little worrisome to me when I was recently notified by WordPress that my last post had been Freshly Pressed. Honestly, my first instinct was to take the post down, or to make it private, and I still kind of wish I did, because over the last 48 hours, hundreds of random internet strangers have liked the post, commented on the post, or become a follower of my blog. The comments have not always been insightful or useful and many times completely miss my point and are kind of annoying. I have not approved any new comments, actually, because it made me so uncomfortable to even countenance interacting with random internet strangers, and then this morning I disabled commenting altogether.
My discomfort as a result of being Freshly Pressed made me seriously confront my previous revelations about sharing ideas. Isn’t this how innovation happens? Isn’t this how hunches grow and develop and progress? Ideas cannot flourish in isolation, right? They need other ideas to connect to and bounce off of. That was the whole point of making this blog a publicly accessible project.
The difference for me, though, is that in order to connect and be productive and fruitful, the networks that connect the ideas need to be cultivated in a safe place. Suddenly having my ideas on full blast, and having people who were not my intended audience reading my stuff, felt unsafe to me.
It occurs to me now that publishing a blog post that is widely read is not necessarily very different from publishing a book. I’ve done that, too, and that too feels a little weird and terrifying to have all manner of unknown strangers reading your stuff, especially when it turns out that a lot of people read it and like it. My book came out two years ago, and I’m still getting emails from strangers who want to tell me that they like my book. It is a singularly bizarre feeling. It’s very nice and not unwelcome, don’t get me wrong! But it’s just so strange to me that the book I spent two years writing mostly in isolation has a life outside of me now.
I don’t know how to reconcile the tension and discomfort of wanting to have a public platform and then the actual consequences of having that public platform. Austin Kleon and Steven Johnson and all of the Share Your Ideas people don’t really talk about what it feels like to share those ideas. So here’s how it feels: NOT GOOD. NOT SAFE. It feels FEELINGY. One of the lessons of my adult life that I have to keep learning and relearning is to Sit With The Feelings. Even if it feels terrible, I just have to let the feelings happen, and then eventually they pass, for the most part. So I think that this is the answer here, for now, for this present discomfort. I did a thing, and now things are happening, and I’m just going to sit with it.