I’ve been talking to a lot of personal finance-minded friends lately about depression, anxiety, and most recently, burnout. The road to paying off debt or saving for FI can be a SLOG, especially if you’re stuck in a job that you don’t particularly love, but it pays well and you need the benefits. Thankfully, I’m not dealing with job-related burnout at the moment (there is stress at my job, but it’s mostly good), but rather, my family/life situation continues to weigh heavily on my mind. Fortunately, there is a light at the end of the tunnel that is measured in months instead of years. Unfortunately, there are lot of obstacles in that tunnel before we can reach the other end (namely: selling my parents house and helping my sibling through their remaining cancer treatments). It’s been rough, and my body and my brain are feeling the effects. It didn’t occur to me until a couple of weeks ago that part of my general malaise may be due to burnout.
Earlier in the summer, when my mom was in hospice, several friends gently reminded me to take care of myself, noting that “caregiver fatigue is real.” Oh, and it was. However, I didn’t expect it to manifest in almost exactly the same way as job-related burnout. I’ve only truly been burned out once in my career, towards the end of my PhD program. I was working all the time, I had several concurrent projects, friends that I loved were starting to graduate, and I was losing my passion for science. The articles that I read about burnout did not apply to my life situation – advice like “change jobs!” or “take a long vacation!” was not particularly feasible if I wanted to finish my degree. (I mean, I could have left grad school, but things were not quite so dire.) A few weeks ago I read another article on burnout, and it was like looking in a mirror. All of the sitting around like a lump, the not caring, the eating like crap, the constant exhaustion – it was burnout, my old friend! Haha! Maybe I should have been freaked out by this revelation, but it was actually kind of comforting. I’ve been here before. I’ve made it through to the other side before. This sucks, but I can absolutely overcome it again.
And really, the same things are true as they were a decade ago when I was finishing grad school. (Side note: holy crap, how is that a decade ago.) I can’t “change jobs” because the “job” I am burned out from is dealing with my parents estate and helping my sibling through a serious illness. I can’t “take a long vacation” because I’m using most of my vacation time to do my aforementioned “job.” (Plus, I can’t imagine the grief I would catch from my sibling if I was like “I know you have major surgery coming up but I’m going to Hawaii! byeeeeee.”) But I know there are things I can do to work within this challenging time, and make it through without my emotions spiraling out of control.
What is Burnout?
Burnout is characterized by a variety of physical and mood-related symptoms and can manifest in your life in any number of ways. Symptoms like exhaustion, cynicism, sleeping too little or too much, forgetfulness, loss of enjoyment, pessimism, apathy, irritability, neglecting your own needs, and feeling like you’re never doing an adequate job are all very common for those suffering from burnout. A lot of people will “joke” that they “feel like this all the time!” and hey, maybe that’s a clue that you should be changing things in your life. All of these symptoms can cause other really bad things like reduced immune system function, stress-related illnesses (shingles comes to mind), depressive episodes, and worsening relationships with your loved ones. So it really is important to recognize the signs of burnout and change what you can, when you can.
What does self-care even mean? Self-care does not mean spending gob tons of money on a spa day or a pedicure. Self-care, especially within burnout, can mean eating healthy foods when you are able, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep, cutting out stressful activities (or people) from your life, and seeking professional psychiatric help. As I mentioned in my last post, I quit almost everything this spring after my injury and my mom’s illness. I haven’t really started any of those activities again because 1) they take a lot of time, and 2) while I love advocacy and volunteering, it can be very stressful. I lamented to my therapist that I felt guilty for laying in the hammock all afternoon one Sunday, but I also mentioned that it was really lovely and relaxing just to lay there and alternately snooze and read a book. She reminded me that it’s actually extremely important to do these things for ourselves so that we can have the energy to be productive in our own lives and to be there when our loved ones need us. When I’m in my hometown with my sibling, I definitely feel the need to get! shit! done! for them and for our parents estate and it’s really very exhausting. I’m also chasing a toddler around in the evenings, which, kudos to you, parents, that shit is hard. When I come home, it’s kind of a vacation from all that. I recognize that my sibling has to deal with the cancer and the chemo side effects and a toddler and work and everything else all of the time, so it’s nice to be able to help out when I can and give them a little bit of a break or get things done that they don’t have energy or time to complete.
The last few months of meals have been a complete shitshow – between the moving, the time away from home, and the general not giving a shit and not having the energy to shop for or prepare healthy foods. I try to do my best, but ya know, sometimes I eat a donut. There’s been a lot of pizza. It’s fine. There will be a time to put more energy into meal prep, but now is not that time.
Exercise, on the other hand, has been ok and semi-regular. After two months on the couch due to my injury, followed by a weird summer of panicking, packing, and driving to my hometown a zillion times, I’ve started to use exercise to avoid things I probably should be doing. I suppose it’s better than scrolling though Instagram, but I also know my motivations are not completely pure. I could unpack boxes….or I could go for a walk in the woods near our new house. I could get a load of stuff that’s lingering at the old house…or I could take my dog up to the lake and go for a walk. Do some cleaning or yard work at the old house…or go to the park and catch a bunch of Pokémon. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ That shit will happen, eventually, but it’s really nice outside right now. Self care, y’all.
Quit Stuff and People
I know it sounds callous, and maybe you think you can’t quit things you are involved with, but seriously, you can! I am the World’s Biggest Non-Quitter, and I quit so many things this year. At first, I felt like a huge disappointment, but I had to take a step back. As Ron Swanson says, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” I was constantly half-assing my civic involvements, and having to bail last minute due to yet another family emergency. That wasn’t fair to me or my advocacy friends. And right now, I need to whole-ass taking care of myself and my family. It doesn’t have to be forever, but you are absolutely allowed to suspend nonessential activities like volunteering, boards, hobbies, PTA, baking stuff for the bake sale, etc., even if you are in a leadership role. Just…..walk away. This tweet from Melanie is pretty much my situation in the last 6 months – in many ways I am in survival mode, and I just have to say no and walk away from a lot of things that were previously very important to me.
When you ruthlessly prioritize protecting your energy and your heart, there will be casualties
— Melanie Lockert (@DearDebtBlog) October 4, 2018
Also, people. Regardless of the circumstances of your burnout, it’s highly probable you are going to have some shitty people in your life who just can’t or won’t comprehend what you’re going through. They may try to minimize your issues, constantly tell you how much worse they have it, or just completely ignore the challenges that you’re facing. Guess what? You can quit those people. Your time is precious and you will probably be more fulfilled by an afternoon of hammock swinging than spending time with an energy vulture. (The linked article is about grief, but a lot of it applies to anyone going through a challenging time.) (If the energy vulture in your life is your spouse or partner, I am sorry, and I hope you consider some sort of couples therapy.)
Also! The same thing goes for news and social media. Just step away. Twitter is crazy, our president is crazy, the news is crazy, and seeing all of your friends on vacation on Instagram is just going to make you more crazy. You don’t have to completely cut it out of your life, but stepping away is good and healthy, especially when your brain is already exhausted by whatever is going on in your life. Read a book, watch a movie, go for a walk – but mindlessly scrolling Twitter is not going to improve your mental state.
Ask For and Accept Help
The “nice” thing about life being friggin’ terrible is that most people are really, really nice to you. (Except for the aforementioned shitty people, but they are few and far between.) I am in deep, deep debt to my friends and the universe right now. But, I’m trying not to focus on that, and accept help when it is offered. For example, we have two yards right now, because we haven’t yet sold our old house. That would be fine if 1) we had two working mowers and 2) it hadn’t rained 6″ in the last week. I was trying to find a teenager who could mow on short notice, when a generous friend of mine volunteered. I felt a little sheepish accepting her help, since I was perfectly capable of mowing both yards, but just didn’t have the means to transport the mower to the other house. She wouldn’t take no for an answer, and it was such a small kindness that I really, truly appreciated. She also wouldn’t take payment, so I donated to a local charity group she is involved with.
People want to help. Let them. And then pay it forward when your life is more normal.
Automate and Take Small Bites
The forgetfulness part of burnout is real. Some call it “mom brain” or “pregnancy brain” or “grief brain” or whatever. But the result is pretty much the same – you have so many other things going on in your life that little details slip through the cracks pretty easily. That, coupled with the aforementioned exhaustion and not giving a shit, means that stuff just doesn’t get done. One great aspect of having my finances automated is that I don’t have to worry about missing a bill or a payment. Not having to rummage around in an overflowing mail pile or beg a call center rep to forgive a late fee saves you time and energy.
Speaking of exhaustion and not giving a shit, there are going to be a lot of things that pop into your brain that you should be doing in order to keep life moving forward. It’s ok to not do that thing the moment you think of it, either because you don’t have the energy or you’re busy doing something else (like, uh, walking around the lake). But you should definitely write it down. Believe it or not, whether you’re going through burnout, depression, pregnancy, grief, or a significant illness – there will be times when you feel ok and motivated enough to complete chores and errands. When the mood strikes, be ready with your list, and ride that wave of energy as long as you can. If there’s stuff that you absolutely need to get done, but you don’t feel motivated enough to do – pick a thing, set a timer, and work on that thing in small increments until it’s done. For tips on household maintenance while depressed, I highly highly recommend UFYH. For other stuff, try the Pomodoro Technique, which has a variety of apps and browser extensions that can help for work-related tasks.
Outsource If You Can
I recognize there is hella privilege that comes with this last suggestion, and that not everyone can afford to pay someone to do their work for them when they’re too burnt out to do it themselves. However, outsourcing even one thing may lift enough weight off your shoulders so that you can focus on more important tasks or have a little time for self-care. Also there are some outsourcing things that are basically free/cheap nowadays – grocery shopping is the greatest example of this, since most major chains now offer online grocery shopping + pickup, or even free delivery with a certain minimum. If you can swing it, consider outsourcing housecleaning duties or yard care, at least until you start to get your life back together.
So What Am I Doing With My Time?
Yesterday, I stumbled on a post from Jax, and I thought “Damn. That is absolutely how it used to be.” Work, extracurriculars, fitness, side hustles, civic involvement, volunteering, and trying to maintain some semblance of a social life. Having a meeting or event every evening. Hardly seeing Mr. G. So, what am I doing now that I’ve stepped away from my “old” life?
- Family. First and foremost. I’m spending about 25% of each month in my hometown helping my sibling before, during, and after chemotherapy treatments. While I’m there, I’m helping with household stuff, helping with the toddler, going through stuff at my parents house, driving my sibling to appointments, and zipping around town gathering legal documents and signing paperwork.
- Our house(s). I finally started to have enough time and energy to start unpacking and sorting through things at our new house. I did not cull very effectively prior to moving, and I don’t really regret it. (Other than it’s taking way longer to move than it should have, but whatever.) I can’t imagine the amount of emotional energy and time it would have taken me to Kon Mari my entire house before the move, so I’m being pretty ruthless as I put things away and my “to sell” pile is getting quite sizable. I’m also slowly incorporating items that I bring back from my parents house.
- Friends. Truth be told, I am prioritizing social interactions right now, even if it seems selfish to eschew an advocacy meeting to grab dinner with friends or go see a movie. The idea of going to a meeting or volunteer event currently fills me with dread. However, It feels great to leave the house and go be among my friends, who are really more like my local family. I also have an incredible army of “pocket friends,” many of whom I talk to (type to?) on a daily basis, and who have been there for me through some of my shittiest moments.
- Health. I am slowly churning through a summer of deferred preventative care that I had to cancel and reschedule while my my mom was sick. (BLESSEDLY – no new cavities and everything at my physical seems to be normal…) I meet with my therapist about twice a month, which has become really wonderfully cathartic, even if I just spend an hour crying and complaining about trivial shit. I am also trying to be regular with my at-home physical therapy, going on longer walks with my dog, and cooking healthy meals. I’m also trying to get enough quality SLEEP, which is challenging since I am spending so many nights away from home.
- Work. I was gone for a month at the beginning of the summer, and I’m still kind of playing catch up from that time. We are just now entering new phases of two big projects, which is exciting but stressful. Since I’m still taking a fair bit of time off each month (be it to help my sibling with chemo or to go my own appointments), I try really hard to be present and productive when I am in the office.
So, that is life right now. Almost 3000 words on how I’m trying to “live in the crazy.” It seems impossible to have a routine at this moment in time, but either I’m finding some semblance of it or just getting used to the nuttiness of my current situation. Talking to Leigh the other day, we both commented on how wonderful it is to occasionally have a “normal” day where you feel like the world isn’t collapsing around you and you’re able to enjoy life and stop and smell the roses. It’s even more wonderful when those days start to become the norm. And it will happen – life will get better. The important thing is to take care of yourself in the meantime.