The beginning of burning out

As I mentioned in, Our Story, this blog is not just about mourning the loss of my mom and getting used to living with her (very bad, but very precious) dog. During that time I also went through a professional firestorm that burned me up and left me in a heap of ashes at the end of four years. The ascending spiral of my grief “recovery” mirrored the descending curves of a truly brilliant burning out.

See, I started a brand new job the day before Mama died. I was to be the executive director of a new nonprofit whose objective was to influence the political future of Texas, and the whole nation. Pundits and demographers have been predicting the turn of Texas for years. After the 2010 census, it seemed to many that we were on the brink demographically. Political cycles being what they are, the powers that be invested in Texas that year, aiming to set the stage for a dramatic shift in the electoral college map as early as the 2016 presidential elections. At the very least, we were charged with increasing voter turnout enough to impact the 2018 gubernatorial election and state house races so that Latinos and other rising minority populations would be more fairly represented when new political maps were drawn in 2020. As much as we claimed our work was foundational and long term in nature, there were a lot of hopes — and a significant amount of money — riding on our more immediate success.

It was exciting! It was the kind of work I’d been building my career to do. It would open the door to national opportunities in the future. But, it was a terrible time for me to try to take on so much.

The thing about grief is, it’s the main thing going on in your life even if you don’t recognize it. Once you get through the initial busy-ness, you recognize your numbness a little more. You know you’re sort of out of it. You might be tempted, as I was, to address the sudden lack of busy-ness with… more busy-ness. I suggest taking up a hobby. Crochet. Gardening. Model cars. Write bad poetry!

The problem is, the distraction of the unconscious working through its stuff lasts a lot longer than you realize.

I threw myself into my new job. I felt I had something to prove. I responded to challenges and obstacles by trying to work harder. My yoga practice suffered.

Guess what? Those are the first three stages of burnout!  Working harder, the compulsion to prove yourself and neglecting your personal needs are followed by “displacement of conflicts” — which any grieving person is going to do ANYWAY. I’m fine! I’m not angry because my mom died! I’m inordinately cranky because traffic was bad, the grass died, the dog is barking, insert your molehill of choice.

Your primary conflict, that you’re sorting through the mystery of life and dealing with a ton of pain, is NOT going anywhere.

I spent four years “doing my best.” But looking back now, I can see that I was off on wrong footing. Decisions made early on, modes of handling organizational conflict early on influenced the whole trajectory. More on that later.

The point here is that grief is not a feeling. It is something you are actively—even if unconsciously—doing, for a long time. We would benefit as a society to acknowledge that. One friend comforted me back then by telling me that it was a blessing that we don’t all go through this pain at the same time. We have stronger, more stable others to lean on. But, in any social or professional circle, there’s bound to be someone going through grief. It must affect the whole system. I know mine did.

What if people were given a year off after the death of a child, spouse or parent? Sure, there’d be a lot of people “not working” at any given time. There might be more bad poetry and model cars, too. But there might be more art and more compassion, and the systems we depend on to function would be driven by fully functioning parts.

It’s just a thought. I would finish it, but I’m distracted by Benny’s barking…

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