Fried has given me an incredible gift, although it’s not one I’d anticipated.
First, let me say- I have experienced burnout. In 1974 I was nineteen and assistant director at a children’s residential summer camp. Because the rest of the staff were headed to far-flung campuses (while I was returning to Ryerson in Toronto) I was left with closing down the camp. Alone. This was after a summer of supervising the program and staff for a rotating group of one hundred and fifty campers a week, many high risk kids from impoverished homes who’d already been involved in criminal activity. Everyone on staff was exhausted by the end. After the back-breaking work of closing the camp, I went back to school (already a week behind in full-time classes and the fifteen hours a week of social work field placement,) and the two part-time jobs I had in the city, moving my belongings to a new shared living arrangement with The Roommate from Hell. By October I was, as Joan so eloquently puts it: toast.
Joan's book charts the stages of burnout offering us ways to recognize when we are on the way to becoming crispy critters (my personal favourites being “Driven by an Ideal” and the emergence of the “Bitch in the Basement” -not a pretty picture.) From there she offers insights into why some of us are prone to run screaming toward any responsibility that’s up for grabs whether or not we have the time or energy to handle it gracefully. She also offers practical suggestions for reigniting your pilot light.
So here’s the surprise that the book held for me: I don’t have burnout. I cannot tell you how difficult it is for me to acknowledge this. Because as debilitating as burnout is, you can recover from it. I have done and continue to do most if not all of the things Joan suggests and documents as creating recovery from burnout. And I still can’t go out after six in the evening or write for more than two hours a day without ending up in bed unable to even read for days.
Because I don't have burnout- I have CFS/ME (Chronic Fatigue Syndrome known as Myalgic Encephalomyelitis outside North America.) And, although I have openly acknowledged that I have had this illness for twenty-seven years, internally I’ve been clinging to the semi-conscious hope/belief that I have burnout.
An MD specializing in CFC/ME once asked me, “So you think you caused this illness by overdoing?” I nodded. She was emphatic. “We may not know half of the factors that cause this illness but we do know that there is at least one pathogen involved and that you do not get it from overdoing.” Softening her tone a little she added, “Oriah, if that was the case, ninety-nine percent of the population would have it. You can make it worse with overdoing now, but that’s not what caused it.”
She was trying to discourage self-blame, but what I heard was: you didn`t cause it so you can`t fix it. This is not in your control.
Reading Fried I was confronted with my denial of what is. Joan even offers a story that explains my denial, telling us of an experiment where a rat is able to push a bar to turn off mild electric shocks. A second rat is similarly effected- shocked when rat #1 is shocked and not shocked when rat #1 presses the bar. Both animals get exactly the same amount of discomfort, but rat #2 has absolutely no control over the shocks. In just a couple of days rat #2 develops bleeding ulcers because “having control rescues you from stress.” Joan continues, “Rising to a challenge- as long as you can overcome it- is a positive experience.”
And that’s why I’ve been semi-consciously clinging to the idea that I have burnout- because we can heal from and learn to avoid burnout, can have some control. With CFS/ME things are more. . . . uncertain. A lot more uncertain.
It occurs to me that the study of the rats tells us how stressful it is to focus on things over which we have little or no control. It also points to why it is hard to not to focus on what is painful even when we have no control over it. I’ve long ago reconciled myself to not travelling around the world and to missing birthday parties or other social gatherings. And I do not give up on trying things that might bring healing. Just this week I’ve researched new treatment protocols and am sitting with whether or not any of them might assist me in being as healthy as possible.
Coming to terms with what is, is a process. We do as much as we can, as we can. And Joan’s book, Fried, just helped me take another step closer to consciously living with what is. And I’m grateful for this. Because joy is accessed through being in the present. But the catch is that there is only one place to be in the present- here: with this body-self, in the conditions of mind-heart-body-spirit that exist right now- not the ones that used to be, not the ones that might be someday (because I have faith in infinite possibilities) but with the ones that are, right now.To pretend that this illness is something other than what it is takes away from being here.
In Fried, Joan writes that all healing is “a deepening into one’s authentic nature.” And while healing may not be a cure, it is what helps us taste the sweetness of life under any conditions.