Burn out, Break Down, Rebound

I should know by now that each semester, I will have an absolute meltdown.  I should be prepared for the bi-annual break down.  In fact, in August, I even made a plan for when I could feel burnout approaching. I wrote a list of things that signify that things are getting ~out of hand~ and what I can do to help.  My remedies were great and truly can and do help a lot of the time.  My plan was solid.  But the burnout always wins.

Two weeks ago, it finally happened. My body gave me weeks of warning - I could feel the exhaustion building ever so slowly, each day becoming less and less myself. My digestive system is usually the first thing that goes awry when I’m stressed, and it just puts such an unpleasant film on absolutely everything.  I tried to slow everything down but my schedule only left so much room for self-care and recouping.  I literally felt like I was drowning.  Between working 4 days a week with 3 of those days being split shifts (that is, opening AND closing and only clocking out when I had class), sitting through my student teaching practicum 14 hours a week, and going to class full-time, it felt like I had no time to just sit down. The only time I got to spend with my boyfriend was our weekly grocery shopping trip, and the lack of quality time really added to my stress. I had no choice but to eat my meals during class or practicum… so. much. frozen. food. 

A huge part of my self-care plan was to not sacrifice working out.  I love working out and it serves as an hour or so of my day where I can focus on myself and nothing else.  Of course, it’s a huge mood-booster and stress-reliever as well. But, when I tell you I have never been so physically and emotionally exhausted before - I mean it. I would schedule my workouts during what little free time I had and actually look forward to them, but when the time came I literally could not bring myself to get up.  Depending on the day, I would be attempting to workout after some combination of virtual practicum, handling snotty, wild children at work, writing papers or lesson plans, and sitting in 3 hour lectures on Zoom.  My one hour gap between things would come and my back and eyes and head hurt so much that I could not imagine doing anything but lie down.  It was such a terrible feeling.  I was so exhausted that I couldn’t do the things I love.  I couldn’t use my free time for anything other than laying down. Of course, it was also really hard to cope with the feeling that I was just “making excuses” or “slacking.”  I know that I absolutely needed to take this time to relax and do nothing, but that little voice in the back of my head would not shut up.  It just felt like I was letting myself down.  And let’s not act surprised when I say that I’ve been having a hard time fitting in my jeans, which obviously makes things just that much more frustrating.

Another thing that was difficult to cope with was the nature of my practicum.  COVID-19 has completely flipped education upside down. I have wanted to be a teacher for my entire life and in-classroom experience means the world to me.  It has been very difficult for me to accept that things are different now and that I cannot get to know my students how I would like to.  My host teacher and I have been working really hard to make sure I get the most out of my practicum experience this semester, but there truly is only so much we can do. It’s physically difficult to sit on Zoom for an entire school day and rarely get to participate in the classroom since the teachers and students are in person and I’m on a computer screen.  But what is even worse is feeling like my dream is slipping away from me.  I am losing hope that things will never return to normal and I know I will never get in-person student teaching experience since I’m graduating soon.  It is terrifying because I will be eligible for a real-life, big girl teaching job in just a year and I won’t have any real teaching experience under my belt.  I constantly have to fake assignments or make things up because a huge part of our coursework this semester focuses on our practicum classrooms and the students we interact with.  It sucks just going through the motions and fearing for the future of a career I love with all my heart.  It feels like nothing is real or matters at all. It’s just been very mentally taxing - on top of all the physical exhaustion I’ve been experiencing.

The silver lining is that I have learned from all of this.  The first thing I gained from my meltdown was the ability to ask for time off.  The day right after my meltdown, I changed my availability at work so I could have a day off each week. It felt stupid because my shifts are only 5 hours long at maximum and that doesn’t seem that terrible. It took me a while to realize that I was working almost 2 full 5 hours shifts a day and that adds up to 10 hours! 10 hours is a lot and is completely unnecessary! I felt like I had to justify taking time off, but I don’t.  I am a full time student in the midst of my capstone semester - I need time.

Next, I learned that I don’t need to do work every day.  I tend to view Saturday and Sunday as days to catch up, but in reality, I can always take a day off.  After my meltdown, I did absolutely nothing on Saturday.  I didn’t set an alarm for the first time in months and although I was only able to sleep until 8:30 because of my internal clock, it felt so good. I got back in bed after breakfast and did nothing at all for the first time in years, I think.  Nothing I didn’t want to, at least.  And I was pretty lazy on Sunday, too, but you know what? All of my assignments were still done on time, and I got good grades on them!  It took a breakdown to realize, but I finally have accepted that it’s okay to take a day off.  It’s okay to hand stuff in on time instead of early.  Everything will be okay if I don’t think about school for one freakin day.

I have also changed my relationship with fitness a little, or at least I’m working on it.  I always say that I work out because I love it, and that is true, but clearly there is more to it.  When I take a few rest days, I have this toxic idea that all of my progress is gone. I get really discouraged when I notice a little extra weight on my tummy or feel myself shaking in yoga poses I used to nail.  Last semester, and even into the summer, I was in peak shape and finally reached a place where working out never felt like work.  I was so happy - it felt like all my goals were getting reached.  This made it a lot harder to let go of some things this semester.  I feel like I went 100-0.  However, that was also during quarantine, when I literally had no other responsibilities.  I didn’t even have housemates.  I had no distractions from my grind.  Again, it sucks that it took a meltdown, but I have finally recognized that fitness is ever changing, for everyone.  When I was in the thick of my exhaustion, I would have killed myself trying to keep a steady routine.  It would have exacerbated my meltdown and worsened the conditions.  If I kept pushing myself during that time (and even right now), I would have hurt myself immensely, and it is just not worth it.  So, moving forward, I am really focusing on finding the love in working out again.  I’m learning that since I truly do love working out, whenever I feel tired or not in the mood - it is because I’m too tired and I shouldn’t push myself.  If I treat exercise like something I have to do or just another task to cross off my list, I will never, ever fall in love again and that is the exact opposite of my goal.

Finally, I’m that person who has to rant or at least talk to someone about everything before I can feel better. I know it might sound cringey, but a lot of the time, this looks like posting videos of myself crying and ranting on my finsta account.  It feels weird doing it sometimes but it always makes me feel better. And, it makes me realize I’m not alone.  So many of my friends reached out and said they are going through the same thing or offered their ears and advice. It helped me learn things about my closest friends that never would have come up otherwise.  Even if no one interacted with the post, saying everything out loud makes a huge difference!  I think what I learned here is that there is nothing wrong with being vulnerable, letting people know that you’re not okay, asking for help, and starting conversations about things no one else wants to.  Ranting on my private account is a great coping mechanism for me, and it allows me to get everything off my chest without burdening my loved ones in the middle of the night.  Instead of calling them and demanding their attention, I post everything and let them choose when to experience it, if at all. I think a lot of people are ashamed of relying on others and needing to let their feelings out into the world, and we should not be! Some of us are just wired that way - cope how ya gotta cope!