On the Other Side of Burnout

I’m not sure when it happened.

Maybe it was taking Nancy off the ventilators and watching her die as a result of the drugs she just couldn’t beat. Maybe it was when Liz died when relapsed and someone gave her laced heroin. Or before she died, when she was severely sexually assaulted and then went back to the guy who did it. Twice.

Or maybe it was when Eric was murdered in front of me, or when I visited Steve in jail after he killed another guy, or when I watched the woman I promised I would sit in the dark with, die while I watched.

But I don’t know. Maybe it was when trusted employees tried to destroy what I had spent years building, or when I got pulled out of the mothballs when the news needed a talking head on the 10th anniversary of my friend Martha’s murder, or maybe it was just when I realized the big church that wouldn’t give us any money was going to keep referring people to us.

I don’t know when it was, exactly. But at some point, I burned out. I just couldn’t watch my friends die anymore. I just couldn’t keep going. But at the time, I didn’t know that, either.

Twelve years. For 12 years I did that work. I was the person you called when you had no one else to call.  Sometimes that looked like fighting the hospital bureaucracy that wanted to discharge you to the streets when you had no home and sometimes it looked like fighting the city that said you didn’t deserve to eat, but for 12 years, I was that guy. I was really, really good at being that guy, too. Hell, I even liked being that guy.

Not long ago, I tried making a list of the people I loved who died from poverty in those 12 years, but they all tend to run together after a while. I know it was dozens. Sometimes they visit me in my dreams. Every winter people I loved would freeze in the woods, and we would find them after the thaw. I still get triggered by snow – I feel anxiety creeping into my bones when I watch the winter weather forecast.

I taught classes on self-care, but like many before me, I was better at coaching than I was playing. It isn’t that I didn’t have good boundaries – I did, and do. I just didn’t know when to quit. I didn’t know how to stop.

In 12 years I had one vacation that lasted more than a week. The first five of those 11 years I barely made minimum wage. My wife had a heart transplant in 2015, and within twenty-four hours I was doing crisis management on the phone while she was in a medically induced coma beside me.

It wasn’t that I was bad at my job – I was really, really good at my job, actually. I was just tired. I was tired, but I couldn’t sleep. I had a whole year there where I could not sleep unaided. I would have nightmares when I was asleep, and panic attacks when I was awake.

And then, in 2017, the depression came on like a wave and damn near killed me. I was just self-aware to recognize it for what it was, and I got some help. And once the fog lifted, once I wasn’t standing in the storm anymore, I realized I needed to stop. It wasn’t so much self-care at that point as it was survival.

After the fog lifted that fall, I knew I had to leave. I had to. So, nine months later, I did.

* * *

It was three and a half years ago that I drove a U-Haul 12 hours across the country and pulled up in front of an apartment building that would be our home for the next six months while I found us a place to live.

I didn’t just need a rest, I needed to build something new. I needed to learn how to be a different sort of person. I needed a new way to be Hugh. A way that was kinder to me, and to the people who love me. And it’s happening, albeit slowly.

I’m prioritizing my health these days, which means I don’t get as much done as I used to. Adrenaline is, after all, a hell of a drug. I sleep at least six hours most nights. I prioritize movement, and I’m attentive to what I eat.

Things don’t happen as fast as they once did, and I get tired faster than I used to. They say that goes away over time, and it has some, if slowly. I still have trouble sleeping, but not as much as I used to. I have a lot of anxiety around money, but that has always been true. For years, my fundraising strategy involved crisis, You don’t have to be Freud to see that was unhealthy, even as I try to find sustainable ways and methods to replace it.

My family is a day trip away, and that feels pretty amazing. When Dad died in 2020, it was a tremendous gift to be so accessible, even in the midst of a pandemic. I have always been better at loving than being loved, but these days I am trying hard to learn how to do that, too.

While still committed to justice, and perhaps even more so than before, my work is much more behind the scenes than it once was. I’m on no reporters speed dial.  I have more influence and fewer adversarial relationships now than I did in those days. I am pastoring a small group of people who don’t need me to survive, but who just love me because I am me. Unlike my first 12 years of ministry, I can give my home address to people I minister among.

Like all of you, I have had to do this while trying to survive a pandemic. This is exhausting, but a different kind of exhaustion. At least now, I don’t feel like I’m the only one interested in my trying to survive.

And holy hell – I have hobbies now. Things I do for pleasure. I have off-time. I have moments of joy.

Should you find yourself where I once did, I don’t really have any answers for you. I just know that sometimes you can be really good at something, and yet that thing can still kill you. I, unlike many folks I knew, survived. I buried people who didn’t. I don’t know how or why, but I squeaked through, and I made it out the other side.

I’m older now. I am not as strong as I once was, but think maybe I am wiser than before I began. At least I hope I am.

But most of all, I’m glad I’m still here.

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