A nervous breakdown or 'burnout' can affect anybody but is especially challenging for international parents living away from family. Read Amber Rahim's riveting tale of how it happened to her and how she found her way out.
When I burnt out I was travelling at 100 mph being batman, saving my business world from the crooks, who appeared disguised as project managers and stakeholders. And in my private life, I was fighting off the evil villain of my daughter’s chronic illness. I was working harder and harder and doing it with a smile and sometimes a snarl.
Finally, a message came through. My body broke through the wall I had put up in my mind to avoid the truth. My body hit me hard with aches and pains and then took my mind.
I was tired, cranky, and short tempered. I was forgetful; I couldn’t even remember how to spell forgetful. I couldn’t sleep. I was exhausted, worn out. I had an epiphany: 'I need to stop and take a break before I break.' I thought I was so smart and that I had realised in time. Ha! Could I have been more wrong? So I parked my bat mobile, got ready for a 4 week timeout and…just stopped. Everything shut down. I could barely function. I had used up all my reserves and was empty.
The Elastic Band Theory
It took a long time to start back up again: one step forward, one step back, a step sideways. I started making progress, recovering, functioning. However, I realised that there were some things that I couldn’t do anymore and I feared I was broken. I felt broken. You see, I thought that people were like elastic bands: when you stretch them too much, they break and they stay broken. With my burnout, the elastic band that had most clearly broken was multi-tasking. It took all my concentration to make a cup of tea. I couldn’t have a chat with you at the same time. I struggled to take on the intensive 24-hour care of a critically-ill baby with just my husband and I to split the shifts over.
A lot more work fell on my husband’s shoulders because I wasn’t able to do my part. Batman was gone, suit back in the cupboard. I just didn’t care about fighting the bad guys anymore or being helpful and saying 'Yes, I’ll fix that, I'll take care of it, you can count on me'. Gone. I just wanted to tell people to, well, insert your own swear word here.
I really thought I had lost a lot but something strange happened during this mega timeout. I started to see things in a new light.
Those things I mentioned just now? This is what I like to call them now: 'tolerating being overworked', 'being taken advantage of' and 'not asking for help.' Now that I see these 'elastic bands' for what they really are: negative, destructive behaviours. I am glad they are broken. Who actually wants to be a superhero, working non-stop, taking care of everything? Who wants to do it all alone?
It was with relief that I realised that people are not like elastic bands, we are organic. We grow, adapt and learn new things. New things have taken the place of the things I lost.
These are my new things:
- The ability to say 'no', 'not now', and fit it into a time when I can do it without adding stress.
- Recognise if I am becoming overloaded and getting cranky and take action if that happens and get myself back to feeling good.
- Look after myself
And these two are my favourites:
- Let go and ask for help.
- Realise that whatever I am doing, it doesn’t have to be perfect. I can let someone else do it.
Not Broken, but Stronger than Ever
I still think there are a lot of things that I can do better than anyone else – I’m not humble, I admit it! But if it means that I can take a break, get other tasks done and just breathe, then it’s worth letting someone else do an average job. I can live with imperfection if I can just breathe.
So did burnout leave me broken? Actually, it set me free.
Those restrictive bands have burnt away, leaving me covered in a fertile ash where things can grow. I have grown, improved and become a better me. I can get more done than ever before because I delegate and share the load. I accept and ask for help. I focus on what is important and I try to be mindful and do one thing at a time. I feel happy again, I laugh and I experience joy. I dream and I expect to make some of those dreams come true.
For advice on where you can find support for burnout, see Mamas Recommend: Support for Parents Experiencing Burnout
Amber Rahim is a Scottish-Pakistani, born in Pakistan and raised in England. She now lives in Amsterdam with her husband, two girls and stepson. Her passion is her blog, where she bares all her faults, thoughts and observations to create an understanding of what life is like when someone in your family is ill all the time and the impact this has on the whole family. By profession, she is a coach and designer of educational experiences. Being a reformed perfectionist, she knows first hand the importance of turning “I can’t” into “I can” and letting go of perfection.
photo credit: Flickr