[Image: my cat, Lennie, taking a nap in the sun with one of her favorite toys shaped like a taco.]
I decided two weeks ago to take a seven-week medical leave of absence for my mental health. I have also decided to share some of that journey with you. I hope that my courage to share my vulnerabilities gives courage to graduate students and their mentors to check in with how they’re really doing, decide what they need right now, and claim their right to have those needs met.
I acknowledge that I have many privileges in taking this leave that are not universally available:
- A salaried job with accumulated paid sick and vacation leave;
- Medical and mental health professionals who believe my experience, support my decision, and have documented an FMLA-approved leave;
- Friends and family who provide support and presence to the best of their current capabilities;
- Outsourced services so that I am able to prioritize myself; and
- Access to both free and for-a-fee activities that support my concepts of well-being.
I acknowledge my commitment and responsibility to use this time to get into better relations with myself so I can put my gifts and strengths in better service to graduate students.
Why am I taking this leave?
I’ve been accumulating symptoms of psychological burnout and physiological exhaustion since about 2016. I could see myself headed for collapse if I didn’t give myself an extended pause from perpetual ‘doing.’ My maladaptive coping strategy of overwork wasn’t working for me. I was enacting on myself a deep inner fear that my experience doesn’t matter. This wasn’t the experience I wanted to be having for myself or with my family, friends, colleagues, or graduate students. I want liberation from a fear-based, people-pleasing, productivity mindset.
Just before my leave started earlier this week, I had months of inexplicable physical aches, pains, and stiffness in my joints. Most days since last fall, I experienced feelings of resentment and irritability. My body felt like I was in a near constant state of panic and urgency. My thoughts were on overdrive about productivity with lists, ruminations, shoulds, and what ifs. I was exhausted being in a body that is constantly alternating between flight and freeze modes. No amount of yoga, HIIT, long walks with friends, or lite Netflix fare was providing extended relief. Activities that should have felt clarifying, relaxing, and fun for me provided only fleeting glimpses of those promises. An occasional day off wasn’t resolving these feelings or sensations either.
Burnout and disenfranchised grief
Some of my burnout and exhaustion relates to multiple instances of disenfranchised grief, both concrete and abstract losses that haven’t been publicly mourned (for example, see Yong, 2022, The Final Pandemic Betrayal). Since about 2016, I’ve experienced massive changes in my relationships with family, friends, pets, jobs, opportunities, dreams, and even myself. The pandemic added to those losses and put mourning further on pause. I’ve learned to conceal this grief from others (“dissimulate”). I avoid and numb all these feelings – and usually don’t even register (“dissociate”) it myself – through overwork and productivity. (See how I was turning my deep inner fear that my experience doesn’t matter onto myself?)
I haven’t given my mind, brain, and body the time to recognize and reconcile the losses, to learn to cope with the changes in my relational identities, or to make meaning and sense of purpose of the grief. My brain and body aren’t yet rewired to my new realities. I’m living the life of the present me in the current realities of the world while at the same time holding onto the internal mental and physiological structures of the past version of me. This leave of absence gives me space away from the environments that trigger my overwork behaviors. It allows me to slow down in order to acknowledge and affirm the losses I’ve experienced and the identity changes I’ve gone through. I can also give gratitude to what has become and affirm the strengths and values that I bring to those challenges.
What if I didn’t have a list?
Yesterday, my third day of my leave, I wrote down a list of 16 tasks I wanted to complete. Three of them were work-related. And I was in a panic that I had only 6.5 more weeks off from work. My inner monologue said, “you’re not making the most productive use of this time to get back-burnered stuff done,” and “you’re not doing a very good job at this ‘not doing work thing.’” Let this post be a time stamp of my current ambivalence over my work leave; the productivity mindset has a firm grip on me still.
One friend said it takes them about four days into a week-long, get-away vacation to “settle in.” Another friend said that they had to spend a day being completely unstructured and doing whatever they felt like that wouldn’t in any way count as productivity.
My “work” this week might be to assess the damage, take an inventory, and document old, unproductive behaviors as they pop up in my non-work life. How am I enacting a life where my experience doesn’t matter? If I acted like my experience mattered to me, what would I choose to do with those experiences? That’s what I get to do for 6.5 more weeks.