If you’re on leave, be on leave, Katie

Woman in the foreground with a sweatshirt and coat on. The lake in the background. It's windy with her hair blown and waves on the water. There's a tree with leaves in the water and the other side of the lake is visible.
Me at Lake Monroe, Bloomington IN in April 2022. It was very cold and windy that day.

As I write this, I’m on week four of my leave of absence. Friends ask me how I’m doing, what I’ve been up to, and what I’m learning. I’d like to be open with some of my journey back from physical and emotional burnout and the underlying maladaptive, unhealthy thinking and behaviors.

The first three weeks of my leave

I spent the first week of my leave of absence in mid-April resolving body aches and pains. I had hurt my foot weeks earlier and had been alternating between home treatment and denial. With an open schedule and a self-mandate to prioritize my physical well-being, I went to a couple doctors’ appointments that week. They were able to resolve the source of the pain: an irritated and inflamed nerve between my fourth and fifth metatarsal. It was pain that my home treatments and denial were never going to resolve. The persistent aches in my hips, tingling in my hands and feet, and irritated skin feeling – sensations that would sometimes wake me up in the night – mysteriously went away by the end of that first week away from working. I assume those sensations were from stress-related inflammation. I hadn’t realized how much pain and discomfort I was in until I wasn’t feeling it anymore.

I was still making lists and scheduling my life through the second week. I filled my days with work tasks, domestic tasks, friend meetups, family tasks, and life goal tasks. I was as busy during those first two weeks of my sick leave as I had been while working. I was using already accumulated sick and vacation time being productive when I wasn’t supposed to be or expected to be productive. A part of me felt ashamed for what I hadn’t been able to accomplish during the pandemic; I was trying to catch up and make up for that lost time. Furthermore, I was playing along with internalized ableism that people with invisible mental health challenges don’t need an extended break in work productivity. Since I don’t look sick, hurt, or incapable of working, I believed I should be working.

Harmful mindsets

In continuing to engage my exhausting overwork mindset during leave, I was behaviorally maintaining several shame scripts. These shame scripts are false ideas about my self-worth around which I perform a socially acceptable self:

  • My experience doesn’t matter to myself or others.
  • Be self-sufficient and don’t have needs.
  • Be productive, reliable, and agreeable.
  • Keep the waters of life calm for others.

In maintaining that mindset, I was in a perpetual hyper-vigilant state, destroying my body, and creating both mental and physical dissonance. I wasn’t responding appropriately to how I felt and what I needed. I wasn’t acting with internal integrity about what I love to do. And I wasn’t being honest with myself and others about how much energy that takes  and the space, resources, and support I need.

Making the turn

A week ago, Monday (April 23), was a turning point in the way I thought about and participated in my leave of absence. Two friends reached out to me in different ways, showing me that I wasn’t honoring myself and my goals to rest and reduce my stress during my leave of absence. One friend left me a very stern voice message about the amount I was still working two weeks into my leave. They reminded me that if I continued to work while I was on leave, I’d remain exhausted when I return, I’d not learn to see myself and care for myself differently, and nothing would be different in my approach to work. The other friend shared with me by text their experiences coming to terms and acceptance with their ADHD and how they’ve organized their life in a way that is self-affirming and works for them.

That afternoon, I dropped everything on my lists and went on a hike by myself at Lake Monroe (see the picture at the top). Funny thing: it’s now a trail that’s only open on weekdays so the timing was perfect.

My leave of absence isn’t just about naps. I am in a developmental transition in which I’m letting go of many old self identities. I’m forging a new path based on how I want to put my strengths into service for graduate students. When I am working with graduate students going through tough moments, I want them to feel: honored, respected, revered, encouraged, supported, prepared, celebrated, capable, courageous. Since those two wise friends intervened with me (thank you!), I am reminded that I can model that same presence to myself – and readers here. A few things have changed in the way I participate in my leave of absence.

How am I engaging differently?

I’m now trying to engage in my recovery from burnout in a positive way, rather than a self-abusive one. I try to give myself grace for the ups and downs as well as the progress and setbacks. I’m trying to be curious about what I need and recognize strengths I bring to the process. I am now intentional in being helpful to my recovery process instead of being a barrier.

I make sure that at least half-days – if not full days – are completely open and unscheduled. No work, no meetings, no task lists, no friend dates. That open time is helping me slow down and enjoy quiet and solitude.

I am doing things I truly enjoy and I am enjoying my own company. I explore new hiking trails, go on a bike ride, watch dogs play at the park, attend glass fusing classes, read a book, watch movies in the queue, paint, sit by the lake, or sip tea at a coffee shop I’ve not been to.

I respond to my needs exactly as a perfectly attuned, responsive adult would to a five-year-old. Hungry? Eat, and maybe try something new. Tired? Nap in bed (I deserve the comfy bed for a nap). Bored with this? Switch it up. See something cool while doing a task? Stop and check it out. Want to do something ridiculous (and safe)? Jump in puddles, stick my feet in the cold lake, fly a kite, catch tadpoles, sing out loud on the street, shake the wiggles out.

It is a messy process. I’m better tuned into myself now. I am starting to believe my own needs and respond appropriately when I feel overextended, worried, tired, frustrated, worried, or sad. Most of all, I am starting to believe that my experience matters to me.

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