On March 16, 2020, I was at work at Dell Children’s Medical Center in Austin, Texas. I worked as a Certified Child Life Specialist, responsible for covering the imaging department. I got to my regular 10am morning huddle with my manager and the rest of the child life and expressive therapies team. I remember that meeting specifically because I managed to arrive on time and chose to stand and lean against the counter. I immediately regretted this because my chest felt tight and my shoulders were growing increasingly tense. It felt like every breath was a challenge. I wished I was sitting in a chair.
My manager began to speak, and we were told that this would be our last in person staff huddle for the foreseeable future. New restrictions were in place to protect us and the patients and family members from the COVID-19 virus. I know that she continued speaking, but I could no longer hear her. My head felt fuzzy and I was on the verge of blacking out. I was trying to relieve some of the pressure by coaching myself through deep breaths and silently telling myself that I was safe. I sat up on the counter and leaned against the wall to close my eyes and breathe. It was close, but I managed not to pass out in front of all my peers. That is not a weakness I was willing to show at the time. I also didn’t want to allow myself to leave the room suddenly because I was afraid it would draw attention to me.
As soon as the meeting ended, I darted out of the door and back to my office. I had a child life intern with me that day. She followed me into the office and closed the door. I laid down flat on my back on the floor in the office, in a familiar yoga pose: Savasana. The intern asked me if I was OK. I said “not really, I’m having a panic attack and I need to keep laying here. I feel like I am glued to the ground.” I remember thinking that I was lucky to be with a really great intern, who was nearing the end of her time with us. She was able to see patients independently. I asked her to see the next few patients and then check on me in about 30 minutes and forwarded my extension to the phone she was carrying.
After the intern left the office I continued to lay there on the floor, finding my breath. After about 20 minutes I tried sitting upright, propping myself onto my elbows, but it was too soon. I laid back down on the floor. This was not my first panic attack. I knew that I was not actually dying and knew that if I stayed in a safe space and continued to breathe I would eventually feel better. I was having panic attacks like this more frequently than ever and struggling to cope with being at work. It was getting harder and harder to hide the evidence that I was not doing well.
I struggled along for many months. During that time I spent much of the day trying to keep the panic sensations at bay, nursing an injured hip that hurt sharply every time I took a step, and my overactive bladder. I had to pee every 15-30 minutes to avoid immense discomfort. The urinary urgency and frequency was something I was getting help with through an Urology specialist. I had recently begun trying medications and started pelvic floor physical therapy to help calm the muscles around my bladder. I was also in weekly counseling, focused on trying to fix my unhappy marriage. I understood in theory that my physical symptoms were exacerbated by the constant tension and chronic lack of sleep, but I couldn’t figure out how to relax. I was crying all the time. I couldn’t speak about myself without my voice cracking and my neck getting tight and tears pooling in my eyes. The interventions I was doing were not working quickly enough. Coworkers were expressing concern for me on a daily basis.
Finally, in February of 2021, my friend and officemate, Lauren, found a moment when we could be alone and uninterrupted. Lauren told me that she was concerned for me, and lovingly suggested that I take a break. I broke down into tears and said “I can’t take a break. I don’t have any PTO because they took it all from me when I had COVID. It’s going to take months for me to earn any time off.” She then mentioned that it was possible to take an extended period of time off through our work benefits. She told me that I wouldn’t be the first person in our department to take a leave of absence. She herself left for a period of time and then came back, under different circumstances. Telling me these things made me feel like I wasn’t crazy. I was looking for someone to give me permission to take a break.
This is a very short summary of a conversation that I will always be grateful for. There was a lot of great listening and validating on Lauren’s end. It was a life changing moment for me. I was able to feel Lauren’s genuine love and concern for me, and even though I felt really sad admitting the truth, I knew that she was right. I was sick and burned out and it was time for me to step away so that I could heal. A leave of absence felt like the next best choice for me. I wanted to solve what was going on with my bladder and the pain in my hip. Those were my “primary complaints” for a long time. Aside from those, I was struggling with regular panic attacks, fainting spells, headaches, GI symptoms, weight loss, nausea, insomnia, crying spells, and constant feelings of worry and hopelessness.
After Lauren spoke to me that day, I began looking up how to take a leave of absence as soon as I got home. By the end of the week I was packing up my things at my desk with 12 weeks ahead of me to heal. I thought that would be plenty of time. I was wrong. My leave of absence became a permanent resignation as I learned that my road to recovery was going to be a lot longer and more complex than I thought. My home-life continued to deteriorate during my time away from work, as I went to doctors appointments to try and get better.
Through therapy, I was able to come to understand that the relationship between my husband and I was abusive. Our separation ultimately ended in divorce. When my divorce agreement was final at the beginning of August 2021, I flew to Antigua Guatemala to spend a month at a hotel in rest. I continued therapies on zoom. As my scheduled time in Antigua was coming to a close, I found myself looking at houses for rent. I didn’t feel like I was anywhere near ready to work again. I felt completely burned out and broken. Life in Antigua is significantly more affordable than it is in Austin, TX. So, I signed a lease beginning in September, and I have lived here ever since. For 16 months, I went into full time recovery mode. I did a deep dive into learning how to love myself and put myself at the top of my to do list. It was through approaching myself and my life with more gentleness that I found my way out of burnout. I was amazed when I began feeling like I had something to give again.
Now, after a long period of resting and receiving, I am ready to be seen again in the world. I’m ready to share what I’ve been through and how it’s inspiring the work that I am doing now. I am so excited to be hosting my first trauma informed yoga and wellness retreat here in Antigua, June 14-18, 2023. It combines my unique education and skillset and is inspired by all of the transformative healing that I have received over the last 2 years. It will be a safe cocoon, curated with love and great attention to detail.
If you’re still reading, thank you! This is the beginning of me living my dreams. Part of that dream is starting this blog and telling my story. I want to share more about my story of healing from burnout and complex trauma in hopes that someone might relate, and perhaps feel less alone. Thank you for choosing to follow along with me in this journey.