Last week, I was telling my therapist how it feels before I fly off the handle at my family. “It’s like my threshold for any kind of stressful interaction has dropped so far that all it takes is for my spouse to disagree with my or my kid not to listen and that’s it.” I snap fingers. “I can’t cope, and it all goes down from there.” “Well that sounds like burnout,” she said, like it was obvious. I was surprised. I thought I knew burnout. Burnout is a work thing. Burnout, for me, has been a sports thing. I didn’t realize it could be a family thing. This whole time, I thought if I wasn’t happy at home, if the family wasn’t getting along, the problem was me, the fault somehow mine.
That day in therapy, I was so confident that burnout was not the issue that I bulldozed past the suggestion. It wasn’t until a few days later that–after fighting my kid through a too late, too long, and entirely too tedious bedtime routine and looking around at every toy-covered surface in our house–my therapists words came back to me, and this time they felt true. I got curious and typed the words into my search browser. “Family burnout during COVID.” Oh. It’s a whole thing that people have been writing about since last spring. Kids are feeling it too. I obsess over family dynamics because family dynamics are all there is.I get how I missed it. The symptoms mirror those of depression: exhaustion, lowered mood, poor sleep, addictive behaviors. One of the symptoms is depression. The other big sign is conflict with family members, and that’s the one that’s making me crazy. When we can’t leave the house because the world’s not safe, I need things to be okay at home, and when they’re not, I’m not.
I survived work burnout lowering the absurdly high bar I set for myself as an employee. I thought the standards I held out for myself as a parent were more reasonable. Is it not reasonable to expect that I will be able to meet my child’s physical, mental, social, and emotional need and do it perfectly every time? Is it not reasonable to expect that I’ll never screw it up, never do any harm? I can see that the rope of perfectionism winds its way through every aspect of my life, putting me in a double bind. I can’t make a mistake with my kid. I am going to make mistakes with my kid.
I survived work burnout my redefining what work meant to me; my job is no longer a place I go for identity or validation. I thought it was was reasonable, even admirable, to look for that kind of meaning at home. Is the work I do as a parent and a partner not the most important work I will do in this world? Is home not supposed to be a haven? I can see how that’s a lot of pressure to put on my family. I can see that my understanding of what a home is supposed to feel like needs to evolve now that we are living the entirety of our lives within walls of one small house.
I survived work burnout by expanding my mind. I stopped thinking about work outside of work. I immersed myself in my family life. I prioritized friends. I picked up some fun new hobbies. The problem with burning out on my entire life almost a year into COVID is there are no new inputs. I’ve taken all the walks, baked all the bread, watched all the Netflix, painted all the birds, done all the puzzles, played all the board games. Obviously, I’ve forced more family time than any of us can handle.
This weekend, after I realized what I was dealing with, I slowed waaaaay down. I claimed whole chunks of time in the daylight hours for myself and tried to give myself new inputs. I rowed instead of going for a run. I read a book about weird Mormon history instead of the newspaper. I actually watched the Superbowl, even the football parts. Did it work? I don’t know. It was a pretty peaceful weekend. I didn’t lose my patience or my temper or my mind. I don’t have anything I need to talk about at therapy tomorrow. That feels like a win, or like I’m at least on to something.
There are some records set in quarantine that are just not that interesting. It’s been nine months since I couldn’t figure out what to do for lunch and ate a Jimmy John’s at my desk. It’s been nine months since I forgot my keys at home and had to ask the receptionist let me into my office. It’s been nine months since I had to scramble to buy a metra pass while the conductor breathed down my neck waiting for me to pull it up on my phone. As the sun’s been dropping earlier so that I’ve been starting my regular afternoon runs at dusk and finishing in the pitch dark, another unremarkable record occurred to me. I checked my Strava to confirm. On March 12, I wrote “Gym is emptying out.” I haven’t been back since, which means it’s been nine months since I’ve worked out at the gym and almost ten since I ran on a treadmill.
The treadmill run is akin to the commute in that it’s not a thing most people miss. Running outdoors, even in poor conditions, is more pleasurable than running on a machine by miles. The treadmill is a chore and a drag and ugh. It’s also incredibly convenient. Access to a treadmill means you don’t need to invest in gear to run in rain and wind and sleet and snow. You don’t need to think about what you’re going to wear the night before and pile on the layers before getting out the door. You don’t need to risk frostbite on the coldest days and dehydration when it’s hot. You don’t need to route long runs by water fountains and bathrooms. You can run hills without having to drive yourself out of your pancake flat hometown. You don’t need to know what your easy pace feels like or use your own effort to make yourself go fast; you just bleep it into the screen.
Unlike a lot of runners I know, I did not have a love/hate relationship with the treadmill. I unabashedly loved it! I loved doing long training runs–sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen miles–and spreading my fuel out on the tray like a buffet. I loved the feel of the belt spinning to a stop under my feet after sixty minutes and immediately smashing the big green “GO” button again. I loved tearing my shirt off when it soaked through with sweat and dropping it on the floor next to me. I being able to stagger to the bathroom to take a shit and making it back in less than two minutes. I loved driving the speed up higher than I knew my legs could move and feeling the machine shake around me. I loved running faster than the person next to me. I loved sticking extra reps into interval workouts and tacking extra miles onto the end of easy runs. I loved finishing a workout and folding myself in half, hands on knees, panting between my legs, feeling on top of the world in a shitty old gym, oblivious to everyone around me. I loved mopping up my sweat from the machine, proof of effort.
Early on in the pandemic, I read an article about a runner, or maybe it was a cyclist, in Australia, or maybe it was New Zealand–forgive me, I’m fuzzier on the details than I thought I would be–who got some blowback for running, or maybe it was cycling, I don’t know how far–around the island, I think?–but it was really far, or maybe just really long, he was on his feet, or his bicycle, for the better part of a day, but not the whole day, which isn’t unreasonable if you’re endurance athlete, but it made people uneasy. They said it was irresponsible to “go to the well” when the public health system was under strain. To be clear, the runner/cyclist was fit to the task and totally fine. Nothing bad happened. He wasn’t even showy about the effort; people got mad after he uploaded the route to a tracking app. This was in March or April. I was in the middle of marathon training, because I was always in the middle of marathon training, and the miles didn’t look like much to me, and what the fuck else were we supposed to do in lockdown? Some people bake bread. Some people learn French. Some people push their bodies to the extreme so they don’t have to feel anything but the blood running under the hood, the thighs shaking themselves free, the lungs burning, proof of health.
I thought the criticism of the runner/cyclist was overwrought. All these months later, I can’t even find the original article because there are so many stories about people running and riding really, really far in the pandemic and that makes sense to me because, really, what better mental and physical training for the marathon that is this pandemic than an actual marathon?
The notion of not taking myself to the well stuck with me, though. It didn’t take long to see that running was more difficult than it used to be. I rely on water fountains April through October but the city never turned them on this year. I use public restrooms but the city never unlocked the doors, and it felt irresponsible–nay, non-essential–to take advantage of the coffee shops and franchise restaurants whose doors were still open. I turn to the treadmill when it’s pushing ninety degrees or when there’s lightning or when it’s slushy and gross outside but this year there were no indoor options. I push myself hard and sometimes my body pushes back; it felt wrong to risk injury or sickness with the hospitals full.
In the end, the challenges of running long in a pandemic–physical, logistical, and emotional–were too much for me. There are people who made it work, and there were probably ways I could have done it, too. I could have pushed myself to go without water and shat behind trees but that would have been decidedly COVID uncool. I could have plotted shorter routes that looped past my house. I could have stashed water along the way. I could have stripped off my wet layers and left them in the bushes to pick up later. I could have overcome the paralyzing anxiety of passing people who might scream at me for daring to be out of my house without a mask or, alternatively, get way too close without masks of their own. I could have pushed through the disabling ennui of running the same routes over and over and over and over. I could have been a different person. I could have spent the last nine months learning French.
I didn’t do any of that. Instead, when I found myself tiring more quickly, I slowed down and scaled back, and that’s when something weird happened: running less made me feel better. Having to do all those miles by myself out in the elements in the middle of a global health crisis made me see that I was not drawing from an endless well. My resources were tapped.
I can’t think of a time since I started my career in 2010 that I have not been overwhelmed. I can’t think of a time since I got pregnant in 2012 that I have not been exhausted. Up until March 2020, I prided myself on how much juice I could squeeze out of a day, from the rigid pre-dawn prayer and meditation routine to the commute to the full day of paid work to the non-profit board position to the community service to the active recovery program to the deep involvement at church to the mom’s nights out to the volunteering at my kid’s school, to the multiple weeknight activities, to the mornings and weekends and evenings of parenting the hell out of my kid, and I was obsessively marathon training on top of all that? No wonder I wasn’t writing. No wonder I was fighting with my husband.
Was I an exercise junkie? Maybe, but I don’t like pathologizing myself when it lets the culture off the hook so easily. I know I’m no more addicted to doing more more more to the point of overwhelm and exhaustion than any other woman I know. Are the men tired, too? I honestly don’t know. I don’t think they’ve been conditioned to believe that their value depends on working themselves into non-existence to the extent women have. On the other hand, men aren’t immune to capitalism, and I suspect the reason I’m not hearing about their burnout is because they aren’t allowed to talk about it.
Since March 2020, I’ve stopped basically all of the above. Some of it, like the commute and the in-person activities, stopped all at once when we were ordered to shelter in place. Other parts, like the early morning routine and the all virtual everythings and the long ass runs, have sloughed off like dead skin over the last nine months. The scales are coming off my eyes, too. Nine months off the treadmill, I can see that the convenience of the machine made it easy to ignore how much I was asking of my body just like the year-end bonuses made me forget I was undervalued all year long just like the ten dollar salads and twenty dollar pastas made me forget my job was grueling just like the free cab rides home made me forget I’d missed dinner with my family just like the year sparkly holiday parties made me forget that this is a time of year for turning in.
Strip away the wellness room and the free coffee and the concept of face time there’s no way I’m staying at work past five. Take away the treadmill and the races and the running clubs and there’s no way I’m running more than four miles before sunrise.
Maybe we’re not supposed to be exhausted.
Since March 2020, I’ve started writing regularly, making art, dating my husband, and hanging out with my kid. I’ve started lounging, at all hours of the day too, not just after I’ve collapsed on the couch at the end of the night. I’ve also been going to therapy and, forgive me for what I’m about to say, feeling my stupid feelings. Sometimes I’m restless and sometimes I’m bored because old habits die hard and also there’s nothing the fuck to do, but I’m becoming convinced that this is a better way to live. For what it’s worth, I am still running, always outside, always in the cold, and often in the dark. On election day I ran an unplanned half marathon because I didn’t know a better way to cope (though in hindsight it would have been more productive to spread those miles out over the next four miserable days). I hope I’m doing it because I want to and not because I need to, but I’m okay if running is a need. It’s served me well and I’ll take the endorphins where I can get them.