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What It's Like to Experience Burnout With Chronic Illness

I could not keep going like I was going. Exhaustion. Daily Pain. Stiffness. Apathy. Depression. Mental fatigue. Trouble concentrating. Uneasy and upset stomach. Frustration. Stress. Sleeplessness. Tired of the struggle. Some days ready to quit and give up. Was all this from my arthritis or from burnout at my job? Some of these phrases could describe both. Did one lead to another? Did both contribute to the place I am in? Am I burnt out, just in pain from chronic illness, or both? All I know is that I could not keep going like I was going.

It has taken me over a year to admit this, and sometimes it is even harder to say. I loved my job – it was what I had always wanted to do. I was the elementary principal at the school where I grew up. I never had a boring day (if you have ever been around elementary children, you know exactly why). I worked with great people (for the most part), and it fulfilled me, especially when I was able to help a child or family on the path of education.

But like with any job, there were stresses – stressful situations, stressful people, stressful times (especially with COVID). On top of that, there were long hours, problems popped up like a whack-a-mole game, and I had more tasks and responsibilities than any one person could possibly handle. As more and more got piled on me and I struggled to keep up with the workload my boss put on me, I could feel it. It was starting to happen. Little by little, I was getting burned out.

At the same time, because of my arthritis, every day was a struggle. I was in pain from the moment I woke up until after I fell asleep. Everything took extra strength, energy and effort, and many days I was exhausted before I even left the house. Pushing and pulling myself through each day, I would come home and collapse – so tired of fighting my body. I could feel myself getting burned out in my fight with my body and arthritis – I was burnt out of having a chronic illness.

I could feel myself losing motivation. Sometimes the mountain of tasks seemed overwhelming. I often felt defeated, alone, and could feel my cynical and sarcastic side rearing its head. Some days I would literally drag myself out of bed because it was becoming hard to face another day. My family, especially, saw me become more irritable and frustrated, something my daughter commented on a few months after I had made a change (“Dad, I don’t think I have ever seen you so relaxed and happy.”)

I rarely slept, a symptom of both my rheumatoid arthritis (RA) and an overloaded, stressful work environment. Consistently performing, concentrating on tasks, and simply just finding the energy some days to just get it done were all things I was experiencing – and sleeplessness was not helping that. All of this added up to something I was not ready to admit. I was burnt out.

Because I loved what I did, that was a hard one to admit, but what were the real reasons I felt burnt out. Was it my health? Was it job stress? Were they feeding off of each other, making the other worse? Would I feel this way if I had a less stressful job or was in a healthier body? This was my struggle, and until I stepped away from that job, I did not realize how much both of these things influenced the other.

Stress and lack of rest are two of the biggest contributors to pain. Pain is exhausting and zaps your energy making getting things done even more challenging. This in turn leads to more stress and longer hours with little rest while you simply try to keep up, to say nothing of getting ahead. As you walk this vicious cycle, you get more exhausted, get further behind, become stressed out, as pain fills your body, you throw your hands up wondering if this “Hamster wheel” you are on will ever stop.

The connection between RA and burnout is real, and while I am not sure if one causes the other, they certainly both energize and feed off each other. When you have a chronic illness, sometimes it is hard to see if the burnout is what you are doing, or if the burnout is because of the body you must do it with. It feels like you are always fighting on two fronts, and your body does not always cooperate and often makes things more challenging.

It is at those times more than ever, when you need to take a step back, rest and give yourself a break. Give yourself a break from your expectations. Give yourself a break from others’ expectations. Give yourself a break from the work and stress, and take time to figure out where the burnout is coming from – for when you do that, you can finally start to not only deal with these feelings but hopefully once again find joy for the journey you are on.

Getty image by ridvan_celik

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