I sat there, empty as a husk, having given everything I thought I had to give. As my last client, a boy with a past more terrible than my imagination could make up, left the hospital, I sat there, slowly sorting the files and signing the termination reports. My nerves were frayed. I was done. Empty but glad that my cases were closed and all my clients referred elsewhere. « Off to better hands », I told myself. I stayed glued to that chair for a long time.
It had taken months of nightmares and a slow and sickening descent into my own personal hell, to finally admit that I needed to put the brakes on. The clinical head of my department, a doctor who I admired for her ability to see 700 families and remember and care for every one of them, was kind enough. She suggested that I was doing a fine job and needed to just “leave it here” without taking it home. I wish I had her hardiness and distance then. In taking a leave of absence, I felt like I was committing the worst crime as a new therapist: abandoning my clients and conceding defeat.
That was over ten years ago, on a day whose night unfolded into a journey of personal disintegration: losing my identity into an abyss of trauma, panic, and despair. It was the beginning of my own mask as a “helpful therapist” and overall “nice guy” shattering into a thousand pieces.
Though the beginning sounds terrible, there are many blessings that have come out of my experience of burning out: some came as I climbed out of my personal hell and others like wine cultivated in the years that have followed. I list them here in brief to inspire, console, and perhaps even guide any of you who are also going through your own hell, or afraid that you may one day do so:
1. Forced me to STOP helping in ways that weren’t really helpful
My experience of burn out was a full stop. It gave me unavoidable and irrefutable evidence that my model for helping was neither effective nor sustainable. An experience of utter incapacitation helped me to start over and build from a more solid foundation so that in the years since, I have become more humble and honest. I have developed a habit of asking for feedback, swallowing my pride, and accepting whether what I am doing is working or not.
2. Put me in the shoes of my most vulnerable client.
There are different kinds of hell we human beings may go through in a life time (like unbearable loss, life shattering trauma, deep depression, paralyzing anxiety, etc.). Some of us touch some of these experiences, others are thrown in head first. There is also something universal, about all of these experiences, that if you have been through one kind of hell personally you may be able to apply your understanding to other kinds of pains. My experience parallels what so many of our clients and fellow colleagues go through: falling apart, feeling helpless and powerless to fix it on our own, and how we all need to reach out, how humbling and shameful that may be at first and how incredibly soul quenching it may become if we do seek assistance and find some oasis of helpfulness. Whenever I meet a new client or see people in crisis, alternating between being guarded and defensive and vulnerable tender, I feel a kinship and a resonance with some of their harrowing journey.
3. Confirmed for me the need to HEAL MYSELF and keep doing so:
Studies have shown that those of us in the helping profession have an abnormally high level of traumatic history and personal stress to deal with (http://psycnet.apa.org/journals/pro/25/3/275/), as well as, a high level of shame about asking for and getting help! In the years that have followed my burn out, I have come to hold a sacred commitment to myself and to my clients to continue my own journey of personal evolution. I do so because healing and growing is not a one time deal we best leap into when in a crisis. As we know from the other side of the couch, it is a life-long practice, and a defining characteristic of maturity and continued health.
4. Affirmed for me the real POWER of the work we do.
It’s been whispered often that therapists and counsellors tend to doubt themselves and question the work they do having value. When I had my time to crumble, I ended up getting consistently caring support that helped me to rise from my pit of despair and eventually take flight. Most of this happened for me within the context of psychotherapy. This has erased all doubt for me about how powerful the work can be when the client is ready and the helper is a good fit.
5. Pushed me to go beyond coping and start thriving
Recent research (http://scottdmiller.com/behavioral-health/715/) reminds us that clients know when we, the helpers, are unhappy. It is no leap to also assume that our current state of functioning affects our clients in positive and negative ways. How could it not? My burn out led me to heal and cope better, but my recovery also led me to seek more than just coping for myself and my clients. Hitting rock bottom ironically made me more committed and motivated in the years since to find ways to help both my clients and myself to be ever moving in the direction of optimal wellness, or thriving. For I know that I can only give what I have. and I am only able to go as far as I have gone myself.
David Jan Jurasek is a Certified Canadian Counsellor, Child and Family Therapist and Mindfulness Martial Arts Instructor in Toronto. You can reach him at www.davidjurasek.com
*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA