God in the Winter: My Burnout Story

olive chan —  January 19, 2015 — 4 Comments

On January 18, 2015, I had the privilege of speaking to our local congregation at Heritage Mountain Community Church in Port Moody, BC. We are currently going through a series on meeting God in the various seasons of our souls. I shared my story as part of meeting God in the Winter. Although it was not video or audio recorded, I wanted to share the written version here.

Today I will be vulnerable with you. I will tell you about some of the hardest years in my life to date.

When I was 27 years old, I went through the darkest period of my life. I was living overseas as a missionary at the time. I started noticing that something was wrong when I caught myself crying for the fifth time in a day and I realized that I had cried every day for the past 30 days. Then, I noticed that no amount of sleep felt like it was enough and I felt so exhausted simply from taking a shower that I had to nap to recuperate. My stomach was constantly aching and the simplest decisions, such as what groceries to get, left me feeling paralyzed. My heart felt shrivelled up and I did not care about anyone. Most frightening was the fact that God felt very distant and silent.

Initially, I thought I was depressed. I had gone through a bout of depression a couple years prior, and I thought it had returned. But in God’s providence, one of my work assignments was to transcribe an article about missionary burnout. As I typed away, I identified much of myself in the article. A few weeks later, after talking with colleagues and medical professionals, I was diagnosed with burnout. I was in desperate need of rest and was urged to take medical leave until I recovered. So my assignment was cut short and I booked the earliest flight back to Canada that I could get.

That was the beginning of a three-year journey through burnout recovery. My “winter,” so to speak.

God in the Winter - My Burnout Story

Before I go on further, there are a couple things I wanted to mention:
The winter season of the soul is generally not talked about very much, particularly in the church. So I want you to know that if something I say resonates with you and you’d like to talk more about it with someone, I’d be happy to do so. Also, I kept a blog during my burnout recovery. You can read it here.

I also hope that you would listen in a certain way to what I’ll be sharing. Imagine your hands held open, palms up. Imagine everything I’m about to say as me pouring sand into your hands. There will be grains of sand that will slip through your fingers – don’t worry about those. My prayer is that one or two grains would remain in your hand at the end of this, and that you can carry those one or two grains in your heart and allow God’s spirit to shape you through them.

OK, back to my story. Actually, I’ll start with Moses’ story.

There’s a scene in Exodus where is Moses going up Mount Sinai to meet with God to receive the Ten Commandments. Exodus 20:21 NLT says, “As the people stood in the distance, Moses entered the deep darkness where God was.” I came across this verse in the midst of my burnout recovery. Other translations say it differently but this one resonated with me and described how I felt about my situation. Three things about this verse stood out to me: 1) The people stood in the distance – Moses had to go alone. 2) The place Moses entered into was darkness; deep darkness. 3) The darkness was where God was. I will share my story using this verse as a framework.

Part 1) The people stood in the distance – Moses had to go alone.

When I returned to Canada, I went back to live with my parents in Toronto. I had grown up in Toronto and had a large network of people there, many of whom supported me financially and through prayer when I became a missionary. But when I came back from my assignment on medical leave, I had zero energy to see anyone. I spent my days sleeping, eating, reading, sometimes journalling and sleeping some more. I switched to a church where I knew nobody just so I didn’t have to chit chat after the services or explain why I came back so soon. The only people I saw during the first six months were my parents, my counsellor, who helped me process what had happened and gave me tools for rebuilding my resilience, and my best friend, who would come over once a week to go through a book study with me.

The winter season was very lonely. No one could see or measure the depth of my pain or the extent of my tiredness. And no one could tell me how long it would last. I remember being six days into my medical leave and wondering why I didn’t feel any better yet.

That particular darkness was mine alone to enter.

It was hard, too, because not everyone understood what burnout was. The term “burnout” is often tossed around these days as a way of saying, “really tired.” But medically and psychologically speaking, burnout is a state of combined physical exhaustion, relational bankruptcy and emotional instability brought on by an extended period of stress or overwork. It was a total life upheaval. Just getting more sleep wasn’t going to cut it. And I wasn’t simply being lazy. I had read that I could expect it to take as many years to recover as it took to arrive at that point. That wasn’t very encouraging because I had been running hard for 14 years.

Part of the loneliness was also because it felt like everyone else was out having fun and that life kept going on all around me, but I was stuck by myself with my lack of energy. I came back to Canada in the middle of December and I remember seeing all the Christmas decorations and festivities everywhere and feeling numb on the inside. I just did not have it in me to engage with the rest of the world.

Moses entered the darkness alone. And so did I.

Part 2) The place Moses entered into was deep darkness.

When I came home, I felt like my world had shattered. The term “burnout” takes its name from forestry, referring to after a fire has ripped through and burned up every living thing. That’s how my soul felt. All that I was left with were questions. So many questions.

In the heart of the darkness, I wrestled with soul-defining questions:
Who is God and what does He want from me? Is He judging me for failing as a missionary? Does other people’s salvation really depend on whether I’m out there preaching the gospel to them? What does God expect from me?
Where does my value come from? From what I do? Or how well I do things? Or what others think of me?
What do I need to accomplish to be worthy of God’s love? What if I never manage to complete another task in my life? Will I still be worth loving?

Being forced to do nothing but rest made me reevaluate where I placed my identity. What were revealed were shaky foundations that my life had been built on: fear, people pleasing, performance and perfectionism.

Before I burned out, I was a very driven person. From a very young age, I felt an acute sense of responsibility to do all things with excellence. My parents were entrepreneurs. They taught me the value of hard work and productivity. Words like “excellent” and “conscientious,” constantly showed up on my report cards and propelled my deeper need to justify my existence in the world. I strived to do my best in everything.

My parents also taught me about effective time management. In grade school, my mother made me extensive schedules broken down into half-hour increments. She’d list everything I had to do, from the moment I got home until bedtime.

I continued this practice into university. There were no smartphones or online calendars yet, so my day-planner was my second Bible. I would use extra fine point pens to cram as much writing as I could into each tiny square, taking pride in seeing all my appointments and deadlines colour-coded.

I wanted my life to count. I’d learned in church that Jesus had paid for it with His blood. I felt like I owed Him back. Big time. So I taught myself to say, “Yes.”
Yes, I’ll join the youth group committee…
Yes, I can lead the worship team this month…
Yes, the meeting can be at my place…
Yes, I’ll take part in starting the campus fellowship…

I wanted to prove my love for Jesus. So I also said “Yes” to going overseas for two years to be a missionary. This meant cramming the last three courses of my undergraduate degree into six weeks. No breaks. No rest days. No holidays.

I joked that I would rest when I got to Heaven…

I didn’t realize, however, that pushing myself so hard in the name of “self-sacrifice” would leave me with no “self” to sacrifice. I learned the hard way what author Parker Palmer meant when he said, “Burnout is a state of emptiness, but it does not result from giving all that I have: it merely reveals the nothingness from which I was trying to give in the first place.” I had been trying to give in a way that was unsustainable.

So there I was, alone in the dark with the foundations of my life shaken to the core. But like Moses, that was precisely where I met God. Or should I say, God met me.

Part 3) The darkness was where God was

Most of the time, we associate God with light. But Exodus 20:21 gives us an example of how God can also be in the dark.

Burnout was a terrible experience, but I consider it a divine intervention. I am actually deeply thankful for it. God, in his mercy, saw that I needed to be shaken out of merely telling people the gospel to actually experiencing the message of grace in my own life. The winter season of my soul was not because God had left me, or because he was punishing me. It was an invitation. An act of grace. He was inviting me to grow deeper and to know His love for me.

As I wrestled with my questions about God, my identity and worth, it was difficult for me to wrap my mind around the truth that even if I didn’t complete another task in my life, I was still worth loving. Yet here was the truth God was daring me to believe: Jesus had already done it all; I had nothing to prove. All I needed to do was let God love me for who I was. And that was so, so hard!

I had no problem believing that God’s great unconditional love applied to everyone around me. When it came to myself though, I struggled. Again and again, I found myself saying to God, “Convince me! I want to believe. Help me with my unbelief!” Somehow, I felt like I had to be more, or do more, or be better or be different. I couldn’t accept that I was completely and entirely loved just as I was.

About two years into my recovery, I had a dream. I dreamt that someone was chasing me and I was running away. Except that I was wedged between two tall buildings way up high above the ground. The only way for me to move was to shuffle forward using my hands and feet. I did this for a while until I was tired of holding on. Really tired. So I decided to just let go and fall. In my dream, I fell and I fell and all of a sudden, I was surprised by a soft net beneath me, catching me and cushioning my fall. At that moment, I knew that was grace. I never had to hold on in the first place. Burning out taught me that truth in a deep and profound way.

In the three years that it took for me to arrive at a place where I could say I had “recovered,” I did I lot of resting, reading and reflecting. As my understanding of God changed, I changed and how I lived my life changed.

A significant part of what re-shaped my understanding of God was the influence of Spiritual Formation writings and practices. I enrolled in a spiritual formation course at a local theological college and learned from Christians both present-day and ancient. I was exposed to various forms of prayer and spiritual disciplines I had never known before. Out of all this, I began to know God more and more as a God of grace – who loved me unconditionally, who was not put off by my failures and who suffered with me, never abandoning me. I also began meeting regularly with a spiritual director who would listen to me talk about my life and help me to see the presence of God in my every day living. Burnout caused me to set aside what I thought I knew about God and begin to discover him for who he really is.

Burning out also caused me to reevaluate the type of work I had been doing. I learned that I had been ignoring my innate introverted needs for alone-time, quiet and rest because I had seen them as weaknesses. I had also ignored my need for artistic expression because I wasn’t sure where it fit into “God’s work.” As I came to accept my own personality with its unique needs and limitations, I also began to see my strengths and gifts. Eventually, I started to write this blog (along with Tim), which now reaches around 10,000 readers each month. I also discovered a passion for journeying alongside of people as a spiritual director. While I am not quite there yet, it is the trajectory of my life, even in these years of raising young children. Because I went through burnout, I’ve been able to give encouragement and accompany others who are facing hard times. I am full of hope for what God has in store for me because I now know there are ways I can serve the world that are congruent with the person God made me to be.

During the winter of my soul, my career as an overseas missionary died. But in its place, arose a ministry that was more aligned with who I am and has had far greater impact than what would have been if I had tried to push forward with the activities I had been doing before.

Burnout also changed who I am. I’ve learned that I don’t have to wait until heaven to rest. And that naps can be holy. Sabbaths were commanded by God for a reason and I need that weekly day of renewal. In the context of my life with a young family now, my Sabbaths include not cooking and not checking my email or social media so that I can relax and be more present to those around me.

In Jeremiah 31:2 NLT, it says, “This is what the LORD says: ‘Those who survive the coming destruction will find blessings even in the barren land, for I will give rest to the people of Israel.'” I survived the destruction and the barrenness and I found blessings and rest.

I knew I was on the mend when I noticed myself thinking of and praying for a friend one day. In the severest part of my burnout, I had no space in my heart for anyone else. The fact that I actually cared about someone other than myself was like the first shoots of spring growth. And then one day, I actually felt joy. It had been a very long time since I’d felt a life-giving emotion. Eventually, I regained my self-confidence in making decisions and became more and more stable emotionally. And bit by bit, the winter thawed and gave way to spring.

I was redefined in the darkness. I emerged a different person than I had been before burning out. These days, I’m ok with blank spaces on my calendar. I don’t push myself quite as hard – although Tim often still has to remind me to rest. And I remain a recovering perfectionist. On the whole, I’m more relaxed, unhurried and less demanding of myself and others. I live more in the unforced rhythms of grace and strive less. Instead of aiming to be highly productive, I now want to live deeply and slowly – because that’s more in line with my personality. To be honest, I like myself better now.

I’d be lying if I told you I don’t still struggle to fully believe in God’s unconditional love for me. I do struggle. But experiencing his love when I was in the deepest part of winter has helped me to believe his love for me just a little bit more now.

“As the people stood in the distance, Moses entered the deep darkness where God was.” My winter was lonely and dark – but it was also where I met God the most profoundly.

Reflection

I invite you to reflect on the winters of your life. Winter can be experienced in entire blocks of chronological time (for me, it was 3 years) or certain areas of life at any given moment. Maybe you haven’t felt like God was/is there with you in those times. I invite you to ask him to show you where he was/is.

 

photo credit: blinkingidiot via photopin cc

  • It was this story of yours in the SheLoves Magazine that first brought me to your blog, and has been such a blessing in giving me permission to stop, and rest. I think we share very similar personalities: Perfectionist and eager to be involved in everything but actually introvert at heart.

    Our culture and the technology around us encourages us to cram as much as we can into every day. I’ve recently cut down on volunteering commitments because I was in that place of physical and emotional burnout, and people aren’t sure how to respond when I say I spend that time ‘breathing’ (or sewing!)

    Thank you for sharing this again and encouraging me that it’s okay to stop and find space to really discover the person and giftings that God has given me.

    Becca x

  • sally

    Thank you for putting into words what I could not explain to the people around me who insisted I just needed to change my attitude, choose joy, or not be so cold. Still putting one foot in front of the other and praying for daily strength to continue.

  • Pingback: Rest Mama, There’s Enough Time [excerpt] | Tim and Olive()

  • Beam Square

    Thank you for your post. I am very thankful for stumbling upon your blog today. It’s also been 3 years since my burnt-out recovery. No words could express the darkness, and as mentioned by you it’s extremely lonely. There seemed to be no ways for others to fathom the tiredness, the chaos, the anguish, the vacuum deep within one’s soul and body. I found temporary solace in watching K-drama for a period. At the end of the day it’s rest, rest, rest and then pray, when strength finally emerged. In retrospect, entering theological studies was the Lord’s supernatural providence for me in preparation for this extended winter season. I wouldn’t have access to different types of prayers and spiritual literature otherwise. Until recently, I still feel quite poorly about having wasted over 3 years of my life in idle. It’s a lesson of grace, faith and acceptance. Thank you for sharing your experience, it provides a sense of solidarity in this darkness. I am not totally out of the woods yet, but with the love of God I can definitely see the light at the end of the tunnel. Blessings to you and your family. ~ ZM