Years ago, when I was working in Colombia and in charge of monitoring feeding programs for people who had been internally displaced by the conflict, I realized that every time I went from Bogota to the small field offices, the staff took it as an opportunity to unload emotionally.
We did feeding programs: feeding in schools, especially so that girls would attend; feeding in health centers for malnourished children; food for work programs, so that schools and other community buildings would get built… so really, it was food delivery, not human rights violations or anything of the sort….
Yet, these people, our beneficiaries, for the most part would never get to see the human rights activists, let alone tell their stories. Stories of how they had lost everything over night, being made to choose between everything they owned or their lives, they had walked out one day with whatever they could carry.
Contrary to what most people think, internally displaced in Colombia are not poor, at least they weren’t before the displacement. On the contrary, they are usually land owners in fertile areas of the country were the famous coffee or bananas grow. The guerrillas and paramilitaries know what they are doing….
So, in lack of a better audience, they told their stories to those who were there to bear witness: our staff, the ones delivering the rice and corn. Our staff, in turn, were unprepared to handle this emotionally, and often lived far from their own support system, so they unloaded on me.
I noticed most of them were over worked and stressed. The emotional responsibility of doing something for these people, all hundreds of them, fell on their shoulders, so they were never too tired or too sick to stop working. HQ would proudly announce to donors how overhead was the smallest in any UN agency, but that translated into poor resources, no support, and sometimes our staff had to hitchhike their way back after a delivery (I kid you not).
Someone needs to explain to donors and the public that overheads have a purpose, and lack-of a human cost….. but that will be another day.
Back then I decided to use my training as a clinical psychologist to prepare a presentation for the field staff on burn out. I wanted them to understand what they were feeling, to recognize the symptoms, and also to be able to take some preventative measures. I could not do much for them, but knowing what you have is already one big step. Understanding that feeling emotionally drained, unsocial, unable to sleep or focus are your body’s signals that you need to stop. Understanding that getting sick all the time is an alarm, like smoke coming out from under the hood of a car. And although I could not provide all of them with sufficient support in the form of one on one counselling, I could give them some tools to help themselves. Some simple strategies like:
- eat well (yes, when you are tired and can’t be bothered to cook. When all you want is comfort food, fatty warm stuff after a long hard day, that is when you need to remember that what you body wants and what your body needs are different things. And like a loving mother to a child, you must say “no, no chocolate, you have to eat your vegetables first”.
- That you must sleep 6-8 hours, especially if you are having a hard time falling asleep or staying asleep. That is already a warning sign.
- That you must exercise. Even if you are tired, because even though you are exhausted, your body has been accumulating stress, and because of it glucose is hanging around in your system, and if you don't burn it it will keep you tossing and turning all night, and might even give you heart problems down the line.
- You must find a support system. Especially when you are at your most unsocial, when you can’t be bothered cause you are too tired, or just don’t care to go out. You must find people that you can talk to.
So why was it so hard to see the signs when it happened to me?
Why did I keep postponing going back to yoga? Why did I never have time to stop for a lazy coffee?
Because being a mom is NOT dealing with human tragedy. Because all the parents in the world do it, everyday, in much worse circumstances than I do. Because I love my job, and my kids, and on top of everything I am doing what I love, and making time to write, for my blog, for my book, for the occasional article…..
Because I thought I did not deserve to burn out, and even though my body was screaming at me, I did not listen. Not until the pain was too much to bear. Not until it put me in bed for nearly three weeks, with doctors doing all sorts of tests, fearing the worse.
So the upside is that I’ve learned I have a chronic condition that I will have to manage. But the only explanation they can give me for how bad it got is “stress”, and really, I should have know better. I should have listened to myself. Had any of my friends been in my position, I would have known what to say: “slow down, listen to your body, take yourself seriously, take your health seriously.”
So I learned two lessons:
1) your body is your friend, and if it's getting in the way, it might be trying to tell you something
2) if you don’t have time for exercise and the other things you know you should be doing now, make sure to make time for being sick later.
And now to the hard job of making these lessons stick once I manage to get the pain under control…..