Over the past two and a half years since I found a medicinal cocktail that seems to be working, I have slowly been rebuilding a life for myself. It’ s been difficult – not only because my entire life had been torn apart, but also because I’ve never “lived” as this person before. I’m experiencing things for the first time as whoever I am now, and I don’t know how it should feel.
But it’s been good. It started slowly with leaving the house once a day. to run an errand, usually accompanied by my mom. Then I started to go to the gym every day, also with my mom. I changed my diet and went back to being vegan. I finally moved out of my parents’ house and got my own place. I started running errands and going to the gym alone. I reconnected with friends and even made one or two new ones. I got a job for four hours a week and took classes at a community college. I applied for graduate school. Now that I’m in graduate school, I am taking a full course load. I am actively involved in our student association. I have a fellowship and recently a new job, 12 hours a week. I am doing research for an internship next year. Fuck, I went on my very first date in November, and while that is stagnant (by choice) now, I did it so now I know I can.
When you become a counselor, (that’s what I’m getting my MS in,) there is an ethical mandate for self-care. An ethical MANDATE. Faculty and friends are constantly saying “make sure you are not spreading yourself too thin,” “only do what you can to your capacity,” “make sure you are balancing your self-care and your school.” While I actually find it aggravating considering the faculty are the ones giving us copious amounts of work and my friends are all type-A and planning on getting A’s as they manage the rest of their lives, I also don’t know the answer.
I’ve tried to ask people – how do you know when you reach your capacity? They don’t usually have an answer. Maybe they don’t know what I am asking. I saw my psychiatrist last week, someone who has seen me at my very worst, and asked her how “normal” people know when to say when? How will I know if I am reaching burnout? Don’t you have to reach burnout to know you’ve reached it?
As someone with a behavioral health condition, emotions are never as simple as they seem. Anxiety could turn into a panic attack. Feeling sad could lead me to bed for days, or even self-harm. Knowing that possibility of severity is always lurking makes me hypervigilant with my emotions. Hence, my fear of not knowing my capacity. Because if you have to burnout to realize your capacity, that’s not something I can allow. What if burnout is a slip in recovery? What if I can’t come back? That’s why knowing the answer feels so important to me and not having one feels so frightening.
There is a part of me that wants to push myself and see what else I can do. I have surprised myself so much in the past few months by what I have achieved; I am excited and scared to see what else I could do. I still feel gaps are missing and traumas ungrieved. But I am curious as to who I am becoming. At the same time, there is a terrified inner child who just wants us to appreciate where we are and be grounded and centered and satisfied. It warns me to pull back, to remember the blows of rejection and failure. To ignore the intellectual understanding of the bullshit that is American values, and remember how it can feel.
And I find myself right back where I started: when will I know when to say when? And when will “when” be good enough? What about you? How do you know when you have reached burnout? When do you decide to say no? What does “self-care” look like to you? What’s the trick to this thing called living? What’s your “when?”