On Being Exhausted

Sound the alarm...

A few years ago, my buddy had decided – he didn’t have the energy to make any more friends. He was married and thinking about kids, he had a busy job, he had football Saturdays, and he had enough people in his life already.

I didn’t agree. I had roommates who stayed up late, drank wine, and cooked Costco ravioli with freshly grated Pecorino Romano cheese. I stood outside bars smoking cigarettes, chatting with strangers about how I ended up in Omaha. I daydreamed with my students about their futures as doctors, lawyers, social workers, world travelers.

But now, I think I understand.

Every morning I wake up hard, the sound of my alarms infiltrating my dreams. Thick creases zigzag across my face, the aftermath of rumpled pillowcases and sheets coming up from the corners of the bed.

It’s not depression. It’s exhaustion.

***

A few months ago, I was at the front-end of my first Chicago summer. I told my friend that the only real thing on my bucket list was playing beach volleyball. I wasn’t concerned about rooftop bars or Cubs games, craft beer street festivals or concerts in parks. Just a little sweat, sand, and the sting of a good dig.

I took a few days off over the fourth of July, but I was swamped with a challenging work issue. I made phone calls during tapas dinners. I ignored my niece while responding to work email. I took another few days off in mid-August, but they were quickly filled with meetings, a doctor’s appointment, cleaning my room, laundry. There was no unstructured time.

I didn’t play beach volleyball until mid-September. I wasn’t even in Chicago when it happened – I was in Michigan at some good friends’ wedding. Summer was all but over.

It’s not overwhelmed. It’s overworked.

***

A few weeks ago, I went to a funeral for the stepfather of one of my students. He was young, 37, and he left four generations of his family behind – his kids and wife, siblings, mother, and grandmother all remain. The church was old, a little Baptist congregation on Chicago’s South Side. The crowd was understandably docile. There wasn’t a choir, just a few kind women singing a cappella. The pastor stood to preach, and he looked tired. Trying to spread gospel love these days can do that to a person.

But he spoke with vigor, his volume grew, his cadence became more rhythmic, and sweat started forming at his brow. This good man – just because he died, he said, doesn’t mean that we can die too. We have work to do. He told us to grab the hands of the people around us and shake them awake – to shake them alive. I felt alive – I was ready.

But, I got on the bus and rode it 65 blocks north through boarded-up windows and broken streets. That time to sit and watch the world pass by slowed me down a bit. I remembered everything we face. A laundry list of ‘isms.’ Threats that I have little control over. In spite of the good message of that pastor, in spite of my energy to respond, I didn’t know what to do. People are dying, and the world is spinning wildly. I walked home a little less alive, caught between wanting to change the world and wanting to lie down.

It’s not unwillingness. It’s uncertainty.

***

A few days ago, I was on my way to a training on investigating Title IX reports – sexual assault, abuse, harassment, stalking, dating and domestic violence – things we hope never happen, but are far too common.

I left the house early, face still creased with lines from my pillow, and drove a car north along the lakeshore. I had plenty of time. I pulled off the road and parked close to the water. I took off my shoes and socks, rolled up my pant legs, and walked out onto the beach. Sand filled in the spaces between my puffy morning toes, and soon I stood ankle-deep in the cool water. Gentle waves sent playful chills up my legs. It was the first sunny morning in over a week, and it finally felt like fall – golden sunrise, crisp, fresh air.

I stared out, and in that moment of quiet, said the simplest, most ardent prayer I had uttered in days, weeks, months, maybe years. Lord – help me carry on. Then I stood quietly, forgetting for a moment that I was on a schedule, that I had a job, that I had a long week ahead. I closed my eyes and felt the sun warm my face.

Not long after, I was back in the car, driving barefoot and running through a list of things to do that day. I didn’t feel exhausted or overworked or uncertain. I was alive and ready.

It won’t end in burnout. It will all be blessed.

-//-

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