HAPPY HOLIDAYS! I’m Heather Jose, your host here at WeAreCaregivers.com. Today, we are giving you a holiday gift—just as the stress begins to take hold. Benjamin Pratt is the author of our Guide for Caregivers and a columnist for the website at Day1, the radio network. Ben specializes in giving us fresh ideas and images that you will want to share. So, we welcome your giving this column to friends. You can even reprint it in your own newsletter. All we ask is that you add a link to www.WeAreCaregivers.com
A Pop-Tart Moment
By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt
She is in her early forties, an elementary school teacher for seventeen years who loves teaching and is passionate about her work. Parents beg the principal to assign their children to her class. She energizes students and colleagues and often is at school from 7 to 7 or longer. She has not had a raise in pay for three years. Last year her class was classified as “gifted” and she was awarded Teacher of the Year.
Then came the night of the Pop-Tart.
That night took her by surprise, but I’ll bet you’ve experienced something like it. Millions of us have. Here’s how she explained it to me: “I have absolutely loved teaching in spite of the demands and challenges. I love the kids and I know that I have had a positive imprint on many lives. Then, what happened recently took me by surprise. It’s like the light went out. I suddenly felt drained of energy and vitality. I went home and crawled under a blanket from head to toe and ate a Pop-Tart. I suddenly wasn’t sure I could keep doing what I have done for years. My husband sensed my need to escape and told our kids to keep the noise down and not go near me.”
All of us have Pop-Tart moments. Oh, we may choose ice cream or popcorn, potato chips or beer, but all of us have had the experience of turning to food or huddling in the corner and yearning for safety and comfort. Life can overwhelm us at times and when it does we need to crawl into a hole and recover. This is especially true for those of us who serve others—teachers, doctors, nurses, clergy, police, fire and rescue personnel and personal caregivers, anyone whose work demands a burning passion to give the gifts we have to others.
I said to the young woman, “When the light goes out like that, you’re wondering if it will ever come on again, aren’t you? Will the Pop Tart moment pass and you’ll get back to work? Or, are you headed toward complete burnout?”
Her response was illuminating in many ways. “Yes, burnout is knocking at the door. Every other year we alternate between a class of very smart, swift, stable students and a class of children who are at risk. This year I have the latter, very difficult but likable children. I have the additional burden that our principal broke up our teaching team this year. These fellow teachers were my support and lifeline—we laughed and played and worked very hard together, but now we are separated. I feel alone on a very steep hill.”
“So, you have two very important tasks ahead of you,” I said. “One will be to love these children to make the class a safe and comfortable place before they can possibly learn. The second will be to love yourself enough to make a safe and comfortable environment to restore your own passion. Neither will be done with Pop Tarts alone, but something a little more nourishing.”
She nodded with a smile and then I shared a classic metaphor. “Death Valley was once an ocean teaming with life. Refreshing water flowed into and out of this sea, vitalizing the sea and the area around it. Then geologic shifts changed the landscape and threatened the life of the ocean. The waters that fed the sea stopped flowing, but the outflow continued. The sea gave away all that it had and dried up, becoming a desert. The once life-giving sea no longer existed. Without refreshing water, it died. And now we have: Death Valley.”
This can be an accurate and alarmingly poignant metaphor of caregivers’ lives. The time when you become fully aware that your loved one is under your care is like a geologic shift in your world. All of your vitality flows outward and very little flows in to refresh you. You yearn for a trickle of refreshing water to restore your sense of vitality—physically, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually. You give, sacrifice and empty yourself with little or no time or energy directed toward receiving what you need for yourself.
Many of the warning signs of stress and burnout are seen by others before they are recognized by the victim. The most insidious and devastating aspect of stress and burnout is the way it gradually consumes a person over an extended period of time. Stress is the psychological and physiological response to events that are believed and perceived to be a threat to one’s well being. Burnout is the exhaustion of our resources due to excessive striving based on unrealistic expectations and a failure to replenish our resources. The key element is that stress relates to beliefs and perceptions; burnout relates to expectations. Burnout is the result of a failure to balance the distribution of our energy by refueling ourselves with the healing waters that will enable us to continue our difficult work as caregivers.
We yearn for something that will nourish us more permanently. Pop-Tarts are an immediate comfort and a warning sign, not the healing soul food we need for the long haul.
Dr. Pratt has addressed burnout in his recent book, A Guide For Caregivers: Keeping Your Spirit Healthy When Your Caregiver Duties and Responsibilities Are Dragging You Down.