I am 30 now and I’ve been waking up in the middle of the night, startled awake by my own giggles. I greet my ancestors every morning now and every so often I sit in the peaceful warm embrace of my great great grandmother’s love. I’m trying to document how I got here and as usual, I’m bringing you along with me, with all the chaos of a stream of consciousness…
I enjoy the sweetness of solitude while the acrid taste of a love I no longer desire (but that refuses to leave my my home!) lingers. My current plan is to treat said unwanted love as an honoured guest plying it with food and drink, preparing it for the journey out of my life. Perhaps it still hasn’t said all it needs to say or taught me all I need to learn from it. It’s complicated housing a love you know isn’t yours to hold, waiting for it to pass (I’ve long since learned that forcing these things is never the answer). But I am whole and full of giggles and sweetness and joy still. I am beloved and I am known. I have proven to my inner child that I am someone to be trusted and I am someone I’m proud to be. I sit on my porch and admire the moon. One night when I was lovingly watering my outdoor plants and herbs, a neighbour wandered over. She said I spoke to them with the tenderness of someone speaking to a small child and she was came over to meet them. I count my days with how many children I carried and delighted, how many cooed, smiled (Context: I work with mothers and children, most of my patients are under 12 months of age). I’m happy right now to collect my achievements in this way: in baby giggles and drool on my shirt and nutrition talks or ORS talks. I never imagined I’d spend a year doing PHC work alongside research before specialising but here we are and I’m thankful for the choices that led me here. I count my days in how many colleagues I made smile because its a pleasure to be a pleasure to work with (without that having to mean anything demeaning or awful). I’m glad that self-betrayal isn’t a requirement. I measure progress by how many yoga moves I can get right this time (I’m notoriously “bad” at yoga and also, I don’t care). I’m keeping score by how many times I chuckled warmly in a week, how many emotions I let come to play, even the uninvited guests. I wish I cried more (correction: I wish I allowed myself to cry more). I have not failed much this year (frequency of failure is my usual metric for a life well-lived) but I was not in the business of taking risks with the fragile happiness I’ve created for myself; the only thing I risked was delight. I try to say thank you daily, I practice admitting that I am wrong (out loud). I am still trying to perfect the white:pink ratio when I slice my watermelon. I am in the business of rebuilding myself from scratch after I nearly broke.
Correction: I broke. It’s taken me almost a full calendar year to admit that I broke into a million little pieces and didn’t know if I’d ever be myself again. I have treated myself very gently, like one would treat a wounded, sick or recovering friend. I damn near coddled myself, the world is harsh enough there’s no need for the stress to be coming from inside the house. I’d argue that codling has its place. It’s what you’d do for someone you love who might be going through a hard time and am I not someone I love? I’m not perfect, I backslide, I can still be unkind and I have bad days like everybody else: thankfully perfection isn’t the goal.
So here is Ntoetse’s behind the scenes survival guide for the burnt out girl who needs to know its going to be alright but not necessarily all at once:
I believe that burnout has a spectrum of recovery. A continuum really, with all “steps” bleeding into and often coexisting with the next. Namely: Relief, Rest and Restoration. It’s a series of acknowledgements, baby steps, great big leaps and quiet victories that add up to big outcomes. Relief is not rest, it’s just laying your burdens down. People are really impatient with this step because it usually takes the most work/shifts/drama to get here and it feels like a huge victory in and of itself. Congratulations, but you have to keep going, you cannot stop here. Setting your burdens down is step 1 and then you have to fight yourself every step of the way to prevent yourself from immediately picking them all back up again. Next is Intentional rest (aka deep rest aka rest). This one is quite possibly even harder because it goes against everything we’ve been taught but it rings true with both your body and your mind, because both have probably been trying to tell you this for some time. And now you are listening and it’s bizarre. For me it felt like coming to a screeching halt after running a flat-out sprint. I felt so much momentum I almost got whiplash. My mind & body had been yelling at me for years: “please slow down, I am tired, I am cognitively impaired, I am always on edge, I cannot sleep well, please for the love of God, STOP!”. During my initial rest I kept it uncomplicated: I just actively stopped all thoughts that started with “have to” unless they kept me alive and a functional member of society. I made it a rule to pee when I needed to pee. I learned that just because I’d stopped didn’t mean that I was now magically cured (that was disappointing). I realised that I now had to unlearn the habits that preserved me when I was in survival mode: snatching joy like it was finite resource that might not come again tomorrow, squeezing in fun, stealing away time for myself, rushing to the good parts because “I don’t have time for that”; watching The Office on autopilot because it’s a predictable pleasure. I never had the time to risk delight. Yes that new show might change my life but I only have an hour so why risk it? You learn that rest, like joy, is a practice. That you are a beginner and that’s OK. And that all these things are infinite, that all the things you need are available to you, like a rushing river roaring through your life; you need only stop by it’s banks and take a sip. You were rushing before so you never noticed. It’s yours, all of it. Always.
The step after rest is restoration: I think this is done through seeking pleasure, rediscovering pleasures and delighting in new ones. Paying attention was the key here. Naming the things that brought me pleasure then seeking them out unapologetically. Eating a whole pineapple, an uninterrupted movie marathon of nonsense cinema, indulging nostalgia, long walks, calling my granny, re-reading old favourites. Anything and everything that made my insides vibrate with “ah, yes, that’s the stuff!” and you will never be perfect at any of these “steps” and it’s a continuum but one day you’ll wake up and your light is back. You might wake up giggling and panic-Google if that’s “normal”. And now you know what I know. This year has been about about surrendering. And honestly, the most revolutionary thing I did (and do) is practice kindness towards myself (and others). The kindness to be gentle, to tell myself the truth, to make myself show up, to not be over-indulgent. To accept the flaws I can’t change and work on the ones I can.
I am in the process of Rebuilding now. Rebuilding what I’ve lost but also making room for what I’ve found. Rebuilding esteem. Rebuilding resilience. Rebuilding discipline and habits and priorities. I almost feel strong enough to to pick up my burdens again. And I also feel empowered in a different way: I know to lift from my knees now. I think I’d carry them differently and most importantly, I’m aware that not all of the burdens were mine to carry. There was a lot of deadweight being carried before and I trust myself to be more selective and protective moving forward. I know what I nearly lost and there are some prices I am now unwilling to pay. I think this next year and chapter is going to be about the need to build things of my own. To cultivate a wholesome discipline: study regularly, do hard things, eat more greens, follow through on my duties to myself and to others. I need to start executing my (many many) plans, holding myself accountable, keeping myself healthy and honest and whole. I will not lie to myself even when it hurts (especially when it hurts). I refuse to engage in self-betrayal. Never ever ever again. I need to dofor future me, what past me did for me: make choices I’m proud of (hard choices) make valuable things sacred (sacrifices), be brave and prepare the way as best as I can with what I have now for the me I’ll be tomorrow (all while enjoying today).
The most beautiful thing I learned this year was reframing the word Sacrifice as “to make sacred”. It changed the way I approach hard things. This idea that the giving of my short term joy, my time, my space, my immediate preference or denying myself something in the now is somehow making the choice I’m making or the activity I’m partaking in sacred.
In the meantime, I am reclaiming all that I am: past present and future. I am a farmer with a tiny tiny garden (I lost a battle to some snail’s but my coriander shall return), I am a bookworm who has been too tired to read anything that isn’t prose in the bath but has been listening to them in traffic instead. God bless audiobooks and podcasts (Let the record show that 18 year old me was wrong about books being the only, nay, superior form of collecting knowledge). I am an artist with a camera and a temporarily abandoned art book, some acting classes under her belt (also temporarily abandoned), some talent and a R200/annum domain that I simply cannot bring myself to monetise (I can’t explain it but it just doesn’t feel right right now). I’m a wild-woman with a couple of dreams and some discipline-in-progress. I am a Mosotho girl who consults her SeSotho/English dictionary when she reads her grandfather’s bible AND when she speaks to her ancestors. I am their wildest dream made manifest and I’m just getting started deciphering what comes next. I am all things, I am everything. And even if I were absolutely nothing, I would still be enough.
If my late 20s were about Surrender, the 30s new words are clear More and Mine.