Let's take a moment to talk about empathy, positive pressure, compassion fatigue, and burnout.
I am what is generally known as The Strong Friend. I am a lot of people's first call in crisis, and last call before giving up. I tend to maintain my own boundaries and capacities in a way that means I frequently have a small reserve of energy or space, and the ability to step back and hold calm in chaos. I compartmentalize well, think fast, and work through problems to find the simplest solution easily.
For the most part, this is a structure I can maintain, exactly because I have boundaries like a motherfucker. I don't give what I can't afford to lose, only pull from my own reserves and surplus. That's a lesson I learned the hard way years ago when I found I'd given up what I *needed* to people who wouldn't sacrifice what they only *wanted* to replenish it. I make it practice, in the darkest times, to set aside a portion of my reserves to be available to others in need, to hold flame so others' lights don't go out entirely.
So when the pandemic began, I found myself in a better place, emotionally, than a lot of the people around me. I've dealt with isolation, I've dealt with sustained stress, I've been at war with my own mind since I was 11 years old. I also have a good, stable job that allows me to work from home, a partner who helps and supports me, and generally steady resources on several fronts. Consequently, I had the ability to be a space for support for others who had a harder time adjusting. I reached out and offered support to people who were in a worse place than I was: emotional, professional, financial, whatever was needed to help out. I always assumed that support was a temporary offering until we all adjusted to the pressures of living under a pandemic.
But as a year went on, I found that "Let me hold space for you while you adjust to this state of trauma" became "Let me maintain a positive pressure for you, supporting you indefinitely while you continue to try and approximate your non-pandemic emotional state at all costs." The adjustment I expected never came; people simply adapted to my support as a constant state of affairs, incorporated the belief that they'd always be able to rely on me into their plans. They built their systems around the expectation that I would hold that positive pressure, that I'd always give just a little more than I asked.
Not familiar with the concept of positive pressure? Systems that operate on flow and supply work because they maintain positive pressure: the ability of what's going into the system to stay slightly ahead of what's flowing out of the system. As long as that pressure is maintained, even if the system has leaks, everyone's structural integrity stays the same and contaminants can't flow back *into* the system. The positive pressure is essential to maintaining the health of the entire system, and it's surprisingly easy to maintain. You just make sure the tiniest bit more goes in than out.
Here in Austin, we all had a bit of time two and a half months ago to understand the concept of systems under positive pressure when the big freeze killed our water treatment plant. As pipes burst across the city and pumps shut down, the flow of water OUT of the system exceeded the water treatment plant's ability to put water INTO the system, and the whole thing depressurized and collapsed. The reason it took so many days for some of us to get water back wasn't that the water plant couldn't produce the water. It was that the whole system, having depressurized, had to fill its reservoirs to maintain that positive pressure so that it wouldn't collapse again and it would be able to provide stable, consistent water delivery.
And that, my loves, is exactly what happened to me. For the last seven months, I've been solving an incredibly stressful, highly-pressured series of nested problems at work. I have...not received the support I needed from my leadership. I have, at the same time, been a source for emotional support, financial support, personal growth for others. I stepped into justice movements to be a voice for support and allyship. I gave, and I gave, and I gave, always from what I could technically spare.
But the funny thing about giving what you can spare is that over the short term it just means you go without 'extra' for a little bit. Over the long term, it means your 'extra' bypasses the chance to build your reserves, so you store up only what you think you might actually need in an emergency. You think "I have enough in my reserves to weather the average crisis, I have enough to spare." So you keep sharing, and giving away, and you tell yourself that you're not HURTING yourself, you're just not hoarding, and hoarding is wrong, right? My life is filled with people standing in perfect moral purity and condemning even the suggestion of hoarding anything someone else might need. The guilt and the shame over 'hoarding' my own energy have been so insidious that I've had to take drastic steps to counteract them; if you've been a voice yelling about how no one cares enough or talks enough about what you think they should, then congratulations, I have almost certainly 'snoozed' you for a month on social media at least once recently.
In December, I noticed the first warning sign: compassion fatigue. I stopped having the energy to turn to every single moment of pain I witnessed with an open heart and a desire to do active work to ease that pain. I struggled with anger at people who continued to need my support for situations they had had power to fix and hadn't. I talked about it, and heard "oh, yeah, we all feel like that."
I can't adequately explain how damaging "Oh, yeah, we all feel like that, it's totally OK that you're not OK," has been to me. When I say "I'm not OK," to someone, and their answer is "Yeah, that's normal, it's fine that you feel that way, you of all people should know bad it's been, let me tell you about the hard time I am having," I don't hear solidarity. I hear "Yeah, no one gives a flip that you're drowning, no one's got time for you. Suck it up, your crisis is not special." I hear "Just lean into being not OK, just settle into that feeling and embrace it," which feeds my Traitor Brain. Couple that with getting tired of being asked to provide detailed instructions clearly explaining how to support me in simple, easy-to-manage steps, and I just stopped asking most people for help. If I have to spend three hours of emotional labor navigating you through the process of being there for me in a way that asks as little as possible of you (but still makes you feel good for doing it), I'll just spend that three hours doing that labor for myself instead.
So, February came. I finished my first 100 hours of overtime, including a full month of back-to-back-to-back 60-90 hour weeks. I limped, bitter and demoralized and weeping, to what I thought was a two-week space before my next deadline. Instead, thanks to a massive weather disaster and a utility system collapse I found myself without a source of water for 100 hours, while almost no one I knew, no one I'd been supporting and tending and building up for a year, thought to ask "Do you need help?" Not only was my 'positive pressure' system in the real world failing as my faucets stayed dry, it became brutally apparent that the emotional system I'd been so assiduously pressurizing for a year was only under pressure as long as I was putting INTO it, not when I needed to take OUT OF it.
It's best exemplified by the fact that everyone I work with was given the time off and told to rest and take care of themselves because my employer was closed due to the weather, but my ability to check the departmental email and voicemail for a day or two turned into me being asked if I 'minded' taking them on for over a week, because I was going to be online anyway managing all the tasks for that next deadline and it just 'made sense' not to ask another person to give up their time off. And that 'ask' wasn't even unreasonable, as I was the only one with consistent power and internet; it just meant that others had a break while I still had a responsibility.
I cratered, hard, and all my reserves and reservoirs emptied so that I could survive. I still had two full months of the work project to manage, with every single day requiring me to put my full self into it to serve a goal I dearly love and believe in. For the last 8 weeks, I've been maintaining baseline system functionality, meeting minimums while every single thing I could designate as noncritical fell to the wayside: laundry, housework, friendships, creative time, sleep. Had my partner not been an amazing human being, I would not have eaten on approximately 20% of the days in March and April. I am currently carrying over 200 hours of comp time earned since mid-January, and almost 200 hours of unused vacation time (related: I will be working four-day weeks until September). Rest assured that "I worked 60 hours in a week where my leadership 'took some mental health time' and worked 30 while still communicating unmet expectations to me," will figure into my employee evaluation conversations this year. So will "This was a make-or-break year, I made it, and it broke me." Last week in the home stretch, my Sunday through Saturday daily hours were 12, 11, 18, 15, 16, 18, and 8, in order.
I hit something approximating my goal and have reached a time of rest and recovery, but the end result of all of this is that I'm deeply burned out. The energy reserves I might otherwise have to offer support, or do the work, or push energy into that whole system, are now being entirely diverted to repressurizing my own system, filling my own holding tanks to keep me from collapsing and failing. I am, first, filling my reserves entirely before allowing the overflow to support others. This will continue for some time.
If you've been relying on me this last year, and found me less available these last two months, you should expect that to continue a while as I equalize. If this means the system suffers because I give less, so be it. Others can either choose to make up the shortfall themselves, or learn to live with a lower-pressure system.
Also, if you are a person I only hear from when there's an 'ask' attached, a need, you may find me limiting my availability to you at all. One thing I've become aware of is that I get a lot of messages that lead with a problem, not a hello, and the senders fade back into silence once I've provided support, solutions, or advice. We all go through rough patches, but I'm going to ask you, if you're reaching out to ask me for my energy, to scroll up in that chat window and decide whether our relationship is based in shared positive pressure, or you just keep turning on the tap.
I do love you all, but I am so very very very tired.