My Story of Burnout

Dec 27, 2008 by

My journey began when I went overseas with a missions agency. I had just come from a two year stint at Bible College, and previous to that a four year stint at a library job, which had been a very stressful experience.

I felt that God was opening the door for me to go overseas with a mission in England for one year. I never expected anything like burnout would ever happen while I was overseas. Hey, it was England, not Afghanistan.

I had always been a driven person, a people pleaser. I never thought this would have the consequences it did. After three months with the mission and with lots of stress connected with the base life, I was put on a team. I wanted to please my team leaders, co-workers and God. I wasn’t getting my downtime at all, and I was taking on too many responsibilities. Some came with the job, and some I heaped on myself. I was really run down, but I didn’t think I was over-committing myself because everyone else seemed to be doing the same thing. I thought nothing bad could happen if we were all doing it for Jesus.

When the big summer campaign preparations started, the spiral continued downward to burnout. Nearing the end of the preparations I was working too much, and not giving myself enough time to rest. I would be going from 9 AM to 10:30 PM, only stopping for food and dishes. Well, the night before I went out with my team for the summer campaign I really burned out.

I first noticed trouble breathing, and then things started getting worse. By the middle of the night I knew something was really wrong. It seems amazing, but within a few days I had gone from doing 200% to 0% and still falling. I felt like someone had kicked me in the mental processes of my brain, and extracted something. To make things worse, I also had an acute attack of bronchitis the same day. Bizarre but true!

I was really a mess. I had trouble sleeping, doing anything mental was killing me, and my nerves were just shot to pieces. I thought for sure they would send me home, but they didn’t. After a week or two of this, I was diagnosed with burnout. I didn’t have any clue what this meant, but I knew what I had was pretty lousy and bordering on the horrific.

I was put on sleeping pills for about ten days, but after they were finished, I went right back to insomnia. Those initial months of adapting to the burnout were something pretty bad. I remember just thinking why has this happened to me? What is God trying to teach me? Couldn’t He just send an angel instead of this? It was during this time that I was re-assigned to the practical work team at the base, making preparations for the new recruits. I would spend my day helping whoever needed some help, and doing odd jobs. This was gratefully needed as anything with “complex thinking” just blew my mind it seemed.

I remember having panic attacks, and having to stick my head under water just to cool myself down and restore calm. People couldn’t understand what was going on with me, but they knew something bad had happened.

During this difficult time a couple from the base befriended me. They listened to me, consoled me, fed me, counseled me and even let me crash at their place when I was feeling very paranoid. This couple supported me greatly even though they didn’t have much experience with people who had burned out. I am still very grateful to them.

I remember one night I couldn’t sleep and I was really upset with God. As I was drinking warm milk, trying to relax, I noticed a verse that was written on the cup. It said, “I will never leave you nor forsake you.” I took this as a special message from God. I was really out of it, but even those words meant that at least God did care.

When everyone came back from the campaign, I rejoined my old team, but within a couple of months, we all realized that I wasn’t making it. I couldn’t keep up my responsibilities, so in the interest of the team and myself, I was assigned to a practical work team and particularly with a guy from Switzerland.

God used this man and his family to bring more love to me. With them and the previous couple, I started to feel God’s compassion and mercy in my life.

It was hard to leave the team that I had originally joined, as it was like a band of brothers to me. The practical work team was the only solution to my state of mind at the time, and though I knew this, it still hurt.

Even though God was bringing me through this mess, I still couldn’t see the big picture. I felt happy at times, and angry at other times. Do I like God? Do I not like God? Which will it be today? These were my common thoughts.

I thank God that He can handle our emotions, for his love is unconditional all the time regardless of the situation. I can’t describe the absolute despair of that time. Most people couldn’t grasp what was going on with me. It was sheer effort to do anything. My zeal, passion and excitement for life tanked below zero.

When I returned home from the mission field , I found out that most people didn’t even know that I had burned out. Some people didn’t even know that I had been on a mission. Most people were just too busy to help. This added to my sense of frustration and sadness. I ended up taking some time off from life, and headed to my home town for a mental break from life. This was probably the best thing I ever did. I didn’t have much money, but that seemed minor compared to the need that I felt to just get somewhere quiet where I could take time to heal.

During this time God started to work with me, helping me reorient my life toward a more balanced approach. I ended up returning to the city and started working again on a consistent basis. Even that was painful, but I had to pay the bills. My feelings were always swinging. One day I was fine, the world was great and the next I was down. It was a continual roller coaster. One day I just got fed up with God. I said, “I need some help with this burnout. No one can help me at my church.”

Within two months, I was searching the web on burnout, and I came across Smoldering Wick Ministries. They were like a godsend. For once, I found out that other people had gone through this burn out, too. I could relate to these people and what they had written on their website.

It has been almost seven years since my burnout. I still have bad days, but I have more better days. I still get very indifferent about things. But now I know that God loves my unconditionally and regardless of how I feel, God will always be there for me (even if it doesn’t seem like it at times). I don’t have to have it all figured out, or try to make things happen any more. God will sort it all out. God is not concerned about what we do so much as the relationship with us.

Nothing can separate us from the love of God.

Richard Birkenes

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