[Excerpt 9. This essay is from CYCLING in the CITY — How I Got My Confidence Back, Book 2 in the Burnout to Bliss series. Book 2 is about a first step in recovery after intense burnout. It was designed to be a guide for anyone wanting to make any kind of change in her life. “Part One: Cycling in the City” is my story, sharing the process of making a huge personal change — healing myself and reclaiming my confidence and self-esteem. “Part Two: Thoughts About Making Changes” explains why making change is so difficult; it addresses the different kinds of changes we make, the mental games we play, and the essential key for success. The book is $.99 for a limited time. Buy it here.]
Excerpt 9: CYCLING in the CITY
Stunned by the discovery of just how damaged I was by burnout, I stepped out of my current personality, “she who does nothing,” and put on my professional hat to study the problem.
As one who taught teachers and who had counseled a great number of students, I knew I had the skill to heal myself. All I had to do was grab two chairs, take one, and then picture myself sitting in that other chair.
I did. And what I saw saddened me: a strong woman, now broken.
Then it hit me like a cosmic slap: Stay present! You have the skill to do this!
I was being reminded that I had skills as a special education teacher to solve the problem.
To begin, acting as counselor, I asked the beaten woman in the chair, “What activities do you like to do by yourself that are physical?”
I moved to the other chair and answered as my client. “I’m a musician, and I love playing piano at my church back in my isolated, rural mountain town.”
Back to the other chair as the counselor. “Do you have access to a piano here?”
Back to the other chair as the wounded woman who answered, “No.”
Counselor: “Did you always have a piano of your own in Colorado?”
Wounded Woman: “No.”
Counselor: “How did you play when you didn’t have one?”
Wounded Woman: “I asked at my church when I could play theirs.”
Counselor: “Want to try that here?”
I didn’t have to switch back to the counselor’s chair to get it. Piano was out. I wasn’t at home, and we didn’t have a piano here. I was a stranger in this city. And I had been totally unprepared for the inevitable psychological process of burnout that had begun fairly soon after I stopped “doing.”
It felt like I was melting! I was super tired and weak all the time. I had no desire to do anything. There simply was no way I had the chutzpah to walk into a strange church and ask if I could play their piano.
I got up and did busy work. I took the trash out and did some laundry. I peeked inside the fridge for something to snack on. I petted a cat’s belly.
When I tried the chair process again, my client (the beaten woman, me) had settled down enough to make progress.
I was ready to ask her what else she could do, but I didn’t have to.
As soon as I was committed to finding what I could do physically for fitness that would also restore my self-respect and confidence, I got a slew of ideas.
All I had to do was ask, “What can I do physically that would be fun for me, that I had fond memories of doing?”
Without some element of “fun” involved, most such programs are doomed. In special education planning for students, the biggest mistake teachers make is assuming that “Everyone likes chocolate.” There must be a compelling personal reward to the one doing the program, not the designer of it.
I remembered that I also loved playing my guitar and singing. But I’d left that behind as well. And, truthfully, playing the guitar and singing, even though it involves arm movements and breath, isn’t as physical for me as playing the piano.
Then I got a glimpse of a memory from graduate school days. I recalled how I had ridden a bicycle as a student. I rode five miles each way, even across the interstate highway, from my house to the campus at University of Texas in Austin.
How I loved those rides! They had pumped me up for the pressures of school and let me work it off at the end of the day.
It was for those same benefits that I had started walking to work.
So! The bicycle would be my tool for recovery! But I was too damaged to rely on “internal gratification” – like the joy of riding. I had already proven that on my first ride.
For my cycling project, I would have to come up with external rewards until I got my confidence back with riding.
The bottom line was the realization that I could do this! After that experience on my first “ride,” I realized I would have to take daily “baby steps.” I’d have to start from where I was. And my first time out, it was just pushing my bike around the block. The wave of sadness that followed nearly knocked me down.
Was this how some of my clients had felt? Like any goal we discussed was too high, beyond their reach?
But the truth is that we all must start from where we are. No exceptions. Ask anyone who has had surgery or lost a limb. It’s a tough situation. But I’ve got a trick that mitigates that a little bit, at least for me.
I see life as stories. For every story, there’s a beginning, middle, and an end. And sometimes the stories repeat. I was definitely repeating my “bicycle-riding” story. And I was clearly starting again at the beginning of that story.
I was maybe 10 years old when my dad first taught me to ride a bike. But in my present condition, I had much less courage and confidence than that spunky kid. I watched as she took off brazenly, “Look at me, Daddy!” and then fell more than once, forgetting to peddle.
The counselor voice inside invited “little me” gently back to reality.
“Yes, Pammi, we’ll be starting from where we are. Don’t worry. I’ll map out doable steps: small ones. I know we need a lot of encouragement, a lot of success, to recover from our recent experience. I don’t think we realized just how hard that was. We’ll need the anticipation of tangible pleasure, immediate reinforcement, to take any kind of step forward right now. That’s what it will take to get our confidence up. That’s what it will take to ride any distance, and I’ll create a plan to make damn sure we succeed!”
That became my new slogan: “Ride Any Distance!”
It was also my metaphor for life in the new “surrender” lane. It was especially apt for riding a bicycle in the whooshing, four-lane city traffic in Sacramento!
That image alone evoked a moment of fear great enough to send me to the computer. I had to write to my best friend, Samantha, who lived in my journal!
September 17, 1989
Hello, Old Friend. No matter how bad it gets … no matter how miserably lonely and stupid I feel, you’re always there, waiting to hear it all again. I can always talk to you. I am comforted by knowing that at least someone knows what I do, how I feel. You make no suggestions … you have no answers … you make no judgments. You simply are there for me. Is this what Stephen King meant when he allegedly said that he had to write? Had to?
I’ve noticed in the past several days how my mind becomes more and more freaked out – to the point of frenzy, where I must surrender, because I can’t struggle anymore. At this point I give in and breathe… Whew!
Now let me tell you about my latest failure – pushing, not riding a bicycle! – and what I intend to do about it…
Whew! After that brain dump – just letting it all out in my journal – I was finally ready to face where I was: a damaged woman with no self-confidence, no self-esteem.
I would use my special education skills to develop a program that would heal that woman, move her from where she was to where she wanted to be. And her bicycle was the vehicle that would get her there. It would be her instrument of salvation!
Till next time, please be kind to everyone you meet, for we all have our hidden sorrows. ~Tzaddi