[These excerpts are from BURNOUT, Book 1, Burnout to Bliss series.]
From Part 1: It’s Never Just One Thing:
Searching for Love in
All Those Wrong Places
Stuck with a house I couldn’t afford, I did what everyone here does – I rented rooms. I found three housemates. One was a former roadie for a heavy metal band who lived for drugs and loved to cook but didn’t know how to clean up after himself. One was a fabulously creative interior decorator who virtually vibrated with sexual energy which she cheerfully expressed all over town. The third was a “trust-funder” who shuffled aimlessly through life, motivated only to get high, certainly unmotivated to do anything that required work. Even so, he was the only one who helped shovel snow. And he taught me the expression, “I’ll give it an hour,” a trick for getting through unpleasant tasks that has stayed with me for many years.
Somehow we all got along well enough. We even watched television together on the set one of them contributed to the household.
It was during that winter that my 43-three year-old body had raging hot flashes. Walking home from campus one day, not long after yet another abortion, I felt the onset of my period and declared, “I want this to stop now, because you can see I’m not fit to be a parent, since I can’t even handle my own life!” And by God, stop they did.
My gynecologist was amazed I’d hit the change so early. He couldn’t quit talking about it. But I felt relieved. It was one less hassle to worry about. I felt like a character in a dime-store novel, Miss So Fertile She Gets Pregnant from Holding Hands – even with birth control!
So on those evenings when my motley crew wore long johns and snuggled on the couch under blankets, I sat in a chair by myself wearing shorts and a sleeveless tee, and we all watched the snow fall through the windows behind the television, passed the pipe and laughed out loud. For a few hours I got to feel okay, somewhat accepted, not so alone.
Oddly enough, despite our differences, these guys kept me “on board,” even through the change – hot flashes, mood-swings, and night sweats – even through the constant fear of losing everything because of my grossly over-extended financial state.
I’m not saying they were my only human contact. Because I was a teacher, I encountered at least a hundred people every day on campus. Because I was active in my community, I “knew” lots of people, and lots of people “knew” me. I had enough casual acquaintances that no matter where I was, no matter what I was doing, someone would inevitably say, “Hey, how you doing?” But I wanted so much more than that.
The “loneliness that can’t be fixed” wasn’t only about people contact. It was about something deeper. But I was too into my suffering to realize it at the time. I became obsessed with finding another intimate relationship, someone who could see me. I cried buckets every time I watched a film that seemed to mirror my situation, like Broadcast News.
Watching that film felt incredibly painful. It felt as if I were seeing my life acted out on the screen, choosing career over love, ignorant of the fact that I was making a choice. “They” say I’ve got it made. If that’s true, then why, after sacrificing marriage and family to get where I am, am I not happy?
Broadcast News convinced me that the solution to my “loneliness that can’t be fixed” must be the relationship I didn’t have – that I was miserable because no one saw me, no one really knew who I was, much less cared.
We all wear masks at work. Everything’s always “fine.” If it isn’t, and you actually say so, you don’t last long, because you quickly become labeled as a troublemaker or a whiner. My desire to be seen, to express myself and not be shut out, was rapidly overtaking my ability to don the mask. Like Neil Young’s song “Mr. Soul” – “In a while the smile on my face turned to plaster. Stick around while the clown who is sick does the trick of disaster…”
I knew from past experience that I had to be careful about revealing my “authentic” self. I concluded that person needed to be someone special, someone private, someone who genuinely cared for me – him.
I began to search for him. Everywhere I went, even grocery shopping, my radar searched the crowd for the “one who would see me.” Unfortunately, guys, like dogs, have remarkable radar of their own. Sometimes they sense what you’re looking for and become it, at least until they get what they want. Like that time at a national conference in Washington, when one of the attending deans was so thoughtful, pulling out my chair and listening to every word of my responses to his probing and very personal questions. But then he wanted me to follow him to his room after a five minute head start… Ha!
Did I mention that I wanted a relationship? Not interested in leftovers, thank you. I saw his ring.
I continued walking to campus every day to allow more emotional distance from the job: time to rev up, time to let go … time to anchor the mask. It took 45 minutes each way, but I felt so good doing it that I continued even on rainy or snowy days. I programmed my route for fun. In the mornings I walked across the river on the swinging bridge, sometimes stopping at a bakery for a coffee if I had time. After work, I’d hit Baskin Robbins. When you walk a lot you can afford to pig out.
One day, while I was strolling along the river, a man coming toward me casually remarked, “You have pretty eyes.” My feet didn’t touch the ground the rest of the way home.
That chance encounter felt good, but it also further fueled my desire to be seen – understood – on an ongoing basis. In desperation, I began hanging out with one of my housemates. We hiked on weekends, rented films, ate pizzas and played at gardening. Sadly, a few months later, he told me he didn’t want to “play” anymore, because we were getting “too close.” And he moved out to have his own space.
And so it was that as I pursued happiness through a relationship, I discovered what happened when I imagined someone saw me but they didn’t have the same desire for commitment that I had: I got abandoned … again.
Typically, I responded by launching a major cleaning attack – desk, files, closets, etc. – and sunk once again into that bottomless pit of despair. Then I took a leading role in Learned Ladies, a play put on by a community acting company, while teaching full time and doing all that stuff that goes with it.
On the opening night of Learned Ladies, I was already scared shitless, because acting was not yet in my bag of skills, when I got a distress call from a faculty member about another colleague.
“She’s in one of her manic episodes again,” he said. “You have to come. You’re the only one who can do it.”
“Where is she?” I asked.
“She’s wandering the neighborhood, safety-pin in her ear, babbling nonsense. She threw her record albums against the wall; smashed every one! When can you be here?”
A quick glance at my watch indicated I had only 15 minutes before I was supposed to be backstage getting dressed into the heavy, period costume with petticoat and applying layers of stage paint for Learned Ladies. I glanced at my watch again. Twelve minutes ’til “dress call.”
“I’m coming,” I said. “Call the hospital. Have them send the van.”
As I parked my car in front of the house of my distressed colleague, her co-workers streamed out, obviously relieved to see me, “the only one who can do it.”
“Where is she?” I asked. They pointed in the direction they’d last seen her. I ran, calling her name.
Guided by that source within, I turned right at the second corner and saw her up ahead – mismatched shoes, hair sticking out like a scarecrow’s. I ran up beside her.
“How’s it going?” I asked. Then I listened so hard I thought I’d pop a vein trying to find the track her mind was on. She called one of her colleagues a Nazi, spit insults like bullets into the autumn air. Because I’d been paraphrasing any comment she made when she stared at me, I was finally in her groove: she was the high priestess of light, now in the great gathering place.
I walked with her, listening intently to all she’d seen and heard in that mystic place. Arms entwined, we circled the block. When we came back to her house where the van awaited with two large orderlies, she totally freaked out, broke away from me. I got behind her as she windmilled her arms, backing away from the orderlies into my open arms. I dropped to the ground with her, my arms and legs wrapping around her, containing, rocking, soothing as best I could – the same technique we used with severely emotionally disturbed kids in Austin. As she surrendered, I relaxed my grip, and the orderlies took her from me. She begged me to come with her. I agreed, if one of the others would follow in my car. I still had a play to do.
Finally backstage, with only moments to apply my stage make-up, the realization of what I’d just done – checked my pal into a “locked ward” – slapped me in the face. Freedom means more to me than anything, and I had just taken hers. When the knock came signaling my cue, I was a statue, frozen hard by my grief.
I heard a kind and familiar voice filter through the locked door, and the statue melted like a snow man on a hot day. It was Michael, a former student. He and I were in the play together. He was speaking to me as if I were a child. We’d become such friends since he graduated, sharing many discussions about feeling depressed and hopelessly trapped.
Now, mesmerized by that familiar, gentle voice that seemed so far away, searching through the fog with no understanding whatsoever about where I was or why I was on the floor, some part of me wondered if this was what she heard, what she felt, my manic-depressive friend. I didn’t know what he was saying, but the familiar, loving kindness I heard in his voice was working.
I opened the door and came out, tentatively, slowly feeling my way back to his reality. He gave me a reassuring hug and escorted me to the curtain wing. All at once, another actor angrily grabbed my arm and pushed me past the curtain onto the stage, where my body continued to spin from his force.
There was a profound moment of silence on and off stage as my body slowed. I felt my weight in this body, this earth-suit of mine, took a few steps deliberately to find my balance, and miraculously heard myself delivering the lines I’d worked so hard to memorize.
Our play was a huge success. Even one of our college administrators came. I watched him make his way from the front of the auditorium to the back where actors mingled with patrons. He walked toward me with a grand smile, and I was so happy he enjoyed the play. He took my hand between both of his, leaned in, and whispered, “I had no idea your breasts were so big.”
Deflated, I simply replied, “It’s the make-up.” As I fell into the abyss from yet another reminder that I was invisible, “not seen,” I flashed on the absence of the woman, my friend, who would have said something at least civilized, if not encouraging.
But she missed the play, because she was in lock-up, where she would stay for the next month, because I put her there. She would never see it. And I knew we would never discuss it.
Not long after that night, someone told me Michael was found dead in the Sticks River. When I could breathe again, some part of me wondered whether seeing a professor, someone who was also his friend, a fellow actor, someone he respected and cared about, go completely off the reservation emotionally had been too much for him in his delicate state. In our earlier conversations, he had always been the one seeking counsel about his depression. I had played the role of “together professor.”
Not long after that, trolling on Main Street with my girlfriend who was finally released from the “looney bin”, we saw this guy leaning against a building near the bar that had a dance floor. He looked so sexy and smart in his wool blazer and cap we decided to take him on.
We walked past him, chatting, and then went inside a quieter bar to take a table by the window facing the street. He saw us and came in to chat. Hours later he drove us in his truck to a nearby town, where we soaked naked in the hot springs – in the woods, not the ones developed for tourists with bricks and lined pools. After that he was my boyfriend for a day or so – until I got a call at 3 a.m.
Snuggling, finally, with this man I fantasized about marrying, the sudden, invasive ringing of the phone pulled me from his embrace.
“Yes?” I said, picking up the phone.
“Dr. Young, my cousin is high on acid … in the parking lot waving a knife! I’m scared! Don’t know what to do. Please! Help me!”
It doesn’t matter that the caller was not my student, or that her cousin was not a student anywhere, or even that it was 3 am. Never again would I let someone down, as I believe I did Michael. I realized I was “the only one who can do it.” Wearing jeans and sweater, off I went, charging into the blackness, leaving the man of my dreams behind.
He was not there when I finally returned home. I would never see him again.
Not long after that, I got another chance for romance, another opportunity to be seen. “This time,” I told myself, “I will keep the mask on.” Revealing myself, opening my heart and letting another person in before he expressed the same intention, had only gotten me hurt. I knew absolutely nothing about this dance of relationships, because I’d been a loner all my life. I am very direct and don’t play games. But now I was driven by the “loneliness that can’t be fixed” to keep trying.
It happened after a long day at work. I got out of class at 9 pm. I met an actress friend at the store where she was getting off work, and we went dancing. We were both freeping gorgeous – she in her black leather skirt and silk blouse, me in my new berry-colored dress with the full-circle skirt from the upscale hippie shop.
She danced right away with a fellow she’d met the previous Saturday. Later, he asked me to dance. Only with me he was making like Patrick Swayze in Dirty Dancing – very creative, expressing each song fully with his movements. He was extremely fit, as most good dancers are. My heart began to sing.
I was in heaven. Finally, I had a partner who understood dancing! He twirled me again and again, and my circular skirt swirled “out to there.” I made a mental note: “Next time skip the slip; wear the teddy!”
After several dances, he snuggled close against my ear and murmured, “You must be a dance instructor.”
“Not me,” I answered demurely.
(Truth: I have, in fact, taught dance lessons).
Twirl, twirl. Dip, dip.
“Do you believe in ESP?” he asked.
(Truth: Yes, I believe in ESP, but that’s not what I said.)
“Depends on what you mean by ESP.”
(His expression told all, and immediately I sensed “Wrong answer!”)
He never asked me again, and I concluded that Mom was right: men hate smart women. How sad! Those half-dozen dances stood out as highlights in my otherwise dreary life. If I had been honest, I might still be dancing with him. What was I so afraid of? That he might continue asking me to dance? That he might actually like me?
This time I surmised that the lesson was about what happens when, fearing rejection, I do not stand in my truth and say what I really am thinking. I could have said something like, “Oh yes, I definitely do believe in ESP. I was sending you silent messages since the moment I saw you.” So why didn’t I? Because that would have felt like a game: dishonest. Truth is, I’m smart, and I want to know what you mean by something if we’re going to talk about it – you know, to avoid miscommunication. “So, smart girl, you got no communication instead,” said my inner critic.
I continued to experience such chance encounters from time to time – finding someone who seemed to see me – and because I did, I was able to survive what was going on at work. “Relationship hunting” had become my new coping mechanism for mitigating the unbearable stress I was juggling – from work, from betrayal by my friend, from the money-pit house for my mom. But I had enough interaction with males just in the course of my day, walking to work or in the grocery store, to quell the gnawing hunger to be seen. Someone saw me, even if only for the most fleeting moment.
And I continued to learn what didn’t work in getting a relationship.
I got invited to the wedding in Colorado Springs of a young woman I’d coached in a leadership role on the student council. At the reception afterwards, I learned something else about my quest to find him, the one who would see me: playing mysterious and hard to get wasn’t the answer, either.
We made eye contact across the dimly lit dance floor surrounded by tables and chairs. In that moment, he was the only other person in my world. Tall, tanned, longish hair, he stared at me across that crowded room with those blue-gray mysterious eyes while he slowly removed his jacket and tie and carefully rolled his sleeves up to his elbows. When the music started, I left suddenly, mysteriously: shades of Ingrid Bergman.
What was I expecting? That he’d be so taken with me, he’d ask every one of the several hundred guests until he discovered who I was? That he’d chase me all the way back to Purgatory as the sunset spilled mauve against the orange sky?
I never saw him again, either.
But I didn’t stay home and pout about it. I was going out regularly with friends from the theater or former students, having that “one drink” that naturally blossomed into more. Something that happened on one such night, a Friday – presaged something that would drastically change my life
__________(end of excerpt 4)____________
About the Burnout to Bliss Series
Book 1, BURNOUT — How a Desert Lizard Restored My Faith, was written to help educate others about extreme burnout. I wanted the reader to feel what I had felt in that time — a kind of madness that included psychotic visions which might occur even while I was teaching — and the chaos of doing my job while trying to understand what was happening through the lens of a spiritual seeker. I tried to achieve that by grouping events by topic rather than writing the entire book as a timeline story of this happened, then this, and then this.
The first get away from that extreme situation was to a sanctuary — a friend’s house — in California as related in Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY. That get away apparently was presented simply to heal myself enough to take the next step.
In Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY, I wanted to share the experience of “loss of self” — like not being able to do even familiar things like riding a bicycle after extreme burnout — and how I fought back, how I got my self-confidence and self-esteem back. That led to wanting to show others how they could make whatever change they wanted to make, so it ended up being written in two parts.
The real story of the ego surrendering control began when that sanctuary was no longer available and I became like The Fool (Tarot card, pictured here), jumping off a cliff with a tiny knapsack and a little dog for company…
Book 3 is a full-length book, currently sitting at 70,500 words. It’s a tale of trusting God (or the Universe if you prefer), of letting go and trusting that life is good and safe and that all my needs will be met even before I realize I have them. It is the final story of an awakening experience, my two-year journey with one modest paycheck and no plans that was launched with BURNOUT. (Working title is “Practicing SURRENDER.)
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Coming up next: Part 1, “Chapter 4: Being the Target”
Till next time, please be kind to everyone you meet, for we all have our hidden sorrows. ~Tzaddi