[These excerpts are from BURNOUT, Book 1, Burnout to Bliss series.]
From Part 1, It’s Never Just One Thing:
Being on the Couch
No matter what I did, according to Chairman Witch, I was wrong, and frankly I found that very confusing. In her office one afternoon I tried to reason with her on behalf of my colleagues about some departmental business and soon discovered what a mistake that was. She twisted and turned my words until, in utter frustration, I vowed to never again meet with her in her office unless an impartial witness or tape recorders were present.
At home, in my sanctuary, I continued to obsess about how this person I’d fixed dinner for, this friend I’d defended for so many years against angry students and colleagues, could turn on me like that. I wondered how someone I’d picked up at dawn in my truck (because her car wouldn’t make it through the snow) could return the favors with viciousness. I wondered how someone who often had declared me to be her only true friend could act like that. My mom, my constant champion in the hurdles of high school, would have said, “She’s jealous.” Maybe. Students did like me, and I did enjoy casual friendships with faculty and staff campus-wide, whereas she did not. More likely, I’m guessing, it was because she’d told me some of her darkest secrets and was terrified I’d tell others, especially now that she was working her way up the administrative ladder. “She’ll probably force me out just as she did her best friend from Arizona!” I feared.
And the next morning something totally wrong happened.
There wasn’t anything particularly special or different about the day. I listened to the Eagles on my drive to the college, reviewing mentally my schedule. It was jam-packed and included a community board of directors meeting about the half-way house for behaviorally disordered students, the main reason I chose to drive instead of hike up the hill.
I made a quick stop by my office to dump my papers and purse and then off to teach, conveniently, in the classroom next door to the department’s suite of offices.
Everyone was feeling upbeat and chatting when I walked in. It felt like butterflies in the woods and encouraged me. I’d never quite gotten over the need to dash to the women’s room to barf before class – nerves from the public speaking part of teaching. However, today I was lecturing, but the topic was one I had mastered, because it was about me, when I was a kid in public school.
After a few moments’ friendly talk then overview of the lecture, I was on solid ground – the words flowed easily – and that part of me that was always observing winked at me from the back wall.
I was explaining the different kinds of challenges a student with learning disabilities might have and everyone seemed to be enjoying the flow. Pens raced to note whatever the holders thought was important. Questions were limited. My tummy finally relaxed. I was on a roll!
I sensed a presence at the open door and stopped to see who it was.
“Dr.Young?” The gruff voice was from a stranger wearing dark-colored clothing, looking like he hadn’t showered in at least a week – really rough and dirty. For a moment, the scientific part of my mind was wondering why his smell hadn’t reached me yet.
I was on my way to meet him at the door when suddenly he grabbed the weapon hidden under his jacket and filled the room with smoke as he riveted my body with bullets, tearing through my flesh with such force I was thrown against the blackboard, spraying blood on the walls. I tasted the coppery flavor of the blood filling my mouth… strangling… couldn’t speak…
“Dr. Young? Dr. Young?” The voice was familiar and I concentrated on opening my eyes.
It was a student sitting at his table in the classroom, wanting me to please repeat the part about how impairment with auditory information processing is different from hearing loss.
I tried to breathe, to feel my weight settle into my body.
I was standing up, not splayed on the floor. There was no blood and the air was clear. I could feel my face smiling.
“Great question, Tim!” I heard my voice speak. “How about we take a quick break, say, five minutes? We’ll start with that when we get back.” I headed to my office quickly to discourage any more interacting.
Finding the psychiatrists in my phone book, I quickly made the call.
“I think I just had a psychotic episode,” I said to the first one who answered, not a receptionist, but the actual psychiatrist listed. “When can you see me?”
I posted a note on my office door for the students, told the secretary I had a doctor’s appointment, and left campus. This would be my first time in a psychiatrist’s office. I wasn’t thrilled about it. Nor was I thrilled about the flight of skinny stairs I had to take to get there.
The psychiatrist was cordial, if defensive. He leaned back in his chair, creating a steeple with his fingers, just staring, expressionless. Then he asked, “Why are you here?”
I reminded him of the phone call. I told him again about what had just happened while I was teaching. He said nothing, and the silence was like a drum that got louder and louder, insisting that I do something.
“I’m here because I need you to prescribe a drug!” I said. “Look, I don’t mean to sound flippant. I know we need to have this interview. I’ve been in a chair like yours before. Now I’m sitting in this one, and I can see that my time’s running out by your clock on the wall, and we haven’t done anything. And I need help – drugs to be more specific – because my life is a living nightmare right now and I have responsibilities and…”
He interrupted me with his hand held up as if to say, “Stop!”
“I understand your priorities,” said the psychiatrist. “But please understand mine. I simply cannot prescribe drugs without more information. We have to find out what the problem is, what your medical history has been like, and then go from there, and we may not be able to do it all in this first session.”
Yeah, like you guys did with my mom, I thought to myself.
I felt like I was being pulled apart. I needed to get on with it, find some way to stop whatever the hell was happening to me and at the same time I feared getting addicted to whatever he prescribed, just as I had gotten addicted to the 24/7 drip of morphine after my knee surgery. I’ve never had a high regard for doctors because of my mother’s and my personal experience with them. But the shrink’s fatherly tone added to my confusion. So I waited until I had control over my emotions. I sat back in my chair, and clasped my hands together like a good girl to contain myself.
Apparently, my only chance to stop the craziness was to let him have all of it. So I told him the whole story – about Mom’s house, Chairman Witch harassing me at work, how I stopped drinking cold-turkey, the guy slashing me with knives in my bed, even the Jesus-Satan vision.
“But what really scares me, what really interferes with doing my life,” I continued, “are these, uh, death episodes. I’m being killed, and no one else can see or hear it when it happens. Like this morning when I was teaching.”
“Most likely night visions,” he said.
“If you say so,” I replied. “But mine don’t always happen at night. I’m wide awake. Sometimes I’m even teaching! I can’t function when I’m constantly afraid of the shapeless form in the shadows trying to kill me!”
I gripped the arm rests of my chair as if it might suddenly take off without me.
“And I can’t … I can’t seem to control myself anymore. My own behavior appalls me – not at work certainly – but everywhere else. And I feel helpless to change it. I’m terrified. Please help me!”
Totally spent, I folded into myself. A flood of tears launched off my cheek bones, wetting my hands, my clothes. The psychiatrist plucked a wad of tissue from the canister on his desk and thrust it in my direction.
“You feel out of control,” he said, leaning forward, fingertips together again. His piercing eyes compelled me to speak, while the thought of picking up strange men danced across my mind.
“Yes,” I answered simply.
The psychiatrist nodded his head and moved on to the next part of the interview, asking about my medical history and allergies to drugs.
“None, well, not that I’m aware of, anyway,” I said. “What I want, what I need, is something to stop the night visions so I can do my job. In exchange, I’ll work like hell to help you shrink me so the drug usage is limited to a few weeks. I want so desperately to understand what’s happening, but my insurance will pay for only four sessions, and this is one of them.”
He nodded again. I had told him the truth, given him control, and that’s all I could do. I began to relax a little. I was thinking, “Now, finally, maybe we can get somewhere!” I leaned back, settled into the softness of my chair and waited in the silence until I thought I’d burst. “Well? Will you help me?”
“Yes,” he said. “And I agree we should begin with drug therapy in your situation, as long as you agree that it is a temporary, emergency measure. I’m not of that school.”
“No, I’d guess that you’re probably Gestalt or Jung,” I said. “But, hey, if it’s Freud, just give me my bill and I’ll go quietly.”
He shared my chuckle, and I began, at last, to uncoil.
Academic sparring with the psychiatrist was just what I needed. It reminded me that I was, indeed, competent and had the accomplishments to prove it.
“Actually, I rather like the combination of Gestalt a la Perl’s and Jung, with emphasis on dream analysis. Sound good?” he asked, smiling, and I dropped the psychological shield I’d been holding against him.
“Perfect!” We shared a moment of genuine regard. He had broken through my hostility born from fear, and he had established rapport with me. I trusted him. This would be a joint venture, and from where I sat, it looked like it would be fun for both of us, at least for three more visits.
He quickly wrote a prescription and handed it to me.
“This should stop the night visions,” he said, explaining how the drug worked by suppressing one of the REM cycles. “For the first few days, the period right before sleep will be especially hazy, and even when you wake, you’ll feel sluggish, disoriented. Regular dreams will return as your body adjusts. Meanwhile, please review Jung’s work, Dr. Young. My guess is that you’re having a bona fide spiritual crisis, and that your psyche is conjuring up these images of terror to force you to take a hard look at your life.”
I obviously was unhappy. I had even considered dying. Apparently, my subconscious was so happy to make that happen. And, of course, analyzing my experience is exactly what I was doing with the endless questioning in my journal, trying to make sense of the inexplicable. My shoulders dropped down where they belonged.
When our eyes caught again, I laughed out loud and shook his hand. This man was going to help me get back on my spiritual path! My insurance would pay for only three more sessions. I would have to make them count. Fortunately, I was a nerd who loved research and learning, and he accepted me as a partner in this venture to heal my wounded psyche.
I continued my routines at work, community service and church. At home I changed my routine to incorporate re-reading some of Carl Jung’s books, instead of lighting incense and listening in the dark to Leonard Cohen singing “Hallelujah” or “Dance Me to the End of Love” or Van Morrison singing “Motherless Child,” depending on my mood. I seldom listened to music anymore.
Of course, I continued writing in my journal … in the quiet. Sometimes I even listened to self-empowerment cassettes and made little quotation cards I could carry around with me, like “Let me see this differently” from A Course in Miracles.
Even so, each day I survived my job, I couldn’t help but notice that more and more of my sanctuary time was spent brain-dumping the horrors that happened at work with Chairman Witch. I’d even changed her name from “The Witch” to “Nemesis” in my journal.
Nemesis, according to the American Standard Dictionary, was the goddess of retributive justice or vengeance in Greek mythology. In English the term “nemesis” has come to mean: (1) A source of harm or ruin. (2) Retributive justice in its execution or outcome. (3) An opponent that cannot be beaten or overcome. (4) One that inflicts retribution or vengeance.
Oh, yeah, she was all of that. But at least she got to be a goddess!
My journal entries explored aspects of the term. “Retributive justice” – What had I done to offend her, besides meeting her husband for lunch at his request to talk over their marriage? And to really sad music, how can she not remember our one and only shopping trip to the fancy store in town, where we bought identical suits, because, as she said, “We’re sisters?”
Fortunately, a new paying housemate had moved in for the semester, relieving some of my financial stress. She was another older student, a quiet gal who studied a lot. She had great respect for me, because she’d been in my classes the previous semester, and she was dazzled when I told her I had a bedroom available in my house. I had great respect for her and appreciated her independence. She also enjoyed playing backgammon, and I kept saying we would play, just as soon as I got through this semester. I did not share that I was quietly having a nervous breakdown or that I was seeing a psychiatrist.
As my nemesis continued firing bullets to make my life miserable – like announcing in a department meeting that she would do such-and-so report for the coming accreditation review, then coming to my office to assign me to do it – I felt more and more helpless, trapped like a mouse in a room full of cats. There was nowhere to turn. The new college president had made department chairmen responsible for running the human relations part of faculty business. I’d already tried speaking with her as my friend and gotten scorched! She was gunning for me from a protected hunting blind, and there was nothing I could do about it. Oddly enough, I actually looked forward to the appointments with the psychiatrist, because it was the one place I didn’t think about her.
On my next appointment with the psychiatrist, he asked me how the medication was working.
“Good, I guess,” I said. “No more murders since last week.”
He smiled on one side of his mouth. We chatted a little more about how my body responded to the drug, and then he leaned back in his chair and made a temple with his fingers, signaling it was time to work.
“Any dreams?” he asked.
“Just one, but it’s a recurring one.”
“Recurring for how long?”
“Off and on forever – at least since I can remember. Had it again last night.”
“Well,” I began, “it has to do with the house where I grew up. There’s this little girl, about 11 or 12 years old, in a long flannel nightgown, barefooted. She’s standing at the front door on the inside of the house, arms reaching out, like she’s bracing the door with her arms. And the windows, on either side of the door, they’re rattling fiercely as if something, I don’t know what, is blowing against them. But it’s more than that. It’s not like wind or anything.”
“Close your eyes and see the dream,” he said, and waited silently.
Within moments I seemed to be drifting off until suddenly I was lost in the tale, reliving whatever nightmare had first scared me so long ago.
“Pam?” he prompted me. “What do you see?”
“Something horrible is on the outside!”
“Can you see what it is?”
“No, but I can feel it. Pulsing and pushing and … it’s going to blow the windows in!”
I raised my arms to protect myself against the blast.
“Just breathe, you’re perfectly safe.” He gave me a few moments and then continued. “Why are you so sure it’s going to blow the windows in?”
“It just is!” I said. “The whole house is throbbing as if it, as if it’s being assaulted by some demonic force! It’s going to blow! I have to hold it. I have to hold it back!”
I held the rigid pose, arms extended as if protecting myself. A stream washed my eyes. The psychiatrist reached over and touched my arm, but I could not respond; I was shaking so.
“Pam? Pam? What are you holding back?”
I heard his voice, but he was no longer part of my reality, just a voice piercing the fog, trying to guide me, a lost ship, through the storm.
“I’m holding it back … the thing, the thing that’s trying to break in!”
“Pam? Take a deep breath. Good. Now: where is everyone?”
“I don’t know, but the windows just blew in, and there’s glass everywhere, floating through the air! I can’t hold the door anymore! It’s heaving! It’s alive, and I can’t stop it! It’s too much! It’s too much!”
My head fell to my chest, and the room was suddenly quiet, as if I were in a different dimension altogether.
“Pam? Pam?” the psychiatrist continued. “Where’s your mother? Where’s your sister … your little brother?”
I shook my head.
“Pam?” he repeated, touching my arm. “Pam? Tell me. What’s happening now?”
“Nothing,” I said. “It’s over. It’s all over.”
My hands held my arms as if to keep me from totally disintegrating, and I felt my body rocking in hypnotic trance. Then I looked up and saw the psychiatrist.
“So the house is blown in by some terrible force,” he said. “Then what happens?”
“Nothing,” I said.
“Nothing? Is this the first time you’ve let it finish? Gone that long before waking?”
“Yes,” I said.
“So what does that tell you?”
I considered a moment. “It’s not so much what happens. It’s the feeling before – the fear. The tremendous fear that envelops me.” I was sitting up straight again.
“Fear?” he asked.
“Something too terrible to be described explicitly,” I said. “I don’t know what.”
“And you don’t know where your family is or why they aren’t there to help?”
“No. It’s as if they don’t exist. Or maybe … maybe it wants only me, like I’m the only one who can do it…”
Even as the words passed my lips, I looked into the doctor’s eyes, where I saw understanding. We both broke out laughing.
“So! You’re the only one who can do it!” he said. “What does that tell you?”
“I guess it means that, for some crazy reason, I believed that I was the only one who could hold the family together, to be responsible, to do whatever had to be done. And at such a young age, the thought was just overwhelming.”
I sat quietly for a moment to let it sink in.
Then I said, “How presumptuous of me!”
I laughed out loud, a thoroughly cleansing belly laugh.
“Anything else?” he asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, you know, this is your dream. If you want to look at it from Fritz Perls’ philosophy, then everything in it is, well, some aspect of yourself, of you. Why not consider that as your homework?”
“Sure,” I said. “You mean like I’m the house, the child, the thing outside that’s rattling the windows.”
“Yes,” he said. “Assume the character represented by each and describe the dream from that perspective in your journal.”
But I wouldn’t need to, because I had just realized in an instant where the nightmares and night visions were coming from – that something inside me, my inner self, wanted me to change so desperately that it was trying to kill off the old self so I could be born anew. All that weird drama was merely my subconscious, ever in service, trying to solve a sticky problem.
The good doctor continued his wrap-up, which signaled the end of the session, and while he talked, I worried about the question about my mother and sister and brother. Where had they been? Perhaps the family I thought I had experienced as a child was merely another creation of my imagination.
As I left the building and entered the sunny world outside, the psychiatrist’s haunting question came back: “Why are you the only one who can do it?”
A swarm of responses buzzed through my mind. When daddy died, I was only 12. My sister was 14; my brother eight. Mere children! Because we were all devastated by the loss of our father, maybe I, as the middle child, had assumed too much responsibility. I wanted so desperately for everyone to be happy again, like we were when Daddy was with us. But those days were long gone, and we’d never again feel such joy, or at least I wouldn’t – certainly not with them, anyway. Not with anyone else, either.
Then I flashed on “the only one who can do it” and considered maybe that’s what’s bugging the chairman – that I’m “the one who can do it.” Maybe she wants to knock me down a notch or 10. I could understand that.
Perhaps the world would continue to spin on its axis even if I backed off a little.
In another blinding flash of understanding, I realized what was behind the desolation I’d felt in the dream when the door had blown in, and it was the same thing I felt now – despairing loneliness. It wasn’t hard to see that both my siblings were married with children and had extended families. I had no one.
But I am an adult now, and I have the power to change things!
___________end of Chapter 5_______________
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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” in California as related in Book 2, CYCLING in the CITY. That get away apparently was presented simply to heal me 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 The Fool (Tarot card, pictured here), jumping off a cliff with a tiny knapsack and a little dog for company…
That story is told in Book 3, 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.)
Want to know when Book 3 is Out?
Click the BURNOUT TO BLISS tab on the far right at the top of the page and scroll down, and then follow the directions OR simply click the link below:
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BURNOUT — How a Desert Lizard Restored My Faith, Book 1 in the Burnout to Bliss Series is available in both print and eBook formats. The digital is currently listed for $4.99.
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Coming up next:
Part II, Down the Rabbit Hole — Chapter 6: Astrologers, Tarot, and the Psychic
Till next time, please be kind to everyone you meet, for we all have our hidden sorrows. ~Tzaddi