I guess it must have happened slowly and over time. I didn’t see it coming, although in hindsight, it should have been clear. At first, perhaps the butt imprint in my desk chair became a little more pronounced. I noticed I wasn’t meeting my daily step goal on my Fitbit. Then a day went by where I made no music. Then two days. Then it became most of the week. In fact, I did little more than what was necessary to keep the day-to-day going at work. It wasn’t until the holidays came that I realized the glaring reality—I was burning out.
I sat in the typical quiet that comes with working Saturdays and pondered how I got here. Over the past few years, I had advanced in my career, positioning myself in a leadership role, but also diminishing my clinical responsibilities. While I still tried to provide at least one music therapy session per day, there were days when that did not happen due to meetings, staff issues or other departmental deadlines. After ending with my previous clinical supervisor, I had been dragging my feet in finding another. The result of that was me providing many hours per week of clinical supervision without the counterbalance of my own clinical supervision.
I said “goodbye” to several long time clients, including one who changed so much of the way I practice and understand music therapy. I started to feel the absences of their various musical presences in my life. It wasn’t immediately clear to me how deeply and profoundly I felt those losses. One part of me worried that I would never be able to find that level of musical connection again in another client.
The end of the year also held several organizational changes for me including a new direct supervisor and large scale changes within the structure of the organization. I transitioned my music therapy clinical training program to another staff music therapist. I am fortunate to supervise a high performing, creative and hard working group of clinicians who exceed expectations with little management. I had focused much of my managerial energies on supporting their success, and realization of new initiatives and creative ideas. What I have come to realize is that in helping everyone develop their own voice, I seem to have lost mine.
Burnout is such a sneaky animal. It extends itself to all aspects of one’s life. It was in the shortness of my tone with my kids. It was in the lack of interest in things that were important to my husband. It was in there in a million other ways that feel too personal to write about here. Basically, burnout sucks.
If you ask me about my job, I will always tell you that I like it. I love providing clinical supervision and supporting the development of therapists. I love witnessing creativity and teamwork. I love the work that is being done here. The mission speaks to what I believe about music therapy. I think this is the reason why it was so hard to admit to myself that I might have reached this place. But here I was. I was faced with one glaring question to answer… Am I done?
A couple weeks before Christmas, I received an envelope in the mail at work. It stood out to me from the typical pile of internship applications, resumes, transcripts and conference advertisements. I opened it to find a simple note card that said “Thank you” in plain, blue letters across the front. I opened it to reveal a dense block of script that extended to the back of the card. The note was from the mother of a child who died in our center just over a year ago. I remembered her right away. During the last several months of this child’s life, I would come frequently and set up our portable recording equipment to capture mom’s voice singing to her child. She was hesitant at first, as she said her husband was the singer in the family. This experience was not particularly unique, as we regularly engage parents in recording. What was most memorable about this was the vast amount of time that this mother sang for during each recording session. I would say that each session consisted of no less than 45 minutes of straight singing while she held and rocked her child. It was incredible to witness, both as a mother and a music therapist. One day, it appeared as though the child may be nearing the end of her life and her family decided that they wanted her to be transferred to acute care. I met the ambulance transport team and provided them with a packet of the CD recordings and a note scrawled on the envelope. “Dear PICU staff, Please play these CDs for [child’s name] as it comforts her to hear her mother’s voice.” Her parents arrived at the hospital and the PICU staff had done just that. She said this was the one good moment in all of the bad moments. Apparently she still thinks about it more than a year later. I do, too, but I hadn’t realized that she would. I also hadn’t realized how much I needed that reminder.
To be brought back to this space was to be reminded of what I loved most about this work. It also showed me how much of what I loved was now missing. I wanted it back. That was the answer to my question, “Am I done?” No. I wanted it back. I wanted that creativity. I wanted that fire. I am not done.
But, if I wasn’t done then I felt as though I needed to consciously recommit. On New Year’s Eve, another quiet Saturday, I totally cleaned out my desk. I don’t know what made me do it. Maybe it was the New Year’s tradition of starting again, as cliche as it was. My husband jokingly asked if I was quitting. It was odd to see it all gone-much of it in the garbage or recycling and the rest in piles. Seeing the vacancy jolted something in my brain and I started to make conscious choices to place files into their new homes. Next, I turned my sights towards the biggest missing piece—my own sense of creativity. This was way more difficult than simply reorganizing one’s own desk. This was going to take some time. I thought about the days when I felt my best. I thought about the times I felt really engaged. I thought about the thank you note which was safely tucked away in my drawer. I sat down at my clean desk and made the following list:
2017 New Year’s Resolutions
- I resolve to make time for music or art at least once per day. I will accomplish this by planning for it and showing up.
- I resolve to make my own ideas a priority. I can simultaneously support others in their professional growth while pursuing my own.
- I resolve to find my creative spirit in other aspects of my life. This includes my marriage, my parenting, and my hobbies.
- I resolve to catch my breath once in a while and find the beauty in my every day surroundings. (It is still there, but I had stopped looking.)
- I resolve to cut myself some slack if I’m not suddenly good at doing these things. Every day is a chance to recommit myself.
There is no magic here. I haven’t suddenly changed, but I have brought back the intentionality of my actions. I tore the hand-written list out of my notebook and placed it in my top drawer next to the thank you note. It serves as a reminder of my decision to recommit. I now know what it feels like to have been at my bottom and I will know if I reach that place again. Perhaps that is the gift in burnout. Maybe that’s what it was for me.