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From Burnout to Balance
My life's journey has been shaped by my strengths and struggles, leading me to where I am today. I've experienced anxiety, panic attacks, depression, infertility, burnout, and suicidal ideation. These experiences taught me how to integrate my work-life so I feel purpose and joy. I have also learned how to care for my mental and physical health so that I can maintain energy for my work and my loved ones. You are welcome to read all the nitty-gritty details of how I became the person I am today, or skip to the section that interests you.
The Struggles that Made me
An early high achiever
Growing up, I was blessed with a loving family and a happy childhood. I excelled academically, taking advanced classes at one of the top-ranked high schools in the country and still managing to graduate third in my class. Along with my academic achievements, I was also actively involved in my church and Girl Scouts, serving in various leadership positions, such as troop president and girl representative for the district council board. I even directed a day camp for children with cerebral palsy. It was no surprise that my classmates voted me 'Most Likely to Succeed.'
To be honest, I became a bit resentful that my hard work in high school didn’t get me a free ride to college (but fortunately, college wasn’t nearly as expensive then!!), so when I got to college, I decided that hard work wasn’t worth it and I was going to enjoy myself. I made lots of good friends who I still keep up with on a daily basis, but I floundered a bit with no purpose and just having fun.
Finding my purpose...
and impacts of unmanaged anxiety
Halfway through my senior year, God found me anyway and made it clear to me to go into teaching.
Since I hadn’t prepared as a teacher (I had wanted to become a foreign service officer, so I studied International Relations), I did the next best thing and joined the Peace Corps, where I met my husband. The Peace Corps was a wonderful experience where I felt like I was making a difference and I was making friends for life.
Upon returning to the US, I devoted myself to teaching, bringing work home every day, and working weekends to achieve perfection. However, the stress began to take a toll on me. Anticipating the return to work on Monday, I felt physically ill on Sundays. Driving to work each day, I felt tightness in my chest and butterflies in my stomach. My stress levels were through the roof, and I struggled to sleep due to constant nightmares about work disasters.
For the first time in my life, I felt like a failure. I felt called to do this work and I knew I was good at it, but I couldn’t understand why I was working so hard, and still struggling to achieve the results I desired. Fortunately, I had the best boss of my life, Fred Crouch, who continually praised my efforts and supported my growth, and made this stage bearable.
However, after 4 years of working like this, and not being able to get pregnant, I thought it might be that my stress caused my infertility, so I resigned from teaching. I still struggled to get pregnant, and eventually, we turned to in vitro (IVF), and I got pregnant just as my husband started a position in Kosovo.
Discovering the rewards of community work and miracles of God
I joined my husband in Kosovo after our daughter was born. We had wonderful years there despite daily blackouts, an earthquake, trash can bombs, and rioters setting fire to UN vehicles. Despite these difficult living circumstances, I felt quite fulfilled at this stage. I helped establish an international women’s club and playgroup and joined a women’s Bible study, all while teaching part-time. Working in the community gave me a sense of purpose and helped me to form deep personal connections.
After a few years in Kosovo, my husband accepted a position in Germany. We had tried in vitro a few more times in Kosovo for a second child, but each time I did get pregnant, I miscarried. When we moved to Germany, I began to think my body was not going to cooperate, and I became angry at my body and God for being so unfair. I specifically remember going out one day with a friend and deciding to drink a lot, reasoning that there was no reason to take care of my body if it wasn’t going to cooperate with me. However, I retained my faith in God, and as I read through the entire Bible looking for answers to my struggles with infertility, I reached a place of acceptance.
At one point, I was convinced I had cancer because my body felt weird and wasn’t behaving as it should. I took a pregnancy test to prove to the doctor that I had all these strange symptoms and wasn’t pregnant. It turned out I had a very different story for the doctor. For the first time after trying to get pregnant for close to 10 years, I was pregnant without trying. I decided to accept that news as a miracle!
At this point, I had also accepted a leadership position at my church to serve on their board and direct their education programs. I loved the work and how it occupied my mind. I poured myself into designing curriculum, recruiting and training volunteers, and strategic planning for the church.
In addition to my work at the church, I noticed other ex-pat mothers who needed to improve their English to make connections in the international community and communicate with the school for their children. I started a conversation group to help these mothers find connection and improve their English.
My work at the church and with the international mothers was rewarding. I felt I was making an impactful difference in people’s lives, so I poured myself into it. I was putting up to 25 volunteer hours per week for the church and taking care of my children and the international mothers’ group. I found myself saying no to my children so I could prepare my volunteer work – somehow placing more value on that than time with my own children. I also miraculously got pregnant 2 more times so I had 3 children under the age of 5 while trying to manage my volunteer work.
When I came to the end of my service term for the church board, I withdrew from all volunteer work for them. After spending several years trying to recruit and train volunteers, I had burned out my own capacity to volunteer.
I hunkered down with my own family, and I raised up volunteers to grow the international mothers’ group instead. Since I recognized I needed to spend time with my own 4 children, but I still believed in the mission of the international mothers’ group, I worked on organizing other volunteers who could lead groups. I manage to grow to several different groups to meet different needs. I found native speakers from the international community and trained them to lead the groups.
As my children entered kindergarten (starting at 3 years old in Germany), I began creating specialized courses for groups who wanted to work on specific skills.
I learned to balance my time by working part-time and being available for my family. My work gave me a sense of purpose, and time with my family filled me with meaning and joy.
Once all my children were 5, they could attend school all day, so I decided to return to full-time teaching. I was offered a position in a German school to help German teenagers prepare for the university entrance exams. I would spend hours researching exam requirements, preparing curriculum, grading essays, and teaching and maintaining some adult groups on the side.
My older son started struggling in school at this same time. He was diagnosed with autism and ADHD, and we were told he could attend school only with a one-on-one assistant, but there was a severe shortage of these assistants. As a result, for over a year, my husband and I would swap out days working from home to be with him while also struggling with his frequent meltdowns and severe emotional distress. These meltdowns could include him trying to run away from us, jumping out of the window, or grabbing knives from the kitchen. Not only did we live in fear for his safety, but we also lived on edge, never knowing what would set him off.
Making a Life Change
We recognized we couldn’t continue the same way. It was a struggle to get my son the support he needed. We struggled to find schools to work with him, and we also needed to find psychiatrists and therapists who spoke fluent English because my son struggled with language issues (young people with autism need very clear and concrete speech, so even speaking the same language is a problem). We also recognized that the amount of time and energy we were giving our son affected the other 3 children.
We decided that I would move back to the States with all four children. My husband’s job was not transferable and provided education benefits that we wanted to keep. We recognized that we had to try but didn’t know if it would work. We loved our life in Germany and had planned to stay there until my husband retired. We also loved the school our children attended, so we thought if we could help our son now, he may be able to return.
The move back fell in place quite easily. I found a house in a great area, got a full-time teaching job, and enrolled all the kids in great schools.
Anxiety and the Ambulance
I honestly thought I had it all together at this point. My son was thriving in school and had no more meltdowns at home. I managed full-time work, the household, and the kids while my husband stayed in Germany. People would ask me how I was, and I would say, ‘busy’, but in hindsight, that was an understatement.
My days were scheduled to the minute, and there was no space for any wiggle room. If one kid was sick or something needed to change in the schedule, I would stress out just thinking about it. I also had no time for myself because I was so busy. That meant I wasn’t making friends or exercising as I needed.
In my first year living like this, I realized I had to set some boundaries to sustain this lifestyle. I had found myself up until midnight working and working all weekend, but I still didn’t feel prepared for my classes on Monday. I drew up strict ‘stop’ hours and set aside one day a week when I would not work. It was LIFE CHANGING!! By limiting my work time, I found I worked more effectively and slept more. I was restored and energized by taking a day of rest each week. I was able to focus better and have more energy for my work.
However, it wasn’t enough. I was still taking on more than I could handle and not filling up my own bucket enough. I realized that I was in a constant state of anxiety with intense feelings in my chest. I also realized that I had felt this way my entire life. The best way to describe it is the nervousness you feel before a big presentation, but feeling like that all day….every day. At one point, I had started a new anti-anxiety medication that listed chest pains as a dangerous side effect that you should immediately seek medical attention for. As I always felt chest pains with anxiety and wasn’t sure whether my chest pains were from the meds or my anxiety, I drove straight from work to urgent care. The urgent care doctor immediately called the ambulance. After several hours in the emergency room, I was told I had anxiety (duh!) and probably acid reflux, and they scheduled me to do a stress test just to be sure (the cardiologist said my heart was fine!). After this scare, I knew things had to change.
Finding more balance
Even though I was still working full-time and caring for the children while my husband worked in Germany, I found ways to change my routines to care for myself. I started daily meditations. I made exercise a priority by scheduling it every day. I also started to allow myself time to socialize – no longer seeing it as a nice bonus but as a requirement. I also started seeing a therapist and found meds to help me manage my anxiety. I felt I was on a manageable path.
Another family crisis
Although I was learning much more about my mental wellness, my children began to show signs of suffering. (I will not assign gender or names to protect their stories). Two of my children have struggled with mental illness. For several years now, I have been managing their emotions through weekly therapy, medical management, school support, and whatever else I can figure out.
It is difficult to describe how emotionally taxing and all-encompassing it is to live with a child who suffers from mental illness. There is never a clear or certain path to recovery, and you live in constant fear. The only thing you can do is to continue to show them love and try to find some treatment that may help. The search for treatment is constant. I spend weeks searching for possible solutions. Get the child started with hope, only to have it fail within a day or two and restart my search for the next possible solution.
Making life changes
In recognizing how our children needed more of our presence, I went to part-time. It was much more manageable, but teaching in a classroom and taking care of 180 other people’s children did not allow me the flexibility to care for my own children.
My husband also recognized that despite the wonderful benefits of his job, he needed to be in the US with us full-time to support me and the children. So, within months of each other, my husband and I both resigned without a plan other than to be available for our family and after five years of living with an ocean between us, we are now back in the same house.
Often, we hold onto our present circumstances, despite how uncomfortable they may be, because fear of the unknown is scarier than the devils we are currently battling. However, the best things in life can open up to us when we are willing to take that risk. Although I would normally advise developing a plan to resign from your jobs and start new opportunities, my husband and I recognized that waiting for the plan would delay our action. The situation with our children was dire, and it required immediate action.
My husband was able to take early retirement and found another job locally that was able to match his previous salary. I decided to start my own business so I could work from home with flexibility and design the type of work I was doing. We are living with balance to support our family and a life of purpose.
Although this is a long story, it is still a brief version of how I came to where I am today and all I have learned along the way. However, I want to highlight the following that I think this brief version demonstrates:
Through my mental health issues and those of my children, I learned we can’t ignore our mental health because it affects everything we do, and we can only sustain systems that respect mental wellness. (Read about the importance of well-being at work)
Through my experience with letting my work consume me, I learned that setting boundaries leads to sustainable systems so we can do more in the long run. (Read about setting boundaries)
Through my experience in focusing on all the ‘things’ that need to get done, I have learned that all that matters is how I show up as a human for other humans – not about all the stuff I do. (Read about the importance of relational leadership)
Through my experience in leading my family, volunteers, and hundreds of students as well as my experience of being managed, I have learned that leaders are key to creating systems where people can thrive. (Read about the need of better human leaders)
By sharing my lessons in FLOW, I help other women business owners avoid these pitfalls and lead a sustainable life of meaning and fulfillment.
Thank you for reading my story. I hope it inspires you to lead a life with sustainable habits and purpose.