Written by: Sheryl Yeo (Photo by: Zann Lee)
Burnouts and Breakdowns
People called me superwoman. When they asked me what I do in my free time, I often found myself having no answer because…I simply had no free time.
My university days were filled with sleepless nights. While trying to complete reading stacks of readings, writing coherent essays, and maintaining a decent cumulative average point, I was serving in church and campus ministry, and in some months, working. I was everywhere.
Rest was a foreign concept, and I continued going at top speed. This went on till I had a massive meltdown and my life came to a halting stop.
It happened during the first week of my final year in university. Although I didn’t have classes, I had a day full of appointments ahead. My alarm went off. As I tried to drag myself out of slumber, I slowly became aware of an extremely uncomfortable feeling in my chest. My heart weighed me down like a rock. “Maybe I am just tired…,” I thought as I tried to sleep it off.
An hour later, I woke up to the same heaviness. The feeling was painful, but I had people to meet. I decided to hustle out of bed and wash up. Just as I was ready to leave my house, waves of anxiety washed over me. I tried to steady my breath and my shaking body. My mind sped in all directions and my heart was palpitating. My senses were melting and I found myself at a loss; my functionality in smithereens.
Not having any strength to place myself in any social situation. I somehow managed to cancel my appointments, I thought the best thing to do after was, again, sleep. So I buried myself under my covers and tried to put my body to rest. I woke up intermittently and felt the lingering panic surrounding me like a blanket.
Scared and with shaky hands, I texted a close friend. Through my incoherent sentences and jumbled words, she knew that she had to come over to my house. By nightfall, I regained some calmness but was still in shock, and a crushing confusion enveloped me. Why did this happen?
I had experienced depressive symptoms, panic attacks, and suicidal thoughts on different occasions since I was 11; this meltdown was the last straw. Three priorities began to form: Stop my honours year and graduate, seek professional help, and — most importantly — find rest for the restoration of my heart and mind.
Identity x capacity
God used this episode to help me see that, for a long time, I had associated my identity with my ability to do many things. I prized my “superwoman” status and secretly longed to prove to everyone that I am just that. After the mental breakdown took place, my capacity decreased drastically and I had to take life really slow. My restless self was crying to do more! But I knew that my body could not catch up.
Will people think that I am lousy because I cannot run at the same pace as before? Will people think that I am unreliable because I could not be everywhere every time? Will people love me less because I cannot do as much for them?
These were the questions that invaded my mind. Perhaps the answer to all those questions is “yes,” but I had to learn that it does not matter because my identity does not rest in my ability. I had to disassociate my identity from what I can do and clothe it with who Christ says I am: free, loved, enough, and His. I have nothing to prove.
The magic from this meltdown was in realising that as I slowed down, I can experience life more fully. While I felt that the meltdown only served to cripple me and rob my life of joy, I am now finally enjoying the beauty of life that God offers.
I can savour and appreciate greater meaning in the things I do, instead of mindlessly rushing through all of it. I have had time to sit down on the couch, watch TV, and spend time with my family. I can exercise and read for leisure — all for the first time in a long while. I can spend time with my significant other and people who matter. I can shift from doing things for God to just being with God and enjoying His presence (Psalm 27:4).
After two months of rest, I started working part-time. Inevitably, I had less time again as work picked up. The difference was that this time, I consciously applied the principle that I had internalised in the previous months by continuing to set aside time to rest. I was mindful to not take on more than I can handle and stopped packing my days with an endless stream of activities.
Growing up, I was constantly amazed at people who seemed to have it all together. How are they able to do so many things at a time and go without rest? After learning the profound lesson of rest for myself, I found myself more amazed at people who are intentional about rest despite the demands of life.
Mark 2:27 (ESV) says, “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” In God’s loving care, He allows a day of rest each week so that we can see to our welfare and tend to our souls. Even Jesus, fully God and yet fully man, often took time away to recharge.
There is no denying that life can be tough on many days, and the wonderful irony is that by devoting one day to rest, we will be put in better stead for the other six days. We have to be disciplined to set aside time to rest and to fill up our tanks.
The truth is, my body had been signalling to me about my lack of rest for a long time but I simply ignored it. It took this blaring, in-my-face signal to make me realise that I had to REST! Rest is a gift from God that I was not taking.
Although we all appreciate days when we can just chill, rest is not about doing nothing either. Rest should be purposeful, and this includes allowing yourself to engage in life-giving activities.
“It is in vain that you rise up early and go late to rest, eating the bread of anxious toil; for he gives to his beloved sleep.” (Psalm 127:2 ESV)
Ultimately, resting demonstrates our trust in God as we receive His gift of love. As limited human beings, resting after putting in the effort to fulfil our responsibilities shows that we trust God to do the work that we cannot.
While driving, we may feel annoyed whenever the traffic light turns to amber. But it serves to keep us from going too fast and spiralling out of control. If you are on the verge of burning out, or struggling with mental issues that you view as crippling, could it be that God is prompting you to slow down?
Now that the confusion has cleared up, I say with confidence that God had allowed for the meltdown to happen because He loves me too much to see me continue at the pace I was going. He wants me to be well-rested and keep my mind on Christ, who will hold me in perfect peace as I trust in Him (Isaiah 26:3).
This article is dedicated to: My family, for being there (whether they know it or not) through my vicissitudes of darkness and light; Jason, for holding my hand through my road of recovery; Jeanette, for delivering fish soup to my house when I was overcome with panic; Pamela, for being my patient counsellor who helped me to break through my ridiculous thought patterns; and my God, the One who never let me go.