Yesterday I wrote about having a calling but no answer to it, today I want to talk about how that works in practise. I have a regular and dependable burnout cycle, I’ve repeated it over more than a decade, with each cycle taking six to eight weeks, typically. That’s got to be getting on for 50 bouts of getting wiped out physically and falling into pits of despair. If not more.
I have a calling, to write and to serve, and it gets me out of bed in the morning. I run all day, as hard as I can, doing as much as I can, saying ‘yes’ as far as is possible. I throw everything I have at trying to do something worth doing. I don’t take whole days off, and I push my limits until I collapse. I do this because I feel so driven, and because for assorted reasons, I do not feel safe or comfortable about stopping. Then I fall over, and on none of the occasions of my falling over have I achieved enough for that to feel ok. Often the timing is inconvenient. I look at all that I have done, and see how insufficient it is, and depression kicks in. Once again, I have failed. Eventually, I pick myself up from this and try again, promising myself that next time it will work. Next time I will do better. The next project, the next voluntary job, the next book will be the one that makes it all worthwhile.
It is the burnout that causes the despair and the feelings of failure. It is the despair and feelings of failure that prompt me to run like a mad thing towards the next burnout. Clearly this isn’t working, and for the first time I’m coming out of the dark patch of the process and questioning whether the answer is to gird loins and other body parts, brace myself and start doing it all again. I’ve got this audio project on the go, and this one, surely, this one (if I really give it my all) will be the one that gets somewhere…
I’ve started asking what underpins this process. Answers: I move the goalposts because anything I achieve, by dint of my having achieved it, ceases to look as big as I thought it would be. Some of that is learning and perspective – there was a time when I believed all I’d need to do was get a publisher and the rest would flow from there, and that’s not how it works. Some of it is sane, and some of it isn’t. I carry a suspicion that anything I have managed, probably wasn’t good enough anyway. Alongside this, I don’t feel entitled to stop, to rest, to let up, to go easy on myself and I don’t feel entitled to be happy. What this means is that any attempt to break the cycle feels like being lazy. I’m not trying hard enough, unless it actually hurts, and if I’m not trying hard enough, how can I possibly succeed? This is not a game it is possible to win, because there are diminishing returns around morale, confidence and energy reserves. I’ve spent ten years or more beating myself to a pulp on a regular basis for not being good enough and not deserving anything better.
I just can’t put my worn out body and fragile mind through much more of this. Every time I go down, it gets that bit harder to stand up and try again. One of these days, I will not be able to get up, odds are. If I slow down, much less quit, I have to contend with feeling like a failure, and a fraud. I have to face all the little voices (other people’s mostly) that say about how lazy and useless I am and that someone like me could never hope to do anything much. I have to face them being right. The years of running hard have never made them go away, never silenced them either in my head or in my life. I have to accept that there are people for whom I will never be good enough or worthy of respect, and that I do not get to prove them wrong. They’ve helped keep the goalposts moving and there is no winning this game.
It is a hard thing to look your own inadequacy in the face, but there is nothing remaining other than to turn and face it, and accept it. Running and pushing has stripped me of my faith in my own work, robbed me of energy and inspiration. Either I keep running and lose everything, or I stop now and settle for writing books for the tiny handful of people who like them. I salvage what I can and learn to accept that it will do.