Sustaining Your Light

lyrics from awake my soul by mumford and sons

If you ask me now what I have MOST loved doing (professionally) in my life, I will answer teaching high school.

And, yes, I have a great, really satisfying, incredibly purposeful, full of passion, full-sized professional life right now that I LOVE.

But teaching high school? There was just something about it that drove me with an all-consuming fury that, though it was thrilling, was nowhere close to healthy for me.

The truth is I was consumed by teaching.  I was addicted to it. Addicted to the electric undercurrent that rides through a high school hallway, addicted to how much I could impact a kid’s day/life, addicted to the way my energy could change a classroom’s energy/a school’s energy, addicted to how much needed doing, addicted to the busyness.  Teaching and coaching and directing all the student activities at the high school where I worked was an adrenaline rush for me.  It was my own private heroin source.  Who needed drugs or alcohol or food or cigarettes or any other rush when you had this?

For a girl who wanted to matter, who wanted to wring every drop of energy out of my life, who wanted to give everything that I had to offer, who wanted to meet the world’s deepest need with my deepest hunger, teaching high school was like winning the lottery.

But you know how there are lottery winners that are befallen with hardships after their wins?  You know how if they had just hired a financial planner or taken some good advice and held back on the throttle a little bit, they wouldn’t have ended up bankrupt and all would be good?  The way that I chose to teach, the way that I chose to be as a teacher made me the hard on her luck lottery winner.

The way that I taught may have been effective, may have made a difference, may have brought me so much joy, but it also did something else.  It broke me.

My kids ran away; they got arrested; they were alcoholics and drug addicts; they got committed; they dealt drugs; they were refugees and teenage moms and had eating disorders.  They did what teenagers did in every high school around the world.

And I felt everything was so urgent- I made everything a full tilt emergency.  I took everything so seriously and escalated everything to #1 priority always.  And I took it all do damned personally.  I didn’t know how NOT to take it all so personally, how not to feel it so overwhelmingly, how to cope with what I was feeling in a way that was different than overworking the situation.   Their lives were so hard and I loved them so much.  Just on the general principle of them walking into my classroom, I ached for them, ached to make their lives easier, ached to be the bright spot in a life that was too hard and took too much away.  There was never going to be that day again, that kid, that moment, I reasoned.  The finality of it all was so evident to me that everything was urgent.  You know that story about the little boy on the beach, saving the starfish?

“It makes a difference to this one,” he said to the person trying to get him to give up what seemed like a futile project.

I was that kid running down the beach trying to save every single starfish because making a difference to just one wasn’t enough. I had to make a difference to every one of them and NOW, not eventually.  Because they were each so beautiful, so smart, so valuable to the world.  And they didn’t know it.  I wanted them to know it.

In perhaps a bit of precocious wisdom, one of my sixteen year old students, wiser than I was in my twenties, wrote me a thank you note that said, “You give until I fear you might give out.”  Less than a year later, his compliment (and isn’t it ironic that I saw this as a compliment and not a warning, which is how, in retrospect, I now realize he meant it) turned prediction.  I gave out, literally, on the floor of a pharmacy, no ID on me.  I awoke to firemen calling an ambulance for Jane Doe.

I know who I am, I told them.   I still got sent to the emergency room.

There, a kind young doctor sternly warned me about working too much.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought.  Can I still make it to soccer practice?

A few days later- days that I worked because, seriously, if I took off from work, my kids would suffer and I couldn’t be that selfish- I was coughing up blood.  I drove myself to the hospital.  Because fate works this way: the same emergency room doctor was there.  He came in and shook his head.

“I’m willing to keep seeing you if you’re willing to keep landing yourself here.”

At first, I was indignant.  I work in a high school, dude.  I practically free-base germs, I thought.  And then in the quiet of the days I had to spend at home because the doctor would not clear me to return to work, I had an awakening.

Holy crap, I thought.  I am doing this to myself.

I was too sick to work.  A day of recovery turned into a week, a week into another.

I have this theory that life keeps handing you the lesson you need to learn until you learn it. Looking back now, I can see all these ways that I was being told to slow down, to care for myself, to find a sense of sanity in the madness that I was not just swirling in, I was creating.  And, yet, I can also see all the ways I validated ignoring those cues- they need me, just one more paper to grade, just one more lesson to plan, just one more- until life amplified the volume so profoundly that I found myself in the same emergency room within days of each other, the same kind-eyed doctor staring me down, telling me I was doing myself in, not the germs in my high school that I wanted to blame.

The irony was that for all the worry I had about missing my students for one single sick day, I ultimately missed weeks with them for my lack of self-care.  Suddenly, I realized that the thing that was most important to me- caring for others- was only possible if I cared for myself first.

After that school year, I went to get my Masters, partially because it was time for that but also because I understood that I didn’t know how to be an effective teacher without breaking myself.  I knew that I couldn’t work that way anymore without annihilating myself, but I did not know how to do it a different way.  Now, I can look back at that big-hearted girl who felt like she had no other way of being in that classroom and recognize that what I really didn’t have was a toolbox.

I had no idea that I could be an effective teacher and not break myself doing it.  I could have simple boundaries that wouldn’t diminish my effectiveness.  I could learn how not to take the things that didn’t really matter too seriously. I could take care of myself throughout every day and doing so wasn’t selfish, it actually helped me take care of others with more compassion and effectiveness. I could nurture myself while nurturing my kids and, if I did that, I could still be in the classroom, effectively handling what was before me without letting the stress of it all eat me alive.

For years, I mourned the loss of my high school classroom, but now I understand something clearly.  That experience was meant to guide me to a different way of being in the world so that I could help others do the very same thing.

And here is the thing.  I want other women- those who are teachers in the traditional sense (more on this soon!) and those who teach by the way the live their lives- to be able to do that, too.  If anything useful can come out of losing that professional love, it is having found this new professional love and realizing how much meaning it gives me to encourage people to live their passion and purpose while also living their lives, taking care of themselves, and not snuffing out their own light.

At some point, not taking care of yourself catches up to you.  You fall ill, you burn out, you tumble into despair or depression or a crevice so deep it feels impossible to scale. Put your self-care first on a regular basis, and the world expands exponentially for you, allowing you to give more than you ever imagined to the passions that drive your purpose.  My promise to myself was that I would never again snuff out my own light.  Can you make that same promise to yourself?

When did you learn that you had to take care of you (or are you still learning it)? What taught you that lesson? What is the best care you offer yourself on a regular basis? What are you still learning?

{image source: Fight the Whispers, a recovery blog)

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6 responses to “Sustaining Your Light”

  1. Adah

    Wowza. This one hits home.

  2. Adah

    Waiting with bated breath and sharing the love!

  3. Katie

    A great article! It really hits home for me too. I find that it’s a process of learning how to be comfortable in a place of ease. I definitely still struggle with it, but now instead of “Why do I feel so tired?” I ask, “What do I need now?”.

  4. Balance Roundup: 5 June 2013

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  5. 10 Lessons For My 40′s | The Karina Chronicles

    […] 4.  Self-care is essential in order to be able to offer any care to others.  There was a time in my life where giving until I gave out was the only way that I knew to be in the world.  I thought it was my most generous way of being in the world and the way that I wanted to be in the world, more than anything else, was generous.  But here is what I learned.  Generosity and self-care have to co-exist.  There can be no generosity without self-care, actually.  Because you can give out.  And when you give out, you have nothing that you can give.  In essence, it is the tale of the tortoise and the hare. It is not that slow and steady wins the race, it is that care and fueling win the race.  Take care of you and you are sustained enough to take care of others. […]

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