My therapist helped me realize something seemingly profound during a recent session. This burnout thing–it’s not my first rodeo, but it’s been a looooonng time.
I wasn’t even 4 years old when I told my parents I wanted to do real gymnastics after watching the 1988 Summer Olympics. I had been doing some developmental gymnastics for a while, but I wanted to do it all. So, I did. Because that’s what I’ve always done–I say I’m going to do something, and I do it. Usually, there’s no stopping me. After starting training at a different gym, I eventually started competing at the earliest possible age I could compete, and I spent hours on end at the gym. I would often go straight to the gym after school, finish any homework I had there, and then stay until it was time to go home. I was so devoted to becoming a gymnast that I got a training beam for Christmas–not a bike. In fact, I didn’t learn how to really ride a bike until I attempted it once at 15 with a friend and then my husband retaught me when I was 28. 28!
After a couple years, I switched gyms and my parents now drove me an hour and fifteen minutes there and back four nights a week. (Thank you Mom and Dad!) I spent every Saturday in the fall and spring competing around west Texas and Oklahoma. At my new gym, I started competing at a much higher level. I wasn’t a stellar gymnast as I think a legitimate sense of fear set in too early for me to really “go for it”. There came a time where I had to sit down with my parents and talk about a “future” in gymnastics. If I really wanted to become an elite gymnast or really even a collegiate gymnast, I was going to have to move again. This time, it wouldn’t be an easy commute. We’re talking moving more than half across Texas or to Oklahoma, possibly home schooling unless I found a high school with a gymnastics team (not many of those existed in west Texas at the time), and forever changing my trajectory in life.
With that notion planted in the back of my brain, the summit started appearing farther and farther away. Even when I accomplished goals, made it to a new level, or beat my biggest “rival”, I wasn’t able to revel in that sense of accomplishment any longer. I was constantly worried. I was tired mentally and physically. I didn’t want to go to practice 4 nights a week, maybe 2 would be ok, but 4 was becoming too much. I didn’t want to spend every Saturday away from my friends at school. I had Osgood-Schlatter’s disease and my knees ached day and night. Sure I could compete, but I wasn’t that good (so I told myself).
But I wasn’t sure I wanted to give up gymnastics either. I spent an entire decade of my life devoted to the sport. I spent any memorable parts of my childhood at the gym. (In fact, very few of my childhood memories are not related to gymnastics.) Everyone at school knew I was a gymnast. Every t-shirt I had proclaimed the same fact, and everything I loved was related to gymnastics. I loved my team, my coach, my ability to do crazy things. I was a gymnast. That’s who I was and giving up gymnastics meant I would have to try to find myself again–at the age of 13. I’d gone through the death of my grandmother, all of elementary school, my first “boyfriend” (3rd graders are cute), and even puberty as a gymnast. I knew nothing else and I was very afraid of what I might find. Yet, one day, I finally gave in. I gave in when I was at the very top of my game, when I should have (because anyone else would have) stuck it out for at least another couple of months. But you know, there’s truly never a good time for the biggest decisions in your life. There’s never a good time to get married, have a baby, buy your first home, move, retire, etc. But those things will happen, and their timing will be as appropriate as ever. Quitting gymnastics was my first, big, independent decision. My parents had many times seen me stew over the decision and were very supportive either way. So, after finishing 2nd at District (and thus qualifying for North State), I quit. Despite having worked all season to make it to State (which I likely would have based on my season scores), I quit. That night I told my coach I wasn’t going to the next meet, and he hugged me, and I cried. I cried a lot of the four hour drive home. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next other than school sports were definitely something I wanted to try. I didn’t know how I’d spend four hours of four nights a week or entire Saturdays. I was going to miss sleeping in our tiny team’s RV every Friday night before a meet. I was going to miss the conditioning, the accomplishments, the competition. I was going to miss the only thing as I knew as me.
Yet, I remember feeling a massive weight being lifted off my shoulders. I remember suddenly feeling free. I could stay after school and talk with friends. I could go to a friend’s house after school. I could stay over at a friend’s house on Friday night and not wake up early to drive to a gymnastics meet. I could learn how to ride a bike! (Obviously that didn’t happen right away.) I could find other interests outside of gymnastics. I could be more involved in clubs at school. I could become anything.
And so I did. I played volleyball and basketball, I ran track, and I was a cheerleader in all of 7th and 8th grade. I hung out with friends on the weekends and likely mouthed off more than an appropriate number of times o my parents like any other teenager. (I wasn’t that bad.) I joined student council, I was inducted into the National Junior Honor Society. And all that energy that had been spent on gymnastics for a decade was now thrown into all sorts of other activities, including academics. I went on to run track and be a cheerleader in high school and eventually became the doctor I promised myself I’d become when I was 8 years old.
Yep, eight years old. I’ve been telling myself for more than two decades that I would be some badass physician some day. Needless to say, when things weren’t working quite as I thought they would, a lot of those same feelings were creeping in, and it took my therapist to realize it. (You should hire yourself a therapist–everyone deserves such epiphanies.) The worst of my burnout came on at 33. For 25 years, I’d seen myself as someone becoming a doctor. Everyone knew I wanted to be a doctor–my teachers, my friends, my family, boyfriends. I made sure my grades reflected that notion. Just 10 years after deciding I wanted to become a doctor, I planted myself firmly on the path when I got accepted to medical school. I then spent the next ten years going through college, medical school, and residency. On the road to becoming a physician, I lost grandparents, dogs, cats, boyfriends, friends, homes, time. I lost a lot of time with friends, and I lost a lot of friends because of it. But becoming a physician was everything. I have always been career focused. I always promised myself I wouldn’t get married until 30–that way no one could interfere with my career building. (Again, life tells you/God tells you when things will happen, and I got married at 28.) Like most things in my life, there was nothing that could stand in my way of becoming what I wanted to become. I threw myself into extracurriculars and focused on those that I felt would further my career the most.
Then, I finally became a surgeon. Sure, things didn’t all work out just as I had thought they would. Hell, the entire world of medicine was changing right before my very eyes. So what I thought I was going to become was no longer what I was really becoming. But this past spring, a familiar notion of anxiety, exhaustion, cynicism, lack of confidence, and very little enjoyment came rushing over me. The Sunday Scaries had caused full blown anxiety attacks and I was simply living the definition of burnout. I wanted to quit. I wanted to say to hell with all of it. I wanted to walk away. I had down it before. I had “found myself” after letting go of myself, and I could do it again. I could reinvent myself. I’d be a financial advisor, a realtor/real estate developer, an interior designer–anything other than what I was spending all of my time doing. But again, it would have meant losing my identity to walk away from medicine entirely. It was everything I had always hoped of becoming and the thing I identified with more than anything–more than wife, more than mom, more than friend, more than daughter.
Yet, this time I took an alternate route. I didn’t quit. (I’m not saying that it was the wrong thing to do the first time.) Instead, I forced myself to stick with it. I forced myself to see it through the hard times. And you know, maybe if I had forced myself to stick through the hard times 20 years ago, maybe I would have spent weekends traveling the world as a gymnast. But that just wasn’t my road. Granted, forced may be the operative word here, as sticking through burnout led me to a new bout of depression. It was a lot to ask my mind and body to do, and any opportunity for a break would have been gladly accepted. But I had taken the kind of hiatus I dreamt of I might never would have returned to medicine. I might never would have seen myself on the other side of burnout and depression. Instead, I finally had the opportunity to cut back on the number of days I’m working, commit to some very small leadership opportunities, and start doing things that I’ve been wanting to do for years. I’m enjoying doing those things that I couldn’t do before–like girls nights (even if it’s just once a month), speaker panels, educational conferences, learning about new things and brushing up on old things, getting back outside, and finding new hobbies/interests again. I’m also enjoying being a physician again (sure, patients, administrators, and insurers still drive me crazy), but I actually don’t mind being at work and I’m getting to enjoy the good things in life again.
All in all, quitting led me to finding myself once and not quitting led me to finding myself again (I’m not sure I’m all the way there). I think both paths are viable options. I think part time work as a physician shouldn’t be so frowned upon (especially when your part time hours are still equivalent to “full time” outside of medicine). I now believe I can be a mom, a wife, a daughter, a friend, a designer, a CrossFitter, and a surgeon.
Have you been there? Have you been burned out? Did you quit? Did you fight through? How about as a kid–did you give up dreams of piano concertos or soccer stadiums to pursue other interests? Share your stories with me and don’t forget to connect on Facebook and Instagram!
This is a brilliant essay and I can relate to this at a visceral level. Thank you for so eloquently putting into words what so many of us feel….
Sarah Sanders says
Love this too! Especially how part time medicine should be ok…since really, part time is still full time in most jobs 🙀😳