My experience with burnout – and what helps

Sep 1, 2021 | Blog Articles

Petrea experienced burnout early on in her career. Here she describes how she felt, the symptoms she experienced, and how she recovered. The 3rd in our blog series on Burnout.

“The first few years of my work were mostly one-on-one with people – people with cancer, HIV, AIDS, and other life-threatening illnesses. I’d just had leukaemia myself and was expected to die – but didn’t – which was a surprise to both doctors and to myself.

When I went in to practice as a naturopath, which was my training, along with yoga and meditation and hypnotherapy, people with life-threatening illnesses came to talk to me about their fears, hopes and anxieties. As our conversations explored their experiences preceding their illness, I found many of their stories mirrored my own – growing up with someone mentally unwell in the home, domestic violence, depression, chronic pain, anxiety and sexual assault.

People were looking for the peace that passes all understanding – where we are at peace with ourselves, our history, our unknown future. As people faced their mortality, as I had recently done, whatever was incomplete or unfinished in their life became of paramount importance for them to address. As people explored their own inner depths with me, it also helped me to understand myself and my own journey more deeply.

In those first couple of years, my reputation grew very quickly for working with people with life-threatening illnesses.

Before long, I was seeing people 6 days a week starting at 7.30am and often not emerging from my clinic until 7 at night. Then there would be a multitude of phone calls to return. I wouldn’t have been to the bathroom all day or had a glass of water. It was like that for 6 days a week and on the 7th day, I went into homes, hospices and hospitals to see people who were too sick to come and see me.

At that time, my clients had to wait 6 weeks before I could see them, but people kept calling saying, “I’ve only got 4 weeks to live!” So, I’d squeeze another appointment into my already overfull schedule. I’d begun having a recurring dream where I’d be fighting off sleep while I was meant to be listening to a client.

After several months of this intense routine, Pamela, one of my dear clients who attended one of my weekly support groups, gave me a set of keys to her holiday apartment in Queensland saying, “for goodness sake, take a holiday”.

Pamela recognised the exhaustion in me long before I recognised it in myself.

The apartment overlooked the ocean with the Mooloolah river behind; it was the perfect place to relax. But on the very first night, I turned on the TV and heard a news story about AIDS in the prison system. I thought, “Oh God, who’s going to look after them”.

I couldn’t keep the tears at bay. I collapsed on the floor in the foetal position and wept and wept for 2 solid weeks. How could I keep hearing these stories of anguish, stories of pain, of grief, of cruelty, of loss, of trauma and despair. I knew in my heart, that this work was my vocation, and yet how could I do this work in a way that would allow me to grow and flourish, not just survive?

The road to recovery – practical changes and a shifting mindset

The holiday wasn’t necessarily refreshing but it was a pivotal time of reflection and honest scrutiny of my motives. On the drive back home, I asked myself some challenging questions. “Why do I need to be needed?” It was ridiculous to have all these demands on me. I recognised a long-held pattern of mine that stretched back to childhood – of putting other people’s needs ahead of my own.

In this situation, I’d been meant to die – and didn’t – and now, I’d made ‘dying people’ more important than looking after my own needs. Survivor guilt had driven this need to ‘be there’ for everyone who was dying as I had somehow escaped that fate myself. It was an old familiar pattern, in new garb.

The drive home took several hours and, by the time I arrived, everything had shifted in my mind. I realised I needed to ‘own’ my time and use it consciously, rather than let my patients’ dictate my diary.

I listened intently to people all day, but I didn’t have anyone who’d do that for me. On my return home, I found a wonderful psychiatrist who provided supervision for me in my work. I saw Phil every week, for 9 years.

During that time, I was conducting a weekly support and meditation group at the Albion Street AIDS clinic. This was back in 1984/5 when there was a great deal of fear, rage and anxiety as whole communities were decimated by AIDS. Suicide was a frequent topic of conversation in the support groups as many of the people in those groups wanted a sense of control over their own destiny.

My brother had told me before we were both teenagers that he knew he had to kill himself by the time he was 30. As a little girl, I’d taken on the responsibility for ‘keeping him safe’ – as the purpose of my life. And, while there were many times when we did save him from his attempts at suicide, he finally succeeded in Kathmandu, beyond our reach. This happened a few months before I developed leukaemia.

When facilitating the weekly support groups, I needed to be mindful when people wanted to talk about suicide, that I wasn’t trying to save my brother – over and over again. I needed to be very clear about what are my client’s issues, and what are my own issues, so they do not become entangled.

Another decision I made was to drive my daughter to school rather than wave her off from home at 7.30am. This gave us some time in the car to talk – always better, shoulder to shoulder than eye to eye, with a teenager! After I dropped her off, I walked along the beach every morning, made time for meditation, fresh-made juice, and I was back in my office, ready for my first client, at 8.30am.

Having looked after me, I was ready for everybody else. And really that’s the key to it.

We need to know ourselves; know how to care for our physical bodies – attend to what we eat, how we exercise and ensure we sleep soundly, mentally – we need to quieten down all chaos in the mind through meditation, mindfulness and activities that engage and challenge our intellect, emotionally – we need to love and be loved, and process, not suppress, our emotions in skillful ways, and spiritually – we need to feel connected to some larger, beneficent reality or vision than our own small life, and preferably, be in service to that.

When self-care is our foundation, we can bring our well-replenished self to the challenges, the chaos, the crises or the confusion and, with an ability to access skillful and appropriate responses to the situation.

I’m 70 next month, an age I never expected to achieve. I’m as inspired and motivated today as when I began listening deeply to the suffering of my fellow human beings, 37 years ago. Meditation has been my bedrock for 53 years and, along with self-care practices, form my foundation. ‘First put the mask on you, and when you’re breathing normally, put it on the other passengers’ is not just the mantra when we’re flying high.”

— Petrea King is the CEO and Founder of the Quest for Life Foundation. For the past 37 years, she’s worked with people living at the edge – of their mortality, of despair, of powerlessness and hopelessness. These inspirational people refuse to be victims of their often difficult, terrible or tragic circumstance. They are often exhausted and desperate for peace – and some people go to Quest as a last resort.

People often say, how safe they feel at Quest. It is the privilege and joy of the staff and professional teams to provide programs that encourage, educate and empower people to regain control over their lives and actively contribute to their own health and happiness.

How Quest for Life can help

Quest for Life can also assist you through our short and longer Virtual Programs including Living Mindfully: During Covid-19 and 5-day residential program, Healing Your Life. By learning strategies and techniques to manage your response to life’s events and ways to calm an anxious mind, you can regain control of your life and move towards peace of mind.

We wish you well in managing your challenges, whatever they may be at this time.

Wellbeing resources

Wellbeing books including Your Life Matters by Petrea King – a guidebook for life

Meditation CDs and MP3s including Be Calm, Tranquil Night, Learning to Meditate