March 7, 2022

Hello Again – After the Fire

Well, hello everyone. It’s been a while. Let’s catch up?

(Warning: long post ahead. Consider it a makeup for the last eight months of silence.)

Last summer, like many people staying in the same job through “The Great Resignation”, I started getting more and more burned out at work. Where in June I had a team of seven people, staff kept leaving and leaving, and by November, I was down to one manager (who was going on maternity leave in December) and me. Yikes. I was working 12-18 hours a day, in a slew of never ending back-to-back-to-back meetings. It usually wasn’t until 6pm MT, when East Coasters finally stopped taking meetings, that I could get off camera and start actually trying to do the work I had been discussing on calls all day. My bosses knew I was burning out, and tried their best to help, but there was just too much work and not enough people to do it. I was given the latitude to let things drop, but I felt like a complete failure whenever I did so. Add to that a big relationship failure, and by October, I had spiraled into depression – feeling like there was nothing in life that I could succeed at, and that it was never going to get any better.

Fortunately, several years ago I found an incredible therapist, who I’ve called off and on when things got tough. This summer, it was amazing to be able to reach out to schedule a call and jump right into talking about my problems without needing to first recap the backstory of my life. (I also didn’t have to deal with all the stress of checking insurance, interviewing therapists to see if they were a fit, etc. The one piece of advice I want to shout from the rooftops is that everyone should find and get to know a therapist before you need one, so that you’re all set up if and when you’re going through a rough patch. In my opinion, having a therapist on call is the best investment you can make in yourself.)

Anyway, when I got on that first call this fall with my therapist, she immediately knew something was very wrong. My therapist urged me for months to take a leave of absence from work, but it seemed way too scary to do so. While I’ve always tried to talk openly about going to therapy to help fight any antiquated stigma, it felt really risky to actually take a leave of absence for my mental health. What if leave was held against me in discussions around my candidacy for partner? Would I be seen as someone who couldn’t cope with stress? I spent weeks debating the pros and cons of taking leave, even as I found myself unable to get through a day (or sometimes even a few hours) without crying. There was one terrible week where I could barely get out of bed – but I dutifully brought my laptop to bed and kept working. I was terrified of being a failure, and taking a leave felt like it would be proving I was just that.

I somehow made it through till Christmas, when I was scheduled to disconnect from work and teach skiing for a week. The break from my corporate job seemed to really help – I remembered how much I love teaching people to ski, and that I’m really good at it. It felt so refreshing to be a little bit confident in something, and I thought things were starting to trend upward. Maybe the ten day holiday break would be enough to stave off the burnout, and give me the energy to keep gritting it out while trying to make small changes for the better in the new year…

…and then my world turned upside down. On December 30, my beloved town of Superior, Colorado was evacuated due to an approaching wildfire. At first, the order seemed precautionary; our Town Manager texted the Board to let us know he was considering an evacuation, but I didn’t expect it to be a serious issue. Then, I learned that not only was the fire burning through two entire subdivisions about a mile from my house, but neighboring towns were preparing to evacuate as the fire threatened to run through us and keep going. Although Sadie and I were already safe 90 miles away in the mountains, I went to bed consumed by the bleak projection that nothing in Superior was expected to survive the night.

By some miracle, “only” 1000 homes were destroyed. When I learned that my home had been spared, I initially thought I was in the clear. But while my home survived, so many of my friends’ and neighbors’ homes did not, and the retail downtown I’ve been working for years to build literally went up in smoke. Where I naively thought I could come back to my house and use that as my base to help others, I soon realized that my home, while still standing, wasn’t immediately habitable. It was terrifying to be allowed back into the neighborhood two days after the fire and realize we didn’t have even basic utilities – my heat was off, the inside of my house was 35 degrees, and there was a FEMA-provided package of space heaters and bottled water on my doorstep. I will never forget the low point of driving back into the neighborhood and realizing that while I was so, so, so lucky my house was still there, I still had to deal with the all-consuming aftermath.

I was escorted around town by the national guard two days after the fire, and it was horrific to see. Before the fire, this mountain view would have been obstructed by four streets of homes.

In that first day I returned to Superior, my focus was on trying to warm up my house with strategically positioned space heaters so that my pipes wouldn’t freeze and burst – how ironic that homes surviving the fire might now be destroyed by water. Then, I needed to deal with smoke and ash damage – filing tens of thousands of dollars in insurance claims and making infinite calls to the many, many overloaded vendors for remediation. (Speaking of insurance, please please please call your insurance agent today and make sure your coverage is adequate. Building costs have skyrocketed in the last year and nearly everyone in my town, including me, was underinsured by hundreds of thousands of dollars.) Two months after the fire, we still don’t have potable water in town. And of course, my problems are so minor compared to the challenges faced by the 1000+ families who are homeless, living in hotels or rental apartments or RVs and trying to piece their lives back together after losing everything. Suffice to say that we are still in the thick of things, and everyone in town is facing huge mental health challenges.

Ironically, this crisis has actually helped me get on the road to recovery from my own mental health struggles. The day after the fire, I was sobbing at the prospect of needing to get on a Zoom call in front of hundreds of people to lead the town out of the crisis. How could I do that when I couldn’t come to terms with the destruction myself? But when a tough love friend told me to get it together, I realized I had no choice but to do just that. My days since the fire have been a whirlwind of calls trying to help with all the different needs: housing, clothes, food, and water. (As I said, our water still isn’t drinkable, but I’ve been leading the charge on testing, investigation, and remediation, earning me the nickname “Laura Brockovich” from friends 😂) And I’ve also been pushing hard for us to address the mental health challenges of our community, particularly after a good friend lost her husband to suicide in the aftermath of the fire.

So that brings me to this post. I’ve been trying to speak up as much as possible about the importance of mental health, announcing publicly that it’s something I’ve had challenges with, and encouraging people to find a good therapist. (More on that here, including resources if it’s something you too struggle with.) But I’ve been really grappling with how to talk about being on leave for mental health, whether publicly or one-on-one to friends and coworkers.

I know that mental health is just like physical health, in that it’s not your fault when you get sick and need to rest and seek treatment to get better. But there’s part of me that’s felt like I’m cheating the system by taking leave from my job. If I can read a book, can’t I read work emails? If I can talk on the phone with a friend, can’t I take a conference call? I know that at the end of 2021, I was at my breaking point and really couldn’t keep working… but now that I’m not sobbing all day every day, is it really appropriate for me to continue to be on mental health leave? It’s been really hard for me to justify the break to myself, even as the coworkers I’ve opened up to about it have been beyond supportive.

One Tuesday in February, though, I had one of my best therapy sessions ever – gaining a lot of insight into who I am, and also getting some answers to those questions of what I should be spending my time doing while on leave. Up until this session, I had felt useless sitting home and not working, even though I realized it was helping and I was feeling better than I was in December. When my therapist told me she wouldn’t yet sign off on me going back to work, I asked about going back part-time – surely I could do something? But my therapist told me, “What you call frittering away your time, is building a different muscle… what you are doing right now is more valuable than any part time work you could be doing for your company.” And I started to understand that taking the rest I need is going to help me come back as an even stronger leader than before. That realization is confirmed by the many calls and messages from coworkers who have confessed that they are burned out too, and that they admire me for having the courage to step back. Rather than seeing my time off as “useless”, I’ve actively tried to build that new muscle my therapist talked about, and get comfortable trusting my instincts rather than always having a plan.

A week after that session, I took a break to go skiing with my new boyfriend – a much better skier than I am, who loves to play in the trees. Me, I’m a good skier who’s competent in glades, but has never really enjoyed them… until now. This time, as we headed down the extreme terrain double-black diamond Royal Elk Glade, I let go of the planning and just trusted that if a rock or a cliff popped up in front of me while I was picking my way through the tight trees, I was a good enough skier to adjust my line on the fly. And I had so much fun letting go! At one point, my boyfriend was skiing ahead and saw me approaching a cliff that was a bit hidden from above. As I pulled up to the edge, he yelled “Cliff!” back up to me, assuming I wouldn’t be comfortable going over it. But in that split second that he tried to warn me, I had already seen it, assessed the risk, and decided I was fully capable of jumping off and sticking the landing – which I did delightedly, laughing my head off as I did so. It was the happiest and most carefree I’ve been in months, and that thrilling day was a good reminder to trust my instincts and abilities, rather than worrying about having a plan and backup plan for everything.

Power posing at the top of the run as I yelled “again, again, again!” This confidence felt so good.

As my therapist pointed out, I’m exceptionally resilient, and have a talent for handling things that many people can’t. But up until now, I haven’t really used that valuable talent, relying on discipline instead of resilience to help me accomplish things. While I’ve already proven that I can make and follow a plan to deliver just about anything, in both my professional and personal life, my successes to date have tricked me into thinking that the only way to succeed is by planning and working harder than everyone else – and that’s not at all sustainable. Hard work and planning have helped me get to where I am now, but maybe I can be more powerful by simply trusting my ability to handle the curveballs. (This whole paragraph is pretty much a direct quote from my therapist, and I wrote it down so I can refer to it often and believe it myself.)

So my therapist told me that while I’m on leave, my “job” is to stop planning and trying to be productive, and instead, to trust myself to handle the anxiety and emotions that come with not having a plan. Sitting in that space rather than trying to make a plan to get out of it is a lot harder than it sounds! But I am excited about what this “work” will help me unlock and how it’s going to make me even stronger. I miss my coworkers, my clients, and my actual work, and I’m looking forward to going back and contributing at a much higher level than where I was operating in December.

The rebuilding process for homes and individuals is long… but we will get there.

It’s now the beginning of March, and my therapist and I are discussing a ramp up back to work soon. Meanwhile, I’ve been sitting on the draft of this post for a few weeks. I’m a little nervous that I’m oversharing, or that I’ll get negative comments that will send me back into that fragile place of self doubt. But I’m feeling so much stronger than even when I drafted it the first time, and while I’m not yet back to normal, I really miss blogging and the online community that has been a part of my life for the last 15 years. I’m looking forward to hopefully getting back to posting more and reconnecting with all of you, as I continue to figure out what this post-fire “new normal” looks like for me 💕


2 thoughts on “Hello Again – After the Fire”

  1. I really loved the paragraph about not just relying on discipline and trusting your instincts more. That really resonated with me. I think it’s brave of you to share your experiences with taking mental health leave, especially now. I often get stuck in my own head about what to share online/via social media about my mental health struggles – it’s so easy to tell everyone I have a physical injury, but not to disclose my anxiety issues. I’m really happy to hear you have a new bf and that he’s a skiier and sounds like he’s helping you embrace the fun stuff.

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