Suck it, Rilke – the burnout post (series part 2)

“If only we arrange our life according to that principle which counsels us that we must hold to the difficult, then that which now still seems to us the most alien will become what we most trust and find most faithful.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

“Suck it, Rilke.” – Me


At the end of 2016, I was laid off from my last regular job (“regular” as in – there was an office to go to with a boss and HR policies and passwords and entry badges, and leftover bagels in the break room, and folders passed around with birthday cards to sign, etc) because the program I worked for, which was housed in a local chapter of a national nonprofit, was defunded in a top-down decision.

In my job, I was responsible for a 30+ member team of National Service (AmeriCorps) members, who served in schools, government agencies, and nonprofits throughout greater-Portland each year. I led workshops. I wrote a weekly update. I conducted site visits. I created curriculum. I planned events. I understood. I advocated. I cajoled when needed. I listened. I did a LOT of paperwork. I was a warm and trustworthy mother duck with high expectations, for them and for me, and I took members’ imprinting seriously. I was good at it.

When we learned that our longstanding program was to be eliminated, at first it hurt my feelings, even though I knew it wasn’t personal. And then I realized that it hurt my feelings for the very reason that it wasn’t personal. Our program was successful. I invested. I cared. The work capital-M Mattered. The members mattered. The people they were serving mattered. It mattered to our communities, and to our country (yes, it surprised me as much as you to realize I am, deep down, patriotic). I was pissed and disappointed, but I finished out the program year as I had done in previous years, on a positive note, with an end-of-service celebration highlighting the difference members had made. There were certificates, gifts, special guests, a written reflection activity (of course), catering to accommodate every dietary restriction today’s millennial requires. I gave a speech about the importance of getting involved – about taking the hard road and having it be worth it –  that made people wipe away tears, myself included.

As we wrapped up our program, people kept asking me what was next. (Why the hell do people always expect you to know “what’s next” when you’ve had the rug yanked out from under you??)  My answer was always an upbeat, “Well, I am sure I will find something!” Chirp fucking chirp, but the fact was I didn’t know where I was going to land. I seemed to be in a perpetually bad mood – preoccupied and scared.

The more I thought about it (it wasn’t like I HADN’T considered the “what’s next” question on my own, basically all day every day), the more it struck me that I was done, not just done with that job, but with social services in general.  I had always relied on my empathetic, high-achieving, creative, quick, funny, sensitive, focus-on-the-positive, detail-oriented, deadline-loving, bureaucracy-is-my-wheelhouse, leave-no-person-behind self to get me through. But when I went to dig deep to replenish my resolve, it was gone.

I realized I was not “just” burned out, but empty – that my entire resume – the WHOLE THING – represented a way of life I did not want anymore.

I wish I could say I felt immediately free and liberated. “I have paid my dues, and then some. Peace out! Let someone else save the world. I am going to enjoy my life.” If I were a Hero’s Journey subscriber, or if this story was fiction or myth and not what actually happened, this would be the place where I could tell you that I made the decision to “follow my bliss.” But here I will step back and remind both of us that “bliss” was a foreign concept to me by then, and that I didn’t have enough trust in things working out to “follow” anything…

I felt like I was in quicksand.

Trajectory of nope

From the time I graduated from college, when an internship at a domestic violence shelter turned into a paid staff position, and including two terms of service as an AmeriCorps member myself, I held a succession of ten positions (yes, exactly ten, I have counted them on my resume) with increasing levels of responsibility at nine different social service agencies over the course of 16 years. All of my positions up until 2016 involved helping vulnerable and marginalized individuals, populations, and communities. The span of my career was an immersion into suffering, poverty, need, victimization, neglect, struggle, and trying to pull together resources that too often either weren’t enough or didn’t exist at all. 

To note, I was laid off not just this last time in 2016, but two previous times, too, in part due to the economic downturn that hit Oregon so hard, and in part because I was drawn towards working with the people and organizations that have the fewest resources to begin with, which for whatever reasons seems to make them invisible (the clients and the programs) to the uninformed eye, thus making them even more vulnerable when belts tighten. Each time I scrambled back into the trenches, my heart firmly affixed to my sleeve, because if people needed help, I believed it was my responsibility to help them. How could I possibly look away? 

“Nicole, are you sure you’re not Catholic?” you ask.

Yes, I am sure. As my friend Carol, who is Jewish and has worked in nonprofits herself, said to me one day when I was talking with her about how having a belief in God may have made aspects of working with various populations easier sometimes because there would be someone to hand things over to at the end of the day, “You’re an atheist. Well, shit. This means you have to put all of your faith in people.” We had a good laugh over that.

(Joke break: Being an atheist martyr is about as rewarding as it sounds.)

I should take a moment, too, to say that because there are so many non-profit-y types in Portland (educated, liberal, progressive, idealists keep wanting to move here, hooray/alas), there is a certain level of poverty-elitism almost about who can subsist on the least amount of income while doing the most difficult work: “I’ll see your ‘I have seven housemates and an overnight shift at a shelter for homeless youth, and I will raise you an ‘I drink my leftover pasta water and distribute clean needles by bicycle.'”  The short of it is that people like me are a dime a dozen (almost literally) in this town, and competition is fierce even for jobs that don’t pay more than $15/hr. (If only intrinsic rewards could be used to pay ever-increasing rent…) What I am getting at is that you don’t earn enough working in a lot of these jobs to, say, buy a house, or plan a trip to England to see your friend’s new baby, and there is always someone to replace you.

But back to the faith part. The truth is, though, I really do put my faith in people, and I have been rewarded (humbled, gratified…) in so many ways in all of my jobs, even the ones I hated (I won’t name names here). Of course there were triumphs, which I was/am always on the lookout for, and undoubtedly why I lasted in social services as long as I did, but at a point it began to register with me that I did not want every day at work to be about bearing witness to inequities and disparities, and fighting for someone’s basic human needs to be met. I saw more and more how, without having adequate systemic supports in place, attaching a label like “resilient” to a human being can be a convenient way to blame the victim if they aren’t successful make it more possible for overworked staff to avoid drinking themselves to sleep every night minimize the impact of trauma.


I was beyond tired. I realized I had gotten to a point where I couldn’t rally. I couldn’t go back, which meant I needed to figure out something else, but I was suffering from so much compassion fatigue I was in no shape to use my imagination constructively.

The parallel demise of my mother

Keep in mind, too, that as I took on all of these jobs in social services, I was also experiencing the gradual-at-first-but-then-rapidly-snowballing mental and physical decline, then disintegration, then death of my mother. When I review my resume, I remember things like, “This is where I worked when she could no longer drive.” “That is the office I left to go get her at her apartment the day she attempted suicide for the first time and I couldn’t remember how to get us to the hospital.” “This is where I used FMLA to take her to appointments at the County Mental Health Department, where she had five different practitioners over the course of two years, who, after 15-minute consultations with her about her symptoms, prescribed her medications that made her too shaky to sew anymore, made her drool, made her lose her balance and start falling down, and falling down…” “This is where I worked when she called me and said, ‘Nicki, my legs aren’t working right.'” “Here is where I went out to the covered bus shelter for privacy on my break and raised hell with the State Ombudsman when a caregiver forcibly bathed her.” “Here is where I worked when my sister and I toured a combined total of 19 assisted living facilities, none of which would accept people with our moms’ diagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder” (also, if only she had been ‘lucky’ enough to have dementia caused by Alzheimer’s instead of from being punched in the head too many times  – Ed.), “I was driving to this job when that man named Kevin called to tell me my mom might have to go before a judge for a sanity hearing only because they could not find housing for her, with the possibility of being committed to the Oregon State Hospital.” “This is when I worked in North Portland and had to get to the care home in Outer Southeast during rush hour the day the police were called, and the care home owners kept speaking to each other in Russian, and the husband smelled like alcohol.” “This is where I worked when I brought my mom a pie for her birthday in the psychiatric ward.” “It was on the sidewalk outside that agency, next door to a marijuana dispensary and with a view of a strip club, where my sister told me over the phone that our mom was enrolled in hospice care.” “This is the agency that never gave me a straight answer on their bereavement leave policies.” “This is where I took off my coat and sat in my low cubicle and burst into tears the day I returned to work.”

My resume represents a chronology of circumstances and events I am finally ready to say I don’t want to think about anymore, not as the backdrop for job interviews, anyway. I need to put them in my book where they belong. Had my mother’s health improved, and if she were alive and safe today, perhaps I would feel differently. But when she died, it seems a significant portion of my hope for humanity died with her. I did not stop to truly grieve until my job died, too, I guess. And when I finally did, I knew I could never go back. My old life was really over.

So what happened?

I ended up having the most amazing year. I will tell you about it in the next post.

2 thoughts on “Suck it, Rilke – the burnout post (series part 2)

  1. Kathy

    Beautifully written. Eperience + holding-it-together + advocating + trauma + burnout is wearing & real. You are a beautiful human being.


    1. Thanks, Kathy. This one took a lot out of me, and I still didn’t get it exactly where I wanted it, but I need the foundation in order to explain what came next… Reading this entry reminded me that “of course I was tired.” Sheesh. What doesn’t kill you, makes you.


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