The following is a list of plants I’ve sent to a premature grave:
- Maidenhair Fern
- Prayer Plant
- Monstera Obliqua
- Boston Fern
- Various succulents (I thought those were unkillable)
I’ll stop now before the houseplant homicide squad track me down.
I never intended to own a foliage cemetery. It happened gradually, during a challenging year. I once prided myself on my plant-lady status. I was the office green-guru, able to revive even the mouldiest of peace lilies. Until last year, when the leaves around me started turning brown.
I worked as a drug and alcohol (AOD) counsellor for five years, helping people from diverse backgrounds with addiction in all forms. Stories of trauma, relationship struggles, and health issues were common. I heard things that made me fearful and angry, and I learned how resilient people can be.
In university, our tutors warned us about the emotional burden the work could have. They whispered a term that I confidently ignored : Burnout. It wasn’t until last year, when I noticed it becoming harder to leave clients’ stories at work, that the phrase became more than just a word.
You can get lost in someone else’s suffering. In my work, I practised empathy like never before, creating a safe space for others while they explored the deepest parts of themselves.
Stories began to follow me: on my lunch break, on the train home, to my bed. Things were changing at work and at home. I felt apathetic and lost interest in the activities I usually enjoyed, spending hours analysing everything I’d said in sessions. I stopped watering the houseplants, my favourite piece of my home. I quit my counselling job.
Burnout feels like the world collapsing. It eats away slowly at your emotional and physical health. For me, it crept in through many different doors. I’d overschedule myself. I withdrew from my workmates. If a client wasn’t doing well, I’d take it personally. When I was sick, I’d spend the day berating myself for letting people down. At home, I could barely communicate with my partner. I felt like I was failing my clients. I convinced myself I was also failing my loved ones.
It’s typical for someone with burnout to feel more cynical about themselves and the world.
Stress is the biggest risk factor. Although stress affects most of us, research suggests that burnout doesn’t impact everyone equally. A study in Quebec found that women experienced higher levels of burnout than men. Women, especially those in minority groups, are far more likely to develop burnout. It affects more than just those working in caring professions.
Women are still encouraged to prioritise the needs of others over their own despite progress in gender equality. We earn less. We do more of the childcare. Emotional labour and household duties are often expected. We have to fight off toxic discriminatory attitudes: from micro-aggressions to misogyny, to alarming rates of sexual violence. Navigating and protecting ourselves against these things daily amounts to chronic stress, the primary cause of burnout.
Not only are women more at risk, we’re often exposed to bad advice. I read all of the “helpful” self-care resources I could find. They preached strategies that exhausted me further and invalidated my feelings. I didn’t need to try harder. A bubble bath and a block of chocolate wasn’t going to fix me. I needed to learn to rest.
My recovery took more than wading through articles and affirmations. I slowly made space for the feelings I had become great at numbing. I couldn’t have done that part without professional help. I re-examined my boundaries, saying no to things I didn’t want to do, without punishing myself. I prioritised what I knew would make me well, not worse. I became proactive about my health, checked in with my GP regularly, and looked after my body more.
During one of my frantic Google searches I came across a book titled “Burnout” by Emily and Amelia Nagoski. It explained the ways women are exposed to unrealistic expectations, and made me feel less alone. Stories from other people who’d been through it also helped, like Brené Brown’s TEDx talk on her own breakdown, and her research on shame and vulnerability.
Later on, I talked. I let myself be vulnerable with people I trusted. I told them I wasn’t ok.
There’s no one-size-fits-all cure for burnout, but these things made me feel better. I haven’t gone back to counselling yet and I’m still not sure if I will. In the meantime, I’m learning who I am outside of that space. The things I used to love don’t feel like they’re as far away.
Last weekend, I spent the afternoon watering my plants. I have finally moved past the guilt of neglecting them. I like to think they’ve forgiven me.
These are plants that battled alongside me, like the Begonia on my front porch who flourished despite my inattention. They taught me to slow down and appreciate things. Small moments of joy.
After I’d tended to every thirsty fern, I took a cutting from a plant that nearly didn’t make it. I placed it in some water in a vase on top of my bookshelf. As I write, I can see it setting down some roots, growing a new leaf. It’s emerging from its dark days. I think I am too.