This time last year, I found myself in a place of languishing mental health. As a graduate student, my days were filled with online classes, homework, teaching and grading as a TA, attending church meetings as a pastoral intern, and navigating community-house dynamics at home—all from the desk in my bedroom, which overlooked my backyard through a large window. Since September of 2020, I had been filling multiple roles while sitting at that one desk in that one bedroom in that one house. The only variations in my routine came from going for walks, grocery shopping, one in-person afternoon class each week on campus, and a bit of Netflix during meals.
Aware of the exhaustion and apathy creeping in, I had already let go of all the little commitments I had made in the fall. Anything not directly necessary for school, my internship, or for monthly expenses was dropped. I made a point of getting outside at least every other day, and doing some stretches during the classes where I could get away with having the camera off. I figured this was enough to prevent the fatigue from getting worse.
Well, it wasn’t. Not by a long shot.
In the last few weeks of the semester, I kept myself going by saying, “Just a little bit longer, and then you can rest.” To my chagrin, even when everything was completed, I still felt like I couldn’t catch my breath. Even though my schedule was technically more open now, and even though my workload was technically lighter, I kept being surprised by the acute feeling that I was sinking, deeper and deeper still.
What came next was about two months of exhaustion and deeper languishing. I had experienced seasons of languishing from overwork before, but not like this. In the past, it was a matter of slowing down a little more, making more time for friends, and sleeping in a few days in a row. This was an entirely new level. I struggled to get out of bed, and just couldn’t do so on some days. I barely ate, and when I did it wasn’t nutritious. I showered less. I would regularly burst into tears without knowing why, when previously I rarely, if ever, cried. All I could name was that I was so, so tired.
Eventually, my therapist helped me name what was happening. Once the reality of my situation was named, we talked about ways I might start to recover. She encouraged me to get a change of scenery and routine for a few days. So I found a place I could stay outside of the city where I unplugged, slept, and walked in the sunshine near the water. I read, journalled, and prayed my own words for the first time in months. Previously, I hadn’t had the energy before to pray anything other than the Lord’s Prayer, trusting God nonetheless saw me, knew me, and was interceding for me despite my lack of intentional time in prayer.
After some time intentionally caring for my basic needs—good sleep, nourishing food, hygiene, and time with my own thoughts—I started to slowly feel like myself again. By July, I had made significant progress. It was so exciting! Wanting to utilize the momentum, I made a plan that would continue to aid my recovery and also speed it up. I didn’t have time to move slowly anymore; classes were starting again soon, and I had a schedule to maintain. I’m known as a high-capacity person that helps out with events, initiates community with new students, doesn’t ask for extensions, and generally just gets the job done. I had had a rough previous semester, but now I needed to be back to “normal.”
What I really did was turn my recovery into a side-hustle of sorts. But the more I tried to speed up my healing process, the more it actually slowed the process down. Cue Alanis Morissette’s Ironic, right?
Thankfully, before this hustling to heal could go too far, key people close to me pointed out that although recovery does require self-direction, it is also an ongoing journey, and one I will likely be on for years. The impulses that drive me to say “yes” to too much are strong impulses that will continue to perpetuate the cycle of overwork and overwhelm if I do not develop the ability to say “no” or “not right now.” Without taking the time to address what motivated this unhealth, the cycle was bound to repeat itself. Through this process, I realized that so much of what drove me was based on an under-developed understanding of following Christ. I thought that being Jesus’ disciple and taking up my cross meant driving myself into the ground for the sake of the Gospel, and that meeting my basic needs without first meeting the needs of others was selfish. However, as I began to prioritize time to journal, read, and pray, the Holy Spirit opened my eyes to the ways Jesus loved himself. Jesus cared for his whole self by retreating regularly, sometimes alone and sometimes with a select few. He also delegated ministry tasks to disciples, even though he could’ve done it all himself. He took time to feel his emotions when Lazarus died, to feast and drink in Cana, as well as to enjoy the crowds. Therefore, it is not selfish for me to prioritize my wellbeing in the same ways that Jesus prioritized his.
I still believe in taking up my cross for the sake of the Gospel, but my understanding of that has changed. There are times, certainly, where my preferences are best laid aside out of love for others, but to love myself the way Jesus loved himself is part of what I think it means to follow him. Love necessitates sacrifice; both love for God, for my neighbour, and for myself—because self-care is also a form of loving sacrifice when it means saying no to opportunities and accomplishing less. This is the steadfast and faithful way of Jesus, not the hustling and rushing way of our world.
Audry Goertzen is currently completing her MDiv at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, while also working on staff. She moved to Vancouver a few years ago from the prairies to learn about church-planting, which led to discerning a call to vocational ministry. She studied business and communications in her undergrad, and worked in the non-profit industry for for over five years before making the switch. When not at school or interning at church, Audry spends time with friends, getting outside to hike or garden, crafting something in her kitchen, or writing. You can read more of her story at audrywithnoe.com and on Instagram @audrywithno_e.