From Burnt Out to Burning Bright

There are times in all of our lives when, no matter how hard we try, we just can’t seem to move forward! I never thought I would be writing this as I have had a positive, ‘can do’ attitude most of my life until I was levelled last year by burnout.

I could not find my way out of this physically and emotionally exhausting place alone no matter how hard I tried.

Being a Palliative RN at the Credit Valley Hospital in Mississauga for the last 18 years as part of a career in nursing that lasted well over 35 years, felt more like a Calling… yup, with a capital C. It was one I happily entered. I felt I had the wisdom of age, compassion, patience and nursing skills to provide comfort to others at the end of their lives. I also felt my role in supporting the families of the dying person in my care was key to bringing a peaceful closing of a chapter in their family story and history. I loved my work and was very happy doing it until the symptoms of burnout started to creep in.

As many nurses and doctors do, I ignored the fatigue and just told myself I was just a little tired but then pushed myself even harder to keep going. Twelve-hour shifts on the Palliative Unit were emotionally draining as well as richly fulfilling. A roller coaster of intense emotion in a 12-hour period often with more than one death to process in that period left us all exhausted when we left for home at the end of a shift.

I made a move to the Out Patient Palliative Clinic at the same hospital and then added on a Nurse Navigator position to help with the never-ending referrals coming in to us for admission to our Palliative Program. Processing the referrals had previously fallen to the overloaded Palliative Physicians we worked so closely with. What I didn’t realize is that with each step I took, I dug deeper into exhaustion without even noticing.

Having always prided myself in being emotionally and physically strong, able to handle any crisis that came my way, I was brought to my knees by what became a career ending burnout.

For me, the inability to be strong for those who depended on me felt shameful and worse – that I had failed in my life’s purpose! I felt broken somehow and actually said that to my doctor. I had no idea how to put myself back together. You would think, being a nurse I would have had the sense to have compassion for myself, but no. I had plenty for everyone else around me in need but deep down, I felt like a failure not deserving of help.

That fatigue became increasingly more prominent until I never ever felt rested. I began to feel a low rumble of anxiety that followed me daily until it reached a crescendo of shear dread when opening my eyes to face each day. That’s if I slept! Sleep disturbance had also become a nightly struggle with waking several times a night. I had always been able to multitask without even being aware of it and now my ability to concentrate had completely left me. I felt my performance at work was beginning to suffer and my sense of responsibility for the care of others only magnified the anxiety. The day I finally went home in the middle of a shift, I really felt like I’d had a small stroke. I had vertigo, very high BP, could not concentrate and had difficulty understanding what people were saying to me. I felt like I actually broke…nothing worked…I couldn’t push my body or mind any further.

I now had to face the terrifying reality of depending on others to be strong for me. I needed to ask for help and be humble enough to take in the help being offered.

Through all the most difficult times in my life, like many other folks, I have prayed or meditated for help. This time I had a really BIG ASK. I asked to be guided to a home on the water where I could recover with the soothing sounds of nature daily. I felt I needed the grounding sound of water to wake to, birdsong, the wind through the trees, the subtle changes of season. I wanted the unobstructed view of the stars at night. I found exactly what I was searching for in Niagara-on-the-Lake. I sold my home in Mississauga and moved to Niagara in October 2018.

After being at this lovely healing spot a few months, I knew there was more work I needed to do so I sent out another S.O.S. This time I followed my intuition and decided to try a gym that was familiar to me. There was one in my neighbourhood in Mississauga and I also found one in my new neighbourhood in St. Catharines: GoodLife.

My body had taken a beating from the increased cortisol from the severe anxiety: I experienced difficulty concentrating, fatigue, anxiety, depression, listlessness, and detachment. I needed help to get back on track and hopefully lose the extra pounds I picked up. I walked into GoodLife just thinking it would be great to go to the classes and be around other folks and not isolate myself. My prayers were answered again in a way I would never have expected.

I had always been called an “angel” in my work as a Palliative Care RN but never ever expected I deserved one to help me. I was wrong!

I was randomly assigned a trainer at GoodLife who turned out to be just the “angel” I needed! Kyle Conahan was in his late 20’s and I was 64 at the time. This profoundly wise young man is guiding me through healing in a way that is highly intuitive, compassionate and not like any other exercise program I have ever taken part in. He is everything I also gave to my patients…how lucky am I to have met him!

He listened very carefully to everything I told him during the initial assessment and planned our workouts focused on what I had shared with him. He has been gently teaching me that health and well-being is far more than just joining a gym and working out. This wonderful young man sensed my inner life needed sorting out before my body would begin to respond to heal itself. He suggested I start to write – a journal would be a good place to start although he thought I could write a book.

Each session with him helped me turn another corner of awareness about how to get back on track. He was teaching me a new way of thinking to approach the challenges in my life and not use my old way of dealing by just pushing harder against the stressors as I had always done.

When Kyle sensed I was a little (or a lot) lost, he helped me get started on a daily morning routine that he wrote out for me. A list of how to get started which included meditation. He asked how I was starting my day. I told him that I, like countless others, grab my phone, check FB then CNN, then local news to make sure I wasn’t missing any drama that happened while I slept!! Until he asked that question, I didn’t even realize I was kickstarting my day with the stress I was so desperately trying to heal from. From there he encouraged me to write a daily gratitude log as part of my morning routine. This now takes the place of my daily drama fix on FB. I do still listen to the news but later in the day and no longer feel automatically reactive.

Just so you know the depth of this young man, Kyle also felt it would help me to journal and this is what he wrote out for me as guidance at the end of a workout one day:

  • what led up to your burnout
  • symptoms
  • warning signs
  • reasons why you didn’t stop
  • possible things you could have done differently
  • what you would like to see changed in nursing
  • how have you changed to make your life better

I feel so very blessed to have crossed paths with this very hands-on, ALL IN trainer who has helped me evaluate not only how I eat and exercise, but he has also challenged me to evaluate the thoughts driving my behaviour! Kyle has taken the time to get to know me and before he decided what would work for me. He has listened intently, given the guidance I needed, corrected my self defeating thinking…and all that during 1 hour sessions!

This has been a turn around year for me and I am so grateful to have met Kyle Conahan, RMT to help me do it! The men and women like Kyle who step in to share their wisdom and love of good health, are so very valuable to our health care system. Connecting with them keeps us out of doctors’ offices, pharmacies and ERs with chronic illness.

As a recovering burnt-out nurse, I am also very grateful to have found this side of health. Thank you Kyle, thank you GoodLife.

Forever grateful,

Judy Tobin


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