Thursday, February 29, 2024
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Sensuality and Burnout

The pleasure of letting go

And sometimes when you’re on,

You’re really fucking on,

And your friends they sing along, and they love you

But the lows are so extreme 

That the good seems fucking cheap 

And it teases you for weeks in its absence 

I’m sitting on my front steps smoking a cigarette and listening to this song by Rilo Kiley, called A Better Son/Daughter. On the days when it feels like I just cannot make myself do anything, and I feel nothing inside, I put on this song. 

The truth is, I have six papers to write, and I’m so burnt out. 

Burnout is a term used to refer to the lack of motivation and passion that affects many students around this time of the academic year. The best way I can describe it, is that it feels like the opposite of sensuality: food tastes bland, music feels overstimulating and distracting and all the reasons I am pursuing this master’s program feel so faded and far away. 

I want to feel the sun on my shoulders again. I want to feel excitement in my belly about my work and my writing. I want to cry at what I read in the book I’ve forgotten about on my bedside table. I jokingly tried to explain this feeling to a friend of mine a few years ago. I said, “Teach me how to want to dance.” 

Burnout is not that you can’t dance, it’s that you don’t even want to. You just want to sleep. Disappear for a little bit. 

I just sat with my therapist and explained this feeling to them. Together, we concluded that the burnout was trying to protect me. Enough now, my body is telling me. I wish I could say “Okay, enough now, I hear you,” to it. But I have six papers to write this week, so I can’t exactly honour its request. So, what can I do? 

In my experience, burnout can only be effectively alleviated with two antidotes: rest and sensual pleasure. The first is rather obvious: let yourself sleep. Take a nap on the couch. Make a blanket fort just for yourself and watch your favorite childhood movie hidden inside it before bedtime. Sleep for an extra hour in the morning. Ask for an extension. Cancel those plans and have a bubble bath. Rest. Remember, capitalism wants us to feel guilty about resting. Fuck that.

Sensual pleasure is the second antidote to burnout. Touch, smell, sound, taste, sight. Amid a ridiculously long to-do list, how does sensuality mitigate the big scary numbness of burnout?

Leaning into sensuality reminds us that we are bodies capable of feeling pleasure. 

The most intense periods of burnout usually result in a lack of passion and excitement. We can forget why it is that we are doing all this hard work in the first place. Finding small moments of sensual pleasure may not bring all our motivation back. But it can help us to remember our bodies; to thank them and permit them to feel good. 

For me, these small moments of pleasure look like this: reading a sexy book in the bathtub. Scheduling a short nap with my partner in the afternoon and snuggling up to him, smelling his neck as I drift off into dreamland. Kissing my cat on his tiny furry forehead while he sits on my chest purring. Buying myself a cupcake and a coffee before I start that paper I’ve been dreading. Walking around my neighbourhood listening to my Spotify Wrapped playlist. Cocooning in a duvet and playing a game on my phone for an hour in silence. Watching Planet Earth, masturbating and smoking a joint. 

These are small things I incorporate into my day to remind myself that it’s okay to feel nothing right now. It’s okay to forget why I’m passionate about my schoolwork; I remind myself that I will remember, soon enough. It’s okay to rest. and slow down a bit. It’s okay to notice the way my body feels and offer it something pleasurable. It’s okay if the work I submit is not my best but good enough. Good enough is enough for now. 

Your ship may be coming in

You’re weak, but not giving in

And you’ll fight it, 

You’ll go out fighting all of them

As Kiley assertively belts out the lyrics above, a snare drum authoritatively tap-tap-taps in the background, like a march into an old-timey battle. But it’s not a real battle she’s singing about; it’s the fight against the nothingness. 

Each time we let ourselves rest and feel pleasure, we are fighting the nothingness. Each time we allow ourselves to be just as we are without judging ourselves, we are fighting the nothingness. Each time we touch the grass, smell a newborn’s scalp, listen to a loved one play the piano, eat our favorite food or watch the sunset, we are fighting nothingness. 

I finish my Red Bull and my cigarette and take a deep sigh. I try to notice the way the snow is falling on the street lights and think of how warm it is upstairs in my apartment. I can do this.

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