It Could Never Happen to Me
That’s what I used to think. I thought I was strong, and that it only happened to weak people – people who had something a bit wrong with them. Of course, this was the attitude I copped from some others when it did happen to me.
Burnout is a strange beast – one you can see coming from quite a distance, but somehow are powerless to run or hide from. At least, that’s how it was for me. I saw it coming for a year to a year and a half before it hit me. I was not naïve about it – I knew what it looked like in others, and I knew when to intervene and assist.
From the position of a spectator, everything is that much easier. You can observe impartially, note when something seems out of character, identify when a break is needed. You see the forest when you add up the trees. But when it was me I could only see each tree, knowing that the forest was there but not realizing I was surrounded by it.
It’s hard to say how it started, as I had been working harder and harder, getting more and more involved in my work for a number of years. I’ve always been a highly involved person, so a prime candidate in retrospect. But I thought I could just handle more than other people because I was driven and I felt strong. I simply had always just got on with whatever needed to be done and was generally unfazed by crises, which I have always thrived on. Where others were constantly pointing out to me how much I did and how I needed some time for myself all I saw was more that needed to be done and no justification for “me-time”.
There are those times when you’re on a tight deadline and you just have to pull some magic out of the bag to get things dealt with. Most people experience this at some point in their lives, and as a teacher I was well used to tight deadlines and late-night marking sessions around exam time. You don’t get to sleep properly or eat properly for a week or so at a time. Except I wasn’t just a teacher, I was a lot of other things as well, and was working the equivalent of two full-time jobs while only being paid for one of them. I went like that for three to four months at a time, two or three times a year, until it all turned into one giant conglomerated self-abusive mess of workaholism.
A little over three years ago I quit teaching and hit the road with my (now ex-) partner. We sold most of our stuff, bought a car, and crammed what we could into it. We built what we jokingly referred to as a “mezzanine” level in the back – a raised wooden platform for sleeping on while all our stuff was safely stored underneath. We travelled like that for some time – parking up where we fancied for the night, cooking on a campfire, washing in a stream, sleeping on our mezzanine. It was the freedom I’d always craved and had allowed myself to experience for a few months of time-out every few years. It was the first time my partner had ever done anything of the sort. I decided to take it slow with him – he’s a city-boy after all – and not push for a really long time on the road. I felt I needed a long time off, and a lot of wide-open freedom. But I sensed that he wasn’t ready for all that, so when he suggested we settle again for a bit I agreed to it.
I wasn’t ready, and I hadn’t articulated that. So we settled into a new home in a new state – the third time we’d moved interstate together, one of many, many moves for me. We decided not to go back to the world of work we considered ourselves refugees from, and got cracking with our business that we’d always been starting but never really got moving yet. Within weeks we were back to the old pace of life – me busting my gut to always do more and better, and him somehow managing to be so laid back it was infuriating. There were times when I actually despised him for playing computer games in the evenings while I was still working, although I did my best to hide it because I knew it wasn’t fair.
It was around this time three years ago that I departed the non-profit organization I had been working with for the previous few years. I had been a regional coordinator for a number of volunteer groups and projects, and I had worked hard to involve everyone on an equal footing, and empower and inspire the kind of actions that could make a difference. I had treated the work as a second job because it needed to be done. I’d never prioritized money and it had never bothered me to work without pay for a cause that mattered to me – in fact, I wore it as a badge of honour to cut out my personal price-tag when it came to what really mattered. It wasn’t realistic; it wasn’t sustainable; and it wasn’t nourishing.
Despite loving the cause I had become critical of the organization. It was poorly run and the wrong people were in the wrong positions. As a whole we were not as effective as we should have been, and I was frustrated at the constant bottlenecks volunteers faced in getting approval for projects and the stonewalling they were faced with when asking questions of the “system”. I became defensive of those who I saw were being mistreated, and was in turn punished for doing so. It was all starting to cave in. What had happened?
I wondered. All we were doing was the best we could, and we all needed one another’s support for that. I was tasked with overseeing the “improvement” of a group that was facing the axe. I had actually intervened in order to stop the chop as I had seen much good work coming from this group and had been made aware that their closure was more about personal differences than it was about the quality of the work being done. So I stood up for what I felt was right, and I took on the challenge of overseeing the group’s development over a month-long process of scrutiny and support. I would have preferred more time, but the month was a period I had negotiated upward – others in a make-or-break position asserted that the group could turn around in one or two weeks if they were committed. From the get-go I was harassed and bullied over that month by those who should have been supportive of this work but who instead did what they could to sabotage it. Ego had got the better of too many people, and they were no longer able to see their work for what it was.
After I had completed my report and won a stay of execution for the team in question I decided to officially leave. I wrote a long letter of resignation which I mailed to all coordinators, detailing what I felt to be problematic with the structure and operation of the organization, what I – and others – had done to try to rectify these things, and how I – and others – had been treated as a result. My letter was well received by many who sympathized and said that I had articulated what they had been feeling. I was, however, greeted with extreme hostility by those I’d slighted with my criticisms, and the ritual reputation-trashing commenced. It was brutal. I had witnessed and experienced such hostilities before in the NGO world, but never to this extent and with such ferocity. I became the subject of an open letter (never sent to me, of course – such scribblings are usually intended for a social media platform, not change-oriented discourse) asserting that the reasons I had left were more to do with my flawed character and lack of commitment to the cause than with any actual issues within the organization.
Still, I gathered myself, promised myself a month off from extra work, didn’t grant myself any of it, and got stuck right back into a million other things I had going on. Even after leaving that toxic environment I still had too much on my plate. For the next few months I soldiered on admirably, pulling off some impressive feats of campaign action and trashing my body with inadequate sleep, too much alcohol (generally I rarely drink, and right now I don’t drink at all) – to help me unwind and sleep – and far too little exercise. I was a mess. By late May, when I was able to breathe again, I crashed and burned.
I promised myself a month off again, but this time I was sure I meant it. It turned out I needed a lot more. I had been becoming less and less social over the past year or so, and now I was completely unwilling to socialize. People worried about me and encouraged me to get out and have fun, as though that would somehow make it all better. They didn’t understand that I couldn’t have fun. I’d lost the capacity to. When an extrovert hides from people everyone thinks there’s something wrong with them. I’ve sometimes wished I were an introvert just so I could have my cave-time without anyone thinking it was strange. Introverts get a free pass on this score, while extroverts are expected to always be the life and soul of the party – even when they don’t want to go to it.
I became lethargic to an extent I’d never known was possible, and my appetite went haywire. Sometimes I felt no hunger at all, and only ate to appear normal, and other times I binged to fill something other than my stomach. I tried to take exercise – walking for an hour or so each day, until I was unable. One day when I came home from my walk I collapsed on the sofa and could barely move for the rest of the day, more exhausted than I think I’d ever felt in my life. That lasted. Every time I went for a walk – or, heaven forbid, a jog! – I would be destroyed for the rest of the day, unable to do anything more than lie on the sofa and drift in and out of consciousness. I ached, felt like I had a fever, felt weak. Felt like it would never end.
I hated myself. My mood swings were intolerable, even for me, and to say I was no fun to be around is to master the art of understatement. I gained weight and developed dark circles under my eyes, and almost gave up on trying to look like I cared. I hated the mirror nearly as much as I hated myself for what I’d done to myself. I was anxious, paranoid, incapable of feeling pleasure most of the time, and a total bitch to my partner. The only person I liked being around was Derek, and he’s a cat. I picked fights with my partner, I derided him, I showed him the exact opposite of the gratitude I should have, resentful as I was for my new-found dependence on him. Stoic Slav that he is, he took it all in stride and just welcomed me back when I re-emerged from my cave several months later.
I started writing a blog when I was in the depths of it all, really just to feel sane. I wanted there to be something that I did that didn’t matter – something I didn’t have to take any real responsibility for and could just maintain. Something I could just use as a brain-dump and a portal to the world that I could hide behind when I didn’t feel up to interacting. The only other things I did during the worst of it were “study” online courses via Coursera, and make a pretense of trying to read books. I had no real motivation and couldn’t concentrate on anything, often leaving a couple of weeks between lectures and submitting half-arsed assignments on the few occasions I did them at all. I was starting to feel the anger of someone who has given others their all, and had it all thrown back in their face. I was angry because life wasn’t giving me the things I wanted in return for my hard work. I’d never craved any sort of recognition, but at least to have not been slapped in the face on the way out the door might have been nice. So I set about doing the things I’d always wanted to do but never been able to with the schedule I’d been keeping. I learned a thing or two, and I wrote a thing or two, and I beat myself up over the poor quality of it all. I was not getting better.
I only really started to get better after I participated in the Over Our Dead Bodies hunger strike in late August. Perhaps a few days of fasting had detoxed me sufficiently to restore my default settings. Perhaps it was the feeling of self-efficacy that comes from using the one thing we all have – our own bodies – to say no to something I cannot accept. Perhaps it was the kinship I had started to feel when sharing time and space with people I didn’t have to explain myself to and who didn’t expect anything from me. Perhaps I had finally felt permitted to take some time out.
Whatever it was, it worked. I gradually started to feel capable of taking life on again, one baby step at a time – sometimes a little fast and then tumbling down like a toddler, lucky to be supported by my man who for some unfathomable reason had still not deserted me. I started to be nicer again – to be myself again. I still beat myself up for being unproductive, and I am only just starting to allow myself the space to be unproductive without judging myself harshly for it in a way that I would never dream of doing to others. I started to work full-time again, committing to two-day weekends for the first time in years. That was the hardest part, funnily enough – permitting myself to take work-free time out. It took a few weeks to get the hang of it, particularly if I hadn’t had a productive week, as I felt I didn’t deserve a weekend unless I’d earned it. It took an even greater mental shift to work on not working after dinner. There ain’t no slave driver like me when I’m my own boss. For a long time my weeks were semi-productive – I was firing on about half my cylinders, and probably only got two days’ work out of the five I put in. But I let myself have a proper weekend nonetheless, and gradually learned to grant myself time for rest, relaxation and pleasure. Most importantly I started learning how to say no. I still didn’t really want to interact with people most of the time, and was easily exhausted by any social situation – especially as I felt like I was expected to be on form, performing my extroverted self for the satisfaction of others so that no one needed to wonder what’s wrong.
I don’t want to give anyone the impression that I think it’s right to go back to how I was working before. I recently read a booklet written by an acquaintance after he experienced the black hole of burnout. It was an enlightening read that I felt should have been updated with the posthumous disclaimer that its author had taken his own life some time after writing it (although it is certainly up to the author’s family and no one else to make such decisions). What I mean to say is that I read the booklet with the hindsight of someone who knew of the tragedy, and realized where mistakes had been made. The author had seemed to think he was back on track, and had taken on a workload similar in magnitude and stakes as the one that had burned him out. I am all too aware that my own repetition of such a mistake would send me back down the slippery slope, and probably in a weakened state. So my take-home message is that I cannot kid myself anymore.
I have to adjust my model for approaching life to the shifting parameters of my personal scope and capabilities and to the support networks around me. It isn’t just about how much work one does, but also about how much responsibility is inherent in your role, and how well supported you are in fulfilling it – which stretches to all spheres of life, including family, social and spiritual. I have realized how important it is to work on my own psychological resilience, and form more realistic evaluations of my ability to take on any particular task at any given moment. I have realized (the penny seems to have dropped slowly for me) that I need certain interdependent relationships in order to feel confident in my support network, and that I have to nurture these lest they fray and fail to catch me when I fall. I have realized that failure to adequately prepare myself psychosocially for any tasks I take on will result in future attacks on my own productivity in my race to produce what I can in the moment. I am coming to accept what my dad warned me of in my early twenties: that I can only handle one piece of the pie, that the rest will have to be taken by others, and that I will have to resist the urge to make up for what I see not being done by others.
I would like readers to know that although I’m on the mend, a large part of the mending process is a radical re-evaluation of who I am, what I want, and what I can and will contribute. This means that I am not the me I was before. Something had to give.
So I continue to chip away, and am getting better at feeling less guilty, getting better at letting go, and getting better at assuming less responsibility. Sometimes the dishes stack up for a couple of days and someone else does actually do them. I am not alone, and I don’t have to take care of everything! But when I am too stoic, others fail to recognize my fragility, and the fall is all the further when you have built yourself up in a fortress of perceived strength and capability. I need for others to recognize that I too am vulnerable, fragile, at times unmotivated, often anxious and unsure, and always in need of encouragement, words of affirmation, and the assurance that others know I have done my best. I am learning to ask for the encouragement, affirmation and assurances I need, and to communicate my vulnerabilities and uncertainties in a way that will ensure me the support I need to navigate the course I have chosen for my life.
Of course this isn’t easy – it takes humility, and a certain desire to actually interact with people, which is still coming back slowly.
I feel like a newborn foal, stumbling and fumbling on spindly new legs that go in all directions but the ones I want them to; I am blurry-eyed and swimming through a fog of much that is unknown and unpredictable; I am not in control. I never was. I know now that control has to be surrendered and consequences simply accepted.
Now I just wonder what life’s next lesson for me will be. I hope it will be an easier one, I really do.
Please note: if you have been through or are going through any stage of burnout, or are supporting or observing someone else who is, please do feel free to contact me privately for a chit-chat. I’m always happy to be there for someone who needs to unload. I can’t promise to have the answers, but I have a listening ear and shoulders I’ve been told are great for crying on 🙂