I was never a firecracker, not even as a child. An infinite sum of adulting activities later, I felt like I couldn’t go on. I mastered the art of doing my best in every aspect of life and was so busy pleasing everybody else that I couldn’t see the signs of powerlessness, feeling like an empty shell and lack of sleep that were just around the corner in my early 30s.
A “good girl” with big expectations
That would be a proper description of yours truly.
I was always too nice, too kind, too overbearing, too involved for my own good.
Nobody raised me this way, but my bright nature managed to pick up on the designated words so gracefully thrown by society towards women and realised that this was the way it had to be. How else could you be a “good girl” if you’re not doing it all?
Naturally, I developed an allergic reaction to the word NO.
All the effort needed for school, family or work activities – the Holy Trinity of our corner of the world, were grossly backed up by sleep, meaning whole chunks of 12 hours of rest, every time I got the chance. Just like some people – read aliens – get up “naturally, without an alarm clock at 7 am”, I could easily hibernate as if the survival of the human race depended on it.
Needless to say that I was never a morning person and that the biggest lie my parents ever told me was related to the excruciating waking up process that started early on, when I left for kindergarten: “the first week is the toughest, after that you get used to it”. Never happened.
This fantastic trip down memory lane comes to prove just how much I relied on sleep to get through any day, on a regular basis.
Without serious and heavy buckets of rest, I wouldn’t have made it to my sweet 16, not to mention the 5 years of college, topped with 9 years of corporate life. Heck, without my sleep superpower, I wouldn’t have made it to an interview, who says anything about actually getting some work done?
All of this is just a disclaimer, so that you won’t mistake me for a relentless Superman, that never gets tired of fighting the bad guys by day and scouring the streets by night.
I adopted the marathon as a lifestyle
I was constantly torn between my friends, my family, work mates, projects, oh…so many projects.
I lived for the weekends and holidays, but they were never enough since I used the same “all or nothing” approach towards them. I wanted to go out, see everybody, visit every museum, taste, feel, take it all in and leave no rock unturned. I used to squeeze work in my luggage and take it with me, always.
I was pushing my every limit. I said NO to days of zero activity because that meant I was missing out on something. Not-doing was not on the list that I’ve signed up for. I slept like a baby and then jumped right back on the treadmill. Until I couldn’t.
The day when my body betrayed me
My exhaustion finally caught up with me and ran me over.
I knew some things about burnout, but now it was standing on my doorstep, showing me all of its colors.
It started messing with my digestion system and left me hooked on bags of meds, a ton of tests and a tasteless, odorless and really nasty diet. My stomach refused to digest food, but I took it lightly and tried to act like nothing was wrong. When your body takes a stand and literally makes it hard for you to swallow anything, you should take it as a warning sign. I however, did everything I could to power through. My body won’t take in normal food? Switch to biscuits, skinny yoghurt, rice, baked potato and a fainted version of soup – that was my “easy fix”.
At the same time, I was going around saying that the last time I felt well rested was back in 2007. When someone told me that I don’t really seem fine or look good, I turned to jokes stating that this was “the mummy version of me”, or the “new me”. I was compensating with clever comebacks with the before and after looks I was sporting.
Game. Set. Match was when my body stopped sleeping, for good
It started like a temporary whim. Like a guest that overstayed his welcome.
I began having trouble falling asleep at night, so I was killing myself to make it to the weekend, dragging my bones until the days when no alarm went off and I could restock on some rest. Only It didn’t happen.
I tried calming tea, bedtime potions meant for knocking down garden gnomes for the night, lavender everything, melatonin and basically everything that promised a good night’s sleep. None of them worked.
Finally, after weeks of no shuteye, I made it to the psychiatrist office.
The things I never knew about burnout until I’ve dealt with it first hand
The happy pills and the peace of mind that my doctor provided were not enough to erase the years of abuse I’ve put my body through.
Looking back, amongst the dreadful sins of burnout that blazed through my entire being, I could now identify:
- An intensely passive attitude towards everything
It seemed rude, but it was rooted in lack of ability to do anything else.
The desire to do something left my body like it never inhabited it in the first place.
I was so tired that I couldn’t get out of bed. I kept hearing people say I should take a vacation, go for a walk, pick up a sport. They all felt like an abomination.
I couldn’t bring myself up to wearing anything else but large, comfy bags that could swallow my entire figure so that nobody would notice me when I need to leave the house.
I was apologizing to my own shadow, when bumping into it.
I felt bad for my tight fitting clothes that I used to adore, for my high heel shoes that I loved, but now feared, for my arsenal of body lotions that I’ve come to dread and for my forgotten hair brush. They all reminded me about the old version of myself, before the burnout. They all cast me away in a tornado of fear.
I didn’t want to see anybody. Sitting up, even at my own table, in my living room, with the dearest people around, proved to be an excruciating and indulgent endeavor for which I was no longer up to.
I felt guilty whenever I thought about the army of moms that don’t have the luxury of complaining or the leisure of a day with no activities whatsoever. I couldn’t wrap my head around that reality and how they were making it happen. I couldn’t even get out of bed and my life was a summer breeze compared to the tsunami of things a mom has to take care of.
I felt bad when thinking about my partner and the fact that he had no idea if he’s going to find me curled up in a ball, crying or desperately planning every instant of every weekend, from now on.
I was ashamed of the excuses I need to come up with to justify my absence – both physical and psychical, from so many events.
- Anxiety & a constant state of feeling sick
Anxiety was mainly focused on the life-threatening danger of not being able to sleep. It was not enough that I was wide awake at 3.am, but I needed to worry about it also.
Self-inflicted isolation came with a new line of fears related to questions like: what if I get to an event and can’t leave when I feel sick?
- Overflow of emotions
I went from ecstasy to agony in .2 seconds. Mood-swings, anger emerged from the depth of time, suspicions, doubt, dangerous lack of self confidence and negativity were on my plate. I was a regular Christmas tree that sparked insecurity.
How to return to life and yourself after burnout?
People don’t experience more than one serious burnout episode throughout their lifetime.
This is not because we lack the potential for enduring more, but rather because once you have one, you’ll make damn sure you never go through such hell again.
I promised myself that I will not let exhaustion define me, even if it pulled all the strings lately.
I managed to stick to the small habits that kept me afloat. I’m leaving them below with the *burning* request that you’ll never undermine or ignore the damage burnout can do, since it’s so eager to prove us wrong. Do the opposite of “letting it be”.
- Specialized help
Psychologist, psychiatrist, therapist, counselor, doctor – it doesn’t matter as long as you see a diploma or two on the wall. Never be afraid of asking for a second opinion if the treatment seems too flimsy or you’re not taken seriously.
I’ve had my share of “Mrs, you’re too young to feel this bad”, or “it’s all in your head, your tests are fine, you’re ok”, “there’s nothing wrong with you, you just need to relax”.
A complete set of blood work for hidden deficits that are tied to your overall well being is life-changing. Vitamin D deficiency is a serious indicator that something is wrong, and in my case, was actually related to some digestive symptoms as well, who knew? Keep in mind that every supplement must come from doctors’ orders.
- Serious time off
I’ve added the serious layer there, especially for those of you, who, like me, can’t stay still. Who takes breaks with a side of guilt.
Not everyone can take time off from work, but if you’re one of the lucky few, do it! Make plans for a sabbatical, days off, extended leave, anything that will help you get some rest. Keep in mind that rest is not something you mess with, it’s sacred. Another thing: choose the outdoors, everytime. Nature heals.
As our social context has a limited number of Thailand retreats available per capita, the idea is to create the space for tranquility in our own home.
One you manage that, exercise the power of saying NO to activities that do not include rest & restoration. So, no to Saturday cleaning, grocery shopping on Thursdays, attending every event that comes up. No to extra work, no matter how much we need the money. No to kid birthday parties or weekend bar hopping. For each of these there has to be some type of alternative, back up plan or plain ol’ understanding.
- Telling the truth
After countless nights of staring at the ceiling, twisting and turning, chronic fatigue, somatization and anxiety, there’s no use of not addressing the emotional elephant in the room.
It is what it is.
Once I could admit that I was no longer recognizing myself in the mirror, I started letting other people in on that.
I briefed them about the hardship, the struggle and the decision of not participating at the next events. I told them all about the truth that needed to be faced – that, at this pace, I’m slowly, but surely, heading down to a very dark place. The kind of place that I won’t be able to get out of. And in order to stop this from happening, I have to stop everything else. I have to cut back on meetings.
Once they all understood, a weight was lifted from my shoulders and for the first time in a long time, I could breathe normally.
- A big fat relaxation ritual
Regardless of what this means to you, it’s your duty to define, respect and hold on to a relaxation ritual that makes sense for you.
Burnout does not discriminate.
It doesn’t care that you have 4 kids or just a grumpy cat, that you live in a small town or every day is a metropolitan jungle, if you’re a CEO or juggle 3 part time jobs, if you’re a student or newly retired.
Just as burnout wears many hats, each one speaking to every individual, the healing process too must comply and adapt to your unique needs. You get to decide and define what healing means to you.