Yes, that’s right. Here’s another thirty something struggling with a burnout. I’ve been thinking long and hard whether I was going to publish this post, because let’s be honest, talking about stuff that’s difficult and ugly is uncomfortable. But then again, that might be the reason why I felt it was important. For my own road back to recovery, and maybe I can also help someone else along the way. Because even though it seems as though the label “burnout” is all around us these days, I learned that there is so much that is unknown ánd misunderstood about this condition. People can make some pretty wrong assumptions based on their lack of knowledge. So here it is, the ugly truth about how I try to get back on track while dealing with a burnout. Oh yeah, and while also making a little human.
Where It All Began
It’s difficult to precisely pinpoint when it all started, since a burnout is something that creeps up on you when you aren’t looking. That’s exactly what’s so frustrating about it: you never realized it was there, and then it’s already too late. In hindsight I sort of know when my bucket started overflowing.
It was roughly around May 2016, right before our trip to Canada (as I mentioned in my Rocky Mountains post), that I couldn’t really handle some unexpected obstacles at work. I don’t want to get into all the details, but let’s just say that I felt really alone and really responsible for everything that was going on – even though I absolutely wasn’t. Being so close to the top had always been amazing, and basically what I loved about my job, but it also meant that my position was pretty lonely which was getting harder and harder for me to deal with I guess.
During our time in Canada I realized something had to change and when we got back I had a very good and long talk with my boss. I was relieved, happy, and confident that I was ready to kick some ass again. Well. I wasn’t. Soon after the summer calm was over, everything went back to its crazy normal routine, which was to be expected of course.
That rushed and pressing feeling, being completely exhausted but at the same time you keep running like you’re being chased down all the time, came right back to me. And at the end of September everything came tumbling down when I snapped my back. I literally could feel it snap and I immediately started screaming and crying from the pain. It was excruciating. Luckily the husband was home and he could drag me to bed while I was almost passing out because it hurt so freaking much.
That was it. Game over. I was in bed for days, where I couldn’t even lift myself up or roll over without that hellish pain shooting through my body. The husband stayed by my side for days – which is not easy with his corporate career. Doctors were called, pills were given (ánd thrown back up because of an allergic reaction), and a physiotherapist came by. After a week or so I was sort of able to get out of bed and into the car so that the husband could drive me to my appointment every three days. With every painful treatment it was getting a little bit better. Next to the physical therapy I also was treated by an orthomanual therapist, who was literally using a hammer to place my lower back and pelvic floor back into position. Let’s just say your pain limit is really pushed when somebody is using a hammer on your pubic bone…
And finally I started working half days again. Well, at least that was the plan. After only two days back in the office I pretty much had a mental breakdown on the morning of day three. Why? The train was cancelled. Yes, that’s right. That’s all it took. I called HR and she immediately realized there was more to the story and convinced me to stay home for a while and call the doctor. So that’s what I did. “Uh hi, this is Lara. And I’m not sure what’s going on with me, but I think I need help”. Side story: at first I dialed a wrong number so I said all this to a complete stranger. Fun times. I made an appointment for the next day, called my BFF (who is really the best friend ever for dropping everything to be there for me) and got on a train to her house. The next morning the doctor referred me to a psychologist with a possible “DSM IV disorder”. And after the psychologist’s intake I was officially diagnosed with a burnout. I felt defeated, like a failure, and most of all: lost.
Character + Environment
I learned that usually two factors are at play when building up to a burnout. The first factor is made up of your character and your personality traits. For me the things that probably most attributed to my burnout are my strong sense of responsibility for everything and everyone, and my ability to notice, remember and reproduce the tiniest details of life in general and my work in specific. Yes, I know you may think that these are pretty good qualities, and of course they are. But the problem is, like with oh so many things, there’s also a dark side to it.
Taking responsibility is great, but feeling responsible for each and every issue not so much. Every day I would take up tasks that weren’t necessarily my own, just because I felt responsible to do so and I’d find it hard to bother others with it or simply because it was quicker to do it myself. Even though it might be their job in the first place. And having a perfect eye for details seems wonderful, but it’s not so awesome when your mind is being triggered by so many unnecessary details all around you. All day, everyday. I’ve always been highly sensitive which for me means I am “ON” all the time, being triggered all the time.
And what’s worse, I can remember and reproduce a lot of those ridiculous details. I can tell you so many phone numbers, license plates of buses and taxis, account numbers, case file numbers, tour guide names, middle names of applicants, the tram driver’s childrens’ names, how many scooter alarms went off today, and all sorts of other random stuff that is taking up space in my mind. This has been the hardest part to tackle when trying to bounce back. I’m still learning how to shut my mind off while still being receptive to the beauty of the world around us. And while these two – and many other – qualities made me the perfect fit for this demanding job, it also is one of the reasons why I was slowly building up to a burnout.
The second factor is your environment. Obviously that’s your job position, your work environment, but also your social life, your personal responsibilities and where you live. And looking back I realize that I – unconsciously – was building up stress on all those levels. The responsibilities and pressure that came with my job position, the fact that there was a lot going on that I couldn’t share with anyone due to confidentiality aka clearance levels, the fact that we were trying to figure out how to plan our future with two demanding jobs (not to mention my daily commute), looking for a new house in the crazy Amsterdam housing market, while also feeling more and more resentment about living in the city. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
Another factor, in my case specifically, is that I have perfectly trained myself to never feel stressed. Yes, that sounds ridiculous I know. I think it started during my racing days as a coxswain where I had 8 rowers sitting in front of me, right before the start of a race, who were all super nervous so I always was the cool, calm and collected one. I just told myself not to be stressed or anxious, that I was perfectly in control, and at some point I managed to trick myself into believing it.
This is one of the biggest traits I have used in my professional life ever since. People could throw all sorts of stuff at me while my work was already piling up, but I never let myself be stressed about it. It even made me feel pretty badass that I could handle so much craziness without ever feeling overwhelmed. Well, I call bullsh*t. I since learned that my body produces high levels of cortisol (stress hormone), so even though I thought I was kicking ass all day everyday without a drop of sweat, my body was saying otherwise. This is probably also why my back issues started during my coxswain days, and they obviously only became worse during the years. My muscles have been completely full with cortisol, and thus extremely tight for years. And therefore they weren’t doing a good job at keeping my joints in place, which in their turn started to shift and became crooked. Result: a messed up lower back and pelvic floor. But hey, I wasn’t stressed, right? Yeah right.
Things People Say (That Aren’t Really Okay)
I don’t mean to call out the people who have said these things to me, because I know they didn’t mean to hurt me. But well, it kinda did. Even though I know that these things were said out of misunderstanding, it still hurts. The reason why I share this is because I hope people will think before they speak when someone tells them they are diagnosed with a burnout. Remember that listening is a pretty powerful and comforting tool, and sometimes simply all that’s needed.
“You’re way too positive to have a burnout”
This was probably meant as a compliment, but if I tell you it was being said by a (external) company doctor, you realize it’s a pretty weird thing to say to somebody who’s sitting in front of you overwhelmed and broken. And also: so only negative people can have a burnout? Complete horsecr*p. For me, my enthusiasm and positive work ethic are part of the problem because I was very good at convincing others ánd myself that I loved my oh so important job, that I was totally handling everything and I was completely fine. You know what? I wasn’t. Don’t be fooled by what you see on the outside. And you’d think a doctor would know that…
“Are you sure it’s a burnout? It sounds so exaggerated”
Yeah. Ouch. First of all: no, I’m not sure since I’m not a doctor and I don’t know what is going on with me. Second: because I’m not a doctor, I went to see a doctor. And last: that doctor is sure it’s a burnout, so I’ll take that professional’s word for it. To be honest, I get this response. These days we all know somebody, probably even more than just that one person, who has a burnout. So it must be some sort of trending thing, right? Be that as it may, that doesn’t really mean that we’re all just exaggerating.
I read an article not too long ago; it was by two old conservative grey men who were basically pissing on this entire generation for being pussies. Well, you know what? Back in your day, you would have your degree handed to you after showing up for classes occasionally for a few years (completely funded by the government, might I add). Without all the internships, student board positions, experience abroad, volunteering jobs, multiple language skills, stressing about student loans, oh and did I mention all these freaking group assignments, interviews and surveys? And after these guys got their degree they could just wave it around and there would be jobs to pick from. These days, you can have the best grades, and the best resumé, and you’re still lucky if you’re offered a temporary position as a trainee – often even unpaid. But hey, we’re all pussies. [End of rant].
It’s true that more people are being diagnosed with a burnout than ever before, but let’s not forget there’s a reason for that. Most jobs aren’t your typical 9 to 5 anymore. My work phone was with me all the time, and every night I was checking and answering e-mails because I thought it would be more annoying if I didn’t deal with them right away. Every morning, the first thing I’d do after turning off the alarm was grab my phone and check my emails. Even on vacation I was still handling requests because I felt responsible to do so (and also because nobody else was allowed access to my mailbox). But I never complained about it, and I told everyone it was just part of the job and it was perfectly okay. But like I said above, even if somebody seems to be doing fine, there’s no way of knowing what is actually going on inside. I didn’t even know it myself.
“If you really had a burnout, you wouldn’t be here”
I think this is one of the most common misunderstandings about burnout. Yes, burnout basically means a complete and utter exhaustion of ones physical and emotional wellbeing. Most days I would be in bed for hours, sleeping or staring at the ceiling. Feeling defeated and empty. Numb even. I couldn’t even do laundry or empty the dishwasher, or answer the door or the phone. Not to be dramatic, but I was basically a ghost in my own body.
But. But! There were some days where I would feel slightly better, or I made myself pretend to feel slightly better. And for some reason I would always feel guilty on those days. Like you’re not supposed to feel better, like you’re not allowed to feel better. Which was basically what was said to me when I was at a small get together with some friends. “If you really had a burnout, you wouldn’t be here”. I didn’t even know how to respond to that, and I think I just said nothing or mumbled something like “maybe”. But it felt like someone just kicked me in the stomach. Were they right?
My psychologist reassured me that even with a burnout you can still (try to) enjoy your life, and it’s even crucial to do so since at some point you have to get back out in the real world again. So it’s important to dip your toes in so you’ll slowly learn whether you’re ready or not. I remember being at some sort of party at a hotel in January, and where I usually always can get in the mood for some drinking and dancing, I felt completely out of touch. Okay fine, so I wasn’t ready yet. A few weeks later I went on a last minute solo trip to Fuerteventura because I had to get out of the city and thought it would be good for me to be on my own for a few days. It absolutely was. But when I got back I still wasn’t completely ready. And that’s perfectly okay. It’s a process and it will take you as long as it takes you.
Ups and Downs
I was diagnosed with a burnout in November, and my initial thought was to get to work with my psychologist and nip this thing in the bud. I would be back to kick ass again shortly. Wrong. So, so wrong. I soon realized the road to recovery is filled with ups and downs and you just can’t follow a check list and get back to work. Well, you could. But I can tell you, the burnout is going to bite you hard in the arse fairly soon. There are clinics where you can check in for 6 weeks and they promise to send you home completely burnout free after that time. Sounds convenient, right? It isn’t. Because the hardest thing is that you have to learn how to function in society without the risk of another burnout. And I don’t believe you can be thrown back into reality after 6 weeks on the inside and are ready to face real life again. It doesn’t work like that. Like I said, it’s all about dipping your toes in, taking baby steps forward – and sometimes back again. Remember little Nemo going out of his anemone for the first time? Yeah, it’s like that.
I think my absolute low point was not long after we learned I was pregnant. Let me clarify by saying that it had NOTHING to do with the fact that I was pregnant, since we were over the moon happy right from the start. But those early weeks (uhm, months) of my pregnancy were pretty rough. It started around week 7 of my pregnancy, during the final days of our trip to California and Hawaii. I was sick all day, everyday. The only thing I could do was lay in bed or on the couch, and I couldn’t even take care of our new puppy (read more here). That feeling of being completely exhausted – both emotionally and physically – came right back and I felt so defeated again. It was probably the combination of my body adjusting to the pregnancy, while still recovering from the burnout. It was during those weeks that I finally was brave enough to admit to myself that I wasn’t happy with my job anymore, and I had to quit. I was relieved but also frustrated because I felt like I failed to win the burnout struggle. Like I somehow hadn’t been good enough at my job because it had led me here. I felt like I was failing my boss and my co-workers, my family, my husband, and most of all: myself. It’s still hard for me to acknowledge that it was also very brave to quit my job, and that quitting something doesn’t necessarily means giving up. Can you tell I’m still trying to convince myself here?
So Now What?
To be honest: I don’t know. For now the husband and I have decided that being as healthy and relaxed as I can be during this pregnancy is what’s most important. I feel extremely blessed that I am in the position to take some time off and put this growing baby inside of me first. For the first time in forever I feel more calm and positive than I have ever been. My work with the psychologist ended not that long ago since we both felt that I was ready to be out in the real world again, especially since I’m very aware of what my triggers are. I’ve been focusing on a mindful life and pregnancy, meditating every day, and I try to keep all sorts of negative vibes as far away as possible. I still struggle to turn my mind “OFF” but it helps that I’m aware of how sensitive my mind is to all sorts of random things and I try to use it more and more to focus on the beauty and good things out there.
I don’t know what I’ll be doing a year from now. Maybe I’m working as a freelance writer, while also dedicating more time to my own blog. Maybe I’m working at a travel agency. Maybe I’ve taken the plunge as an entrepreneur in the sustainability business. Maybe I’m working as a web designer. Maybe I’m a personal trainer for new moms (to be). Maybe I’m a volunteer and helping refugees. Maybe it’s a combination of all these things, or none of these things. Or maybe I’m a stay at home mom. And you know what? That’s fine too. For the first time in almost a year I’m actually very excited and positive about the future. That’s all that matters to me right now.
Thank you for sticking with me and this ridiculous long post. I hope it was well worth your time. Please feel free to contact me if you have any questions about my burnout, or you feel like talking to someone about your own struggle.