Anyone that’s shown a passing interest in my posts will know that, three years’ ago, I suffered a breakdown. I was severely physically and mentally burnt-out which then led to a sustained period of depression. I couldn’t envisage a day where I would ever feel well again, but over time, I pieced myself back together and returned to work. End of story, happy ending, move-along-nothing-more-to-see, right?
Well no, not quite. Whilst there’s a lot published about burnout and peoples’ experience during it, I’ve not seen much talk about its longer-term implications on health and job prospects. So here I am, a few years’ post-recovery and let me tell you, burnout really is the gift that keeps giving.
To give you some background, I’m George, a 47-year old bright (indeed, ‘gifted’ to use school parlance), ambitious offshore commercial property lawyer. I outpaced social constraints to achieve academic and professional success whilst birthing and raising two children. I’ve crashed through some, but suffered concussion from hitting more, glass ceilings than you’ve had hot dinners and yet continued to strive for personal and professional recognition. I worked and juggled my time and delivered. I was dependable or, as Legal 500 put it, the person you went to to ‘get the job done’. Woo, go me.
But the thing is, I’m also human and all that dependability comes at a price. And that price, for me, was my health and it broke quite spectacularly three years ago.
Since then, I’ve undergone years of therapy, changed my role (but still in the same industry), stopped drinking alcohol, eat healthily, exercise – all the good stuff. Frankly, I’ve not only got the wellness t-shirt, I designed it. And yes, generally speaking, I’m well. But the spectre of burnout persists and recently, I’ve begun to identify how it rears its head on an almost daily basis even now, so long after ‘recovery’.
Take today, for example. I’ve generally been feeling a bit low over the past few weeks as the combination of heavy workload, Christmas and school holidays has weighed on me. But today, I had a particularly challenging day and whereas in the past I might have come home, poured a Friday night glass of wine and decompressed, instead I’m sober, teary, a bit angry, my heart’s racing, I have a tightness in my chest and I feel resentful and isolated – all classic burnout symptoms. But I’m not burnt-out, I’m just tired, stressed and annoyed. However, my ability to healthily process those feelings hasn’t fully returned and seems hard-wired to my burnout experience as I’m transported straight back to that time and those feelings of failure, shame and embarrassment. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had enough therapy to see these feelings for what they are: they’re just feelings, and a symptom of something that very nearly killed me, but not something that IS going to kill me. Well, not today, anyway, thank you very much. But man, the internal pep-talks necessary to keep those feelings at bay is draining!
Now that’s just a flavour of the physical/mental aspects of recovery, but what about the practical implications? On the surface, I’m fine. God, I hate that word. ‘Yeah, I’m fine, thanks’ trips off the tongue as an automatic response to an enquiry after your health, your work or, to be honest if you’re British, pretty-much anything. But genuinely, I am for the most part, fine. But here’s the rub: if I’m not fine and I say so, people freeze in shock, caught like rabbits in headlights, unsure how to respond. That then leads to both of us feeling embarrassed, until one of us (usually me) cracks a joke and we move swiftly on.
And on piles another layer of shame…
But it’s a double-whammy: not only do I feel embarrassed and ashamed if I admit to not feeling 100%, I then don’t mention it again as I don’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable. So I’m left holding both the fact I’m not firing on all cylinders and the fact I don’t feel I can seek help or mention it, alone. And the spiral continues until – bang – that critical point of overload and I slip back in to depression.
But hey, let’s not forget the practical effect that burnout continues to have on me, my reputation and my career. After my breakdown, I didn’t have the mental or emotional resources to consider or advocate for myself beyond the immediate future. I couldn’t see further than the immediate fear of how I was going to pay the mortgage and what people were saying about me. Through the fog, I hatched a plan to overhaul my life and over the subsequent months and years have largely stuck to it. But now several years later, I’m a bit bored and a bit sad that the days of big opportunities have passed me by. Yes, I’ve found other outlets for my skills, experience, drive and intellect (a Masters, for example), but I can’t help but feel that my career has interminably stalled, frozen in the aspic of broken-me.
But at heart, am I still someone that continues to perform at the highest level, seeks out fresh challenges and wants to talk about my experience in order to make a difference and bust the stigma for others? You betcha.
And so why do I get the feeling that burnout, even now, is holding me back?
Having given this some (a lot…) of thought, I think the main problem stems from the fact that no one talks to me about my experience. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need someone checking-in with me on the day-to-day, but the fact remains that the last three years have been seismic and so to not talk about them (or to feel I can’t or shouldn’t) is a bit weird and has left me feeling that my experience isn’t valid, or is something I need to keep quiet about for fear it’ll harm my prospects or make others’ feel uncomfortable.
To put it in to context, every day, at some point, I will think about my breakdown. It can be the most innocuous passing thought or it can be a real ‘God, I’m knackered. Am I going to be ill again?’ (I’m not, but that fear is constantly there). And yet, no one ever mentions it. Like, ever. Whilst there are a lot of ‘if I’d had a broken leg’ comparisons with mental ill-health around, it’s more than a bit odd that I had this massive life event which has had lasting ramifications and which I work hard to overcome each day – and I do that in complete silence.
Except now it’s not in silence, is it? Now it’s written here for anyone to read.
Why have I done that? Because I’ll bet you that for every colleague, friend or family-member that has suffered a breakdown or mental ill-health, their subsequent ‘I’m fine’ will be coming from a place of fear, shame and embarrassment. How daft is that? And how refreshing would it be if they felt empowered to say, ‘you know what, I’m not feeling 100% today. It’s nothing to worry about, I’m just a bit stressed and it’s bringing up some old unhelpful feelings. If I need anything, I’ll let you know, but thanks for asking, you’re a star.’
Who knows, perhaps that simple act of openly speaking the truth and validating our feelings and experience without shame might be all it takes to shrug off those final, lingering vestiges of burnout. I’ll let you know…
7 Comments Add yours
Just know we are always here for you! 💕
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I think that, if I was in your position, I’d be seriously considering if it is preferable to give up life in the fast lane for the sake of your health. (And yes, there are consequences and considerations of doing that.) I know that when I retired – I could have plodded on – it was a huge relief. I’ve never regretted it. Best wishes George.
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I get where you’re coming from Roy but I struggle with the fact that I should have to give up something I’m really good at and for the most part enjoy, just because I’ve had this experience. Not sure there’s an easy answer!
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This is such an enlightening article George. Thank you for sharing your experiences. You are a brave lady and inspirational to many, including me.
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Thanks so much! 🥰
I hear you, and I stand with you George.
Thank you for being so brave. The aftermath of burnout is grim. Especially with a bit of imposter syndrome too. 🙈 And with a bit of female chucked in too.
You’ve gained so many skills and knowledge over the last three years and you’re putting them to very good use from what I see. Challenging yourself now doesn’t need to be in the day job. 😊
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Ah imposter syndrome, I’d forgotten that dear friend… Thanks Sarah, appreciate your support, especially when I’m feeling so ‘other’ at the mo! ☀️