It’s been a while since I posted something in this category, and as I mentioned before, here I plan to post experiences, thought, reflections and so on, if and when I feel like doing so. While I’ve “declared” the burn-out as more or less under control about a 100 days ago, obviously it’s by far not all behind me. I’m not even sure if it will ever be, or if I’d even want it to ever be. That might seem weird at first, but I’ve learned so much from going through a burnout, about myself, about how to take better care of myself, about things in life which are important and which are much less. In that sense, I’ve tried to hold on to some of the “good habits” I picked up while working through the burnout, such as for example walking. I’ve already posted some nice pictures in the Walking Treasures post I made recently. Nowadays I walk 5 km to work in the morning, and walk back home in the evening. I simply learned how walking is a perfect means to clear my head and get some movement, and to keep on doing it, the best was to build it into my daily routine. So far so good, and we walk on…
Now what I wanted to also tell here (without going into too much details) is how things all came to be. In late 2020, I ended up having the bad habit of working about 60 hours on a weekly basis. I had been doing that for about 2 to 3 years, putting a lot of other things in life aside. Back in those days I was involved in a research project that intended to be a start-up in the near future. So we were a bit of a skeleton crew at that time, but in view of securing funding and getting the company on it’s feet, we all tended to push the extra mile. People would often tell me in those days that I needed to slow down, that I was overdoing things. Anyone from family, to friends and colleagues would notice what I was doing to myself, but I kept on telling them and myself that I could manage this. I could still pull it off for several years and then things would go better. This situation can best be described as the denial phase. You’ve never really gone through mental problems, and you consider yourself invincible in some way. During the weeks and months before finally crashing, there were abundant signs that things were not really okay. Signs you notice but keep on ignoring somehow. Sometimes there would be blurred vision, lack of concentration, headaches, tinnitus, poor sleep and tiredness. All of that resulting into slower progress in the jobs at hand, and trying to tackle that the way you usually do, work more! You kind of notice now how this quickly becomes a vicious circle, and it will end up spiralling the wrong way. I’m also not claiming that I was pushed by my colleagues to pull off what I was pulling off, one of the main problems was forcing myself to do this and wanting to do it. Burnouts do mainly happen to people that are (too) engaged with their job and are often perfectionists. I don’t want to sound pretentious in any way, but I guess I used to be the prototype of exactly that.
Now I’m not a superstitious person at all, but I will never forget how I hit the wall quite hard, on Friday the 13th of November. The 11th being a bank holiday, I also took Monday and Tuesday off that week, as I felt like I needed rest. Yet on the second day of work after that short break, I crashed during my last online meeting of the day, as we were still in COVID times back then. Somewhere in the middle of the meeting, I mentally blacked out, I lost the ability to speak. I could still hear (parts of?) what was being said, but it was just background noise that didn’t register. I’ve been sat behind an empty teams call for over two hours then, and when I finally seemed to “walk back into the room”, I found a slide of mine still on display and the call taking about 2.5 hours by the time. I didn’t know what was happening at that stage, and it took me until the morning after when I woke up with a bit of a hangover to realise that this was no ordinary hangover. There was an emptiness inside that I had never felt before, not even after a horrible break-up or things like that. It felt odd, very odd. But then I immediately realised what had happened. I had a burnout, so this is what it feels like? By the way, many people have wondered if the burnout might have been related to COVID and to the larger degree of working from home. I’m quite sure that this situation hasn’t helped to avoid getting a burnout, and it’s likely to even have helped speeding up the process. Nevertheless I’m convinced that without that virus around, it was also just a matter of time before things would have went down exactly the same way.
The first week after that, I literally didn’t sleep a single minute. I was tired beyond belief, but there was no way of catching any sleep. I can tell you that this sleep deprivation rapidly sends you to a more dark place than the one where you were already residing. I’m not much of a poet, but back then I wrote something I thought was worth sharing. It kind of summarises the feelings after the first few weeks had past.
You run, you run for years on end,
and suddenly you miss one bend.
You end up crashing against a wall,
and suffer the inevitable fall.
Suddenly you’ve stopped racing,
and wonder what the hell you’re facing?
Inside this dark and empty hole,
you wonder if anything is worth this all?
Dark and grey clouds trouble your head,
while inside you, all seems dead.
The road ahead seems bumpy and rough,
the choices to be taken tough.
Yet forward seems to be the only way,
With demons that just want to stay.
You realise you’ll have to fight them all,
but the timing ain’t your call…
To this day, I really think this summarised how the first two to four weeks have felt. Also the rest of it seems to have been true, many open questions, many unknowns and the realisation that things would take a while. At the same time, there is some optimism, the feeling that “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” somehow was already there. For now I think I’ll leave it at this, as all the lessons learned will come up in future stories here.
It definitely helps me to write these stories up, as I feel like doing it. I hope some of these words can help people get more insights into what a burnout it, and to inspire them to look forward. At the same time, a burnout will be different for anyone, as it can be triggered by so many factors, and everybody will react differently. From the start, I have been very open about what happened and spoke about it to many friends, family and colleagues, as for me that seemed the right thing to do. I’ve also been amazed with the amount of people that have contacted me over that period, admitting that they suffered the same or were still struggling. So many people of whom no one ever told me about this. Some of them have been invaluable in finding my way back to a new normal (no, not the nonsense they were on about during COVID, a real normal), and I can’t thank them enough for that. You know who you are, I’m not going to mention anyone in particular now.