How psychotherapy got me back on track

How psychotherapy got me back on track

I’ve described before how burnout hit me pretty bad and how it brought me to the darkest place in my life. Luckily, I received a lot of support from friends, family and colleagues, but for some aspects their help simply wouldn’t be sufficient. Despite everyone’s good intentions, their view will always be biased, as they usually look at the situation from a very similar perspective as your own. For an outsider perspective, I had to rely on professional help, something that was totally new for me. I was lucky enough to only have needed a general practitioner a few times in the past 5 years since moving back to Leuven, as I only saw one twice for the flu. At those times, I just went to the local group practice of GP’s right around the corner and pretty much booked an appointment with whoever could see me first, as I just needed a doctor’s note for work. I ended up doing the same thing on that Monday morning in late 2020, after crashing on Friday night. By the time I went to see the doctor, I already figured out what had happened, I realised I hit the wall of burnout, but yet things were far from simple…

As most GP’s in the group practice already have a bunch of patients, I ended up talking to a doctor in training doing one of her internships over there. In fact I didn’t even realise that at the time, as from day one she has been so supportive and understanding. Honestly, it felt very weird having to admit to someone that probably is about 10 years younger than yourself that you can’t deal with life any more. While you might realise what happened, it’s often still very hard to speak out about it, especially to someone you just met. Yet I immediately felt at ease and felt like I met someone I could really talk to in an open fashion, I can’t stress enough how important that has been for me. At first, her assessment was that a few weeks of rest would probably be sufficient to work my way out of this, which in a sense felt comforting and also seemed to make sense to me. After all she was more experienced in issues like this than I was at that stage. I guess the fact that I’m quite a talkative person obviously made her arrive at that conclusion. Just a few weeks later, it became obvious that things would take more time to get resolved, and that just taking some rest wouldn’t sort out all issues. So obviously we started discussing various options to move forward, ranging all the way from meditation to psychotherapy. At first, I was really sceptical about any of these, probably due to fear of the unknown. But next to that, there’s also some stigma on psychotherapy, which is very widespread in society. For sure that also impacted my vision on the matter, some very blurred vision in retrospect. You know there’s a common misconception that therapy is for lunatics, and I always considered myself to be a rational and pragmatic person. I can’t thank my doctor enough for really pushing me here and talking me into taking up therapy.

I guess the fact that we were in COVID times and there was a lot of talk about the mental impact of isolation and limited social interactions due to lockdowns actually helped to convince me to go and talk about my problems. At the same time, this awareness of mental health had made the chronicle waiting lists for therapists even longer, so where to start was the first question to answer. Luckily, there was a psychotherapist linked to the same group practice that would see patients over there a few days a week. My doctor convinced me to go and talk to him, and to see if I felt comfortable with that. This is one other important aspect she explained to me right away. You can go to the best therapist in the world, if you don’t feel comfortable to share, then any therapy session would be in vein. This also means that it’s probably wise to try a few therapists in case you are in need, and to figure out who’s your best match. In the end, I never went to that process myself, as I felt like I had found a quite decent match from the start. I guess one of the main reasons was also the availability, someone that was just at walking distance, and where I had the freedom to book sessions at fairly short notice. I ended up seeing this therapist for about half a year, I’d say on average on a bi-weekly basis. Sometimes I would go every week, sometimes I’d have two or three weeks in between sessions.

Now you might wonder how those sessions went, given the fact that I started off being quite sceptical about therapy. Luckily enough, I’m a quite talkative person, so in that sense therapy was easier than I would have anticipated. In many ways, just getting things of your chest can already help you so much, but it takes time to come to that realisation. In some of my initial sessions, I would even say in a naive way that my therapist had an easy job, just sitting there and listening while I did “all the work”. I never really got any reply to that, most likely because such remark came out in a joking fashion, but it was a genuine feeling at the time. Obviously no therapist has an easy job, as listening in itself is not sufficient, you also need to be able to properly register all that is being said, and to try and see connections between all of those facts. Not to mention that anyone who goes into therapy is struggling with some issues, some of them fairly trivial, others very complex. There’s a need for sufficient empathy and at the same time to maintain a certain distance to still be able to have an objective view on the overall situation. This is also why therapy is a slow process, something that takes the time it takes and the duration of that is never really easy to determine. It’s one of these things that you have to learn to accept, as you need to do with many other aspects when it comes to mental health. Letting go is one of the hardest things in life, but it’s so essential to be able to do that.

In the early days of going there, I was still in a very dark spot due to sleep deprivation (I’ll go into that in a later update), and this obviously also blurred my vision on future perspectives. In those days, I was seriously contemplating to resign from my job, and to find myself a job with little to no responsibilities. Obviously my therapist would really try to talk me out of this, but at the time I was convinced that would be the right thing to do. We’ve been over that subject during many sessions, but yet at some point he managed to convince me to reconsider. I guess that must have been the one major breakthrough we made during that half year of therapy. It took us about three months to reach to that point, and I had mentally already made a lot of progress by then. The sleeping issues seemed more or less under control, so at the time I started to feel a bit better and we started to talk about restarting work. Now how did we get to that point? And what really triggered this abrupt change in my reasoning?

By the time, my therapist had explained to me how your mental health looks a bit like a chart with share prices. It fluctuates with many peaks and valleys, but overall the objective should be the long term trend to be moving upwards. I truly like this analogy, as it makes you realise that having a bad day is by far not the end of the world, you should just try and see the bigger picture and realise the next day is likely to be better! That positive take on things is something really essential and is key to moving forward. Once you get to the point where you understand this, you can really start to make progress. As I pointed out, I think there was one major breakthrough during therapy for me, but obviously there were many small steps that had led up to that point. Because it was such an important moment, I still remember vividly the one question that was asked and that turned things around. My therapist asked me what had attracted me to my job in the first place, why did I decide to become a researcher? It’s a question I never really asked myself, as I kind of rolled into it so to say. After doing my master thesis at imec, I got offered the chance to start as a doctoral researcher and at that point in my life it was obvious to me that I wanted to continue doing research. While a Ph.D. project often comes with many highs and lows, I look back to that time as something very positive overall. Having the freedom to do research for the fun of discovery, for the fun of understanding. That’s also why I decided to go for a postdoctoral research position after that, to continue doing research. Now after that change of scenery and moving to Sweden for that, three years later I joined imec again to work as a photonic design engineer. By that time I had come to realise that I would not pursue an academic career, so this seemed to be the right move for me. To be able to do applied research and work on projects for industrial partners. While that all turned out to be very enjoyable, at the same time I missed the freedom of doing fundamental research. I’m not saying there was none of that in my job, by far not, but the focus was more on reaching deadlines and completing milestones in all of these projects. Exactly that realisation was triggered by my therapist’s question of what attracted me to research. He noticed the excitement when I was talking about doing research for the fun of discovering and he pointed out that I should try and find that joy in my new job. That made me realise I indeed needed to look for another change of scenery and a new challenge. I never quit my previous job because of any issues with colleagues or superiors, I’m on talking terms with all of them to this day. I just came to realise that I needed to find a position in which I could nurture the curiosity inside me, so that would be what I’d go and look for in my next job. This brought me into a new team, working on nano-imprint lithography (NIL) and supervising the academic research and the exploratory work in the lab. This allowed me to go back to the roots of what I like most, and on top of that it allowed to put all of my prior experience to very good use. To this day, I can’t say I regretted that move for a single minute.

Now while that was a major breakthrough, I still had to work my way through some hard times after finding this new perspective. The positive view on the future for sure helped my mental wellbeing, but now I still needed to be able to make a new start. I was really eager to get going again and to get to know my new team, so I started planning my restart along with my new superior. We agreed I would start at 50%, which at the time seemed to make sense to me. I was really feeling positive about restarting and couldn’t see any reason why that wouldn’t work out. Unfortunately, the thought of restarting was putting some unconscious pressure onto me, something I wasn’t really aware of at the time. I ended up crashing a second time just days before I would restart. Sleeping issues got as bad as they were in the first few days after the initial crash, and I needed therapy more that I would have anticipated at that time. It took me another few months to really get that stock market curve back to where it was just before crashing. Obviously I also asked my doctor and therapist if they had seen this coming. My doctor told me she was quite surprised about it, while my therapist told me there was a 50/50 chance. Being quite a rational person, I felt a bit disappointed with that answer, as I would have wanted to know beforehand. In retrospect, I realise of course that it’s better to not be aware of this, as just the chance of things going wrong would increase once you are aware of it’s existence. You just risk dwelling on it more than would be good for you at that time. These events kind of humbled me and made me realise even more that I would need to take baby steps to get back onto my feet. We spent the next few months with figuring out a more gradual plan for a restart, in which I went from 20, to 40 and eventually 80% employment, taking about two months for each stage. This step by step approach turned out to be critical for me to get back into a proper routine and to find joy in my job. To this day, I’m still at 80% employment, just because it feels right for me at this stage.

After a few months I decided to quit therapy, as I felt like we were not really making enough progress any more, if any at all. At the same time I didn’t feel like I was just ready to move forward, so I asked my doctor for advice. Should I find another therapist, or should I consider other options? At first we discussed finding another therapist, by trying a few of them and also explaining what I wanted to get out of it. To some extent it seemed to make sense, but at the same time I came to realise I would have to go and explain all events from the past few months once more, and I didn’t really feel like going through that. Instead, I went to talk to a job coach where I had three sessions with more hands-on type of exercises to really figure out what I wanted to do. At that stage, I also received the feedback that I probably had come to understand my situation and that further therapy probably wouldn’t really help me. In retrospect I’m also sure that the fact that my job coach had gone through two burnouts herself definitely helped me to immediately open up and get her honest opinion on where I was and how I should move forward. She also recommended me to read the book “Busy: How to thrive in a world of too much” by Tony Crabbe. This one is an absolute must-read for anyone suffering from a too stressed life, it comes with a wealth of hands-on tips and tricks that I still use every day.

Now I mentioned in the title how psychotherapy got me back on track, and some might wonder why I make that statement so strong. I truly believe that therapy has helped me to get a better understanding of myself, my coping mechanisms and my ways of living. That understanding has really helped me to make the required changes in my life to be a better and happier person. During the therapy sessions, these things might not seem so obvious to you, but looking back you really come to realise how much progress you have made. While I don’t actively follow any therapy today, I’m still using everything I learned from it on a daily basis. I’m more aware of the choices I make in life and I also pay more attention to my mental wellbeing when taking those. Also, I’ve learned to be very cautious about any potential signs my body gives me, and I would never ignore them any more. It’s nothing that would paralyse me in any way, but it’s more of an awareness about what’s going on. I’ve learned how to deal with those signs and to let go whenever I feel the need for it. It’s never simple, it’s never easy, it’s something to work on every single day. That might sound negative to some people, but in fact it becomes something that is very natural to do, it doesn’t take much effort. In that sense, burnout is no burden but a blessing in retrospect. It has forced me to take a good look at myself and to be aware of how I need to take better care of myself. It has been hard, it has been challenging, but it’s made me a better person and it has made me more aware of so many things I never even thought about in the past.

So bottom line, don’t be afraid of therapy, it might look scary at first, but it can bring out the best in you. I was sceptical about it as well, but I’ve come to realise how very wrong that was, and I’m by far not the only one. Therefore I’d also like to make one final recommendation for anyone who contemplates seeking help. Have a look at the HBO series “In treatment”, as it will give you a good perspective on what therapy is and how it can help you. And even if it doesn’t, it’s well worth a watch!