Burnout Diaries – Chapter 3: When you hit rock bottom, the only way is up

On how burnout hit me both physically and mentally and medication was not the answer

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Three months into the burnout journey and the reality of the situation had finally set in: my hemiplegic migraine condition had become “persistent” meaning that attacks were happening every single day. I had to accept that my daily life was just not going to be the same no matter how hard I tried to pretend that it was all just a little blip.

At that point we were due to leave on holiday to Australia and New Zealand for a few weeks to attend a couple of weddings and celebrate our own with those that couldn’t make our official day in London. We went backwards and forwards as to whether I should go at all but the neurologist encouraged me saying that “a change of scenery away from the London madness will do you good. Also, you are going to feel like cr*p so you might as well do it in the sunshine and surrounded by beautiful nature.” He also prescribed me a high dose of strong anticonvulsant medication, which was proven to help some migraine sufferers, albeit with its share of unwanted side effects.

And so off we went. My carry-on luggage looked like a small Boots pharmacy — full of anticonvulsants, blood thinning injections, aspirin, migraine medications and all manner of supplements. I wasn’t well at all but yet again, I created an unrealistic expectation for myself that I should be able to cope with the 27h journey and merrily join in all activities once on the other side of the world. Needless to say I couldn’t. I tried my best but time and again I would have to make my excuses and go lie down in darkness and quietness, including during our mini wedding where I missed a big chunk of the action. Two weeks into the trip, I found myself standing in the middle of an Auckland street, bawling my eyes out to my fiancé like an exhausted toddler, saying that I couldn’t cope and that I just wanted to be curled up under a blanket on our sofa. Unfortunately this sofa happened to be 11,386 miles away.

So I returned to London acutely aware of my newly acquired weakness and vulnerability. And I hated it. Not only was I not able to work, I was also unable to do a lot of things we all take for granted like venturing more than 20 min away from home, riding a Boris bike, travelling on the tube, standing in a crowd… Normal things became impossible as my brain was in constant sensory overload. And then there was the medication… When I first got told about anticonvulsants and their side effects all I heard was “weight loss”. “Jackpot!” — I moronically thought to myself — ‘Pre-wedding diet sorted!” Little did I know that this drug would completely take over my life.

Before becoming burnout girl, I used to provide consultancy advice to the pharmaceutical industry for a living and I often talked about the “side effect profile” of medications without batting an eyelid. Well, talk about karma… I was a walking side effect. I had such severe pins and needles at night that walking to the loo or holding a glass of water was near impossible. And then there was the loss of memory and concentration, which would hit randomly and unexpectedly. One day I forgot how to tie my shoelaces. Another day I forgot how to walk from my flat to the tube station… The highlight of the drug-induced brain fog was when I found myself in the middle of Oxford Street not knowing where the hell I was and had to ask for directions — I didn’t even remember that I had a phone and could use Google Maps! All of this would have been just about bearable if the “drugs” were working, but like in the song from The Verve, they weren’t…

Those were dark times and they really tested not only my own resilience but also the strength of the relationships with my fiancé, family and friends. I became a sad, meek and scared version of myself and I am pretty sure I was difficult and unpleasant to hang out with. The whole thing was just such a big fall from grace. I couldn’t fathom how I had gone from giving keynote speeches at client conferences days before the first attack to having to look at a YouTube video to learn how to tie my shoelaces. It really felt like an almighty fall. And it hurt. It still does.

Psychologist Martin Seligman (1) talks about the three P’s in how people deal with setbacks. The first P is Personalisation — that this is all our fault. I most definitely embraced this P thinking about how hard I had driven myself in the last six months of 2016. The second P is Pervasiveness — that this will affect all areas of our life. Again, top marks for me since this was completely dominating my day to day. And finally, the last P is Permanence — that this will last forever… Thankfully for me and for all those around me, I kicked the shit out of this one. I had a firm belief (probably fuelled by yet another unrealistic expectation!) that this wouldn’t be me for the rest of my life. I had days when I would flirt with the idea and momentarily bathe in self-pity but I would quickly jump to do more research on my condition, look for alternative neurologists and find out about novel treatment options and lifestyle changes I could make to kick this disease to the curb. The “drugs” didn’t work and they did make me worse but I was determined to do everything in my power to ‘see my face again’.

But was sheer determination enough to make mind truly rule over matter? I’ll tell you what I learnt about that in the next chapter!

Much love and cortisol,

Paula (Instagram: @_burnoutgirl)
Views are own

(1) Learned Helplessness in Humans: Critique and Reformulation. Lyn Y. Abramson and Martin E. P. Seligman (University of Pennsylvania), John D. Teasdale (Oxford University, England). Journal of Abnormal Psychology 1978, Vol. 87, №1, 49–74

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