Burnout Diaries — Chapter 5: The 40%, Spoons And Upside Down Maslow

On how I discovered that burnout could easily become a pattern.

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“IT’S THE FOURTH FLOOR!!!” — I shouted excitedly down the intercom to the delivery driver that was bringing my magnetic helmet. There was even a little bit of a dance while the young man travelled up in the lift. He handed the heavy box over and it felt like Santa had come early (or, in my case the three wise men — it’s a Spanish thing. Google it.). Dr #3 had told me not to get too excited — after all, Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation only works on about 40% of severe chronic migraine patients — but I just couldn’t help myself. Being in the unlucky 60% could have meant brain surgery, and at the least a trip to the US for a fourth opinion. By then I just couldn’t even face the prospect of that.

I opened the box, charged the helmet and blasted the back of my head 4 times as per Dr #3’s instructions. I didn’t feel anything other than a flick to the back of my head. And all I experienced was a little vertigo, dizziness and a teeny tiny nosebleed afterwards — a walk in the park compared to the previous medication. As I felt the daily attack coming on, I whipped out the helmet again, blasted my hypersensitive brain and to my surprise, my facial droop and general right-sided weakness were stopped in their tracks. A BLOODY MIRACLE. As the days went on, I carried my helmet with me everywhere and blasted my brain to my heart’s content, managing to stop most attacks or at least significantly reduce their severity. All of a sudden, the prospect of a normal life, albeit helmet in hand, seemed like a distinct possibility.

And so my pre-burnout self slowly began to creep back in… Armed with the helmet, I thought I was well again and started to behave as such. I did a full day back in the office and went straight to a spin class after. I did a 15km hike during my (very healthy!) hen weekend after a 5.30am start. I attended a two-day wellbeing coaching course. And so on and so forth… Doing all these things a few weeks before would have been unthinkable and although I did go through with them and more, my body and my brain were not quite ready yet for all that action and I crashed and burnt a couple of times. Needless to say, both my fiancé and Dr #3 (total bromance going on there…) agreed that I needed to slow down or I would jeopardise the progress I was making thanks to the helmet.

Intellectually, I understood that I needed to continue with the slower pace and the lifestyle changes I had made but emotionally, it was near impossible not to get carried away. On one of those “crash and burn nights”, when I wasn’t able to stop an attack and my right leg stopped working, I came across an article by Christine Miserandino called “The Spoon Theory”(1). In her article, Miserandino describes her theory (using cutlery for the purpose of physical demonstration) that people with chronic illnesses have a limited number of “spoons” — like units of energy — to use throughout the day. Each activity (even those as simple as getting dressed) requires a lot more effort for a chronically ill person than a normal person, and uses up a spoon. One therefore has to be very careful going about daily life so as not to run out of spoons too early.

Most of Miserandino’s “Spoon Theory” really resonated with me with one exception — she claimed that healthy people have an unlimited number of spoons, which I happen to disagree with. Before frying my brain through burnout, I lived life as if I had the entire John Lewis cutlery department available to me. I used up spoons willy-nilly and took my body, brain and energy levels totally for granted. Until I had no more spoons left. Not even the plastic ones you get with take-aways. And guess what! Since I got the helmet, I had gone back to living life again as if I had knocked on the door of everyone in my building and politely asked them to hand over their spoons. INSERT FACEPALM EMOJI HERE…

Only then was it that I realised that something inside me was driving me to start throwing spoons everywhere again. WHAT THE ACTUAL [email protected]*K? Had I not learnt anything?! Did I not remember all those days when I was unable to stand up or getting lost in central London or randomly forgetting friends’ names? At that moment it became clear to me that while my hard work had paid off in getting the chronic migraine under control, I had more work to do, and it was going to be harder than changing exercise, nutrition, sleep and meditation habits combined.

While I’ve got you entertaining my theory on theories, here’s another one — most of you may be familiar with Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (if not, another one for Google)… If you think about Maslow’s theory, it was clear that there was definitely something not quite working in my head — I had turned Maslow upside down. Rather than prioritising my most basic physiological needs of resting and staying healthy, I had been taking those for granted and was sleepwalking into putting the esteem and self-actualisation needs first once again. I am 100% sure I’m not alone in this — like me, a lot of people turn their pyramids upside down. We skip meals or eat crap on the go, we sit down for hours on end, we worship our mobile devices, and we often neglect sleep and mistreat our body as if it was a rental car as opposed to the vehicle we are going to be driving for the rest of our lives. And all in the name of goals about who and what we should be that we are often not even able to articulate…

The helmet may have started to fix my brain but it certainly hadn’t addressed the dark corners of my mind that had driven me to burnout in the first place. A long hard look at my psyche was clearly long overdue (cue “tell me about your childhood”)… I’ll tell you what I found out in the next chapter!

Much love and cortisol,

Paula (Instagram: @_burnoutgirl)
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Originally published at on May 22, 2017.

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