Burnout Diaries – Chapter 6: ‘And You Keep Thinkin’ That You’ll Never Get Burnt’

On how I discovered what led me to burnout and how hard that would be to tackle

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“I know your type” – said Dr#3 with a smirk on his face – “you’re the type that just wants to get straight back into work as if none of this had ever happened”. He had a point. From the moment the magnetic helmet had made me feel better I had jumped straight back into action. Reverting to type with work was going to be the natural (if idiotic!) next step for me. “I will help you, but you need to learn to help yourself” he said. “I’ll review you in a month and you can go back to work on a graduated return. And you could really do with talking to a therapist in the meantime.”

As I sleepwalked through the streets of Holborn (and a kid on a scooter nearly stole my iPhone) a million thoughts were racing around in my head. Would I be able to work at the same pace and level again? How would my slower brain and body cope with my very demanding job? What would clients and colleagues think of my weakness? Would I ever make partner at my firm? Did I even want to become a partner anymore? How on earth was I going to incorporate the required exercise, nutrition and sleep hygiene changes into an 80 hour working week? I was nailing all the lifestyle stuff now but, as author Nigel Marsh put it in his book Overworked and Underlaid, “it’s easy to have work-life balance when you don’t work” (1).

Thankfully for me, I had to put the existential crisis to the back of my mind and focus on my wedding, which I had devoted a lot of my migraine-free time to planning and was only two weeks away. But the wedding, which thanks to the magnetic helmet I was able to thoroughly enjoy, came and went so quickly I didn’t even have time to blink. And then I was left not only with a terrible case of wedding blues (they are a real thing, I’m telling you!) but also with all the questions I had parked on the side during that walk back from Queen Square. Only this time I didn’t have an excuse not to address them as I only had three weeks left until I had to walk back into our Mayfair offices.

Too embarrassed to call, I penned a sheepish email to a therapist I saw a few years ago when life had got a bit out of hand. “Dear Mr Therapist, how are you? I’m writing because I have got myself into a little bit of a pickle about stuff you and I have spoken about before and I was wondering if you could see me this week?” He replied promptly saying that his practice was full for a few weeks and that in the meantime I should review the notes I made a few years back to get myself ready for our work together. I thought to myself that this was well and truly an enactment of Einstein’s definition of insanity – doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome. However, safe in the knowledge that I could get a gold star for following instructions I duly dusted off the iPhone notes I made all those years back.

And so today I took myself to our local café in Bermondsey (where people with Macs run start-ups and I do all my deep and meaningful contemplation) armed with my iPhone and a brand new notebook and pen (since I’m a firm believer that new stationery is a must when one is about to make lasting behavioural change). I tucked into my porridge and decaf coffee and with a resigned sigh opened the notes app on my iPhone.

The notes started with the definition of ‘Acceptance and Commitment Therapy’ (ACT), which I had studiously researched probably in an attempt to become the therapist’s teacher’s pet: “ACT is a psychological intervention that uses acceptance and mindfulness strategies, together with commitment and behaviour change strategies, to increase psychological flexibility”. Or in plain English, you try to accept what is out of your personal control, and commit to doing stuff that improves your life and maximises your potential. Sounds good, right? I carried on reading as if I was reopening some form of time capsule amused by the thought of my former self taking it all really seriously and then doing shit all about it: “Your core values are personal relationships, achievement and recognition” No shit, Sherlock. And then for the killer line: “You are like a guesthouse. You work tirelessly to make guests happy but when they leave glowing feedback on TripAdvisor you completely ignore it and only read the negative comments, which you act upon immediately and obsessively. You are probably a charming boutique guest house with a 5-star rating but your self-image is that of a dodgy youth hostel that has seen better days.” MEGA LOLS.

The guesthouse analogy must have gone in one ear and out the other last time. A few years later and here I am again: with a fried brain in the name of achieving a 5-star rating, only to completely ignore it. At the ready to say yes to all guests’ requests no matter how ridiculous and run around like a mad woman to keep the guesthouse full at all times and make it look as beautiful as possible inside and out. Like Nancy Sinatra said in “These boots are made for walkin” – whose lyrics also give title to this post – I have kept saming when I ought to have been changing… Fine. I f*cked up twice but I am determined not to do it again. I’ve done the A of ACT before, I just need to make sure this time I do the C as well and not revert to being this corporate “heroic coper” that says yes to everything at the expense of her own physical and mental health.

So with three weeks before the return to the real world, I have time for a bit of re-orientation and value reassessment. But also for a little bit of self-love and not too much self-beating for having tripped on the same stone twice. I just found another random iPhone note which has given me me the positive push I needed: “Life is full of strange reciprocity: the circumstances we cause in time give rise to us“.

I’ll tell you what the return to normal life gave rise to in the next post!

Much love and cortisol,

Paula (Instagram: @_burnoutgirl)
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