Burnout In My Twenties.

How becoming addicted to the buzz landed me in bed for 3 months

I’ve been a senior manager since the age of 19. I was thrown (willingly) into the deep end to sink or swim and I swam… and swam… and swam. It was the most thrilling and terrifying experience of my life. At 21 I achieved my goal of becoming a Marketing Manager. I managed a team of 12 and marketed events with keynote speakers such as Richard Branson, Tim Ferriss and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

I remember the 3 months leading up to the first large-scale event I did; there were countless long days for myself and my team, and very, very little sleep. That said, I don’t remember feeling tired. The event was a massive success with over 6500 people in attendance so, despite my lack of sleep, the buzz from that event endured. It was a buzz that I felt many times in the early days of my career. During those years working 60-70 hour weeks plus after-work drinks was the norm but it rarely felt like work. This is what passion is, I thought.

Fast forward a few years and at 24 I moved from my home country of Australia to London where I became the divisional marketing manager for what was then the UK’s 5th largest recruitment company. Compared to the fast-paced entrepreneurial environment I was used to, this job, where I was encouraged to actually finish at 5:30 pm, felt horribly boring. Addicted to the energy, agility and optimism of the entrepreneurial world, this slower-pace felt more like a 9-to-five slog than the 8-to-8 days I used to do! My buzz died and I felt like I had completely lost all passion for what I did.

Not one to wallow, I found a job setting up a marketing business for a business strategy consultancy in Chicago, packed up my life in London and moved to the USA. I think I might hold a world record for the shortest relocation of all time because it took all of 3 weeks before I decided that instead of starting a marketing business for someone else, I should do it for myself. And so, I packed up and moved back to Australia.

Much to my surprise, the business was immediately overwhelmed with incoming clients. The buzz came back and I was loving it. Addicted to what I believed was passion, I worked, and worked, and worked and worked. A walk was a chance to have a meeting, a drive a chance to catch up on some calls, I worked from home, from cafes, from bed. This is what you do when you find your passion, right?

Clients were coming in faster than I could hire and train staff. But I refused to say “no” to new business. I had heard of so many small businesses failing that the thought of refusing work seemed ungrateful.

A year in and I could feel myself changing. I was tense all the time and I sensed something deep within myself that I didn’t want to be alone with. I was 26 and had spent 7 years addicted to a buzz that kept me in a loop of endless work. I was doing everything right though; I cut out coffee, had an incredibly clean diet, jogged most days, did 3 or 4 yoga sessions a week, had at least a few catch-ups with friends on weekends… and yet it all felt somehow fake. Like tick boxes. I was never actually present for any of it. It was like I was on autopilot doing all the things a well-rounded human should do and suppressing the urge to scream, or collapse, or both.

Then I kind of had a panic attack, although at the time I didn’t realise it. I was driving out to dinner when all of a sudden it felt like someone had injected me with 100 espressos. My heart began racing, my hands twitched uncontrollably, my jaw clenching. I felt like I could run forever and still not use up all this energy. I pulled the car over and tried to calm down, but nothing changed so I cautiously drove home to call my sister (who is conveniently a paramedic). She diagnosed it as a panic attack, advised me to have some peppermint tea, breath deeply and try to meditate or do some soothing yoga. I adamantly told her that I didn’t get panic attacks, it must have been something I ate. But I followed her suggestions anyway and they worked.

From there, I started getting anxiety and within a few weeks I woke up one morning and simply couldn’t get out of bed. At first, I thought it was the flu but eventually, it was diagnosed as glandular fever. I was bedridden for 3 months. My boyfriend (now husband) and I were in between houses at the time. I was unable to look after myself let alone house hunt so we moved back to my parents and he looked after me.

Surprisingly my business kept ticking along just fine. My team looked after it pretty much without me. However, even after I was out of bed, the business continued to stir up the anxieties and tensions that lead to the glandular fever. Deep down I knew I would have to let it go eventually. Although I slowed right down, it was a hard year after the glandular, my anxiety became worse before it got better, my weird food cravings persisted, I couldn’t exercise for long periods of time and I often needed 10 – 12 hours sleep. I got sick often and sometimes spent full weeks back in bed, terrified that it would last another 3-month stint. I saw a therapist, a doctor and a naturopath, slowly building up my immunity and psychological health.

I began to understand that the buzz I was so addicted to was not passion, but fear. Fear of failing, fear of not being successful, fear of not making something of my life, fear of royally fucking everything up. This fear had me in constant fight or flight mode, literally buzzing on adrenaline and cortisol. I was so narrowly focused on that single work-based passion that I had no energy to be passionate about anything else in life. I had become so consumed with what I was going to achieve and become that I had no appreciation for the present.

I’m now 28 and I haven’t had a “glandular day” in over a year. I sold my marketing business and decided to study organizational psychology, focusing on high intensity working environments, the “buzz” that I know not just I have felt and how we can create workplaces that better meet the different needs of different individuals.

While I study I’m still working as a Marketing Manager. I thoroughly enjoy and get excited about study and work but neither of them consume my life. I don’t suffer from anxiety anymore and I rarely feel stressed out. I’m not perfect, but I’m no longer trying to be. I haven’t yet achieved all my goals, but I’m setting myself more realistic time frames and realising that my biggest goal of all is to enjoy this life.

Becoming bedridden from glandular due to overwork was so embarrassing at the time. I felt like I was weak and couldn’t hack it. In hindsight, I wouldn’t take back a day of it. If it hadn’t been such a difficult experience I know my determination well enough to clearly see that I would have been back on the overwork train immediately. I needed the time it took me to heal, not only to physically get better but also to understand that I can still achieve my goals without sacrificing my wellbeing.

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