I Went from Breakdown to Breakthrough

What my experience of burnout taught me, and why the COVID-19 pandemic could be your wake-up call

Ivan Kruk/ Shutterstock
Ivan Kruk/ Shutterstock

It is March of 2013, and I’m sitting in my car outside the doctor’s surgery. I’ve just been signed off work for two weeks due to “stress and low mood.” The score on the Generalised Anxiety Disorder form indicates I have it. And my blood pressure is too high. I can’t stop crying. I sit there for two hours trying to comprehend what’s happening to me. I want to go home but I can’t remember how to drive the car.

That was the start of a very surreal, distressing, confusing and extremely isolating nine months. My mind felt like it had broken, and without it, my body couldn’t function either.

In the weeks that followed I had a shocking realisation.

“I think I’ve had a breakdown”

The first few weeks passed in a blur. The symptoms got worse. I was so exhausted that walking across the room was like wading through concrete. My memory was so poor that I’d forget what I was doing and burst into tears. A trip to the supermarket caused a panic attack simply because I forgot what I’d gone in for. Lack of focus meant it became unsafe for me to drive. Extreme paranoia and anxiety pervaded my waking hours, and at night I was tortured with my own spiralling negative thoughts. If I did eventually go to sleep, I’d often have nightmares resembling a disaster movie that felt so real I felt like I’d been under physical attack.

Regular trips to the Doctor saw me signed off work for longer each time. Anti-depressants were offered and refused (a personal choice). Friends and family tried their best to help. If they contacted me to offer support, it was too much pressure. If they didn’t, it meant no-one cared. I felt alone, misunderstood and helpless.

As I look back, it’s so easy to see how I had arrived in this place.

I had what I thought was a successful career in a Financial Services organisation. I was a project manager, working 60 to 70 hours a week (that’s normal right?). I was good at my job and used to working on deadlines and under pressure. Expectations were high (mine and theirs). There was no time for eating properly, exercising, having a hobby, relaxing or generally doing anything except work. My Nan, who I was extremely close to, had just passed away after a battle with cancer. I didn’t even have time to grieve, I just dealt with the practical side of organising medical care, paperwork… anything except dealing with my emotions. I don’t even remember the funeral.

The “obvious” signs that I wasn’t well, such as anxiety, exhaustion, hyperactivity, sweats, heart palpitations and even hair loss went ignored. There were a few occasions where I almost passed out in the office. Worried friends staged an “intervention” to get me to slow down. I just didn’t see the problem. I’d been working under sustained stress for years, and the feelings I had were so familiar they seemed normal. I did go to the doctor after a routine check revealed high blood pressure, which was unusual for me. They gently suggested I take a couple of weeks off work, as it was clearly stress. But I couldn’t because my project was too important and there’s no way I could take time off.

Then the day came where my mind and body decided enough was enough. I was in the office, staring at the hundreds of emails pinging into my inbox as the phone kept beeping and ringing. When I didn’t answer, they would come to find me. Suddenly, time slowed down. Everything went out of focus and blurred. Sounds became muffled and distant. It was as if I was under water. And then I heard a voice in my head say, “I can’t do this anymore”.

So here I was: just trying to get up every day and praying it would stop.

​The turning point came when I finally accepted that I was ill, and that I wouldn’t be able to go back to work, or even my life until I got well.

Deep inside, the drive and determination that had pushed me to achieve at work kicked in and I started to take little steps to get myself better. I went into therapy (CBT). I educated myself about burnout, anxiety and stress. I studied neuroscience, mindfulness and habits. I created a simple routine of exercise, healthy food and mindfulness. I journaled, practiced gratitude and meditated. Not very well, I might add, but it was working.

It wasn’t easy to re-build a life that had previously revolved solely around my career, but after trying out self-care routines, new hobbies and taking control of my thoughts, I slowly rebuilt my life.

Fast forward a year, and I was back into work after a phased return with a whole new appreciation of what had gone wrong for me, and what I needed to do to stay mentally and physically well.

Although I wouldn’t choose to go through that experience again, I wouldn’t change it. Because without it, I would still be living my life on autopilot.

What did I learn from it?

​It can happen to anyone.

Yes, even you. And if you’re “lucky” enough to notice some of the symptoms, then do something about it now. Talk to someone, get some therapy, take some time out, or adopt a self-care routine — whatever you need. There’s so much information and support out there to help you. Start by using the resources on Thrive Global.

Listen to your friends and family – if they’re worried enough to share their concerns with you, then there’s probably something wrong even if you can’t or won’t see it. It’s harder to climb out when you hit rock bottom.

Our thoughts are ours to change

Life is a roller coaster of highs and lows. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we respond to it. As the world faces a global pandemic, we are all being tested in different ways. With normal habits and routines suspended, our mental coping strategies are laid bare, and we are having to think and act more consciously — an ideal opportunity to go inward and become more self-aware. Everything we do is a pattern, a learned behaviour, and can be changed.

I referred earlier to not “having” time to do anything other than work. The truth is, I didn’t make the time. I didn’t make myself a priority. 

Check in on your own beliefs and habits – are they serving you well or do you need to make some changes? Are you feeling burned out? Unfulfilled? Unhappy? This is your chance to hit the re-set button.

There is hope

“Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving: We get stronger and more resilient”

Dr Steve Maraboli

I needed to believe this more than anything when I was ill. I searched endlessly for reassurance that I would get better, and I wanted a timescale for when that would happen.  Even when I did recover enough to go back to work, I spent months worrying that it might happen again. I just wanted to be “normal.”

So as someone who has gone from breaking down to breaking through – I’m here to tell you this:

There is hope. You can get better. You can feel “normal” again.

You might need to get therapy, you will definitely need to become self-aware, and you will need to do the work – but you can overcome anxiety and stress and you can develop more resilience, so that when life throws you the next challenge, you’ll be ready.

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