I joked sometimes that there should be a ‘Burnout Anonymous’ for those in aid work, like me. Almost like an addiction, I was constantly craving that ‘high’, on the lookout for the next emergency job openings or applying only for hardship duty stations. You know, South Sudan, Syrian, Yemen, DRC and the likes.
It’s difficult to describe what is so ‘appealing’ about living in a container or shared housing in the middle of who-knows-where, under curfew, working 10-hour days, drinking expired beer and being so far away from loved ones or the normalcy of ‘real-life’. When I’m away from the ‘adrenaline’ too long, I get restless. I didn’t think too much of it then because where I was standing then, it was the norm.
Everyone around me was going through the same thing – exhausted, unfulfilled and snarky. You wear your snarky like armour that’ll maybe score you witty points at some house party. It also helps to mask your lonely struggle and the precarity of daily life.
It’s absurd I know.
But it numbs you against a reality you often find yourself in where work was a cycle of endless meetings that led to more meetings, proposals were written to bring in as much funding as possible, and colleagues were juggling multiple functions. There was a sense of exasperation at the slow progress of projects, and exhaustion was the only currency we all collectively recognize.
To walk away is almost akin to saying I wasn’t cut out to do this line of work. And because I’ve always dreamed about working in international aid, I wasn’t about to give in to this burnout BS. So I became my own best cheerleader. I put on an upbeat and jollier attitude towards my misery. Waking up every morning, I’d tell myself to suck it up over and over again. I got pretty good at it.
I got a routine going – I worked and partied hard. I’m not proud of the days I dragged my worn-out body to work, hungover and silently cursing myself. But that was my reality and I suspect not too different for many others.
The thing about burnout is: it doesn’t just happen. It accumulates, keeps score, and waits for the most defenceless moment to pounce on you. Like a predator silently waiting on its prey. Mine came about when I was deep in my burnout, fatigued, broken, and pissed off. I had bronchitis for about two months from a steady diet of smoking, fast food, and convenience store wine. I clenched my jaws so much that I’d get regular dull headaches that hang around for hours even after downing painkillers. Sometimes I would pop a sleeping aid so I could rest my weary head and on one occasion, I didn’t realize I had popped more than I should and woke up feeling excessively lethargic that I could barely move. That was terrifying.
Even after that, I carried on business-as-usual because I was convinced it wasn’t that bad.
I guess I knew I was burnt out. I saw the signs and checked all the boxes. But when you’re in a state of burnout, your mind plays tricks on you. It glosses over what you’re going through and seduces you into believing that your pain – your real wretched pain – is really not that bad.
I honestly didn’t think what was happening to me was really that bad and or even worthy of being labelled traumatic. Because as an aid worker, how do I have that right when there were many others in the community actually dealing with the real trauma of war and conflict every single day. How can I complain about me when my situation was nothing compared to the external suffering, crises, and injustices out there?
This obsessive thinking was obviously unhelpful, but you have to understand – this was what I truly believed in at that particular juncture of my burnout. This was my normal.
When I finally carved out time for recovery, it was at the urging of a friend, who pointedly said, ‘You don’t look OK, you need to do something’.
At this point, I’d love to tell you that once on the road to recovery, my burnout was ultimately erased and all was well. I got professional help and bit-by-bit, it’s changed my life to an extent that my face doesn’t grimace so much anymore at the thought of doing self-care or taking time out for myself. I don’t recoil as much anymore at the idea of occasional self-indulgence.
These days, I don’t try too hard to follow all the latest health fads but on occasions, I do enjoy a golden turmeric latte and kale salad. Sometimes when I get irritated or angry either at the world, or myself (yes, it still happens), I’ve trained myself to detach from the situation, breathe and cool down with some ice cream (it’s a lifesaver). I do my best to keep my body and mind active, stay socially connected and get enough sleep. I follow the news but when I’m balancing in my tree pose during yoga, I try not to worry too much or overthink about climate change, bringing down the patriarchy, the Syrian crisis, or something someone did or said that irks me. I’ve learned that it’s dangerous for me to put my energy where it hurts.
Recovery took a while and I dare say, is still ongoing as we speak. Sometimes, I still get stressed out and find myself on the edge again. But I’ve figured out some ways to help me step back. On days I feel kinda meh, I try to be extra nice to myself or at the very least, do basic care like shower, change my underwear, eat, hydrate and rest. I give myself a lot of permission to start over and keep trying. Sometimes I ask the universe for help and wait. Then I listen for the answers and try to be patient with myself. And when it gets a little too much, I tell myself I always have a choice to take a brief respite, disengage and come back to it later. These days, I’m a bit braver about confronting what doesn’t serve me anymore.