Burn out is insidious. Precisely because it builds over time we start to become accustomed to many of the symptoms and just think they are normal – we reinforce this by noticing others who also have recurrent colds, are constantly tired, are somewhat cynical and don’t like their jobs. We convince ourselves that we are not unusual and “this is just life”. Those people we see on TV who are happy and content can’t be real. The sad truth is that far too many people are in a stage of burn out and don’t know it. What is even sadder is that we have created a society that rewards us for driving ourselves ever harder and further, with scant regard for our wellbeing. Being a workaholic and being good at ‘multi-tasking’ are deemed to be badges of honour.
We are all becoming increasingly aware of the negative impacts that our species is having on the environment – how we are disturbing the delicate balance of Mother Nature with catastrophic consequences. Similarly, failure to achieve balance in our own lives –physically, mentally and emotionally – is unsustainable and burn out will progress if left untreated.
If I am honest with myself I probably began to notice there was something wrong about a year before things fell apart. The trouble with being me is that I was very rarely completely honest with myself – with others, no problem, but I didn’t spend too much time on deep personal introspection, I was too busy ‘doing real stuff’. It started with me catching myself shouting at the kids more and more, for no real reason. I was also becoming increasingly forgetful which made me even more short tempered. I am the person for whom the expression “a place for everything, and everything in its place” was created. It is quite beyond me why anyone would put their car keys down in a different place whenever they entered their home – I argue that life is so full of stressors beyond our control that ‘sweating about the small stuff’ (apologies Mr Carlson) makes absolute sense because the little things are absolutely within our control. Surely spending two minutes twice a day hunting for your keys is a wanton destruction of four of your precious life-minutes? So it was with great humiliation and bewilderment that I spent two days turning our house upside down looking for my set of house keys; initially in a haphazard and somewhat frenzied manner and then far more systematically, like a tabloid journalist hunting down the prostitute(s) some sports star has been dallying with.
By the time I had run out of people to blame and rooms to search my anger had spent two days fermenting. When I found my keys in one of my jackets in my cupboard – somewhere only I could have put them – I didn’t feel relieved that the impending cost and inconvenience had instantaneously evaporated. Rather, I felt angry at myself that I could have been fallible, that it was my fault. Like a volcano between eruptions, my ire went subterranean and continued to bubble. Tiredness was a constant companion and I would catch myself actually fantasizing about getting a solid eight hours sleep over either a good meal or a robust bout of lovemaking.
It goes without saying that regular exercise was beyond me. Intellectually I knew that one of life’s more amusing paradoxes is that the more one exercises the more one builds sustainable energy. But knowing this and acting on it are two different things and I could very easily justify trying to grab half an hour extra in the morning rather than climb onto the stationary bike or do some light push-ups and sit-ups. Even the energising stretches I had started the year before seemed too much effort.
My diet was in similarly dangerous territory with me starting to consume far more fast food and comfort items than was good for me. My caffeine consumption had risen alarmingly to the stage where I was shaking by eleven AM if I hadn’t managed at least two cups of tea and one strong coffee by then. I would supplement my packed lunch with grease-laden toasted sandwiches from the in-house café and guiltily stand in the pantry after dinner shovelling crisps into my face out of earshot of my children, cursing the crinkliness of the foil wrapping – who needs to worry about keeping them fresh when a packet disappears in two frenetic minutes? I had also developed a raging sweet tooth – I used to think I was very witty telling people that I was not an unsavoury character because I liked savoury things too much.
Now, I would demolish a Bar One, or Twix like a piranha at a boat crash. Again, I knew this was wrong, but I was always going to do something about it tomorrow, or next week. The cocktail of interrupted sleep, little exercise and poor diet is a perfect combination that reinforces itself: if you are tired you don’t exercise and grab convenient calorific snacks, which in turn hampers your ability to sleep well, leaving you with less sustainable energy and so on. The proverbial vicious cycle which takes a conscious effort to break out of. The trouble with having reduced energy is that it opens the door for procrastination to enter. I started to find it easier to put things off, whether it was starting to exercise tomorrow, doing the recycling next week or reviewing that report for work at the weekend. Unfortunately as we all know, life happens and often what you put off today just doesn’t end up getting done tomorrow.
You can’t escape all of life’s stressors – we live in an increasingly crazy world that shows no signs of calming down any time soon. However, you can choose to learn to cope with what causes you negative stress and how to change how you react to things beyond your Control. Speak to family or friends or if that isn’t possible, pick up the phone and talk to a counsellor. You are never truly alone and often the untainted input of a third party is most useful in introducing a new point of view.
Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn uses the phrase ‘simple, not easy’ when referring to the practise of mindfulness – which is the acceptance of the moment for what it is, not expecting any outcome, just being ‘in the now’. I like the phrase and use it to describe my decision to transform my life:
It was simple to decide that I never wanted to return to that dark place where I was rocking back and forth on my bed, unable to feel love or happiness for my family or anything at all. It remains a fate worse than death for me. It was simple to decide that I would do whatever it takes to ensure I never go back there.
However, it was not easy to strip my beliefs and assumptions naked to try and truly understand what was driving me and what happiness meant to me. It was not easy to discover certain things about myself, to hear it from others, to acknowledge that I didn’t particularly like many aspects of who I was, who I had been for many years. It was not easy giving up a well-paid job and throw my family into an abyss of financial uncertainty. It was not easy realising that I had sacrificed my physical, mental and emotional health in the pursuit of success as defined by someone else – to realise that I had so little self-esteem that I chased the goals society said I should rather than seek my own definition of success and chase that.
It was not easy to abandon analysis and a constant search for logic and just open myself to different possibilities, take a leap of faith and follow my gut more. But it has most definitely been worth it. Not only does the alternative not bear thinking about but since I shed my old drivers, beliefs and assumptions I have emerged into a world that is a far nicer place than I ever remember it being. It may sound corny to talk of a ‘rebirth’ but that is the best way to describe what I have gone through; allowed myself to go through. I have emerged from my old world of cynicism, negativity and judgement into one where I embrace the beauty of each moment and go with the flow. I am still learning and don’t always get it right, but it is now my dominant approach to life.
So while my journey hasn’t been easy, and isn’t over yet, for me it was a simple decision to transform myself. Burnout and depression were the catalysts I needed to effect major change – it destroyed me quickly but gave me the motivation to change aspects of my life that were poisonous and ultimately led me to discover some of life’s great gifts – inner peace, self-acceptance and happiness. Right now these look like gifts that will keep on giving.
Reproduced from ‘Life Less Lived. A Passage Through Burn Out and Depression in the Suburbs’ by Richard Hawkey. Courtesy of Xlibris publishing, 2011.