Home on a Friday morning in December, I’m wondering how my career came to this. I was on a medical leave from work due to stress.
I looked down at the doctor’s note in my hand. “Indefinitely”, she wrote.
Thoughts like “what if everyone thinks I can’t hack it?”, “Will I ever be promoted again after this?”, “If I can’t do this, I’m not trained in anything else!” whirled in my head.
My career had always been important to me. I took pride in all that I’ve achieved to get here. Now I risked losing it.
How Did I Get Here?
I asked myself. Honestly, I had no idea I was burning out at all. From all my media readings, I had achieved work-life balance. I took care of myself. I went to potlucks and Happy-Hours with friends. My social network was strong with people I could share secret hopes and fears. I played with my niece at every opportunity. I took long luxurious bubble baths and did my nails.
Still cracks started forming. Small things fell through at first, I would forget small things. Lunch packed but left on the counter. A forgotten promise to call my mom. Going to the grocery store but forgetting my wallet. Nothing serious.
Then I had to start catching my breath whenever looked at my Outlook calendar. I would keep it on the “today” view so I couldn’t see the rest of my week. I was living meeting to meeting. Even the thought of opening up my calendar on Sunday nights gave me anxiety. I dismissed this too. “It’s a busy season, it’ll pass. I just need to get through it.”
Soon, I was jerking awake every night at 3.30am, heart-pounding, my mind racing about something I had forgotten to take care of during the day. I’d lay in bed, breathing deeply to calm the fluttering in my chest. But I knew I wouldn’t fall back asleep that night. All I could do was “rest my body”.
Before I knew it, the cracks became chasms. I was preparing for every week with the mentality that the week was a battle. I finished every Friday with tasks on a long to-do list defeated but spent the weekend unable to get up from the couch.
The Day I Went on Stress Leave
It all ended on a Thursday. After almost 6 months of not sleeping a full night and a particularly difficult client meeting, and despite my sheer willpower, a tear slipped down my cheek.
Then another. And another. I no longer had control. I was on the subway home crying in earnest. A middle-aged woman sitting next to me said: “It’s going to be okay”. I sobbed even harder.
I sobbed through the night and started again as soon I woke up to dress for work.
That was it, I had to go on stress leave.
Tahiti: It’s a Magical Place
A lot of people think that once on stress leave, you’re just bumming around, watching Netflix all day. Some of my friends, well-meaning as they were, said it was the perfect time to take an extended trip to a sunny locale. Like stress-leave was one long vacation.
But it is far from a magical place.
It is filled all the internal struggles to deal with. I think many people who burn out are like me: Type A. High-strung and high achieving. For me, stress leave meant failure. I had failed. Would I be able to return to work? Would I even be able to work at all?
Without answers, I still had to put my life back together. On the road to burnout, I had let a lot fall by the wayside. Starts off as non-essentials, but as the grind wore me down, it turned to essentials. The first thing I did on leave? Laundry. Over the next 2 days, I only did laundry. 8 full loads of laundry that had been lying in heaps on my floor.
Also, I had to wean myself off the 4 to 5 cups of coffee that propped me up every day.
I was catching up and recovering from months of not sleeping a full night. It was a full 12 days before I trained my body to be able to sleep through the night again. 12 days before my subconscious could let go of the fear of “I forgot”. I could finally let go of that mental to-do list.
Safety Net: Emergency Funds
Of all the issues I was dealing with, I’m grateful I didn’t have to worry about money. I turned to my emergency fund. Whatever was happening with my career, at least I could cover my expense for 6 months.
I focused on getting better. Some days were harder than others, but I was grateful that I had the buffer that allowed me to figure it out.
I started out writing this article about self-care. I had a list of suggestions like ‘saying no more often’, ‘exercise’, ‘set boundaries’ Tried and true advice.
Self-care advice like ‘putting yourself first’ can only be enacted if you have the tools to do that. What I learned about self-care is that you create your own backup plan
With the backup plan, you can say ‘no’ to that extra project at work. Sure, your brain is screaming that you’ll get fired, but you can stand your ground because you have the buffer.
Imagine if I had continued to live paycheck to paycheck like I had when I was in my 20’s. I saved the bare minimum, I was happy to plot my next purchase with whatever was leftover from my paycheck.
How could I have gone on a leave if I were still that person? Either I would have had to soldier through at the expense of my mental and physical health. Or I would’ve had to rack up debt. For those of us who’ve experienced debt, we already know how stressful that is.
After Stress Leave: Where I Am Now
I happy to tell you that I was able to go back to work and resume my career. Not exactly as I left it. It’s on a different trajectory now. I had changed too much and risked too much for it to remain status quo. I relate to myself and to my work differently now. In turn, I have redesigned many components of my work and life to ensure I never go back.
I’m grateful that I had the safety net of my emergency fund. I thought a rainy day would be a recession. Or a truly rainy day such as a pipe bursting and flooding my condo.
My rainy day turned out to be internal.
I have taken the advice of setting boundaries, saying “no” more often and putting myself first. These don’t come naturally to me and I’ve had to learn these skills. The hardest to learn was how to ask for help.
It’s still a work-in-progress. I’m still not perfect at it. Sometimes I catch myself slipping into old habits. But as I approach the 2 year anniversary of that defining day, I’m optimistic.
And that’s an emotion I hadn’t felt for a long time.
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