We often read about burnout prevention, how to spot early signs, and what to do about them. But we rarely hear what it is like after we’ve hit the burnout wall.
I hit that wall. Or maybe it was the other way around. Maybe the wall hit me, crashing down, brick by brick, until I felt like I was buried alive in my own body.
The “early signs” are only signs in hindsight
For at least two years, I ignored what I see now as the “early signs” of burnout: the insomnia; the need to take long naps every single weekend; a weak immune system that embarrassed me with a constant slew of symptoms—colds, stomach bugs, migraines; and the irritability, resentment, and cynicism that made me question whether my work at the United Nations was worth it.
But saying I “ignored” those signs is not really accurate. Only in hindsight can we tell that such symptoms were signs. Sometimes they fade away after we make slight adjustments to our lifestyle, take a real break, or move away from the source of the symptoms. I didn’t make any of those adjustments. Instead, I headed straight towards that wall—the burnout wall—at high speed.
The reality is that I knew something was off, but I plowed through anyway, hoping it would go away. I went to various doctor appointments, I rested on weekends, I tried to meditate more, and I took short weekend breaks in nature to recharge. I also sought activities that brought me joy such as singing in a band, not realizing these too were depleting my energy tank.
I was a single thirty-something in New York City who worked hard and played hard. Everyone else was doing that. Who was I to question the rules of the game? . . . until I couldn’t get out of bed one morning. I was dizzy, sick, nauseous, and extremely weak. Days, weeks, and months passed by and I was not getting any better.
My burnout came with a bonus
With the little energy I had, I made more doctor appointments. After several frustrating visits, I eventually was diagnosed with a severe form of Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS/ME). When I couldn’t take care of myself any longer, I travelled back home to my parents in France—in a wheel chair. Bedridden for several months, healing became my obsession, my new full-time job.
I worked with a CFS specialist, a therapist, a naturopath, and a physical therapist. I tried positive affirmations, visualizations, Emotional Freedom Technique, the Mickel Therapy (for sufferers of CFS/ME), and meditated for hours each day. For at least a year, my wildest dream was to walk more than 20 minutes without limitations and not have the payback of debilitating symptoms that many CFS/ME sufferers are familiar with.
It took me years to recover, even though “recovery” is not the right word because I have yet to gain back what I had or who I was before this experience. I often see this long, dark night of the soul, however, as my “perfect storm.” The illness woke me up and allowed me to reinvent myself on much healthier grounds—physically, mentally, and spiritually.
My message to you
While what happened to me is somewhat rare, my intention is not to scare you with my story. Rather, I want to share from the many burnout stories I’ve heard what I have since learned is common: that an incapacitating breakdown is usually totally unexpected. Never in a million years did I imagine that something that dramatic could happen to me (or to anyone else for that matter).
I wish I had seen these early signs for what they were—telltale signs—and not some temporary setbacks that would go away.
So my message to you is pay attention to patterns.
A constant need for long naps is not normal. Chronic insomnia accompanied by ruminations about work or conversations at 3:00 in the morning are not normal. Extreme irritability over mundane issues is not normal. Being sick every other month is not normal.
A good rule of thumb is to ask for help with anything that occurs more than three times. And trust your gut feelings. Don’t let doctors tell you it’s all in your head. Persevere and try to get to the bottom of your ailments.
Once you notice disturbing patterns, make the difficult (perhaps radical) changes needed. We often actually know the main source of our ills. If you don’t, work with a professional therapist or coach to uncover the underlying issue(s) afflicting you. Consider devising your own unique healing plan.
I wish I had taken the three months break I had been contemplating when my anxiety and exhaustion were at their peak. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself, thinking I couldn’t leave my job, couldn’t pay the mortgage, and couldn’t get off my self-imposed treadmill. So my body took care of it all instead. It ejected me out of the constructed constraints, giving me no choice but to fundamentally change everything in my life.
Don’t wait for your body to make the tough decisions for you. Be your own best counsel. No one will do it for you—or even know how to do it for you. Commit to radical self-care, as if your life depended on it—because it does.