What I’m Learning while Recovering from Burnout
This is a personal account of my own experience with both trauma and burnout. I haven’t known how to share this or if I should… but in the end I’ve decided to share my story for a few reasons. First, because writing and sharing is part of how I process and work things out in my own head. Secondly, because struggling with mental health is something that happens to us all at various points in our lives and careers… and it seems that for the most part, this happens but isn’t spoken. People suffer alone and in silence, and that deepens the suffering for us all. By sharing my own experience, I hope other people will see that mental health needs to be a regular part of our conversation. We need to normalize it so that we can feel less alone.
Its also true that I sit in a lot of privilege… and so I cannot share this story without first acknowledging that my ability to recover is in large part a factor of my intersections of whiteness, wealth, education, access to resources and support. When I think about the effort to climb out of trauma and burnout without the benefit of the resources I’m afforded it is overwhelming. So many systemic barriers exist in the *best case scenario like mine… which means anyone without my privilege is dealing with additional mountains of barriers. As we strive to destigmatize the conversation around mental health, let’s be more thoughtful and inclusive of those intersections, yah?
Also, trigger warning… this story includes the mention of a sudden death.
Backstory (aka hindsight is 20/20)
At the end of summer 2021 I was burnt out. I didn’t know it yet… but I was already there. Eighteen months of pandemic response with no break, no change in scenery, and a constant feeling like there was no relief in sight. I took a stay-cation with family and found myself, at the end of two weeks, exhausted and feeling more wrung out than ever. If I could go back in a time machine, I’d grab myself by the shoulders at that moment and say, “Beth, you’re burnt out… stop and take a beat.” But I persisted… I carried on. I had just learned that I wasn’t being considered for a job opportunity I really wanted, so I doubled down on being the most excellent and helpful person I could be in my current role. That’s how I’ve always responded… when things feel out of control, I immediately figure out how I can help (but more on that little nugget later.) Let’s face it… the past few years have been non-stop “things happening beyond our control”.
The inciting incident
Fast forward to December. A bunch of other things happened that were out of my control. A re-org at work, another wave of COVID, now my kid was in isolation in the basement, and school just moved online. I was not very productive at work, and mostly it felt like I was on autopilot every day. I did stuff, but I didn’t feel motivated or passionate about any of it. There were days when I was pretty negative and I remember a good friend hearing me chirp about something and saying, “Wow, Beth, if you’re that negative things are definitely not okay.”
From a mental health perspective, it was like living paycheck to paycheck, except I was finding just enough emotional energy to get me to the next day off, where I could stare into space and try to ignore everything… including a nagging feeling that I couldn’t possibly get out from under. I had a foreboding sense of never being able to do or be enough to feel like my efforts mattered.
Everything changed when a week before Christmas, I suddenly found myself as a first responder in a medical emergency. I won’t share the details because that’s not my story to tell. But I will say, there is nothing in any first aid training, or lifeguard training, or any other training I’ve ever taken in my life, that prepared me for the trauma of trying to help someone who would not survive their medical emergency. For being there when someone dies. For hearing the anguish of their loved ones when the reality of that comes crashing down on them. Afterwards, when I was halfway up my driveway heading home, I crumpled to my knees… shattered.
What should be obvious but mostly isn’t…
So it turns out that mental health is a lot like physical health. Specifically, if you’re in good shape, your body can handle more. You can heal or your immune system responds more quickly to things that happen. In my case, my well was dry. I had no real mental health to speak of at that point… So when the trauma of that experience layered on… the injury was worse.
Any decision I might have made to try to keep going was taken away from me. I was not able to function. My nervous system just completely short circuited. I literally think I held my breath unconsciously for days.
My sister, who is a nurse, was amazing. As someone who had experienced what I had, she immediately knew all the right things to say and do. Most importantly, she urged me to get professional help ASAP to process what had happened. And she normalized what was happening in my brain and in my body at that moment. Thankfully, I have an employer that provides short term leave and I was able to access it.
I have an amazing manager at work who didn’t skip a beat and just said “I got it. Don’t worry.” and also she said, “I’m proud of you.” Which if you didn’t already know, is the most amazing thing to hear when you feel like you’re letting everyone down. I also had an amazing doctor who handled all the paperwork without any delay. She also insisted there was no “end date” to my leave… wisely, she knew it was too soon for that. Again, I have an extraordinary amount of privilege in the support and access to all the things that were there for me. Many people are not able to just stop going to work without an impact financially or otherwise.
There is no threshold for enough
I want to pause here and draw attention to something important I’ve noticed in hindsight. In many conversations about my situation that I’ve had with friends and colleagues, there has been some version of, “Wow, that sounds like an awful trauma, of course you needed to take time to heal.” AND there is also a pattern of following that with some version of “I am also not okay, but I can keep going… because what’s happened or happening to me isn’t serious* like what happened to you, Beth.”
I am here to tell you there is no minimum threshold for trauma or burnout. You don’t need to be “traumatized enough” to need or be worthy of support, recovery, or care. Some trauma happens over a long slow period, while some happens in an instant. My therapist also likes to point out that multiple trauma’s can layer on top of each other bit by bit. That means a single traumatic experience (that might not seem like a big thing) can open Pandora’s box and all of the other things come spilling out at once. Your brain literally does not differentiate or judge the worthiness or scale of experiences. It just reacts. So if your nervous system is in an activated loop that can’t stop… you are having the same response as someone in the middle of an emergency. If you’re burnt out, same thing… continuing to add stress to your body without a way to discharge it has a cumulative effect. If your body (including your brain) is reaching the limits of it’s ability to keep going, and it’s just a matter of time before it will shut down. Trust me, if you can course correct before that happens, you’ll have a better shot at recovery.
It takes time to heal
Initially, I thought I’d need a few weeks off to find my feet again. I was still waiting for a referral for a counselor through my Employee Assistance Program. As you can imagine, trauma therapists are in short supply these days and the wait was dragging out. Eventually, I ended up looking for someone myself thanks to a wise person who suggested I use psychologytoday.com to find a good fit. (and then EAP called me back the day after I found someone on my own…)
It turns out that therapy is really helpful for me… and that also I had all kinds of unrealistic timelines in my head for getting back to work. Thanks to a great therapist and doctor, I settled in to the reality that I needed way more time and you cannot rush recovery.
Doing nothing is something
It surprised me how my brain just completely locked me out of things that used to come naturally. For someone who prides themselves as a thinker, it was humbling to experience. I couldn’t really hold a train of thought. I couldn’t remember why I was in a room or what I came in there looking for. I couldn’t read a book. Slowly, sleep was coming back to me, and at the same time I was just buried under waves of fatigue (from chronic burnout mostly). I let myself be idle and have no schedule. I escaped the real world via movie and tv marathons because they helped shut down the thinking parts of my brain. I spent a lot of time petting my cats, one of whom appointed himself my therapy cat, and came and found me when I was overwhelmed. Most of all, I gave myself grace. If I’m honest, I’m not sure I’d have done that without being forced to.
Therapy was starting to help, but also it was taking time for my nervous system to calm down. Surprisingly, after only a few sessions, very little of my therapy ended up focusing on the specific trauma that “broke the camel’s back”. Instead, I found myself excavating a number of things that have happened in my life. I was beginning to uncover the roots of my own burnout cycles… which, spoiler-not-spoiler, I had been repeating for decades.
I also had a few work adjacent opportunities that came up during my recovery. I said no to most things. For a select few, I seemed to be able to pull together enough to participate in a 1 hour phone call or a discussion panel, but it required triple the preparation I might have normally needed, and I was exhausted for days afterwards. I was careful and tried to make sure I only used my limited energy for things that helped tether me to a healthy part of my professional identity. It provided reassurance that I was still somewhere ‘in there’. Also it really helped sharpen my understanding of the things that really mattered to me in my work, and uncover some things that I was doing in service to some horrifically unrealistic expectations.
Letting go is hard
Speaking of unrealistic expectations… What I’m still learning from all of this is that a lot of what contributed to my burnout was my own stuff I needed to figure out. In the book Burnout, the authors talk about when Luke Skywalker goes into the cave on Dagobah and Yoda tells him the only thing in there is “what you take with you.” I think part of what they mean is that while there can be a lot of external factors, it’s your internalization of what’s happening that affects you the most. That’s not to say organizations and systems aren’t responsible for poor conditions, they are. AND it is also true that you are the key to how those external things impact you on a personal level.
It turns out for me, I had an expectation attached to my role as a helper that was really, really unhealthy. AND (here’s that nugget I promised you) when your unhealthy coping mechanism is being a helper, there’s almost nothing in modern day society that will discourage that behaviour. It’s actually reinforced everywhere. We praise little kids for helping from preschool all the way through post secondary and into employment. When I experienced the trauma (and subsequent realization that I wasn’t able to help) it began to unravel some pretty foundational things about who I think I am. It helped me learn about how I defined myself as a helper. That, my friends goes WAY back to when I was very little. I won’t go into the details, but let’s just say a learning about my unconscious motivation for helping people has fundamentally changed how I think about everything. It was something I couldn’t see but was always there. Now that I can see it, I can reframe it… and that means I have a shot at healthier balance in my decisions in life and at work.
But there’s a catch 22 to this kind of realization. It has meant that I’ve had to let go of some things. And if you didn’t know, letting go of long held patterns and beliefs about yourself is not for the faint of heart. It takes commitment and it takes practice. But it’s also the only way to make space for something new.
In my case I had to make some hard decisions. I walked away from a really great job opportunity because I was able to fully see and understood the risks of that role and that situation for my recovery. That conversation was one of the hardest of my career even though I knew it was the right thing. The feeling of letting people down hasn’t gotten easier for me, and I’ve never shied away from discomfort that’s required to make things better… I’m just learning how to apply that to my own well being for the first time.
Letting go also means I’m learning to give up “custody” of problems until someone comes along to take them over. This is critical in digital government transformation since there will always be more complex problems than people to tackle them. I have Marie Kondo’ed my personal and professional life of so many small things that were adding up to some big piles of expectations. It’s been uncomfortable, and it’s been freeing.
The journey continues
I’m at a point in this process, where I obviously feel strong enough to share, but I know there’s still a lot of work to do. I am extraordinarily lucky that I had a great network of support and the means to take the time to heal. I very gradually returned to work and eventually to full time hours. That was a slow process and I urge anyone else in a similar boat to not rush if you can afford it. I underestimated how heavy the cognitive load was as I re-entered work. I am grateful that my doctor a and my manager held the line and insisted on what seemed like a snail’s pace for returning. They were right.
I’m being thoughtful as I continue to decide where I help and where I simply allow for things to be as they are without me. I’m still working on finding healthy ways to help without letting it consume me. I’m working on letting go of how I think other people view me and what I imagine they expect. While I will always consider my empathy a super power, I’m letting go of feeling responsible for how other people feel. I’m practicing feeling my feelings then letting them go.
As a companion to this post, I’ve also written a Reflection Leadership and Mental Health with a few really practical things I’ve learned that apply specifically at work.
Lastly, I’ve got a favour to ask you…
If you see someone you care about showing signs of mental health fatigue, talk to them. Share this post with them. Or be that trusted person to help them make a plan to get support.
If you are struggling with burnout… or what you think is burnout, don’t wait. Do something. Get a therapist. Find a copy of and read Burnout — The secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle. Take stock of your obligations and have someone you trust help you honestly assess if they’re yours to hold.
If you think you might need a break to recover from everything you’re dealing with, find out what your leave options are. Chances are if you’re fantasizing about just not going back to work tomorrow, you’re already on a dangerous path. Take it from me, it’s far better to put yourself on the sidelines for a short bit, than to risk a serious injury that could be life altering.