Burnout: On the Back Road to Recovery
"Everyday is a winding road
I get a little bit closer
Everyday is a faded sign
I get a little bit closer to feeling fine." (Sheryl Crow)
Maybe the roads where I live don't wind that much but some days I feel that I have literally cycled my way back towards mental health. Ever since my counsellor said, "Exercise has been shown to be as effective as therapy in these circumstances...", I saw it as a good reason to get on my bike.
A few days ago, I was speaking to Jeff Weigh (@Jeff_Ignite) as we scoped out a future #perfectimbalance podcast, and heard myself telling the story of my encounter with 'burnout' and how I was helped to find a route to recovery. I know that every case of mental distress and ill-health is different but I hope it will be useful if I share these notes of my journey through chronic exhaustion, severe depression and anxiety:
Opening Mindset: So I've got the T-shirt. Literally. Across the chest is written is "You see impossible. I saw the finish line." We are fed this 'You can succeed at anything if you try hard enough' nonsense from our earliest days. Any brush with social media will expose you to the 'bigger, better, faster, first to market, killer app' advocacy. I'm afraid I listened then added my own home-bred character flaw: I won't back down... And it's worked. By most conventional measures, I'm a success.
A good cause: I really believe in my work. I want to change the world and I run programs which, I think, are my best opportunity to support people in doing exactly that. I'm an evangelist for what we do, I love it. I geek out on transformational, generative, positive, helpful change.
I could 'feel' it coming: The clues were clearly there. As I read back through my journal it's plain to see that I was in trouble. My diary was more than full. I was working 24/7. I hadn't slept properly in months. Friends were cautioning me to look after myself. But, hey, if you're not living on the edge you're taking up too much space, right? I couldn't, or wouldn't, reach the obvious, rational conclusions. Nor could I see how bad things had become.
The Crash: Some irritating emails - nothing out of the ordinary - colliding with fast mounting fatigue. Our medical doctor (and family friend) completely ignored my request for sleeping pills and asked me about the kids instead. Was I (still) working at weekends? And through holidays? How long had this (really) been going on for? She let me unravel in front of her, just kept offering support and was utterly determined that I should take some time out.
Exploring Help: A luxury that I wouldn't have afforded myself. I help others, right? My family let me spend days lying in bed, on the sofa. Not going out of the house for days. Work colleagues took on extra load while completely cutting me out of emails, WhatsApp conversations and chat groups. An opportunity to step back. Time to myself. A reluctant 'yes' to working with CBT, medication and professional counselling.
Taking Time: Another luxury borne, I know, of privilege, a loving, supportive family, great friends and brilliant work colleagues. Time to ride my bike. Time to indulge in creativity; photography, writing and reading. Time to have conversations that let me gently expose and confront my fears, shame and desperation.
And now? I was warned about relapse and each episode is hard; especially frustrating given the work and effort that everyone has made. But slowly.... Mental health has become a new discipline for me; a different kind of resilience which belies an alternative approach to the redesign of my life and work. Exercise, creativity and community will all remain foundational.
A renewed mindset? These are early days for a different relationship with my sense of purpose. My reflections, artful efforts and creative inquiries over the last months have brought me into a different sense of humility, a more local sense of leadership, clarity in how I might make a contribution...
One of the books I have read again during my enforced rest is Margaret Wheatley's 'Who Do We Choose To Be?' She writes:
"Too often our energies have been diverted into strategies of protection from the opposition and winning the endless battles. We couldn't avoid this but now it's time to remember the value of community."
"We are not broken people. It's our relationships that need repair. It's relationships that bring us back to health, wholeness, holiness"
So, finally? I spent about 10 years establishing the patterns that resulted in burnout. Shaking off the consequences isn't going to happen overnight. But I've learned that there isn't much that family, friends, time, and a couple of hours on my bike doesn't solve...
You might find Pema Chödrön's 'When things fall apart: Heart advice for difficult times.' useful if you are struggling with any of the presenting symptoms of burnout. It's also just a good read for anyone interested in change!
Dina Glouberman's 'The Joy of Burnout' is also worth the read...
Also take a look at some of the widely available 'burnout' questionnaires. This example is specifically for medical professionals; there are many others... just Google.... then pay attention to the results!