I had an amazing conversation with a wonderful friend tonight. The conversation was about life, mental health and the all round messiness that often surrounds both those things.
She said “I wish people talked about this more”.
I couldn’t help but agree.
For a long time I didn’t talk about it openly.
I certainly helped my patients with their mental health and I think I was good at it. But I honestly didn’t see my own impending burnout. I couldn’t see the looming storm clouds heralded by 3am wake ups and unfulfilling sleepless nights, by constant worry about making a mistake, by bone aching empathy fatigue.
I couldn’t see it, because I was so blinded by my compulsion to help others.
A noble compulsion for sure, but a blinding one none the less.
I also couldn’t see it, because so many of my friends and colleagues were exactly the same as I was.
There are obviously individual factors at play here as most of my colleagues haven’t (officially) burnt out despite my observation that so many of them were and still are feeling similarly.
Is that a marker of resilience? Perhaps.
Or is it a marker that my path was just going to be a different one?
That the barrier between me and change was thinner?
My yoga teacher training introduced me to the concept of ahimsa, of doing no harm to other living beings.
But here I was unwittingly harming myself everyday by my inability to place caring for myself high enough on my own agenda to protect my own mental health.
So when it all came crashing down, I crumbled into a series of debilitating panic attacks. The first one lasting almost 48 hours. An entire weekend of sheer internal panic that left my aching body depleted and empty.
I thought to myself in that moment “OK, I’ll take a week off work”.
One week off work, booked in 2 weeks ahead of that date because I was already booked up with patients for those two weeks.
Looking back now I can’t believe that I was still unable to see the storm that was now gathering ominously overhead.
I still didn’t know I was burnt out. I just thought I was stressed. That I needed a holiday.
The second panic attack put an end to my plans to see out the two weeks of patients that were booked in.
I was dressed and ready for work, the kids all ready for school.
I went to walk out the front door of my house, when all of a sudden I was gripped with completely unmitigated fear.
The vice around my chest and throat told me that this wasn’t going to be like that first panic attack that I could quietly implode inward with.
This one literally brought me to my knees. My 3 and 5 year old children worriedly watching on while I burst into panicked tears at simply the thought of being outside my house. The thought of leaving it’s safety, even though I had rapidly come to realise that even my home didn’t provide me sanctuary from my thoughts.
The rising heat in my chest, the crushing feelings of suffocation.
I had this unrelenting sense that I needed to run away, yet no where to run and an acute awareness that this feeling would follow me wherever I went.
To remember that feeling now still brings tears to my eyes.
Suffering is subjective, I would never dream to compare mine to anyone else’s.
But in those moments on my living room floor, I could not recall any other moment in my life where I had felt like this. I had fallen, crumpled in a heap at the very bottom of my Self. This was my ‘dark night of the soul’.
The upshot of burning out is that I’m not afraid to talk about these things now. There is something very reassuring about knowing where the bottom is because I know I won’t ever let myself get there again.
So I gave in.
What choice did I have? I was no longer functional and certainly not able to work.
I saw my GP, spoke to my psychologist.
I rested. A lot.
I wrote. My thoughts and feelings cascading out of me faster than I could get them onto paper. Notes popping up everywhere, like emotional mushrooms, sprouting from the fertile ground of my distress.
I even reflected here on the huge wide expanse that now seemingly lay in front of me. I didn’t really go into the true details of my immense distress at that stage, fearful of the potential for repercussions it might hold for me. The mask obviously slipping, but not yet completely off.
Eventually, some months into my surprise sabbatical, I began to sleep through the night for the first time in many years.
Sleep now became my yard stick of wellbeing. Whenever I again noticed my 3am wakefulness, I knew there was something wrong, something that I must change.
I spent 6 glorious months immersing myself in my kids. Grateful everyday that I was still able to love and enjoy every minute of motherhood.
Burnout for me was the ‘doctor’ light globe going out, but the rest of the fuse box relatively unharmed.
Since that time, I’ve been re-building myself. I’ve been immensely fortunate to have a supportive family, colleagues and friends in this time.
I have talked very openly about my struggles.
Burning out and even more than that, my process of active decision making as to the path I take forward since then has formed such an integral part of the person I have become that I do feel grateful in a sense that it happened to me.
I now know where my ‘peak operating point’ is. Perhaps it’s lower than other peoples? That’s OK.
Because ultimately, I know what happens when I go beyond it.
The path back from burn out is no easier than the path there. Both fraught with uncertainty and fear.
But one is more active. The dark clouds begin to gather overhead again and you ease back the throttle, mindful that it was lack of self awareness that contributed to me arriving there in the first place.
The compassionate voice in my head now reminding me to slow down, to notice the physical warning signs of stress and allow them to complete their journey through my body rather than carrying them with me, unheeded, forever held and accumulated.
I am more mindful. Content.
We are all on a different path in life. My goal is no longer to ‘keep up’.
The ‘doorway of change‘ that I sensed when I burnt out is now wide open, with the expanse that lies in front of me both exhilarating and unnerving.
My hope now is that I can continue to speak my truth and to walk beside others who find themselves on this path to burn out and back again.