My friend Jade* lives in Johannesburg and she has dealt with her own burnout a few times. She has offered this story as a shared insight into her experience of burnout. I am publishing this here as I am hoping that we can all benefit from this story.
* Name has been changed.
Burnout – Jade’s Real Story
It was at a very young age – 29 – when burnout first happened. I was a country bumpkin who arrived in the big city at age 25. I came to Joburg to finish my dancing qualifications and the lure of the bright city lights drove me to live life to the fullest.
By the age of 29, my lifestyle was full!!
- Advertising sales, which was a full-time day job, 8 to 4:30 Mon to Fri: I was awarded the sales person of the month for 10 months of the 12, top achiever. I had danced since the age of 3, and was qualified as a teacher in six different disciplines. I did not want to teach, and by the age of 29 realised that I needed to get a job. I fell into advertising sales and was good at it.
- Dance teacher at Arthur Murrays on Mon to Fri evening 5 to 10pm: I could not give up my addiction to the dance, the bonus was the glitz and glamour and the additional income.
- Student – In order to understand advertising, I thought it important to get an education in the field, so I enrolled at Damelin for the Institute of Marketing Management on a part time basis. After my first year, I came top ten in the country for my law exam.
- Socialising – of course, this could not be left off the agenda, so on weekends there were parties and sometimes all nighters on a Friday and/or Saturday. Those of course included the imbibing of much alcohol as was fashion at the time (and still is in many circles). Note, at this time, drinking was only on Fridays and Saturdays, albeit it binge drinking on those days.
I was an all-round achiever, driven to succeed, but I forgot all about the little me inside, that needed some nurturing too. I had been someone that had come from Clarens and had spent hours, weekends and weeks communing with nature – I had been someone who had spent her days filled with dancing, music and creativity.
Now my lifestyle had changed (my choice) in order for me to be what I thought was important. A high achiever, who had it all. I had to live up to what others thought were the high standards of success – getting it all right and getting to the top.
Burnout. There are many reasons for burnout, but the symptoms are the same. They can be genetic, or it can be reactive due to external pressures, such as ill health, death, loss, etc.
As a dancer, I had the obligatory occupational hazard – anorexia. Adding to that I was a vegetarian. Malnutrition!! A lack of fat and protein to the brain means it is not functional. As a result, my neurotransmitters slowed down and I was diagnosed with depression.
I was tearful all of the time, I felt that I was weak because I could no longer keep up with the demands of all that I had put onto my plate. I was having car accidents (minor) and being clumsy and forgetful.
I felt suicidal.
Life had lost it’s colour and joy. I felt self-loathing because of my weakness. I lost weight. I stopped caring about myself. My brain was foggy. I wanted to run away.
These are all symptoms of depression – and in my case my severely depleted system (body) had become non functional due to neglect and lack of self-care. To the world though, I made sure that I kept up the façade that all was well and I drove myself even harder, being a most severe task master. No-one had an inkling of my inner turmoil. It felt as though I was dragging around a ten ton weight around my ankle whilst trying to run a race.
I started seeing a therapist and during that time, I got a bee in my bonnet that I needed to pack up my bags, run away and leave the city behind. I was going to give up all I had achieved and travel through Africa.
Luckily, my therapist convinced me to see a psychiatrist and as they are wont to do, he prescribed anti- depressants and convinced me that I needed to spend some time in hospital. I was admitted to Tara with the diagnosis of Anorexia and depression. The treatment protocol was not medicine (other than one tablet a day for depression). I learnt how to do stained glass, smell the roses, read books like I used to, switch off from the world, talk about my feelings and how to relax.
I was so ashamed, though, because of the stigma, that I swore I would use this six-week opportunity to never ever put myself in that place again.
When being discharged I had strict instructions to simplify my life. Choose one thing of the four and stick to that for a year, so I gave up my studies and dancing. I kept my day job and took up knitting and watching tv with only the occasional wild party thrown into the quiet mix.
I took up hiking so that I could once again spend lengthy times in nature, this eventually led to summiting Kilimanjaro, and two major treks, the Inca Trail in Peru and the Ana Purna in the Himalayas.
I gave up the tablets and got into healthy nutrition, to feed my brain instead. So, what I had been ashamed of instead had given me an education and had changed my life. Now at 61, once again, I find myself in a burnout situation.
Life had put me through the mill a few times, a divorce, three armed robberies and my father with Alzheimers come to mind. This time it was taking care of my elderly mother with dementia and the devastating destruction of my business due to covid and state capture.
It is at times like this that I think back to 29 and realise what a blessing those lessons had been.
The most important point is to recognise the feeling, see the slide, feel the suction of the black quagmire that one is being drawn or dragged into. See the symptoms.
Dealing with Burnout Again
My reaction this time was unplanned, but was swift and decisive. One would think, given my experience, that I would have done something sooner. I switched myself off from the noise. I switched my phone off, turned on an out of office notice, closed my laptop and booked myself off from the world for ten days.
I lay on my bed for five days, getting up sporadically to open the fridge or to feed my gorgeous animals. I could not stop crying and when I did, all I was capable of doing was staring blankly into nothingness, so I switched on Netflix and binged unashamedly.
I did not stop until my heart ceased pounding caused by the anxiety. I felt that I could breath again rather than hyperventilating – the foggy brain was clearing and I could once again start to think.
I need to take stock of the situation and figure out what the first steps should be.
A Burnout Toolbox
At 29, I had been issued with a toolbox and it was time to pull out the tools.
- Healthy nutrition – I had read Patrick Holford’s book The Feel Good Factor and realised that I needed healthy nutrition and not tablets. Although in severe cases, I had taken them for three months at a time over the past thirty years.
- Noise reduction (Digital detox)
Today is the first day of spring. (This was written on 1 September 2022).
My switch on date is Monday, which would be 10 days since switch-off. I am feeling stronger, I have addressed my nutritional needs by adding the right supplements to the daily routine. There is no pressure in my day to get anything done other than feed my animals and that is because I have made the decision to give myself that time.
What is one working week and two weekends in a lifetime? I am on day 7 and I feel that I can once again tackle life although, I have also decided that September will be regimental in that I will not overdo it. I cannot opt out of life, but I can make choices about whether what I do is moving me towards my goal. I am once again simplifying my life.
September will be spring cleaning my life, solitude not socialising, as much as my many friends bring much love and support, they also bring too much of their thoughts and issues into my life.
September is about me – it is about simplicity and single-minded focus on what matters. I am not going to master the rest of my life in one day, but I am going to master the day and I will keep doing that every day.
I did not come this far only to get this far. Sometimes I just need a break in a quiet place alone to figure it out. I am grateful for all the lessons learnt along the way that have helped me to pick myself up again when I fell over. I am grateful for the therapist that I met at 29 and 32 years later, she is still there, not a constant, but a phone call way a few times a year or like now when life falls over. I am grateful for the resilience muscles that have been built. I am grateful for a new tomorrow with unexpected surprises or opportunities.
I promise to be gentle with myself until I can pull the plasters off and feel whole and healed again.
Read more about Burnout HERE!