How Mindfulness helped me get my groove back after Burnout
Updated: Feb 6
The sh*t bit
Sounds like a big old pile of hippy nonsense. It really isn’t.
Should any of the people who make up my small but lovely audience have been wondering what the hell I’ve been doing for the last year, I basically worked far too hard for far too long, then fell over. Like a short blonde brontosaurus falling over a cliff.
Unfortunately I couldn’t find a stock image of that, so I’ll just have to let you rely on your imagination.
The stupid thing is I could feel it as it crept its insidious way over my entire life. I stopped writing, I was ratty (ok, that’s not too much of a change – I’m genetically predisposed towards impatience), wracked with guilt (all the guilt – parental, spousal, familial, food, exercise, health, work, leisure, sleep, alcohol – you name it). I just stopped enjoying everything and kept on trying to stay on top of the job. So I was at the desk at 6am when Smalls was asleep, at the desk until 10.30pm and at a weekend, always in the mistaken belief that, at one point, I would get on top of it all – and then everything would be okay.
I was a bit wrong.
And I couldn’t even cook any more.
Physically I felt more and more “odd”, because apart from the headaches and waking up several times a night, I had a weird fizzing sensation in my brain, which eventually became numbness. I was awash with aches and pains and uppity guts. I would try and do things that required just the teeniest little squirt of adrenaline to complete – simple things like trying to pull out of a junction – and the juice just wasn’t there.
The drawbridges, tunnels and bridges that gave me access to my memories were gradually being drawn up, blocked up or removed. I forgot peoples’ names, tried not to weep on planes and on mute on telephone conferences, lost the ability to read and eventually speaking became problematic, partly because I could never remember the right words for anything. Hilarious when you do a job that relies on effective communication and a lot of talking. Ha ha.
It came to a head after a week off, where, on the first day back, I just fell apart.
I was one of the lucky ones. My boss had been through it, some of my colleagues had been through it, and I work for a company that has the resources to support my recovery to a certain extent. My boss basically said “Go off sick, you need a proper rest, go see your doctor, get the meds if you have to, your job will still be here when you get back” and for that I am eternally grateful.
Nothing in the tank
So anyway, there I was, having reached the end of my tether, the tank was empty, the bottom of the barrel had been officially scraped and I then had to find my way back.
Unfortunately, first I had to negotiate getting signed off and I also had to go through a telephone interview with the Employee Assistance service to access counselling. (Fully supported by my boss, I might add).
Let’s just say, because I couldn’t get to see my normal doctor, I got the “So what do you want me to do?” treatment, and the counselling service suggested (in all seriousness) that the reason why I had been unable to sleep for 4 months and was experiencing headaches and fuzziness was because (I sh*t you not) I was hungry.
The temptation to say “Erm, are you having a giraffe pet?” was strong but I resisted. In the end, my proper doctor was brilliant. I went on a low dose anti-depressant and tried to ride out the side effects. With a poorly child and a chest infection. Thanks immune system, your timing is epic.
About 3 weeks after I’d finished work, I got my appointment through for the counsellor. Still not great, still numb, reeling from the side effects of the antidepressants.
So there I am, sitting in front of the counsellor, feeling slightly ridiculous and, let’s face it, coughing like several members of the Bronte family at once. It was one of those coughs where people would markedly walk around to avoid me in supermarkets, and would surreptitiously get the antiseptic hand gel out when they thought I wasn’t looking. However, on the upside, people did tend to give me a lot of personal space.
(I’d have added an image here but everything was far too disturbing).
So why did I feel ridiculous? In my messed up world view, I’d somehow failed. Firstly because I’d been in therapy before and I had been unable to stop a crisis occurring again, secondly because I still had the feeling that I was letting everyone down and thirdly, because frankly, the antidepressants still had me quite baked so the infection, the drugs and the general messed-up-ness led to everything feeling slightly surreal.
As you do, I talked and he listened. I explained that In that one of things that had kept me going so long was the fact that I didn’t feel all that depressed (apart from one very intense day-long dose of the blues in the summer) and it was the physical stuff that I was more concerned about. I explained about the workload, and how I’d mistaken obsessiveness for tenacity, and buried lots of myself in the process.
It was then that he asked me a very simple, but very pointed question.
So how wedded to the hamster wheel are you?
This stopped me dead in my tracks.
After a certain amount of coaxing, I realised my marriage to the hamster wheel was total and all-consuming. I had taken it all on and not let anything back out. I had put myself last, and got caught up in the cult of busy, endlessly thinking and planning about things to change at work, things to change at home, worrying about neglecting everyone but never having the energy to do anything about it until it gained a momentum all of its own.
In her recent book “Sane New World” Ruby Wax uses a description of being on autopilot when she hosted a dinner party, didn’t drink but still couldn’t remember anything about it because the clatter of her own thought processes had driven her through it without her being able to retain any of it. I had been like that for months, possibly years.
Which is where mindfulness came into the conversation.
Mindfulness, for the uninitiated, does not have to wear tie-die and smell of patchouli, the universe does not need to hold you in its loving embrace and doesn’t even involve getting your kit off in a field, though if you feel the urge, I’ll encourage you to do whatever feels right for you as long as it makes you happy.
(And in some instances, as long as I don’t have to watch whatever it is that makes you happy – i.e. I find drum solos catastrophically dull – I’m a happy bunny too).
My counsellor said, if you think you’re too busy for a ten minute mindfulness meditation, you should probably try at least half an hour and we went through a short meditation. It wasn’t like I was a complete stranger to meditation as I’d had a rather excellent yoga teacher back in the day, and I had used it to get to sleep when Smalls was small and I was anxious. And because I was off work, and spending an inordinate amount of time in bed, I started to build a practice into my life.
I think with burnout, you have to realise that this is a true life changer, and so it’s proved. I still do a lot of sleeping, and to be honest, I’m still not 100% percent, but I hope I am now a more optimistic, more creative and more honest version of the person I was before. And that’s down to Mindfulness. It’s a tool. It doesn’t suit everyone. But it works for me. And it’s one of those habit changes that I’ve managed to stick with for the long haul.