Posted 29 Apr 2019
Burnout, connection, hope
This post is dedicated to Tim Bergling, from Nancy Doyle.
Yesterday I took a 3 hour yoga class in which I cried for the first hour and then breathed fully into my tummy for the first time in more than 18 months. I came home and watched the Avicii documentary and then wrote this blog. I want to tell an honest story of vulnerability, hopelessness and where to get help because I hope that people will read this and feel less alone. The balance between honesty and role modelling is hard, I hope I’ve got the balance right.
I’ve had burnout. Proper burnout. Without stopping work, just carrying on. Leadership is a tough gig in general, but when it’s your own business, there’s no way out when it’s too much. You choose between letting everyone you’ve worked for down & risking the things you feel proudest of or just keeping going – you can’t just resign, get signed off with stress etc. And because I didn’t stop, didn’t self-care during the busy, fire-fighting crises, I became depressed and hopeless. Anxiety waves like a bucket of cold water, at night, first thing in the morning, throughout the day. I dropped 2 dress sizes in 2 months at the end of 2017 and didn’t really recover. Everyone told me I looked amazing, but I was so scared of all the work I had to do, the number of things that were dependent on me, I felt completely out of control. I didn’t sleep without some sort of depressant from May 2018 right through until November.
I expected to feel better when my PhD was finished. I expected to feel better when my day-to-day work hit reasonable levels again. I expected to feel better when I had a week’s holiday, a run, a day resting with good book. But the upswing just didn’t come after life calmed down, instead it got worse. I’ve spent every waking moment feeling like I was inside a heavy bubble since October 2018, weighed down and disconnected.
When the bubble came, I noticed the dangerous extreme chatter in my head – “I’m so exhausted by the week that I’m bloody miserable and useless at home; they’d be better off without me”. Yes, I have had enough counselling, therapy and studied enough psychology to know that when those thoughts start creeping in it’s time to hit up the experts. I submitted willingly to their advice and guidance, did everything I was told. I’ve spent the last six to seven months trying to crawl out of the psychological abyss, lacking hope and energy but getting up every day and trying anyway. I’ve used every crutch in the book, I’ve cycled through all the things that have worked before until I am exhausted and my poor body doesn’t know which way is up! Are we doing running/gym/cycling or parties and socialising or resting and juicing or sleeping for 14 hours at a time? Why isn’t it working, I kept thinking? When I am I going to get back to my zingy, productive, energetic self?
About a month ago, something hit peak crisis, on exactly the day I was supposed to be celebrating my PhD. I deleted my Facebook account and left a whole bunch of WhatsApp chats. I realised that the ‘pace’ I am trying to get back to is the problem. There’s no amount of juicing or weight-lifting or ‘weekend-Prosecco-fuelled-letting-off-of-steam’ that is ever going to make it okay to work as hard as I’ve worked for the last, let’s be honest, twenty+ years. It wasn’t healthy when I was 25 and it’s not healthy at 43. I throw myself into everything at 200 miles per hour – mothering, exercise, studying, writing, friendships, changing the bloody world. I’ve spent 8 years stretched to the max starting a business and being present for my family, with the exception of a few glorious months hiking the Rockies with the husband & kids.
My doctor sat me down for an HOUR in October and wouldn’t let me leave until I’d developed my plan for addressing my workaholism. He pointed out that the carcinogenic and cardiac crises I’m paranoid about are fine now, but if I carry on like this my 50s will be very different. He pointed out every stress related illness that I am carrying – gastritis and ulcers, IBS, hypothyroidism, hiatus hernia, sporadic patch alopecia, anxiety, depression – does not make for a healthy middle age.
I have a core of very amazing people in my life who have been quietly watching me slide further and further off the rails for this period and trying to make sure there was something soft to land on. These are the tribe, they watched me land and gave me massive hugs, told me I had permission to stop, permission to rest, that nothing was worth my health or life. These are the people who understand, who have been there. It was much easier to feel better when I started being honest about how terrible I felt and how lonely I have been. Over-working is lonely. You lose connection with sky, space, fellow humans. I exited social media because I suddenly realised that wasn’t how I wanted to interact with my friends, I wanted to see their faces, have them show up, show up for them. However, after the wheels came off, a few other people started reaching out. Are you okay? Is there anything I can do? It was like bursting the bubble, I stopped pretending everything was fine. And that’s when I noticed that I wasn’t doing any of the things I know I really need to be well – sky, space, deep human connection (not small talk).
And the other thing that happened when I started being honest about how I was feeling, is that other people started sharing. “When I had my breakdown it was like this”, “I’ve had a rotten few months, I’m just exhausted”, “Yes I’m concerned that I’m just in survival mode all the time”, “I’m massively lonely at the moment”. It’s really striking me that, even though we are getting better about talking honestly around mental health and well-being, we’re not there yet. I’m kind of ‘on this’ and part of this narrative, yet even I struggled to ask for help, to seek solace and to admit I wasn’t coping. I was beating myself up for ‘first world problems’. I was worried that people would think I was unreliable, incapable of my job or patronise me. And I should know better!
That’s why I’m writing this, I want to role model being honest. I know that from the outside I look like a high achiever – PhD, documentaries, business running – but they often say “watch out for the strong ones”. And ADHD is confusing. The high energy looks like enthusiasm and passion, even when we’re empty and exhausted. Hyperactivity isn’t the same thing as positivity, just listen to Avicii’s songs. The beat is up but the words are often lonely [Wake Me Up, Hey Brother]. Want to know what a breakdown looks like on ADHD or for a high achiever? Like a great day in anyone else’s life. I have come closer to losing my mind in the last 18 months than in adolescence but because I wasn’t crying and carried on being productive, lots of people thought I was fine. The Avicii documentary is terrifying. He is literally sitting there saying I can’t go on, this is killing me, and no one is responding. The few people that ‘got me’ in this period were noticing what I was saying, not the energy with which I was saying it. “How are you, Nance?” “Ridiculously busy, totally in need of some rest [add smile which confuses]”.
I’m now in recovery mode, I can tell because I am enjoying listening to music again (thank you Avicii). Yet I have some big things coming up. We have a series of ‘The Employables’ in the USA that starts airing 15th May this year. My boys are teenagers. I still have ADHD and the propensity to throw myself into something at 200 mph. I’m definitely still vulnerable to ‘not coping’ and I always will be, it goes with my territory. But I’m not looking at it as failure. It’s the rough that comes with the smooth, the inevitable anxiety that comes with the incessant thinking, the distracted exhaustion that follows the hyper-focus. However, over this last burst of crisis, the following have emerged as the most important ingredients for weathering my storms:
- Making space for breaks, even if it means writing in my diary “fire break day”, so that the overlaps can be avoided.
- Reaching out to my tribe to anchor me and bring me back to earth occasionally, Making time for face-to-face contact, not just WhatsApp and Facebook.
- Knowing my ‘allies’ at work – talking to them and taking time to deliberately give them positive feedback creates feeling of shared mission, not sole responsibility. Getting that feedback in return helps enormously.
- Being honest, not pretending to have it all together all the time, or being worried about being judged for not having it all together all the time, or worried about the message it sends to others if I don’t have it all together all the time.
- Sleep is my Achilles heel, if I’m not sleeping, I’m not functioning. I can hit a level of insomnia anxiety that will get me hospitalised as happened in my teens. Kudos to my doctor for helping me in that phase with a rota of medications that allowed me to get rest without getting addicted to anything.
- Self-care, the very act of doing something specifically for my well-being, investing in being strong. This can be a range of things:
- Making myself a homemade soup that no one else in the family will eat, but I know it’s just what my body needs and is just for me.
- Reading a book that has nothing to do with work or personal development.
- A walk or a hike, that doesn’t achieve exercise status but does allow me to chat to colleagues or family or just be in the open air, preferably up a hill!
- A proper yoga class, where the focus isn’t on ‘making shapes’ but allowing the body to soften and breathe around a position, in order to release.
- Going to see a movie that I want to see, not a kid film, but maybe taking the kids with me, to broaden their horizons.
Feel free to have a conversation with me, I’m listening. Tell me what works for you, or has worked for you. Be open. I won’t judge you. Let’s not tell each other we look great when we’re too thin, let’s say how bright and healthy we look when we fill out again. Let’s ask our friends who say they are tired if they fancy catching up later in the week for a short walk or a movie. Remember what I said about what burnout looks like in ADHD, watch out for your strong friends. Remember that not all of them have as much training / experience as me and won’t press the expert help button in time. Send a card, or a funny pair of socks, or a meaningful gif, to let someone know you are thinking about them. Give praise for self-care, it’s particularly helpful for those of us who operate on obligations to be given ‘permission’ to relax. But most of all, let’s stay actually connected. For me, this is where the hope comes from.