This is not just a title to grab your attention – though I’m glad it did. I am not stating a feeling but a fact.
A couple of months ago, a conversation with a friend of a friend through Facebook-comments struck me in an unexpected way. We were talking about burnout and how little it was understood by those who either haven’t gone through it or haven’t someone close who has gone through it. I eventually said that the judgment bothered me most but that its invisible state was one of the reasons: you don’t have a scar, people can’t see what you’ve been through. If it’s not visible, it does not really exist. The man I was exchanging opinions with and who had previously told me that after nearly 4 years, he was still recuperating, agreed, adding:
– I had the “advantage” of not being able to talk, walk or communicate for about a year and a half.
His argument obviously being that his “advantage” (he himself had put quotation marks; I think we can all understand why) was that his sickness was visible. His comment touched me to the core to the point where two days later, I was talking about it and got emotional. It physically hurts me to see someone hurt, my empathy runs deep, but this was something else: his experience scared me.
I had been back in the workforce for two months. After 16 months recuperating from a burnout, I had started a new job. I had consciously decided to leave the sector I was working in and look for a job with less responsibility. I needn’t be in a managing position. As I started looking for a new position, an acquaintance reached out; he had a job. We would start with a 6 months contract and see how it goes. Well… it went bad.
Two weeks into the job, I knew that my plan to continue a training I hadn’t finished the year before and was thinking on doing on Saturday’s was out of the question for as weekend came, it opened the way to exhaustion. My neck started hurting again, my headaches slowly and steadily reappeared. “Maybe I should have started with a part-time job”, I thought. Two more weeks and I had the same crisis that had been the drop and got me on a long-term sick leave: burning neck, head and stomach. I threw up my guts and laid in the sofa with my arm pressing on my head, the only way of releasing my head pressure, for more than two days. Still, I only called in sick on Monday. My boss knew about my burnout, I didn’t want him to be worried I’d be sick for long. A couple of weeks went by, my body started to function on adrenaline without my noticing.
Around that time, talking to a mum who was burning out and telling me she only had to hold on until the upcoming school holiday, when her kids would be at their father’s, I said “I know from experience that setting up such deadlines as needing to hang in there until this or that date means I have gone too far; that is the moment I need to reach out for help and rest. Please, do so.”
Then came the day I made another mistake on the job. I had made a couple albeit stupid ones like missing an excel cell. Still, it bothered me. I never made mistakes, I was a good employee; what was the matter with me? I did not realise I was tired, I just thought I was broken. I knew part-time was not an option; I had discussed it already. I only needed to hold on for another 4 months and then I’d see.
A week later, a series of seemingly unrelated events, created a panic and they reproached me my mistake, telling me I could not be trusted, that they could not afford checking my work the way they do an intern’s (“I don’t pay an intern, I expect to have to check their work; this is my livelihood and that of my family”), did not help. I tried to argue that in all my jobs, they would have handed me the keys to the offices after a month, that’s how much they trusted me (it quite literally happened in one role) but it was met with “I don’t know that. I didn’t work with you before.” Which eventually led to a statement that cut deep and haunted me for a while:
“You should have gone back to your old job. Let them pay for the consequences of your burnout.”
Many things were said, I agreed with most. At that point, I felt so guilty and weak I did believe that they were right. Thank God for people who truly know me and who were shocked. Still, I had been hit in the stomach. The mere idea of going back to my old job, even though it was impossible (in the sense that I don’t own a time machine), filled me with anxiety. If I could not go back to the company where I burnt out and I was making another company paying for said burnout, did it mean I could not work anywhere?
My 16 months had been a rollercoaster. Ups and downs were common. Still, that day, as I left the office, I was at my lowest. Only a day later, I exchanged with that friend of a friend who’d been recuperating for nearly 4 years. It suddenly struck me: I had given myself the dreaded deadline! I had told someone else that thinking “I need to hold on until…” meant she had stretched too far and I had done the same. Recounting the conversation two days later, I concluded “People don’t realise how far it can get. He couldn’t walk or talk! I really don’t want to get there.”
Of course, I also thought that had I had had a heart-attack, I would not have been treated that way. Who in their right mind would say “Look, I know you’ve had open heart surgery and that it was caused by stress but it’s time you snap out of it, OK?”
Burning out means just that. You have exhausted your fuel. It sometimes is coupled with depression but it’s not a given. In all my lows, I escaped that dark hole. The same way it is almost hateful to tell someone who’s clinically depressed to decide to be happy or have happy thoughts, it is unacceptable to tell someone who has been physically ill to just get better.
I know I didn’t. I relapsed and three days later, I got my notice. Was I mad? Yes, of course. In all the self-blaming and thinking “I never made mistakes”, I realised that I of course had made mistakes before. The difference was that I had humane colleagues who’d help me fix it or a boss who’d let me fix it myself without judging me. You learn with your mistakes, don’t you? And anyway, what about my livelihood and that of my family? Was that termination justified? No. Did it hurt my ego? Hell, yeah. Did it hurt me physically? Unfortunately but I am climbing back up.
Will it kill me? No, not now, not ever. I know better.