What lies beyond burnout?
For a long time, as I existed well beyond the entry borders of burnout, I imagined it as Shakespeare describes in Hamlet, a place "from whose bourn No traveller returns"? In Hamlet, the undiscovered country was death; "bourn" was a journey, a life. For a decade and a half now, I definitely described my beyond-burned-out state of mind as like a death, a slow, slogging slide toward darkness. I searched the interwebs for data on long-term burnout effects, but that topic remained its own kind of "undiscovered country," for in guidance, there was none. Unless I was a doctor or a working mother (and I was neither), there was basically nothing to steer me back to normalcy. Meanwhile, career demands continued to grow, acquiring a series of houses and "assets of success" made their own monetary demands, and the endless grinding cycle became a circular loop I never thought to try to exit. I just researched coping mechanisms, or a means to return back to from where I had come. All hail the gods of capitalism, career, and presumptive character flaws, that unique form of American worship!
My own burnout journey began in the late 1990's, although I did not realize it then and would not have agreed to the diagnosis at the time. I was in my 30's, a time in a life when expectations were to build and prosper, not falter and fumble, to lose focus and resolve. But in hindsight it is clear that working six-day and then seven-day weeks over several years did extreme damage to my reserves against fatigue and stress. I experienced my first searing insomnia in those years, struggling and muddling through various life upheavals as well, until the 2000's stretched toward 2010, sacrificing physical health and mental health to what I believed to be "temporary demands," but the demands and stressors just kept coming and growing, like a metastasizing tumor eating my life. I never reached a "rest on my laurels/take a breath" plateau; it was always more more more, better, faster, and only sissies and failures paused. I could keep going, so I kept going. What else was there to do?
The top three burnout symptoms (these are widely cited across multiple well-reputed internet information sites like WebMD, Psychology Today, and MayoClinic):
- Cynicism (less identification with a job)
- Feelings of reduced professional ability
I blazed trails through these three, ad nauseum, and intractable depression set in 2015. No antidepressant or other drug could touched it, and I tried so many: from alcohol to four different antidepressants to psilocybin to many, many flavors of cannabis.
In hindsight, I see burnout clearly in the DNA of my career change efforts, which I only began actively attempting in 2008 and 2009, redirecting a scrim of my dwindling energy toward some kind of last-ditch dive to resurrect myself. My career change plans focused mostly on trying to leverage what had gone before without staring over completely. I was focused on the least effective changes, trying to escape the burnout tumor, but not really the burnout itself. This only further trapped me in the tumor's gravity well. A famous quote (that has been attributed to Einstein, among other brilliant minds) embodies that chapter of my life well: "The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result." Perhaps not so surprising that I felt increasingly insane. Burnout was now a permanent part of the persistent landscape; it seemed I could not escape it.
My life remained largely the same, no matter what geography I occupied or job adjustment I pursued: I worked too much, tried too hard, and eventually I set up residence in the very deep ditch into which I had fallen. And then I stopped even trying to drag myself out of that chasm. In October 2019, I wrote my first suicide note.
Image source: https://i.insider.com/52d81fc66da811191d3574b6?width=750
That was the nadir or my life. I could not say what stalled me from just plodding along toward a conclusion of that suicidal ideation. Certainly my modus operandi had consistently been to keep putting one foot in front of the other; I'd have bet money that I would give up and finally shuffle off the mortal coil ... anything to just be done with the unremitting grind of it all.
And yet: a return to psychotherapy played some role in halting that journey to literal death, as did finally locating an antidepressant that was wholly beneficial and not merely a complicating tradeoff of deadened body and dazed brain. (To anyone struggling to find an assist in medication, I recommend Trintellix! It, and my therapist, surely saved my life. Cognitive Behavior Therapy -- CBT -- is outstanding for rapidly arresting a downward spiral. Looking for help in that specific approach/modality was key to inserting a speed brake on my descent. Please seek help if suicide becomes a regular thought topic!)
As 2020 began, the coronavirus spawned unprecedented isolation and anxiety and the planet's inherent suspicions and distrust rose to boiling points in dozens of modernized countries. Two surprising silver linings peeped through the leaden dread of COVID: I went to remote work and immediately halted all the grind of going to an office I loathed, and the internet sprang green with an increasing awareness and fresh discussion of burnout, across all industries not just healthcare and care-based fields like childcare and eldercare. Long overdue, concern about this insidious syndrome finally bubbled into the mainstream. Several prominent authors began to suggest that burnout is inextricable from the unrelenting pace of modern life, resulting in depression, which upended the correlative nature of depression -- supposedly depression preceded and fed burnout, but now it is no longer clear which comes first, and the pummeling we all take from information overload and exponential demands on our time and focus helps no one, least of all ourselves. It seems a damning sort of realization to acknowledge the existence of and wide prevalence of burnout in America, and that perhaps that might factor into the escalated use of antidepressants and much of the detachment and depression that is now a pandemic of its own.
I still reside in Burnout, which I have come to think of as an actual location in space and time, a place that I arrived, and that I can depart. One does not simply move out of Burnout, but nor is a death nor an inevitable path to death for me ... or it does not have to be. I now see Burnout out as part of my journey, something I can and will move through and not the final destination that trapped me and will end me. I am merely passing through it -- finally. It was a detour, without question, and not one I would willingly re-experience, but it has served me with some excruciating and existential lessons. Burnout has informed and altered me, and it will continue to form me -- now -- toward overt self-care and self-prioritization.
I am exiting something, coming out on another side I would never have found had I not wandered in that long desert wilderness of my psyche, poisoned nearly to death by my Puritanical upbringing that valued career achievement above all, a toxic combo with my innate conscientiousness. I was my output, I was my performance. NO. Those are merely outcomes, but not MY outcome, not ME. What lies beyond this experience, what lies beyond Burnout ... I now see that is almost wholly up to me. My "undiscovered country" -- flavored via Burnout -- is a rediscovery of who I am now, after the Burn. I am altered from the person who entered Burnout, and now, as with adult-onset allergies, I no longer experience life the same way. Maybe I finally do believe in some kind of "afterlife," but it's one after burnout, the metaphorical death that feels -- whilst trapped in the mired tarpits of depression and aggravation -- a lot like death but is not literal death.
In hindsight, I would have been better served to just reboot my work completely; a better answer might have been to go back to school for Something Completely Different, instead of paralleling work I had already done and found toxic. But it's not too late! In the middle of my life, I am much better informed now on the boundaries of what I desire, what I am willing to sacrifice. I have put plans in motion to give myself that long-awaited rest period, to take a year or two off, a gift to myself of a kind of unpaid sabbatical -- to heal, to learn, to recharge. Burnout now feels like less like a funeral pyre and more like the altar of a phoenix. And that phoenix is me; I will find myself in a country that I discovered when I left Burnout.