Let’s Talk About Burnout

I want to talk a bit about why I had to take some time off and some of the less obvious effects of burnout.  I wasn’t quite to the level where I could no longer function, but I came right up to the edge.  I was crying at my desk at work, I came within a few inches of having a full-on meltdown in front of my co-workers (sparking my fears that I would be fired, which made me afraid to tell them I couldn’t keep up), and I was honestly not capable of taking care of myself properly. 

The surface explanation is that I was working 50 hours a week for my day job and still falling behind, and that left me with no mental energy for writing the blog or handling my freelance contract work.

But when you look just a little deeper, it’s SO much more affecting than that.

Working so much overtime robbed me of the coping resources I would normally use for Life In General – keeping up my home, self-care, keeping myself fed, regular errands, running this blog and doing my freelance work, occasionally socializing with friends.  Every last drop of resources I had got put into working and pretty soon I was running on negative spoons.  I couldn’t cope with anything, but I couldn’t break because there was too much work to get done.

The first thing that happened was that I stopped sleeping.  Have you ever heard of bedtime resistance?  In ND people, it’s not just a refusal to accept limits.  It’s a survival mechanism.  When you’ve been masking all day or having to force your brain to stay as focused as possible when it doesn’t have the resources to do that, those precious hours between when you can “switch off” and when you go to sleep are golden balm for the soul.  That downtime is just as important for our well-being as nourishment or sleep – it’s restorative and necessary.

However, when I was working 8am-5pm without a break, then coming home and taking a couple of hours to eat and watch a little TV before getting another 3 hours of work done, there wasn’t time for everything.  I was finishing work around 9-10:30pm and then I had to choose to go to bed or stay up a few hours to decompress.  And since my sleep is often not very solid or restorative, most days I chose to stay up past midnight, sometimes 1am.  After a few weeks of that, my body seemed to decide “Ok, so we’re just working on significantly less sleep now” and started waking me up at 4:30-5am, totally against my will.  This did not make me go to bed earlier – my downtime always has been and always will be more precious to me than sleep – it just made me run on less and less rest.

I also stopped eating.  Hyperfocus will make me lose my ability to feel hunger or thirst (if I’m busy, I forget to get hungry).  I was lucky that our office gets lunch brought in a couple of times a week because unless someone set down that takeout container in front of me, I never thought about food.  All I thought about was get the work done, get caught up, meet the deadline.  I wasn’t hungry when I got home in the evenings – at least, I couldn’t register any hunger signals – but I made myself eat something as a way of “justifying” that downtime I took before getting back to work (toxic, I know, but I’m just telling you what happened).  Often, that “something” I managed to eat was a bag of popcorn or a tiny frozen pizza because I just couldn’t think about anything more. 

I lost all ability to take care of my home.  The trash didn’t go out for weeks at a time, the dishwasher never ran, frightening amounts of general detritus piled up on my kitchen and bathroom counters.  I did get the laundry done every weekend, but that was only because I needed clothes for work.  Everything became too overwhelming because all my mental spoons and energy were put into constantly working.

The extra screwed up part is the fact that I couldn’t stop.

Once the extra work was taken off of me and I was back to a normal 40-hour-a-week schedule, I had trouble adjusting back.  I was still getting up early, trying to be at the office by 8am instead of my scheduled 8:30.  I didn’t take a lunch break again for a week until my boss told me I had to and I still forgot most days until after 2pm – although I did start to feel hungry again.  When I got home in the evenings, I couldn’t relax because I felt like I was supposed to be doing something, but my brain was trying to wind down at the same time, so I would just sit for hours in a kind of paralyzed soft anxiety, unable to relax or be productive.  Since I couldn’t “switch off” my brain until about 9pm, I was still staying up too late and not sleeping well.

The cause of the stress was gone, but the stress itself was still there.  I’d gotten stuck in that mode and I couldn’t break out.  Autistic inertia, I suppose.

One thing that helped was my birthday weekend that literally took 3 days.  This was not restful in the slightest, but it broke me out of the cycle of constant work thoughts.  Instead, I thought about seeing my friends, drinking stupidly large drinks, and geeking out with my fellow nerds.  A good geek rant does a lot of good for my brain – it’s like a well-paced workout.  And positive socializing with loved ones I hadn’t seen in almost 2 years was good for my heart, which had begun to feel very alone and despondent.

I’m hopeful that this long holiday weekend will help some more.  I plan to do some housecleaning so I no longer feel like I live in the aftermath of a tornado and spend a couple of days working on some personal projects I haven’t been able to spare a thought for in the last two months.  Sometimes a deep dive into a special interest is the best tonic for overwrought nerves.  With any luck, when I go back next week I’ll be able to pace myself, keep a more regular sleep schedule, and remember to eat real food every day.

I don’t expect to be “recovered” by next week, though.  Recovery from burnout, or even just getting up to the edge of it, requires significant time without stress.  I’m only just getting to the part where I can begin to recover: the unsustainable workload is gone, and because of that I can eat again, I’m beginning to sleep a little more, and I feel like I have a little breathing space.  The worst stressors are easing, but now I have to play catch-up to get back to baseline where I can write and wash the dishes and cook and take out the trash along with everything else.  Once I reach that baseline again, I can start the actual recovery.  It takes time, and any small momentary crisis will set me back a little bit – a two steps forward, half a step back kind of thing.  But, barring any huge calamity or new prolonged stress, I will get there.

A man holding his head in his hands. White and blue text on a purple background reads "Let's Talk About Burnout"

Have you been through a burnout?  How did you recover and how long did it take?  Did you have a partner or family members supporting you or did you have to do it alone?  Do you have any tips for heading off a burnout when you can see it coming?  How about helpful hints to speed recovery?

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