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My eyes were smudged grey, lips dried and cracking from the cold and neglect, exhaustion itched all across my scalp and my arms felt like lead, unable to move of their own accord. It was 11pm on a Monday night, and I had finally, startlingly, hit the wall of utter burnout. My brain couldn’t tick or whirr any longer, there was nothing left to give. Forcing myself to stand up from my cluttered desk it was time to admit defeat – I’d completely burnt myself out in November. It was affecting my health, risking my relationship and destroying my love of writing, creating and working.
Something had finally cracked – more than just my poor skin.
Inspired by Jodi, Leah, Edna and a few badass ladies from Girl Gone International, I wanted to share with you guys why it’s been quiet around here last month. To open up on my own struggle with burnout, self-care and how I’m learning to be kinder to myself.
I’ve always been the kid with a full plate – bouncing from school, to ballet lessons to calisthenics class as a busy 8 year old. I was a born over-committer. If I wasn’t busy, I thought I wasn’t using my time well enough.
In high school, I kept busy beyond normal classes to ‘stay ahead’, to feed my constant hunger for knowledge & experience beyond the privileged middle-class suburban life I was living. Like nearly all the best adults I know, I wasn’t ‘cool’ in school – I had to find my beautiful weirdo tribe of musos’s, theatre kids and dance freaks to get by.
In university it wasn’t enough to just take an Arts degree with a double major – I took French classes on the side, founded a theatre company, hosted fundraisers, tried joining gyms, lived in a wild share house where communal parties and pasta nights were hosted, performed in underground theatre shows and spent my weekends in alleyway bars and pubs, trying to be the cool alt-indie kid (complete with pixie hair cut dyed deep red – yes, there’s photos but you won’t see them here!).
Working 3 jobs to travel as much as possible I was always busy busy busy. I never stopped – or if I did it was in a flaming heap of exhaustion, exiling myself to the seaside, alone, in the depths of winter to write, read and regenerate. I’d make my own kind of therapy – watching 1980’s movies and inhaling Cadbury chocolate and fish and chips until I felt in control again. I would run and run and burn until I flamed out spectacularly, never knowing when the fall would happen, but pushing, searching, seeking to be free, to do more, to be more.
In my mid-twenties came full time work and with it, the drinking culture of a company that valued money over people, rewarding overtime hours with booze, partying and bad habits.
I kept living in the gypsy theatre-kid sharehouse, hosting ever more elaborate theme parties.
Kept up full time work, progressing from newbie, to team player, to assistant manager.
Kept working overtime, weekends, 12 hour days – working hard and partying harder.
I didn’t want to ‘lose my creative side’, so I kept theatre producing, took on side projects, ran ragged living the professional life by day, partying corporate-style and keeping up with the indie cool kids on Friday nights and weekends.
I burnt myself so low I started to hate the person I’d become.
A sarcastic shadow – overworked, underpaid, joking about walks of shame and lack of sleep – making an honour out of the excess stress and work I was doing. Wasn’t this adulting? Didn’t everyone live for the weekends, dread their drudgery in the office? Wasn’t I lucky enough to work in travel and have the chance to spend my Friday nights on calls with clients unhappy in their hotels on the other side of the planet?
At least I wasn’t a lawyer, at least I could pay the rent, at least I could make art on the side and visit my artist friends in Sydney. But it wasn’t fulfilling any part of me – I was running on empty constantly.
I burnt so low in my Melbourne life I had to flee. I saw my chance and I grasped it – an escape abroad, a job that valued my natural ability, that paid me to travel, that had me meeting new people, the chance to carve a completely new identity for myself.
So I flew, open hearted, fearful, but happy to be doing something that was mine, and mine alone. This crazy wild thing – quitting my job, buying a one way ticket to London, hoping I’d land the job of a lifetime.
And that job was everything – it consumed me. My life was on a pause for two straight years, while I gave my travellers the trip of a lifetime as a tour guide across Europe. I loved it, but it sapped me. I was a shell by the end – putting your needs, your own hopes and health at the bottom of every list, pushing through to ‘just the next trip’ ‘just until the end of season’ takes its toll. Constantly letting days blur into a knock off drink, a necessary party night, a midday beer because dammit you’re getting paid to be in Barcelona right now and how damn cool is that?
It was the happiest, best, most all-consuming yet satisfying job I’ve ever had.
But I burnt, down to my very nub, the end of self. I had nothing left to give by the end of season and retreated – to Austria. To a basement apartment and an ‘easy’ job as a ski rep.
At 27 years old I finally took the time to take some proper care of myself. Austria let me regenerate, relax and exercise – we partied of course – but skiied everyday. I was up and outside every morning to see the bright, glistening white snowy sunrise, to breathe fresh mountain air. I had time to slow down and kiss the boy I’d just met on a toboggan run as the sun set.
In Söll I found my centre again, learnt to balance work and life, in a way I’d never done before. And then, only when I’d stopped to take a breath, I found I had someone beside me to calm the madness, the frenzy I’d been juggling for years. The need to keep moving quelled and I could breathe again, sleeping soundly.
Life in Austria forced me to slow down, and my body and mental health flourished….for a while.
Four years later, on that late Monday night, I realised I still hadn’t learnt my lesson, had slipped back into my over-commitment habits.
In November I piled on the to-do list. Full time management position at work, creative side hustle, learning German, teaching myself how to cook, getting fit, planning a wedding, organising Christmas for the family, keeping the house clean, supporting the mister, oh and here’s 50 things to do in 50 weekends if you’ve still got time. And that short trip? A weekend getaway? Manage that too. You’ve got this down, yeah?
This is what a modern millennial work-life balance looks like, right?
I was pushing, going beyond ‘just’ work, beyond ‘just’ writing, over-committing myself to online courses, to personal challenges, to reach the same heights as my peers who do this blogging and writing thing full-bloody-time. Because I somehow think if I only hustled a little more, if I just had a little more time, maybe I could ‘make it’.
… maybe I’ll summit that next peak…
… maybe I’ll get that passive income…
… maybe I’ll buy myself more time….
… Maybe I’ll live the dream…
Right now I’m so exhausted I’ve lost sight of what that dream is.
I have a chronic, lifelong case of over-commitment. In work, in creativity, in social life. I’m only now realising that maybe, it’s possible to stop. To say No, to not do the extra thing, to not go the extra mile. I’ve never been told that’s allowed. The competitive, ambitious, stubborn noise in my head says you can always be doing more.
But my body has fought back against this wild push to do it all. My skin is fading, hollows etched under my eyes, my health is suffering and I’ve been lost – exhausted, emotional and erratic in my decisions. I’ve always walked the fine line between managing everything and overworking, and in November I tiptoed over the edge. It was one challenge too many, one too many after work commitments, one too many promises I didn’t keep, deadlines that stressed me out and sacrifices made.
Sitting exhausted and alone on a chilly Monday night, almost in tears from an inability to keep up, I knew it was time to hit the brakes, to avoid a total flaming burnout.
Now comes the hard part – I need to find a way back up. To the balance point where my extra activities give me strength and motivation, where it’s a joy, not a chore, to write and take photographs and go for dinners and figure myself out in Austria.
How am I going to do this? I have no idea – but inspired by Anne Lamott, I’m starting bit by bit. We’ve already taken a step towards more relaxation and less work in our study:
2016 has been a rough year for everyone it seems – there’s been some amazing highs and depressing lows, so I’m looking to shift into a kinder, calmer 2017.
The first way to get there? I’m starting to say No. And it’s the greatest damn feeling in the world, to politely put myself and my own priorities first.
In this slow, inching way, fighting my natural urge to agree to do all of the things, I’m getting back to balance. I’m learning, slowly, with help from those who love me most, that maybe, you don’t have to do it all.
Turns out, you’re allowed to just sit, and sleep and read and enjoy the small moments you have right now – to not always be chasing an invisible ’success point’ on an ever-shifting horizon.
For December, I think that’s enough. To breathe and enjoy the time we have, with the people we love.
Have you been through burnout? Are you a chronic over-commiter? Share your stories in the comments below!