Back to work after burn-out

Chronic fatigue, burn-out, exhaustion, breakdown; this condition is not new, it has had a myriad of names over the ages; it presents itself in as many ways as there are people, ranging in severity and symptom pattern. Alike, we all have had an overload of the system and some or many of our basic system functions have crashed and gone offline. Fortunately in todays society it is becoming less shame ridden, now acknowledged (to a point) and accepted (to a point) as a real condition; no longer are we just labelled weak or lazy (at least not by as many as before). While society is slowly learning not to label us weak and lazy, our own high expectations of ourselves can still judge harshly from time to time (or often) when we are again reminded that we are not super-human, and our successful efforts of being super-human so long have indeed caught up with us.

My personal experience of burn-out is an immense tiredness, my tiredness is very largely felt behind my eyes, I find myself squinting and seeing unclearly, the next stage of tiredness is brain fog where I can’t really think clearly either. When I get even more exhausted I can feel physically nauseous. My thresholds are low and unpredictable. I believe it is subtleties in mental anxieties that drain the most, these anxieties are not always so obvious or outwardly noticeable, even by me; sometimes only in retrospect can I identify what has stolen my energy this time.

At my most tired about a year ago just a trip to the fridge was a huge effort, remembering what I needed to take with me to go out of the house an intellectual feat; keys, phone, bus card, lip balm; I learned I needed to count four things before going out to be sure I had what I needed. Most days I still find tiredness seriously disrupting my functioning. I also know that pushing past my boundaries when I’m tired, powering through, can have serious consequences later on; it can render me unable to really function, make decisions, look after myself, and require significant recuperation time afterwards. So the fear of tiredness itself is an anxiety thief of my energy.

The Swedish social security system deemed me fit to go back to work last summer, this due to the fact that I’d had the energy to fly to India to take treatment for my burn-out and due to the poorly written doctors certificates describing my symptoms. Burn-out is also such a tricky one to evaluate, I myself wonder regularly if I’m just faking it and am just lazy (I believe any one with burn-out will recognise that thought, there’s the harsh self judgment coming in).

I made a decision last summer to leave the world of social security hoops and rules because I believed it would make me sicker. They would have had me using what energy I had to start working 25% and then gradually increase. I knew I wasn’t ready for this and the very real risk of being pushed to work to the point that I would break down again; that I wasn’t willing to subject myself to. Sadly I have seen many people in my private and professional life subject to just that type of back-to-work rehabilitation. Fortunately my financial position allowed me to remove myself from that system; I am so sad for all those who don’t have that luxury. I now have my apartment leased out which brings me some income and I have chosen to rehabilitate myself by spending time in mother India.

This was a gamble, it wasn’t an easy decision to make, I really wasn’t sure I’d make it, but here I am; I manage my energy very carefully, I spend many hours of each day resting. Since arriving in India exactly one month ago I have had a cold with an ear infection, at my next hop to Chennai I had a sore throat and was pleased it didn’t turn into a cold, a week ago I arrived at Vaidyagrama, an Ayurveda retreat centre, and I have another cold. I’m aware this is my body letting me know it’s doing its best but it doesn’t have so many reserves to fight the viruses circulating in the airplane. While at the beach I noticed tiredness but it wasn’t problematic since I was just taking it easy, no demands were upon me to do any more than get to the restaurant for food. Since moving on I have been painfully tired on a daily basis. I am trying to muster enough compassion for myself to allow it to be this way; I have at least enough compassion for myself now to really take care of myself despite wishing it was different.

I am at Vaidyagrama under the guise of a volunteer. I realised on the run up to coming here I was actually hoping not to be asked to do much, just be allowed to simply be. I was aware on arriving that I was indeed tired from a weekend in the city. I needed some days of complete rest before doing anything in particular. Despite this knowledge I was not able to express this need; it was like someone had pressed the mute button on me, I nodded and accepted what was planned for me. I was to work in the kitchen preparing vegetables for 3 hours in the mornings.

Behind the mute button was anything but silence. My performance anxiety was triggered, just the mere fact that I need to be somewhere at a certain time doing something for someone else. Huge piles of resistance built up like insurmountable walls, resistance that I harshly judge as my laziness. The idea if giving my time away terrifies me. It feels like a prison sentence, obviously triggering the years of my life that have been stolen away from me by demands and responsibilities I have been carrying that should never have been piled on my shoulders.

Work day one: I received a text message from a friend which upset me. In waves of tears I decided there and then I would stay in my room. I was not entirely sure where the kitchen was that I was to prepare vegetables in and I figured they could come and get me when then need me. It is very unlike my usual diligent self just not to show up, but that’s what I did (I did mention to another worker that I was taking rest, this message did filter quickly through to the kitchen). But the waves of guilt and shame, the feeling I was letting everybody down, the feeling that once again I’m crying and using it as a key in the lock that lets me get out of work, or school as it was back when I first recall this feeling; all these feeling tormented me, but I know now they are just my demons tormenting me, now I know I get to choose not to listen. Only I know what I can manage and when I need rest. And then I needed rest, and that is what I gave myself.

Day two: I came promptly in time to the kitchen 0930 as arranged. I was shown the onions and how they wanted them cut. As I was chopping the narrative ran through my mind of the compliments I hoped I would be hearing later; ‘wasn’t she fast’, ‘she’s a great person to have around’; and I caught this train of thoughts. I don’t need to be thought of as master chopper, I am not there to be miss wonderful, I am there to learn to work mindfully, learn to work in a way that is sustainable for my health. I consciously redirected my attention to the way I was standing, finding a healthy, active posture that was kindest on my body, releasing the tensions in my belly, bum and pelvic floor and deepening my breath. Pleased with my effort I concluded work after just 1hr 30mins, with no more veggies to chop I guiltily slunk back to my room. I was tired. I slept.

Day three: Arriving promptly at 0930. Check. Veggie preparation until 1130. Check. My coordinator had mentioned she’d like me then to help out with food serving and after that oversee the cleaning up of the kitchen to ‘show them how it should be done’. Well I didn’t really know what that might entail. I hung around, and hung around. 1130 I realised I was getting over tired and over hungry. 1200 I got lunch, slopped half of it on the floor and bumbled around in an over-tired fog. Lunch eaten I went to my room. I slept for 3 hours.

Day four. I admitted to myself I needed rest. I informed them of this. I rested. I slept.

Day five. I talked. I shared. I’m understood. There are no expectations on me; I should consider this my home and I’m assured I will find my way in the time it takes.

The weekend has now gone by. It has been lovely, much needed rest. I still am tired and have a cold, but less so. I have taken on the responsibility of caring for the dogs. I feel the anxiety coming up with Monday morning looming tomorrow, and remind myself that I can still take it at my pace tomorrow, and the next day, and the days and weeks after that.



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Photography ~ Mark Hopkins


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