The other side of burnout
A survivor’s tale
Burnout. I never thought it could happen to me but it did. It’s been almost a year since I was let go from a job I spent a good portion of my 20s working. There were 5am wake-ups, hour-long commutes, midnight deployments, 3am alerts, alarms, eating at my desk and conference calls in the living room at dinner time.
I did everything I thought I could do to help save the dying company. But cutting short my maternity leave did nothing. Within a few months of returning to my desk, I was axed along with the rest of the company.
Everyone else managed to move on quickly. The analyst is now training to be a police officer and the accountant got a new job. One of my junior developers is traveling the world, the other working for a government agency. Last I heard, my former senior dev is working for some startup and having a blast.
I, on the hand, found myself sitting at home suffering from a mix of maternal guilt, insomnia, coffee addiction and a series of emotions that ranged from sadness, anger, and irritability. At the end of my job, I was in a state of complete physical, emotional, and mental exhaustion. Throw a newborn into the mix and voila! the doctors would have diagnosed me with post-natal depression.
But I didn’t go to the doctors because I knew it wasn’t postnatal depression. Having a baby wasn’t the issue. Loosing what I thought mattered was the real culprit. At the end of a five-year relationship and a merger, I came out of it with no clear identity and no sense of accomplishment despite whatever my resume may say.
Into the tunnel…
It took a while for me to figure it out and put a name to it. At first, I wondered if it was post-natal depression but the sleepless nights, constant high alert state and dread for life started long before I got pregnant.
My previous manager would sometime talk about watching some of his former colleagues burn out. My manager before him warned me of spreading myself too thinly before he left the company. But no one told me that I would be a victim of the modern workplace.
For Arianna Huffington, it took a faint from sleep deprivation in the bathroom and waking up in a pool of her own blood to get the hint. For me, it was the constant thought of work even when there was none to wake up to.
I struggled to be present with my newborn. Physically I held her and hushed her cries. I fed her and I changed her. I played with her and sang her songs. But my mind was always elsewhere and it annoyed me.
…and towards the light
My old workmates kept asking me how the job search was going. Recruiters came from all directions with promises of six-figure salaries and prime central city offices. Everyone wanted what was on my resume but I felt fake and like an impostor.
The thing with impostor syndrome is that it occurs when you’re not true to yourself — when you are unclear about where you stand and shift the portrayal of your identity to fit that which is expected from you. You may be truly gifted and talented but internally, you don’t accept or believe it. It feels futile because you know but refuse to accept that they are being used on things you don’t care about.
Job satisfaction only exists when you have a sense of purpose — a mission to fulfill. Great workplaces enforce their vision and sell their strategies to their employees. They convince the people working for them that their work matters and most of the time, that’s what people need — to be appreciated and get paid for it.
When the gut started to kick in
I stopped applying for jobs after my first interview. It didn’t feel right, no matter how much I tried to sell it to my partner, to myself and to my potential employer.
Freelance clients were not hard to find and I did a few jobs here and there — but the dread of waking up, of going to my computer, of typing out lines of code that would eventually amount to no greater good returned. I hated my existence while the baby laughed and blew raspberries at the most random things.
The more I spent time with my child, the more envious I became towards her. She was carefree, present and with no sense or fear of the future. She is the ultimate embodiment of living in the now.
As a child, that is expected and accepted. As an adult, this is often viewed as reckless, selfish and discouraged. Somewhere along the transition between childhood and adulthood, our original state and mode of existence became a bad thing.
There has to be more to life
In the final months of 2018, I tried multiple things to create an income stream but none of the endeavors could sustain whatever original excitement I managed to drum up for myself.
I was good at pretending to be excited. It was a bad habit I picked up from the job that burned me out. With Christmas and various family events around the corner, I eventually gave up. By then, the baby had figured out how to walk and turned into a fledgling toddler that mimicked everything I did.
The more I sat behind the computer, the more she wanted to pull on the power cords and press the buttons on the keyboard. People often say that too much TV and screens can ruin a growing child’s brain — but no one really talks about the things they learn while they’re watching you.
Young children are often mirrors of insight into their primary caregivers and environments. My child became my reflection and I did not like what I saw.
I was an angry mother — angry at my child for constantly interrupting my attempts to hustle, angry at me for being angry. As a result, I ended up with an angry toddler.
The answer is not 42
I stopped trying to justify the reasons why I decided to pursue whatever pursuits I was doing. I stopped everything. I blocked out everyone. I stopped going on Facebook and Instagram. I digitally disconnected and became inactive on every platform.
At first, I went to malls but everyone just kept trying to entice me with Christmas sales so I started going to parks instead. With no one telling me what I should, the noise inside my head eventually died down.
Every day, we went to a park after nap time until it became a daily routine adventure. The constant exposure to trees, grass, sunlight and pure happiness from a toddler extinguished any voices that were not mine.
I began to uncover my lost passions and during this time, I started to write consistently and code again.
On the 4th of January 2019, I decided to make a commitment and preventative measure against another burnout. It took me two days to write and refine the 2-minute read piece that captures my personal visions, goals and what I want as a personal and guiding manifesto.
Learning to curate my life
I pinned the piece to the top of my profile and curated who I followed. As a result, it changed what I now see in my feeds and social accounts. It reduced the digital noise and showed me only the things that contribute to my personal and professional growth.
I’m pickier towards who and what gets my attention. The toddler gets top priority by default — followed by my writing and coding pursuits. After that, there isn’t really much time for anything else.
As I’m getting better at learning to balance my time between these two things and the toddler, I’m feeling fuller and happier towards life. I’m now waking up with intention and purpose rather than with a deep dark void and sense of monotony.
I’m still experimenting but these are the two questions I ask myself to keep me from the path of burnout again.
Does it excite me? and does it challenge me?
If there is no yes to the questions above, I move on like an Arianna Grande song. At the end of the day, no one really cares except you and you are the best person to decide what matters and what doesn’t.
The path toward burnout often smokes up the brain. However, once you’ve recognized and accepted the burns and begin to scoop away the ash, life beyond the burnout is much better.
That’s something I learned the hard way — with no regrets. There can’t be any regret because it takes up space that’s already been assigned.