Updated: Jun 20, 2020
What my experience of burnout taught me and why the COVID-19 pandemic could be your wake-up call
My wake-up call came in March 2013.
I’m sat in my car outside the Doctor’s surgery. I’ve just been signed off work for 2 weeks, due to “stress and low mood”. The score on the Generalised Anxiety Disorder form indicates I have it. And my blood pressure is too high. I can’t stop crying. I sit there for 2 hours trying to comprehend what’s happening to me. I want to go home but I can’t remember how to drive the car.
That was the start of a very surreal, distressing, confusing and extremely isolating nine months. My mind felt like it had broken, and without it my body couldn’t function either.
In the weeks that followed I had a shocking realisation.
“I think I’ve had a breakdown”.
The first few weeks passed in a blur. The symptoms got worse. I was so exhausted walking across the room was like wading through concrete. My memory was so poor I’d forget what I was doing and burst into tears. A trip to the supermarket caused a panic attack simply because I forgot what I’d gone in for. Lack of focus meant it became unsafe for me to drive. Extreme paranoia and anxiety pervaded my waking hours, and at night I was tortured with my own spiralling negative thoughts. If I did eventually go to sleep, I’d often have nightmares resembling a disaster movie that felt so real I felt like I’d been under physical attack.
Regular trips to the Doctor saw me signed-off work for longer each time. Anti-depressants were offered and refused (a personal choice). Friends and family tried their best to help. If they contacted me to offer support, it was too much pressure. If they didn’t, it meant no-one cared. I felt alone, misunderstood and helpless.
As I look back it’s so easy to see how I had arrived in this place. I had what I though was a successful career in a Financial Services organisation. I was a project manager, working 60 to 70 hours a week (that’s normal right?) I was good at my job and used to working to deadlines under pressure. Expectations were high (mine and theirs). There was no time for eating properly, exercising, having a hobby, relaxing or generally doing anything except work. My Nan who I was extremely close to had just passed away after a battle with cancer. I didn’t even have time to grieve, I just dealt with the practical side of organising medical care, paperwork… anything except dealing with my emotions. I don’t even remember the funeral.
The “obvious” signs that I wasn’t well such as anxiety, exhaustion, hyperactivity, sweats, heart palpitations and even hair loss went ignored. There were a few occasions where I almost passed out in the office. Worried friends staged an “intervention” to get me to slow down. I just didn’t see the problem. I’d been working under sustained stress for years and the feelings I had were so familiar they seemed normal. I did go to the Doctor after a routine check revealed high blood pressure, which was unusual for me. They gently suggested I take a couple of weeks off work as it was clearly stress. But no, I couldn’t because my project was too important and there’s no way I could take time off.
Then the day came where my mind and body decided enough was enough. I was in the office, staring at the hundreds of emails pinging into my inbox, the phone kept beeping and ringing. When I didn’t answer they would come to find me. Suddenly time slowed down. Everything went out of focus and blurred. Sounds became muffled and distant. It was as if I was under water. And then I heard a voice in my head say, “I can’t do this anymore”.
So here I was. Just trying to get up every day and praying it would stop.
The turning point came when I finally acce