Read Part 1: A Month in the Life of a Recovering Workaholic.
On the eve of leaving my full-time job, I googled “how long does it take to recover from chronic burnout” and “what does workaholic recovery look like.”
After battling chronic burnout for 15 years, I finally acknowledged my body’s one and only message to me: take a rest, relax, and live a little. I was about to walk away from workaholism and embark on the path to recovery. And secretly I hoped that Google could give me some definitive answers.
Most blogs that I looked at focus on how to identify, treat, and prevent burnout. I found a handful of small studies showing that burnout recovery could take from one to three years and possibly up to a decade. However, I could not find many posts sharing the personal experience—what the days might look like, what the body and mind might feel, what challenges might show up, and how long it might take to feel like oneself again. I ventured into this uncharted territory, not knowing what awaited outside my comfort zone.
Six months have passed in the blink of an eye.
Oftentimes, when I run into people I know, I would get questions or comments like “have you done anything exciting”, “you must be feeling so relaxed now,” “how nice it is to have the time to do whatever you want,” and so on.
Many people (including myself) romanticise the idea of taking a career break. But the reality is not as glamorous as imagined. Workaholism is an addiction. The brain has been hardwired to seek the dopamine high from working incessantly. And it takes time, effort, and many trials and errors to become aware of this insatiable compulsion, learn to dial it down, and keep it at bay.
So, how do I feel now? What have I learned so far? What’s next in 2023?
1. Surrender is the way to recovery.
In the week leading up to Christmas, I looked forward to enjoying a proper break since my resignation—a break where I could just be, without too many responsibilities.
Things were going well; I wrapped up two projects with positive feedback. My body felt at ease and that I was able to lift heavier weights at the gym. My father responded well to his cancer treatment and had his medical appointments reduced to quarterly.
Then my body decided that I needed a different kind of Christmas experience.
For no obvious reason, dull, throbbing pain flared up from my neck, across my shoulders and down to my lumbar spine. My sleep quality suddenly became so fragmented that I kept waking up at 4 a.m. every morning. My gut could not tolerate my usual diet.
I spent most of the Christmas week laying on the floor and stared at the ceiling with my orange wheat heat pack, napped occasionally, and did some light reading. This was not what I imagined doing during my break, and yet I felt grounded, at peace, and grateful amid all my physical discomfort.
If I were to offer only one piece of advice to people who are going through a recovery, it would be “surrender.”
Let go of ideals, expectations, and preconceptions. Welcome every feeling, sensation, and thought; acknowledge them, be curious with them, thank them, and bid them farewell.
When we stop judging or resisting the present moment, we start to relax into the fundamental human experience. Until then, we can set ourselves free from unhelpful belief and behaviours rooted in our suffering.
2. Let go of the mainstream version of normal.
I caught up with my former colleagues for a morning tea just before Christmas and one of them asked how I had been feeling. I smiled and said, “I know it’s weird to say that I finally feel normal. The real normal that I have never known exists. I am not constantly worrying about everyone and everything. My monkey mind is tamed. And I can finally breathe deep into my belly, instead of feeling stuck in the throat.”
The modern world glorifies busyness, grit, and having it all. Everywhere we look, we are told to “get more done in less time” and that “no pain, no gain,” otherwise we “go big or go home.” The majority of us are conditioned to believe it is normal to feel hectic, stressed, and tired. And we “deserve to treat ourselves” with material goods, chemical substances, or a full-packed social calendar.
It is not normal for humans to always carry on at full speed and peak energy. It is not normal to drown our minds in social media, overfill our home with stuffs, and overspend to keep up with the Joneses. It is not normal to numb or mask our inner pain and wounds with alcohol, food, or drugs.
Over time, I have learned to develop my own version of normal that enables me to heal my body, mind, and soul to become the best version of myself and eventually be well enough to start a new professional chapter dedicated to service for others soon.
3. Find strength in slowness and softness.
For several months prior to and after my resignation, I made many mistakes that I was not proud of: Scratching the rear end of my car twice when driving out of my usual parking spot. Forgetting appointments despite multiple notifications on my phone. Over-reacting over some small or trivial things. Throwing snarky shades when things did not go my way. And the list went on.
These incidents had nothing to do with my lack of care or attention. I was trying my best to look after myself at home, colleagues at work, and patients at the hospital. But my brain was shattered after two years of pandemic stress piling on top of years of burnout. I was not able to undertake actions or regulate emotions to the same extent as I would be normally.
After I scratched my car for the second time, I realised that I was not okay. I was too caught up in the speediness and noises around me. And that moment became a turning point for me to learn to slow down in everything I do.
Before I drive, I would sit still to do a body scan for 30 seconds in the car. After finishing a task, I would take a few deep breaths and stretch my body before moving onto the next one. When engaging in a conversation or receiving an email, I would pause, even for a few second, to ground myself before I say or type anything.
Taking life slowly and gently is a sign of empowerment. As Thich Nhat Hanh said:
“Life is available only in the present moment.”
“The past is gone, the future is not yet here, and if we do not go back to ourselves in the present moment, we cannot be in touch with life.”
There is no need to rush through life and tick all the boxes set by society’s standards. We may not be able to control what will happen in the future. And yet we have the power to actualise our dreams by what we do today.
Let’s sit still and appreciate what we have around us now. Let’s be soft and kind to ourselves and others now. Let’s commit to showing up in our best possible self now—for ourselves and all sentient beings.
I do not know how long this career break will be. All I know is that each day I am doing the best I can with what I have and at where I am—to live a peaceful and meaningful life and to make the world a better place. I will let life unfold organically. And this is enough.