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The first time I experienced burnout, I was 23 years old, which is incredibly young, I know.
I experienced a range of stressful events related to almost all aspects of my life over a two-month period. The first night I recognized things had gone wrong, I went to the store, bought myself some orange juice, and did what I always had done to relieve stress: I drove.
And I drove and drove.
To nowhere in particular, through the city and out again, to the beach, and back again, and then, finally, home. I tucked myself into bed with my glass of orange juice next to me and then slept.
I slept for hours, much longer than I ever had, for about four months straight.
As a teenager, I never slept in. I had too much to do: school, working at the supermarket, volunteering at a radio station, going to church commitments several times a week, and I loved being online and talking to my friends on the now-defunct MSN Messenger.
When I started college, I never altered my lifestyle. I couldn’t see why balancing four little part-time jobs, studying, and living on my own was not a great thing to do. And that’s how I found myself at 23 burned out and at a loose end.
I healed myself unintentionally. I started committing to exercise and a much more nutritious diet. For years, I’d always had a soft drink bottle in the fridge and a sneaky chocolate when I went to the shops. I finished up at some of my little jobs, took less responsibility at the ones I still had, and intentionally spent time with my friends. It was a luxury I could afford at 23 years old.
But 14 years later, I’ve found myself in the exact same position. Everything seems hard again. On days when I have worked, the minutes drag on, and the unpredictability of the nature of my work means that my plans often are left aside while something else takes precedence. In the rare moments I find myself alone and happily working in silence, someone will call my name, and I’ll jump, flinch, or lose my breath.
On Fridays, I find myself enveloped in a gym, a pocket of my day that has always been some kind of beautiful ritual. The predictability of strength training combined with a genuine community has kept me more grounded than I ever expected. I’ve always been the chunky girl who couldn’t run. Fortunately, I’ve found a space that suits me. But, last Friday I left the gym to rush to work and at each red light, I stopped and gave myself butterfly taps, crossing my forearms and patting myself on the shoulder.
“You’re okay, Frizzy,” I said to myself, adopting an old high school nickname as my alter-ego, like Beyonce and Sasha Fierce.
“You’re okay,’” I repeat again, reminding myself of rocking my children to sleep in a life that no longer feels familiar.
Six months earlier, I thought I had it all: amazing kids, great job, happy life. Unfortunately, my lack of a work/life balance took its toll, just like it had all of those years ago. After that Friday, I spent an hour researching burnout. Not only did I have it in spades, but the options for treatment were also difficult ones: quit your job, rest.
And now, I’ve done one of them, and it’s time to do the other.
Despite having left my job, I still feel so tired. I think back to what my 23-year-old self did to self-medicate: sleep, eat, exercise, sleep more, and be social.
I miss my job, my colleagues, all of the in-jokes we have. I miss everything.
But I was scared too, of losing myself entirely, of being unable to function in the evenings, and of treading water at work.
Maybe by quitting, I’ll have it all, and on my own terms.
For now, it is back to less intensive work schedules. A career break, so to speak.
Wish me luck. And please wish me to sleep.