I woke up just before dawn one morning in late September, still on my computer.
In six months, I had managed to pull an all-nighter, my fourth or fifth.
I went to bed and set my alarm for two hours as the sky started to lighten, and then I got up again to meet the noon deadline.
I had worked most of the last 24 hours and most of the last six weeks by then. The crash was more of a rough stop when it finally came.
My hands froze on the keyboard around 11:30 a.m.: I literally couldn’t type another letter. It was a shockingly physical sensation to try to pick myself up.
I stepped on a pedal that had taken me this far—and realized, with increasing desperation, that the tank was dry with bones.
Failure felt like closing my laptop. I’ve always enjoyed working.
My work as a journalist permeates my life in ways that are very rewarding but also destructive: I have burnt out three times in 10 years because I have taken on so much and have not needed support.
By making plans away from my screen, I learned to safeguard myself from these impulses. Job grew rapidly to fill the holes – partly because little else was meaningful to do, and partly because I was worried that each role would be my last when my colleagues were laid off and budgets were dwindling.
I said yes to anything I was asked, and I was motivated to do more.
When friends voiced doubts or I got discouraged, my motto was, “The only way out is through.” But there were signs that I was on a collision course: my friend and her partner, a doctor, came over for dinner when the lockdown was lifted.
I made a joke about my lack of sleep and the fact that once they were gone, I had one more story to finish. What is the worst thing, I said flippantly, that can happen. “Well – cancer,” he said. I’m sure if I had just told them I was having trouble, my editors would have happily extended my deadlines.
It’s telling how little I grasped the definition of “self-care” that my only compromises were shallow and consumerist – and what a disservice I was doing to myself. I left my apartment one day with the express intention of buying a scented candle — I don’t know where it came from.
Any attempt at balance was overwhelmed by impending deadlines: before a massage appointment, I hurried to finish a post, only to spend the hour trembling with anxiety about how much I had left to do. Although I can laugh now, it is reflective of my lack of perspective that it was absolutely self-imposed the 12 o’clock deadline I eventually gave up trying to meet; and the piece was a 15-year retrospective on Twilight.
If job addiction was true, as indicated by my desperate Googling that day, this was probably rock bottom.
But for the first time in my history of burnout, there was a steep center of clarity and even resolve, along with the usual fear, fatigue, misery and self-loathing: I no longer wanted to live like this. My breakthrough came when I asked a counselor about self-compassion.
“She stated that by leaning more heavily on the “push” system of their brain, which regulates output and acquisition, some people react to feeling overwhelmed, nervous, or powerless, which ironically activates the “danger” system further. The psychologist said the way to break the cycle was to train the “calming” mechanism to intervene with self-compassion: it just made it worse to deny that you were suffering. I share my story not because it’s exceptional, but because I’m sure it’s not.
Many individuals work to trivialize very real misery in their own jails because it is not life or death and it is worse for others. We don’t really speak about individual experiences with it with all the burnout debate on a social level-perhaps because it seems self-indulgent or shameful. Anyway, it seemed a little absurd to me that I might burn out at home while I had full control of my schedule and was doing a very unimportant job.
However, as I continued to pursue Prof. Paul Gilbert’s compassion-focused therapy, an unexpected connection arose between my unhealthy relationship with work and sociology.