The day everything changed…

This post was written by Megan on July 8, 2010
Posted Under: burnout signs and symptoms

Foetal in the workplace burnout cartoon

As mentioned in my last post '13 Things towards recovery from burnout', I'm going to post, one-by-one, some key recovery tricks that I found useful. 

But before I start, I thought you might like to hear about my 'entry' into the world of burnout. It's kind of like getting born. I'm crying, I'm dribbing and I need a bath. And it's all happening in a big building with air-conditioning and fluorescent lights.


The reason for this was quite unspectacular.

I got a garden variety virus. Everyone in my office had it. Everyone in my building probably had it. What made me 'special' was that I didn't get over it in two days like everyone else. I got worse.

A preppy little miss in accounts relished the opportunity to tell me that the reason why I was still ill was because she had taken antibiotics and I hadn't. I didn't reply. But I did breath heavily on her in the hope of re-infection.

Actually, I had been taking antibiotics but it was for something really embarrassing. So I didn't go there. Even if it had meant I could've said 'So there'.

Anyway, the antibiotics wouldn't have helped fight the virus because it wasn't a bacterial inflection. I could have slogged her with that clever quip, but I didn't have the energy to think it through let alone articulate it.


Was this virus really the reason for my burnout?

No, it was just the final straw. Otherwise I would've bounced back in full song after two days like everyone else.


The viral symptoms developed into other symptoms:

  • sheer bloody exhaustion that no amount of sleep would relieve
  • short-term memory loss
  • weeping both in public and in private, usually at the most inappropriate times
  • complete lack of confidence in being able to work my way out of a wet paper bag (don't even mention organising a piss up in a brewery) 
  • tingling skin (no, not the nice kind – the kind you have when you've just missed having a major car accident by a millisecond)
  • having my libido lock itself in the bathroom 
  • being a nervous nellie


The workplace

Let's go back to the scene of the crime. Not only was everyone in my office coming down with the lurgy, they were also highly stressed. All the time. Since I began right through to the day I left. And we all worked insanely long hours for very little pay.

I wasn't working in an emergency room in a city hospital. Nope. We're talking about a not-for-profit arts organisation. We opened exhibitions, operated a little shop, ran events and organised professional development opportunities for artists. Should have been a ball, but it was hell. Staff screamed and cried on a daily basis. And they weren't even artists.

I have a theory about workplaces: the more fun they look, the more likely they're not.  

But it was me who 'came down with' chronic burnout. The rest carried along with their 'milder' versions.


Were other workplaces any better?

I've spent much of my adult life wandering about in different careers:

Barista (and I don't even drink coffee), art gallery manager, voice-over 'talent' (yes, they call us that…God knows why), hospital IT phone support (that was scary – for everyone), library assistant, advertising sales hustler, art museum security officer in Italy ('Non toccare!' means 'Don't touch!', but try telling an Italian male that), graphic designer, magazine production editor, marketing officer for a funky craft and design NGO, bookshop assistant, and more.

While I've been generally praised for the level of my work, I didn't feel comfortable doing any of these jobs. Nothing felt right.

So I began to assume that there was something fundamentally wrong with me. And I just have to get used to feeling uncomfortable – and to get better at counting my blessings.


But is it just about my mopey view of the workplace?

Not according to various specialists in the field of burnout and chronic fatigue. Here are some other things they think have also factored into my particular mix:

  • being under general anaesthetic in the last 12 months (prior to getting the office lurgy)
  • having a history of glandular fever (way back in 1987)
  • having a problem with my neck, particularly down the left hand side (yep, had that too)


The tingling skin symptom

The tingling skin was a cinch for the doctor (hybrid GP-naturopath) diagnosing me. 'Your adrenal glands are shot', he said as he swivelled on his office chair (or is that just how I remember it?). 

Because my adrenals were shot then my central nervous system went down with them. And because all that's happening, messages are automatically being sent to the brain saying 'You can't run – you can't fight. Man, you are soooo screwed'. So the anxiety naturally kicked in.


Switching from body back to attitude

Of course, the big element to the my chronic fatigue diagnosis is being what they call a 'Type A' personality – otherwise known as an 'over achiever'. I like this bit. It makes me feel like I've actually achieved something. Well, for at least two seconds. Being a Type A personality means we are always feel we should be achieving MORE. We're very hard to satisfy, very picky. 

This makes us earnest employees, but our bodies begin to despise us. They have a picture of our minds on their respective dart boards. After awhile they're bound to get a bullseye. Then we go down…


I was advised to give up work for at least 3 months

'Ha!' I scoffed silently. And proceeded to work part-time. Then, after three months, I was forced to give up work completely. My body could barely get out of bed.

It had won.


Of course there's more to the mystery

I've since discovered that my body is hosting all kinds of infections and viruses – most of which are flying just under the radar of normal blood test results.

Scientists (when not distracted by the cloning of sheep and mangoes) are discovering more and more about viruses and how they are helping us form new relationships with our quilts and pillows.


What's it really all about, then?

But burnout (in whatever form) is not just about getting over viruses. We all know that. It's about changing the way we think, feel and do things.

Sometimes this change is intense and radical. Sometimes it's gradual and gentle. As long as the change is happening and for the better – for your mind, your soul AND your body – then you are on track to recovery. Believe it.


Perhaps my story is something like yours? Perhaps it's not.

Tell us what it was like when you first discovered you were burnt out (comment below).


This post was written by Megan Hills. Megan is a writer and cartoonist who is having increasing difficulty making the distinction between her mind and her body. And maybe that's a good thing. Find out more about Megan

Reader Comments!  Thanks again Megan for your clarity and humour.  Loved it!

Written By Chris on July 8th, 2010 @ 4:55 pm

What it was like when I first found out I was burnt out?
That's the only word to describe it.
One day I was working at a madman's pace with a ferrari brain in a 'successful' academic career, next I had crashed and felt like roadkill. I could only sleep and cry. And that went on for months. I lost my job, my home, my personality (or so it seemed). Moved in with my parents because I was too exhausted to fry an egg, or even to eat it.

Actualy, it felt like I had died, only unfortunately I hadn't.


Written By Amber on July 14th, 2010 @ 12:01 am

Hey Megan,
Found your wonderful blog a couple of weeks ago and have been reading through the posts ever since then. 
Discovering that I was burnt out was nothing but traumatic. I discovered I was burnt out when I was a senior in high school. I had drastically overloaded myself with challenging courses and felt like there was no way out. I was averaging about 3-5 hours of sleep a night and was becoming less and less able to do the work that was required. I was always tired, always anxious, and always beyond stressed out. I even experienced twitching in my eyelids and heart palpitations. However, I continued to push on, because I had an incredible drive to excel. Even so, I hated the life that I had chosen, making it harder and harder to get myself to actually do my homework and making me lose more and more sleep. Suicide often came to mind, but I always dismissed it. Until one day when I couldn't. There came a point when i was experiencing so many negative emotions and effects that I could no longer dismiss suicide. I scared myself. 
I got myself help and at my psychologist's recommendation, dropped four classes. I managed to finish high school and graduate with my class, though I was struggling with burnout the entire time. I took two years off in between high school and college during which, I came a long way towards full recovery. The most helpful thing for me was spending ample time doing NOTHING. It was absolutely cathartic to strip my life of responsibility and just spend time sleeping, eating, and watching Indie movies (and I realize how lucky I am to have had the luxury to do this). After that, I got myself a low-stress job as a receptionist that allowed me to accomplish something with minimal pressure. I'm still struggling with recovering completely and have the hardest time accepting that I am not there yet and cannot function as well as other people. However, I'm now a college freshman and managing to do decently. 
I hope that wasn't too overly personal. I just remember that when I was in the midst of burnout, I wished that I had people who understood what I was going through. Hopefully, hearing my story and understanding that there are people out there who understand, even though their loved ones may not, will bring someone comfort.  

Written By Claire on January 19th, 2012 @ 9:25 am

Hi again :) Sharing your stories is what this site is all about – so we can feel less alone and learn for each other. So thanks a bunch for sharing. And I really relate to your story – this extraordinary drive to excel but in a life that’s completely uninspiring. It’s not surprising that, with this combination, many of us are pushed to the edge. Sometimes, sadly, beyond the edge. Well done for getting professional help – a highly intelligent move.

Big pompoms from this end for committing to DOING NOTHING over a decent period of time. It’s not as easy as it sounds. Sure, not everyone has the resources to do nothing for a good stint – but some of get to a point that we have no choice but to do nothing, regardless of our financial circumstances. I’ve been there.

Thanks, again. I hope your comment will inspire others to share their stories with us too.

Written By Megan on January 22nd, 2012 @ 12:25 pm

Burnout is lonely. For somone like myself who loves being around people. My burnout began in my high stress job as a Real Estate Broker . As the real estate market began to decline I found myself working longer days and trying to accomodate everybody and I mean everybody. But I guess it caught up with me in 2009. My husband had a heart attack on June 9th at the age of 45, they called it the "window maker", his left ventrical was fully blocked. He recovered but this put me in a tailspin of trying to take care of him, and my daughter who was entering her senior year in highschool. I felt like I was numb but kept going, taking care of everything. In 2010 I began to get tired, sleeping when I could, and working only when I had too. After a busy spring in real estate, I crashed. However, the ringing phone never stopped. I soon  began to ignor it and my  email. Funny, but that seems to be the first sign that I knew I was burned out, but never see this discussed by others. If not for needing my phone for emergencys I would have thrown it away ! Well after this, like so many people, finances became tough withe the declining Market. I cant quit work is all I could think of ! SO… instead I took on another FULL TIME JOB in my other high stress career field…. EVENT DIRECTOR at a Country Club. I worked for a person who had limited knowledge to say the least of the business. I worked very long hours and slept very little. Talk about "adding fuel to the fire", I began to be a different person. Life was about what I needed to be doing at that moment. I had no life outside of work. It changed me BIG TIME. I neglected myself, family, and friends. It sucked ! I left that job on Feb.5th 2012, and I know that saved my life. I wish someone had warned me, but I had to find out the hard way.I would not wish this on my worst enemy. Life is too short and the biggest thing I found out is that it is ok to stay home in bed, it does not mean you are lazy. If you dont anwer your phone, so what. Take care of yourself first, then your family. In the end that is all that counts.
PS…. I almost forgot… Its ok to say NO… that is hard for alot of us.. if you are a member of the burn out club…. you know what I mean !!!

Written By Karen on June 10th, 2012 @ 1:52 am

Hi Karen. I know what you mean! Saying ‘no’ is a biggie for sure. Thanks so much for sharing your story. What a process. I’m feeling for you.

A lot of us have trouble disconnecting from the phone/email even in the midst of burnout – particularly when we no longer have the energy to socialise face-to-face. You’re right. Behaviour around phone and email is a big indicator. My partner had to unfurl my fingers from the handset and keypad. We need constant reminders that it’s okay to disconnect so we can take care of ourselves first. Thank you for yours :)

Written By Megan on June 10th, 2012 @ 9:17 am

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