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After realizing I was having a burnout, I decided I never wanted to feel like this again. I succeeded to get better, and now I feel stronger and happier than ever before. Here is how I did it, and how you can do it too.
So I know what it feels like. It was the worst I have ever felt and unfortunately, it lasted for years. I was halfway through my Psychology Bachelor, and the failed exams grew exponentially, no matter how hard I tried. I punished myself by not having any social contacts or any other relaxing activities before I had finished studying for the day (AKA getting my Bachelor’s diploma that very day). Not so healthy. I ended up skipping classes (yes, me: the perfect student) and totally isolated myself. I had concocted myself a very lonely, unhealthy and unhappy life.
Recognize and ask for help
Now, what really helped me to turn things around? Most of it was my own doing. I find this very hard to write and yes, it may sound arrogant because I’ve had a ton of support from friends and family and professional help. But my point is: no matter how bad you feel, you can always make things better for yourself! The first and most important step is to realize the situation you are in. Recognizing it when things suck, and just thinking: “Man, I really do not want to be this situation any longer!”
Being a psychology student, I knew all about the power of psychology and conversation. I also knew that looking for (professional) help can be effective and it does not automatically label you as ‘ill’ or ‘weak’. Instead, it is a very strong and powerful thing to do! Opening up and sharing your struggles is the best way to deal with them. Because I knew all this, I was ashamed that I, a future psychologist, had ‘failed at life’ myself. But I recognized I needed help myself, or else this whole future psychologist thing would never become reality.
If you are wondering whether you can get out of your unwanted situation, I would strongly advise you to ask for help. Asking for, or admitting you need help actually proves that you are strong: that you care for yourself enough to put assumptions aside and get through anything! From all the people I know, asking for help has only made them stronger, be it help from your partner, a good friend, a family member, a psychologist or any kind of life coach.
If someone you love might be going through this, do not hesitate to ask them about how they feel, without judgment. It is a common misconception that avoiding painful subjects would help them. I didn’t tell anyone (apart from my boyfriend, some close friends, and my parents) unless they showed me they wanted to help me. And once I talked, it did help! Even just sharing it made me feel a little better.
I don’t remember at which point I realized that I had changed so much. Burnout doesn’t happen overnight. I guess it took me years to get to this point… One summer I went on holiday with my family. I had failed half of my classes that year and I was very unhappy. I knew I wasn’t completely myself, but it wasn’t until my parents told me how worried they were about me I started to question my state of mind. They noticed I couldn’t even remember a list of three things and my concentration was nowhere to be found. I thought I had never had any to begin with, but then again I live with myself daily and their ‘outsider’ judgment shocked me. Was it really that bad?
Weaknesses are okay
After this holiday I went to my GP and, on my request, he referred me to a psychologist. I said I was unhappy, feeling bad for being lazy, undisciplined and a loser at studying, really. And I wanted to find out why I kept ‘failing’ at this whole studying thing, while I felt like I was trying so hard…
I asked if they could diagnose me on ADHD (I had an inkling about this for years and during a class on ADHD I realized that it sounded 100% like me). So they tested me and I ticked all the boxes. This was a huge relief because I had been telling myself for years that I was too lazy and undisciplined, even though felt like I had done all I could, including extra classes and private teaching. And I had been very convincing, so by now I fully believed that lazy and undisciplined me was the real me. Finally, there was a sound reason for my study troubles all along! I wanted to go out on the street and tell everyone.
But that didn’t resolve how I was doing right now. Within a few other conversations I learnt more about myself and how I dealt with situations. For example: I knew that I became independent from a very young age. I learned here that this is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it gave me the motivation and discipline to push my boundaries beyond my imagination. But it’s also a curse because this kind of motivation never stopped pushing me. I was never proud of my achievements because I didn’t give myself the time to even think about it before relentlessly moving on. Sensitivity, perfection and ADHD. Unknowingly I had practically invited Mr. Burnout for tea and he had not canceled our date.
Time for change
So now I knew where I was at: It was my own ‘fault’ but I did not do anything wrong. There was a reason why studying was so hard for me. I was near depression and I needed to get better. As much as the psychologist and I could talk, I figured I wanted to follow my heart and find my own way to deal with this. As was advised to me, I set a pause to study, odd jobs and everything else. I stayed home for a few months and I searched for a new hobby (to have fun, not to succeed at yet another thing).
As a child, I used to love anything creative, but during my education I would never allow myself the time for such ‘useless things’ as it wasn’t preparing me for a better future. I realized that for years now, I had rarely taken the time to do anything I was passionate about. That first day home I went to a toy store and bought the biggest boat model they had on sale (it was a Revell H.M.S. Bounty and It had about 200 parts). I am quite handy but I had never done any model building so I told myself: “Okay, learn to just go for it and see how far you get, without punishing yourself for not succeeding this thing overnight”. Suddenly, every tiny part I glued on or painted felt like a success! Who new things could be fun again.
I also asked for ADHD medication. I really, really hated this but I felt I needed it to get better, at least for finishing this h#ck of a study. It took some months until I had the one that suited me best, but it helped me clear the constant fog in my brain just enough to take some initiative daily.
I would set myself easy goals and I decided I wanted to be happy when those goals (and nothing else) would be succeeded. For example: work on that boat. Or: vacuum the house. Or: get fresh veggies for tonight and tomorrow. (P.S. pick just one. Any other accomplishment is bonus!)
I cannot explain how hard it is to be satisfied with only one of these tasks a day when nothing had ever been enough to be proud or even satisfied with myself. But it would help me to get up and do something, each day. And that felt amazing. I felt like I was figuring out my own treatment! After half a year I remembered how much I loved being creative and I had made several things (other than building models: some origami, a little wooden cabinet, and some other art). I never finished that boat, but I can truly say that I was okay with that, having set the purpose of just working on it beforehand. That half-finished boat has been standing in the living room like a statue, my personal trophy. It would remind me of my purpose: following my heart and becoming happy again.
The first lesson I have learned from all of this would be that I can be strong, even when I feel weak. I can take care of myself, and after getting through this, I can get through anything. But also, I realized that the purpose that I had in mind was no longer working for me. I realised that almost all my life I had been working towards the future. I didn’t really enjoy the present. I literally rushed myself into burnout for that future and I was not planning on going back there ever again. And now I knew how it felt to be depressed and that living for tomorrow was not an option. After all we never know what will happen tomorrow. So my new goal was to enjoy each day and make it the best day possible. And I tried new things again.
Half a year later I managed to go to some ‘bonus’ classes, just attending my own classes to see my school mates and get back into the studying routine without forcing myself to follow everything and learn the lessons. It was incredibly tough. I was easily overwhelmed and would often have a panic attack in busy everyday situations like trains. But I learnt what was happening and found a weapon: earplugs. Simple, yet efficient. I learnt to recognize and deal with situations before they got out of hand: put in my earplugs and just breathe. Slowly but steadily it would happen less and less. Now, six years later, I rarely feel that kind of panic anymore, and if it happens I can use breathing to feel better. Yes, ADHD and mindfulness are a perfect match.
All in all, I have taken only one extra year to finish up that bachelor. But what’s more important: I learnt so much from that period. It made me who I am today and I am grateful for it. I am proud of myself: proud of following my heart. Proud of both asking and accepting help from others, proud of my resilience. Proud to realize and accept that I am a good person(without feeling guilty of saying that about myself). That I have not only bad qualities to conquer but also a lot of good qualities to cherish, especially that I am capable of anything I set my mind to!
In the end they were right: I got out. And I am so much stronger now. We all have setbacks, but that’s just life. What matters is how we deal with that. Endure things, learn from them and move on stronger.
I hope my story inspired you. If you are in a similar situation or if you feel like you can’t do it anymore, believe in yourself! I truly believe in your power, and you will get out of there. Do not stay alone, confide to someone you know well and ask for courage and help. Sometimes it’s easier to confide to a professional who is not in the same situation as you. Maybe you did not get in this situation on purpose on your own will, but you will be the one responsible for getting out of it. Now that is something to be proud of! Love yourself and have faith.
There is always a way, and we are in this world to live together and help each other, always. And remember to follow your heart, it knows the way. You only need to listen to it.