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This is a very personal post. I think it is important to share. If you are going through this or something similar, know that you are not alone and that you can get back up again.
Or maybe there is someone in your environment who is going through this. I hope I can give you a peek into how it feels and what it may look like from the outside so that you can understand them a little better and help them get out of it.
So let me tell you what it felt like for me. I will start by saying this is not the whole story. Burnout does not happen overnight, and it often takes years to get to a point of burnout or depression. This can have many factors. For me, it was a combination of being overly independent, pushing my limits and not accepting anything less than perfection. I wanted to succeed in everything I saw other people do too. In doing so, I utterly and completely ignored that everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and I simply ordered myself to be good at everything.
My priorities were very wrong. I would force myself to study late at night because I did not succeed enough yet that day. Or I would skip meals and social life. Very unhealthy. But I did just that. And I slowly started changing. I went into a permanent state of stress. For years I had these weird inexplicable near-illnesses like overly tensed shoulder and back muscles, short breath and at times I felt like I was going to faint. Looking back, I can relate almost every little thing that was going on, to myself frantically working myself into a burnout.
But the problems were getting bigger, and in the end, even I was noticing I had changed. For months on end, I felt crap. Exhausted. I completely lost whatever little concentration I always used to have. I cried my eyes out for anything and everything. For example, I would forget something and cry. Make a tiny mistake→cry. Or drop something→ cry. You get the idea. And on top of that, I felt guilty for skipping classes and practically everything else and only being at home while my boyfriend paid all the bills.
This is a typical day during those last months before I was diagnosed. Diagnosed sounds heavy, but it actually helped me to hear a doctor tell me I was sick. That would become a real turning point for me. Right, focus. Back to that typical day. I often failed to get out of bed, getting dressed and eat breakfast. When I finally had the courage to get dressed in something other than my pajamas and prepare dinner – yes, by the time I cooked up enough courage to do this I actually had to cook dinner. Regularly.- I would equally regularly find out I forgot to buy the main ingredient. So I cried some more.
I left the house and went to the supermarket. It was busy there and I had taken a dislike to situations with a lot of sounds, movement and any other senses involved. I hated busy. In the middle of this busy supermarket, I forgot what the reason for my errand was. So I did the most pleasurable thing to do in public: I bawled my eyes out and with everyone staring at me I left the shop, empty-handed, red-eyed.
When I got home I looked for comfort in a corner of the couch. My partner came home and asked me about my day. Often I would cry again since, with him, I felt allowed me to be myself and let go. And regardless of how long or stressful a day he might have had, he hugged me. He made dinner for two. After dinner, he decided to clean the house a bit. Having a burnout, my efficiency was on the low side and he would have the whole house cleaned by the time I would have put away some cutlery, cleaned a pan and swiped the table clean. At the end of days like this, we would go to bed because we were both tired. But stay with me, it got better!
Luckily, after a while, some argues and a frustrated “I don’t know what to do anymore either” every now and then, my boyfriend did understand that I really couldn’t help it and that the best thing to do for both of us would be to fully support me. Which he did for me during that whole period of life and for that, a lot of love, respect, and gratitude go out to him!
He was not the only one supporting me. There were some friends who understood that I was feeling overwhelmed and they came to my house. we would just talk, drink tea, bake cookies or watch a movie. That was actually the most helpful thing to do. Just be together, not forcing anything. They did encourage me from time to time to come and join them on a night out or to have dinner together. I think the best thing was to just be there for me and accept the situation. In retrospect, they were the friends that really cared for me and really counted in my life, and they are also the friends that are still in my life.
Advice from friends
But now and then I had someone telling me this piece of advice: “Hey, I know it’s hard, but you will come out as a stronger person in the end you know”. They were right. But it was not exactly soothing. Empathy is good (great!), but do you really know what it feels like? Have you been in that situation yourself? When people are extremely stressed, scared, angry or sad, stating that you know exactly what they feel like can be counterproductive unless you let them know you’ve been in a similar situation.
My personal reaction to that statement was something along these lines: You haven’t got the faintest idea of how hard this is! I feel useless, worthless, guilty, stressed out and I am so far past my energy limit that it’s a miracle that I still have more flesh left on my bones than Ötzi, the Ice Mummy. I have no idea why I still exist. No point in getting better, let alone stronger than before. So shut up and leave me in my pity party!
Usually, the wrong words or lack of understanding would come from people who were not that close to me. They would tell me: “you know, you just have to Do It”. Right, just do it. Or they would tell me: “yeah, I am also tired sometimes, and then I just need a good night’s sleep”. Or: “Well I don’t see the problem, for me it’s also hard to concentrate and get things done”.
At first, I would try to explain why it was different, but I would just feel their glance hardening, and often people became defensive and it would turn into this discussion about who was more tired or whose problems were bigger. Guys (meaning boys and girls!), that is not listening anymore. It’s the opposite. I learned to make a difference between the people I would tell how I was actually doing, and the people I would just answer: “I’m fine, how are you?”. For me, who was always sharing, this was a lesson learned the hard way.
Luckily, I did get back up, and now I am indeed feeling better than ever, both physically and mentally. If you are interested in how I managed this, read my article about how a burnout really did make me happier in the end.
Stay strong, no matter who you are and what your situation is, there is always a way to improve your life and become a better, stronger and most of all happier version of yourself!