Burnout: What Not Looking After Yourself Looks Like
by Mx Ruby-Rouge
Poly Means Many: There are many aspects of polyamory. Each month, the PMM bloggers will write about their views on one of them. Links to all posts will be found at http://www.polymeansmany.com . This month, our topic is “Looking After Yourself”.
TW: Mental health
I almost feel a hypocrite writing this month’s article, because I’m currently stage 12 burnt out, and only just starting the long road to recovery. Perhaps it’s only with that kind of personal experience and hindsight that I can write about what burnout really is, what causes it, and talk about what I am trying to do to recover. Let me be totally honest with you – the reason I am burned out is because I have failed to look after myself for many months. I’m not proud of that fact.
What is burnout?
The phrase ‘burnout’ gets bandied about, but what it is and how it manifests itself is rarely explained. Burnout is a medical term for a state of physical and mental health caused by prolonged periods of stress1. It is often linked to occupational burnout, but can be caused by a variety of life factors, and the symptoms can be similar to depressive episodes, or nervous breakdowns2. Burnout can present in a variety of symptoms such as: chronic fatigue, however much you sleep or rest; difficulty sleeping properly; impaired concentration or memory; increased general illness or reduced immunity; under or over eating; anxiety, depression or feeling low; anger or increased irritability; general apathy and loss enjoyment in former hobbies and social isolation and emotional detachment from loved ones3.
Causes of burnout
Whilst it is often associated with work-related stress and exhaustion, it can also be caused by a variety of life factors coming together in a cluster-fuck of stress. Burnout is best summarised as any situation where you put other needs above your own for a prolonged and/or intense period of time, and can often be found in people with high pressure jobs with an unreasonable workload, or caregivers feeling worn down and unrecognised for the effort they put in4.
My own burnout started last September, when within the space of a month I moved job role within my present firm, and my boss went off on what turned out to be nearly six months maternity leave. What started out as a week’s essential management cover turned into nearly six months of effectively running a £100K+ turnover per year company single-handedly, whilst on an admin wage, and with no contract. At the same time I took over ownership a company I’d been working for since 2012, which involved a lot of legal paperwork as well as being utterly responsible for the running of the company. I also took over ownership of a thriving rope event, and I recommenced my studies, which in hindsight was naive to say the least.
Within six weeks I was spending the majority of my waking hours working, either at the day job or keeping on top of my own company work. The unfortunate side effect of having no contract and being self employed means you’re always on call, you don’t get sick pay, bank holiday pay or holidays, you’re also scared to ever turn down work in case it’s never offered to you again. In a financial climate as fragile as ours, you take everything offered to you, and act like every job or order could be your last. You are, in short, constantly at work, and you never feel completely ‘off-duty’.
A worrier at the best of times, I found myself waking in the middle of the night thinking of things I needed to remember for the next day’s work. I fretted that I was doing the wrong thing at work, with no boss to guide me in a company I was still fairly new to. I worried about making a mistake, about losing my job, about not making my business successful. Before long I would be walking into work and bursting into tears at the first problem a colleague approached me with. The cracks were starting to show as early as late October, but I put it all down to end-of-termitis that many in education know so well. A wonderful colleague could spot the warning signs in me, and warned me early on to speak up, to stop taking on so much, before I hurt myself, but I arrogantly decided I could manage. I was wrong. By December I was so exhausted I spent the entire holiday resting and ignoring the massive to-do list of things I couldn’t do term time, and began to close off from friends and loved ones more and more. I’ve become more and more ill, but as I don’t get sick pay, I’ve mostly had to work through it, which has only increased the physical exhaustion.
Over the last six months I have become a shell of my former self. My life consists of working, working and working. When I am not working I am sleeping, or resting somewhere in a fruitless attempt to feel refreshed. I cannot sustain any relationships beyond my marriage, and that has had no where near the amount of energy it deserves. I haven’t seen friends, family or loved ones anywhere near as much as I would like. I have lost all my zest for life, all of my interests and hobbies. I no longer read for pleasure, I no longer find the energy to dance, I cannot muster the energy to tie or play, and I even had to postpone my studies to allow me to survive.
There are lots of ways to recognise you’re either burnt out, or on the path, but you need to know what you’re looking for. Once you know what burnout is1 you can be vigilant for the signs in you and those around you, and adopt strategies for recovery.
I imagine everyone reaches a breaking point differently, and mine was a culmination of several factors. As my boss slowly returned to work, it became obvious that the management duties I had shouldered for many months would not be wholly resumed by her, and there would be no substantial change to my hours or my pay. Months of working excessively, and being afraid to complain resulted in serious resentment for her taking advantage of my good nature, and for expecting it to continue. I began to make moves towards reducing my role, my hours, and being prepared to leave if necessary.
As someone who has struggled with mental health issues previously, I am quite conscious of the warning signs of going back down the big black hole again. At many points recently I have felt balanced on tip-toe on my own event horizon, and became determined to avoid falling in. I began to realise this wasn’t just going to go away, and I had to do something about it, or risk being very seriously ill indeed. Most of all, I had got fed up of living this joyless existence that just never seemed to let up or get easier. So I set about researching my symptoms, considering medications, costing up therapy. One day I stumbled across the burnout phase list5 and cried with relief. I wasn’t relapsing. I wasn’t going mad. I wasn’t a hypochondriac. I wasn’t a lazy work-shy person. I was the opposite: overworked.
Having a diagnosis meant I could find some answers, including all of the articles listed in the references below. The advice is fairly straight forward and obvious, and is very similar to standard mental health episode recovery: eat and sleep well, exercise, take some time to enjoy life1. The major changes for me are breaking from technology and setting boundaries. I had to carve out time in the day to look after my basic needs, but also to unplug from the matrix, and to stop being taken for granted in my life. I had to learn some new skills, like saying no, and stopping my frequent offers of help without feeling guilty or pressured.
I’m still in the early stages of my own recovery, but just having some answers and having a plan has given me hope for the first time in months. I’ve agreed a housework and eating plan with my husband, so we’re both eating properly and keeping our home presentable, to limit my OCD anxiety. I’ve recommenced my study, to give me an important goal to work towards, one I will hope will lift me out of my work situation. I’ve begun baby steps in taking time to enjoy the things I loved; making quilts, reading books, dancing, playing piano. I’ve scheduled in more rest time and agreed when I will turn off my phone, my laptop and disconnect from the world whilst reconnecting with myself. I’ve negotiated a change at work which will reduce my workload, and am working towards leaving. I’ve cut out or stepped back on some other projects I was involved with, which is super hard for a control freak like me. Finally I’m writing a real, paper journal for the first time in years, detailing my feelings and progress as I recover. Something tangible to remind me where I was last week, where I am today, and where I am in a month, a year.
I feel a lot of anger about the state I am in right now – not just at the people who have taken me for granted, but also at myself for letting it happen. I pride myself on being a very blunt, strong person, but actually there are certain situations where I am extremely susceptible to pressure and agreement through guilt. I need to work on saying ‘no’ guilt free, and not feeling like I have to offer my help just because I’d be good at a particular task. I also feel a lot of guilt for the pressure I have placed on my husband, who has picked up the significant slack I’ve caused being so unwell, and for the unending patience of my closest and dearest for my continual illness, whining and flaking.
You might be reading this thinking ‘how is this about poly?’. Well dear reader, as I’ve often said, you need to be your own primary6, and if you aren’t looking after yourself, you aren’t useful to anyone. Not only that, it’s entirely possible to burnout from overloading on relationships – the simple fact is that you need to be careful about how much of anything you take on. Everything is about balance, and if you add something to your life, you need to make sure you have the capacity to consistently invest in it, without risking yourself. Everything you do, every decision you make, every offer of help, every yes, every no affects the balance of your life. In addition, if you burnout, the chances are you will increase the burden on your loved ones in turn, increasing their risk of burning out. This article is all about identifying the factors that can cause burnout, being able to spot the warning signs, and taking responsibility for your own health.
For too long I’ve put other people’s needs above my own, worried about money over time and fun, allowed the fear of being seen as weak to overcome the need to ask for help and let a desire to be viewed as indispensable come before what really matters: my own well-being and living my life fully and happily. I had to hit rock bottom before I could dust off my behind and start climbing up again. If this post is to be more than just a vent for me, please use it to learn from my mistakes, so you don’t need to fall to rock bottom too.