It seems embarrassingly self-indulgent to post something as whiney as what you will read below. It has sat in my drafts for weeks because it just seems too obnoxious to post. I also am hesitant to reveal in a public forum (discoverable to those who know me in real life) exactly how sick and desperate I was. The writing is terrible beyond editing because my thoughts and memories from the period are disjointed and nonsensical, like a dream. What finally convinced me to post the pity party you’ll find below is because I want to have it to refer back to for context later, and also to remind myself how bad things can be when you don’t take care of your mental and emotional hygiene.
I thought that I had experienced burnout before. I’ve been unhappy with jobs, have been tired, have felt under-appreciated… I frequently feel like the work left to do outlasts my motivation to do it. But I’d never experienced burnout like this before — an absolute inability to perform even the most basic tasks of attention, or activities of daily living. But I’m getting ahead of myself. I’ll get to how I could not gather the energy to brush my teeth, and how my vision skipped and wobbled like on a broken old television. This is what overwork looked like for me:
You know that moment in Tetris when you know you’re fucked? When you reach a level where you know that the speed of gravity is faster than your reaction time? You haven’t reached Game Over yet, but you abandon all strategy and just alternate dropping the blocks from left to right for as long as you can get away with it, and hope that you luck out and one of them drops in a spot that clears a few rows? Every day at work felt like a Tetris level that was too hard. It had been months since I could try to do my best work, and now I was just trying to clear tasks from my inbox before they reached the GAME OVER line. Which is a long-winded way of saying that from the moment I got to the office (often early), the pace was full gas until I finally gave up exhausted at the end of the day, and hurried home to continue beating back the onslaught at home. On an average day I might receive an email every 20 seconds, for hours on end. If my anxiety was like being permanently stuck in the last 10 seconds of a Tetris game, my mental energy felt like I was on a treadmill set to maximum speed. Every day it would be a race to see if I could could focus enough to turn out passable work through the whole day, or if I would hit a wall and no longer be able to concentrate for long enough to read a sentence.
One can keep up with that sort of pace for a little while, as in exam season or before a big deadline, but you cannot keep up with that kind of pressure indefinitely. Every day you dig deeper and deeper into your reserves to find the energy to push through, and every day that energy comes at a higher interest rate.
I really did like my job, and it wasn’t always crushing. In the beginning, the pace had been stimulating and exciting. But just like the frog that doesn’t know to jump out of the pot as the water is heated, I had doubled my capacity each year. But then one day I could find no more efficiencies (forget lunch, or bathroom breaks, or speaking to coworkers) and there were no more corners to cut… and yet the work kept coming and demanding more, more, more. Instead of recognition for the huge work capacity I’d built, I was now failing. Perhaps I could have hung in a little longer on the treadmill if I could get a rest, but I hadn’t really taken a day off in years. I had answered emails from Disneyland and Acapulco, I had taken phone calls in the airport on my way to Colorado, at 3:30 in the morning on my way to a camping trip, and while stuck in the mountains, too exhausted to ride my bike home, but not too exhausted to ride myself to a reliable cell signal.
To tell the truth, the demands on my time outside of work were not that great, but they were insistent. Even on weekends I would receive hundreds of emails a day (usually about 200, but sometimes as many as 500) – emails that may contain nothing, or may contain a large project I needed to take on, or may berate me for something that I had already done wrong. And all of those emails needed to be sorted constantly to make sure that I didn’t miss something important. When I could, I would try to file things to be dealt with the next morning, but as the treadmill sped up more and more, I couldn’t allow myself that luxury without putting myself irredeemably behind.
Nobody pushes themselves that hard or that long just for a paycheck. I took pride in my work, and wanted to keep up with the elite performers around me. But no one had any slack to take over anyone else’s load so that each could rest, so people made each other feel lazy to their faces for wanting time off, and talked behind each other’s backs about how they weren’t working hard enough. I participated in it. I thought that my workload gave me the right to criticize anyone I thought worked less than I did. And I had to convince myself that the political game of taking down my colleagues was a necessary life skill in order to continue showing up for work every day. Keeping score eats away at your soul even more than the actual work does.
And what exactly was it that kept me pushing myself so hard? At first it was ambition and pride in a job well done. But I work in a field where the better you are at your job, the more invisible your work becomes until only the mistakes become visible. The harder I worked, the more it eroded the appreciation for my work. It did not matter that I had doubled my capacity in a year. The only thing that mattered was that my mistakes had doubled as well. The harder I worked, the more I seemed to be moving backward, until I felt like the only reason that I was coming to work every day was the fear of what would happen if I fell behind.
It is good to overdraft your emotional accounts from time to time, that is what makes you a strong, resilient and well rounded person. But to become that well rounded and adjusted adult, periods of rest must follow sprints so that you can refill your emotional, physical and motivational reserves. I had gone years without a recharge, and had also gone through a number of dramas in my personal life that had made additional huge withdrawals (including divorce, a death in the family, and the loss from my everyday life of several close friends).
I had been stuffing down depression and feelings of frustration, anger, hurt, powerlessness, abandonment for years. “No need to deal with that painful feeling yet. Look! It fits nicely here behind this giant pile of work stress,” I thought. My mountain of work stress was so huge that it literally took up the whole frame of my consciousness.
Depression and a manageable amount of anxiety I was used to, but I started noticing other things that were worrying me. For one, my memory seemed to be going. Everyone walks into a room and forgets what they came in here for sometimes, but I would spend up to an hour wandering around my house and never completing a single task because I couldn’t hold a thought in my head for more than a moment before it was interrupted by another. It was like a thought just couldn’t stick to my brain long enough for first action, let alone follow-through to completion. My focus getting so bad that I had trouble following conversations. My answers to people’s questions were always off by about 15º, and I was becoming aware of sidelong glances sometimes when I talked, because my stories were about nothing and went nowhere.
I was also afraid of the dumbest things. I would set up my entire day and drive miles out of my way, just to avoid turning left at a certain traffic light with a long cycle. I once ran out of a CVS shaking and flustered and had to spend the rest of the afternoon sitting in my living room in the dark because my debit card didn’t work properly when I was trying to buy some shampoo and Twizzlers. I once rode my bike 20 miles to meet up with a friend, just to tell him that I couldn’t go for a ride today because I was convinced that my house was going to burn down with my dog inside.
I tried to get in to see a therapist, but what overwhelmed, depressed, overworked addict can find the time to call 50 therapists to see if they’re taking new patients, and if they still take your insurance? I tried to tell people at work that I was in trouble, but it wasn’t in their best interest to tell me anything but to just shut up and work harder. I had no more non-work friends to talk to.
Then, finally, it all came to a head. I hit stop on the fast track… and immediately slammed into the wall in front of me. I saw all of my work taken away from me faster than it needed to be, and given to someone untrained and unfamiliar with it. Without purpose or social support (even if it was the fucked-up social support of the cut-throat business world), my mind hit a wall.I had been the polar bear on the melting iceberg for years, and the last bit had finally melted. Splash! It would not be an exaggeration to say that I lost my will to live. I was not suicidal, but I saw no reason to get out of bed, take care of myself, make responsible decisions with my health or money. Normally very active and health-conscious I stopped working out and would do things like eat an entire family size bag of Fritos in one sitting, then not eat for an entire day afterward. I gained 10lb in only a few weeks because I couldn’t muster the energy to care. I slept 3 hours a night, because I couldn’t tell the difference between whether I was rested or not. Whatever thread of sanity that I had been holding onto vanished.
I could not take care of myself, and yet people still needed things from me. I still needed to train those at work who were taking over my job. I still needed to be present, and pretend like I was being treated with respect and dignity for the benefit of my coworkers’ morale. I needed to speak at my grandmother’s funeral. I needed to play a political game to preserve my future job options. And worst of all, I needed to pretend to be okay to my friends because none of them were close enough to me, or far removed enough from work to be appropriate confidantes. Any time I thought about talking to someone I felt like a moody teenager performing increasingly more transparent cries for help. Oh? You don’t understand my black eyeliner and facial piercing? Let me start cutting myself… am I coming in clear now? I say that as if I actually reached out. In truth, I mostly thought about letting somebody know that I was in trouble, spent hours trying to pick up the phone, and then chickened out without ever sending anything. Then I would avoid that person for weeks, as embarrassed as if I had actually called them crying. Since I could not tell the difference between normal and crazy behavior anymore, the only way that I could interact with others was if I parroted the other person’s tone and said something vague and then got the hell out of there.
“How was your weekend?”
“Oh, you know… How was yours? … would you look at that, the microwave is done. Happy Monday!”
The only thing that I had going for me was my dog. Some days I couldn’t find it in myself to run with him, or even to walk him, but I would lay in bed and hang on to him like I was hanging on to a life preserver in choppy seas. I knew that as long as I had him that I had a reason to live. Some days, that was all I had. Then he got injured and the vet put him on complete rest. I wasn’t even allowed to walk him around the block. Since he was stuck at home, I stayed home with him in solidarity and stopped trying to find a reason to leave the house. I didn’t have any money to spend on adventures anyway: I had spent all my money on vet bills and an IRS bill (that could have been avoided if my ex weren’t such a vile, spiteful bitch). Heading into a job loss with your emergency savings drained would be a frightening enough prospect as it was, but given the state of anxiety I was already in, it was paralyzing.
The one thing that I was looking forward to was my dog’s birthday. Plans had been scaled back because of his limp, but we still planned to get outside in a beautiful place with a good friend. Looking forward to it sustained me for weeks. But when the big day arrived, I had a massive GPS fail. First the app stopped giving voice navigation, and I drove 10 miles past my exit. Then it moved my destination to a point 20 miles from where we were supposed to be. I was already an hour late to our meeting, and it would take me another 35 minutes to get back… if I didn’t get lost again. And everything between where I was and where I wanted to be was a giant cellular dead zone. I know that it was time to give up on the birthday party and go home.
As I set my GPS back toward home after 2.5 hours in the car without ever even getting out, the disbelief and the disappointment washed over me. And then something in me snapped. Every awful thing that I had been going through: the heartbreak of losing a job that I loved, the betrayal of those who turned their backs on me, the grief at the loss of my grandmother, and all the layers of anger and stress from work and the divorce and the pile of other minor failures that had happened over the past 18 months all hit me at once. I began to cry. I was not just crying, I was howling like the people that you see who find their dead children in the rubble after a disaster. A human mind could not hold the amount of pain that I was in, and I screamed to try to let it out. When I saw how terrified my dog was in the back seat of the car, everything intensified. I simply could not take any more pain, any more.
I got home with the detached shocked feeling you get after a sudden tragedy when your life has been shattered from one moment to the next, like an unexpected break-up, or hearing that a loved one has been in an accident. I was in crisis, but I still couldn’t explain what was happening to me. How do you explain that you have lost touch with your last reason for living because you ruined your dog’s birthday party? I was at least in touch enough to know that I sounded insane, but I could not bring myself to a normal sense of emotional scale.
The next day was Sunday and all I needed was a quiet day to rest and regroup, but of course things never go that way. I got a response from the ex saying that she would rather turn down thousands of dollars to screw me over than benefit herself from something that she knew would benefit me. And then I got another text that let me know that I had 24 hours to ask my boss if I could take a contract position at his mortal enemy’s firm.
I woke up on Monday morning still shaking and nauseous from whatever psychotic break I’d had over the botched birthday party. I had intended to go for a short run on the treadmill at home, but when I got up to pee, I was lightheaded. I sat on the edge of my bed staring off into space and shaking, and before I knew it 20 minutes had passed. I could barely breathe. I had also intended to ride my bike to work that day, but I could barely stand, let alone power a bike the 5 miles to work. I knew I should call in sick, but I would have no second chance to talk to my boss. So I drove to work in a daze and sat in my car in the parking garage trying to catch my breath for 10 minutes. Then I walked into the building and right into the basement, where I sat alone shaking and trying to make my vision stop wavering in front of me like a heat mirage. I was shaking violently, not just in my hands but huge convulsions that started in my belly button and went to my knees and to my shoulders.
I went to one meeting, and could barely speak. My voice wouldn’t reach full strength, and I could not find the words for any but the most simple sentences. I stuttered, hanging on W’s and alliterative consonants. I knew that I sounded like a bad actor in a high school play trying to act like a character who had gone mad, but I couldn’t pull my shit together to act normally and walk out of there with dignity. So I sat with my hands pressing into the table so that no one could see the shaking, and stared at a single point on my computer screen so that no one would see the wild look in my eyes. When I announced at lunch that I was going home, no one questioned me. Later, one coworker who had seen me struggling to speak later told me that if I hadn’t stayed on the work chat that afternoon that she was considering filing a section 12 (involuntary hospitalization) on me. I would not have objected.
But my nightmare wasn’t over yet. I spent the rest of that afternoon staring into space, but eventually had to pull myself together enough to pack and get on a plane to Boston for my grandmother’s funeral. I find it hard to express how difficult it was to complete this simple task. Something as simple as figuring out how many shirts or pairs of underwear I needed took tremendous concentration because my mind could not conceive of a future with me in it. I sat there staring perplexed at my clothes, trying to remember what they were all for and why I owned them.
It was not until the plane was somewhere over Iowa that I realized that despite my irrational terror, I also had several very real and valid reasons that this trip was a very bad idea. I knew well that I couldn’t hide my psychological condition. Once I got off this plane, I would need to see my parents, who would freak out and begin to helicopter as soon as they saw that something was wrong. I would also have to see people from the Boston office at work; people that I counted among my friends, but that I saw infrequently. So if I had another episode, it would surely be what they remembered about me. Plus, I would have to see old family friends and distant relatives that I hadn’t seen in years or decades at the funeral. What would they think if I couldn’t complete a sentence or follow a simple conversation? And perhaps worst of all, I was going to need to speak in front of these people about something that would leave me emotionally raw. Giving a eulogy without losing emotional control is hard enough for someone on solid psychological footing, but I couldn’t place a fast food order without giving away that I was distraught. All this, while staying at someone else’s house and being completely reliant on others for transportation and schedule. It was all too much to put myself through in the state I was in.
I should not have gotten on this plane, but now that I was and it was clear that I couldn’t follow through on the trip, I was going to have to figure out a way to get back to San Francisco as soon as I landed. Even being at my parents’ house and having them around left me feeling cornered and panicky. I just wanted to be alone and fall apart in private. I had been in Boston for less than an hour before I changed my return flight to something leaving that night. An hour after that (7 hours before my flight was scheduled to take off), I got in a cab back to the airport.
I sat in the airport ticketing hall for hours, just staring at the floor. I could not move. I could not speak. I could not make the final decision to follow through with my plan, break my parents’ heart, and miss the chance to honor my grandmother’s memory by speaking at her funeral. My grandmother, like me was an independent woman who preferred to be left alone. But when she needed help, many of those who should have helped her turned their backs on her. I did not want those who hadn’t bothered to know her in life to be the ones who defined her memory in death. I didn’t want to be one more person who wasn’t there for her. But I was so scared. I had been biting my tongue on my emotions for so long that I was afraid that once I did actually speak about my loss, that I wouldn’t be able to hold it all back and I would lose control in front of everybody.
So I sat paralyzed, staring at the flecks of mother of pearl in the floor tiles at Logan airport for one hour, and then another, and then a third. Finally, a significant delay made my decision for me. After a redeye the night before, and then everything that I had been through, landing back in San Francisco at 1am seemed more harrowing than my catatonia could withstand. I called and changed my flight back to the day after the funeral, and slowly let everyone know that I was un-canceling my plans.
I left the security area and returned to the ticketing hall and resumed my position staring at the floor for the 2 hours that it would take for my friend to get out of work and come pick me up. Not long afterward, an old man shuffled up very slowly with his dachshund. He was clean cut and well dressed. He took off his jacket and carefully made a bed for the dog on the seat as he explained that they would be spending the night in the airport that night to wait out the storm. The man clearly had severe dementia. I don’t know how the system had provided clean clothes and a place to shower, but couldn’t provide him a home or the care and supervision he needed. It was evident as I watched airline employees pass that he was known here, and that the airport community made sure that he always had nutritious food to eat and a warm dry place to sleep. This man, who was so broken that he could barely walk, and who couldn’t name the year or the president, at least had his dog to keep him company, give him someone to talk to, and a reason to keep it all together. I didn’t know which tugged at my heartstrings more: this lonely and abandoned old man, or the serious dog who looked as if he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders.
There are people in this world who have noble hearts, take pride in themselves, and have love to give, and it still doesn’t turn out okay. No amount of restaurant staff feeding this man dinner, or flight attendants making sure they said hi to his dog as they walked by would make it okay that someone had let this man and his dog be turned out to fend for themselves. I asked if I could buy him dinner, or at the least buy some beef jerky for the dog, but the man refused. And my heart broke.
Life is not a fairytale. Sometimes bad things happen to people who try their best. Sometimes we’re given more than we can bear. Sometimes people don’t recover. And sometimes you never get the love that you need to thrive. Some people are alone forever. In that context, what the hell was I doing blowing my one chance at life just for a paycheck? And what had I given up without even realizing it, just trying to survive for a job that in the end didn’t care about me? Most frightening of all, how would I ever recover my fucks to give in order to ever work again? These are the questions that I will be exploring and I recover from my breakdown, find my way back onto my feet, and figure out what the heck I’m doing with my life.