Guest Post: Burnout, Shame and the Sticking Point of Our Words

Today’s guest post is written by Rachael, who runs the amazing Call On Courage podcast.

Have you ever noticed how you call something affects how you perceive it? There’s a famous quote: “Watch your thoughts, they become your words; your words become your actions; your actions become your habits; your habits become your character; your character, it becomes your destiny.” We go from the micro that is a single idea right through to the macro of future destiny. Is that grandiose or grain of truth? I think this quote inhabits both descriptions. Where mental health is concerned, it’s vital; we label and frame our diagnosis around the language of recovery. It’s unhelpful to my mental health and well-being to describe myself as a depressed person…but someone who has had challenges facing depression and anxiety.

My flavour of depression goes hand in hand with burnout. Have you experienced burnout before? It’s a pretty weird feeling. I’m not sure how much it varies. Mine came with a heaviness. It’s like my whole system refused to recharge and be energised forwards. I could have slept for a week and felt the exhaustion would only ease off a little. It’s like an internal weariness comes at you in a heavy handed fashion. It was both my physical body that felt the crash and my emotional wellbeing at the same time. Everything I took for normal slid out of view. I remember walking somewhere really familiar in town and felt like an 80 year old woman trying to get there. My body was responding sluggishly to simple tasks. I remember looking at myself in the mirror and feeling relieved I ‘looked normal.’ On the inside I felt terrible. It was like the exhaustion had grated down on me at a soul level. There were circumstances in the mix I was finding very hard to process. I think it’s important to distinguish when external pressures are making you feel a certain way. Pressure builds and it’s key to identify when it’s reaching a balloon bursting point. 

One of the components of my burnout was grief. I was grieving the fact a work dream had gone in the very opposite direction I had set out aim with. Grief is potent and there’s no easy way to merrily sidestep it. None of us are immune to grief, but few of us have the resources to handle it well. It’s not an often talked about subject and I wonder if we tend to attach it to bereavement specifically. Whereas the grief I was processing was more about a personal dream essentially going up in smoke or that trigger happy F-bomb of Failure. Grief shows up in many forms, not only bereavement. I’m no good at failure, I mean who is? But I do think there’s a character trait of practising risking more – you can become more able to bounce back from things not working to plan. There is an art and practise to failure that links into our mental health. My regret with burnout is it’s preventability. I had poor work boundaries. Poor boundaries dig their heels into something and for me that was my energy and exhaustion levels. I don’t know if I could single handedly have prevented my burnout – who can? At the time it’s impossible to anticipate where my rock bottom button was. But now, I see with way more clarity and precision what led me down that path and how I’d recognise the red flags so much quicker now.

Burnout fundamentally changed me as a person. I ended up with non-negotiables in my mental health armoury – specifically around boundaries. Being much clearer on how I communicate my No’s, my hard stops between work and life balance and generally speak up for my needs ahead of time. Burnout also lets go of a lot of small things too. The regrets, pettiness, splitting hairs and small mindedness that can clutter my thinking. No to all that dross that doesn’t serve my best self well. My burnout journey didn’t exactly end in a bed of roses. In spite of the fact I got through it and out the other end, I ended up getting a diagnosis of oesophagus cancer. Not the ending I was hoping to type out.

I had a big surgery which resulted in 50% of my stomach going and being reshaped to fit around where the tumour had been removed. After coming out of burnout and feeling much stronger mentally, I was quite buoyant in my early days of remission. So much gratitude! This cancer was actually treatable. The relief was immense. And then something odd happened. I had another breakdown. This time I crashed hard. It wasn’t burnout but I experienced some momentary issues with delusional thinking. Totally out of character and very much a side swipe to a strong streak of recovery ground I had been taking. I type these words and feel it’s very fitting I’m writing for My Brain’s Not Broken – because that’s exactly what I’d go back and tell my unwell state as the truth. My Brain’s Not Broken – we’re just having a sane reaction to some insane lifestyle changes. My body had changed so much. I had been reduced down to essentially living off a baby food or puréed diet. Everything you can imagine as nutrition gets blended within a blitz of pulverisation. Aside from chocolate chip ice cream. I can manage that. And good coffee and negronis. It’s not all bad, but it is a difficult transition after being used to ordering pretty much anything off a menu. 

The range of eating out now has reduced to soup, coffee and ice cream. I daren’t risk anything else, especially in public because it can get caught and I don’t have a moments notice to cough it back up. My brain is reacting to trauma, and that’s okay. More than okay; having a breakdown is a necessary part of my healing process.

This circles back to my original point. Be careful how you label your good and not so good mental health days. I was able to bounce back from my delusional episode within a matter of days rather than weeks. I didn’t criticise myself. I refused to go down the shame and judgement path. I just aimed to be consistently kind to myself. I have been so much physically. Is it any wonder my brain needed its own moment to temporarily have its shutdown to recover from so much that threatened to disrupt the normal course of my life?

I want to close with something I know to be true. We are much more than what our mental health might dictate to us on a bad day. We are creative beings, infinitely capable of so much. Early on I reminded myself of who I truly think I am rather than the diagnosis that has gone before me. Within my recovery journey I make sure I’m living out two hopeful things: purpose and connection. I’ve started a podcast and website about courage – and that for me has been a big form of purpose-filled therapy. Also I make time to play; just connect and hang out with people who know and truly love me whether I’m on good form or not. These are the things that have helped me get back on track, and take stronger ground than I have before. I’m doing so much better now.

Rachael is a self-described ‘recovering workaholic’ who has hustled hard, taken risks and swung precariously high on the career ladder. Some of those upper rungs didn’t bear her weight so well. She’s now in remission from Oesophagus cancer. She chats to people about their overcoming stories on her podcast, ‘Call on Courage’: www.calloncourage.com/podcast

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