At the turn of the year, many people write about how their year went. What goals were achieved, what were missed and why, and what will be the focus of the upcoming year. I have not written a year in reveiw post before, but this time it felt appropriate to do so.
I entered 2017 already running. In 2016, I had achieved some personal milestones, worked very very hard – too hard in fact – and I was tired but felt I had momentum. With several projects finished and behind me, my field was open and I was ready to take on new challenges.
The performance I created at the end of 2016 was wrapped up. There were several places where I could apply for grants to get funding to perform it again. I had very clear deadlines for those applications.
The client projects I had worked on during the autumn were successful. In fact, when the new year began I had received no less than two serious job offers, one of which was a former client that wanted me to join their team! This helped me get confidence in my skills and my knowledge, even though I decided to keep going as a consultant.
I began the year with a not-so-small list of SMART goals that I was determined to achieve during the year. I had achieved so much in 2016, now I knew what I was really capable of. Onwards!
Feeling of a bright future – if only…
There was just one thing I felt was missing. I had worked very hard and achieved so much, but my body had not kept up. I felt physically weak and with low stamina.
I was also very tired and didn’t sleep very well. I slept very light and I’d often wake up in the middle of the night, unable to go back to sleep. I blamed my tiredness on having two small kids at home, thinking that this was what people talk about when they complain about the toddler years being difficult and tiring.
But life is difficult, right? Just suck it up and keep on working.
Let’s increase the pressure!
My solution to my problem spelled HIIT, or High Intensity Interval Training. Usually, physical training will improve your sleep quality. I’ve done HIIT many times before and it’s an awesome way to increase your results in a short amount of time.
I wanted to spend less time in the gym in order to focus on other things so I thought this would be perfect. Bigger results in less time, what’s not to love?
Except this time there were no results for me.
Crash and burn
I wondered what was going on. Why was I still tired? Why didn’t I become stronger, instead feeling almost weaker? Was there something wrong with my diet? Should I eat differently, more often, less carbs, more carbs?
Why couldn’t I focus on my projects? I had application deadlines! Why did I forget things on a regular basis? Such an annoyance, making my life more difficult that it already was!
I blamed everything and everyone but myself. The children were too loud and too demanding. I felt so inefficient that every second I had over became an extra opportunity to “do something useful”. Any available time is work time. But I felt constantly interrupted because I couldn’t focus – don’t talk to me, I’m trying to work here!
My poor husband got the grunt of my terrible mood swings and extreme sensitivity. In February, he convinced me to see a doctor who promptly sent me home on sick leave to rest, diagnosed with severe stress reaction.
Everything came to a halt
I had no idea that it would be so difficult to achieve.
All my goals? Out the window.
I cleared my plate of all commitments I could get out of. I only kept those that I felt would give me more energy than they would take. My one and only focus this year has been getting back and finding my balance.
A healthy person has many wishes. An ill person has only one.
What was wrong with me?
In English, the term used is burnout. In Sweden, medical providers are discouraged to use that term and uses something that directly translates to “Exhaustion Syndrome”.
The closest I can find that scientifically describes my condition is Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal axis dysfunction. It’s the axis of hormonal communication between the brain and your adrenal glands.
This stress hormone axis is not only in charge of your alertness levels and resting state, but it affects other hormones too like your sex hormones. The whole stress management system and sleep-wake cycle becomes completely and utterly broken.
And it’s not simply high stress that causes this. High stress is easily felt and we know we need to wind down afterwards.
No, it’s the low- to medium-grade stress that never stops, the constant, always-on brain activity that sort of flies under the radar as a new normal, that is just as dangerous if not more. It’s the slow boil of the proverbial frog.
The irony is, I have had people close to me burn out years before. I was aware of burnout. I even wrote about the importance of recovery time right here! Surely it wouldn’t happen to me, my enlightened and highly conscious self?
In the beginning, I thought that if I just remove all pressure and stop everything, my body would magically do the resting thing all by itself and bounce back in no time. I was wrong.
I thought that “I’m not as bad as them. I’m not burnt out for real, I just need to sleep and I’ll be fine. I’ll be back soon.” I was wrong.
All recovery is individual. It doesn’t happen automagically. And yes, I was burnt out. They say acceptance is the first step in any recovery and this was true for me too.
The bumpy road of recovery
I wasn’t until I stopped working so hard to keep myself together that I realised exactly how tired I was. I slept and I slept and I slept (or rather, tried to sleep), but sleep alone did not help.
I did everything in slow motion, couldn’t even walk in normal tempo. Things like deciding what’s for dinner – and actually cooking it too – became a huge project and a big accomplishment for that day.
The sleeping pills I got from the doctor made me depressed as a side effect. So I stopped taking them and looked for other ways to fix my sleep issues.
I’m not going to write everything I’ve done during the year here, all the things I tried and what worked and what didn’t. That will be topics for several articles of their own.
But I can say that the journey to recovery has not been straight. There has been several times I thought I was strong enough to start again, only to find out that I wasn’t.
I have found that you need to work on all three levels, physical, mental and emotional, in order to get somewhere.
My sick leave got prolonged again and again. I ended up being on sick leave the whole rest of the year. Yes you read that correctly: almost a full year of not being able to work.
Today and the future
So here I am.
There will be no goals for 2018. Except to listen to my body and not force anything.
Do I still have ambitions and dreams and larger visions? Sure. But I can’t commit to a timeline, because I don’t know my strength.
Right now, I have come to a place where I feel I am climbing upwards. But I am still not fully back.
I have just started working 25% in order to see how it feels. The doctors and science is very clear on this. One has to slowly and gradually increase the workload in order to avoid a relapse. So slowly I go.
I know I’m going in the right direction, and I will continue in that direction in whatever speed I have at the moment. Sometimes faster, sometimes slower.
Learning and sharing what I have learnt
I’m planning a series of articles that will focus on individual aspects of my recovery and things I have learnt during the year. Because I have learnt so much.
When I was at my lowest, I wished this had never happened to me. I felt such a pity for my sad little self. I no longer do.
Perhaps I could wish that I didn’t need to learn my lessons in such a harsh way, but that’s just life. If shutting down was the only way my body could force me to take care of myself, well then I was the stupid one to not listen to it in the first place.
I have gotten rid of a ton of emotional baggage. And I’ve learnt an incredible amount about how we function as humans, both on the physical level and the mental and emotional. Today I am grateful for the lessons I got during this year.
So if you ever find me getting a little preachy about the importance of taking care of yourself, then know that I speak from experience and I want you to avoid my mistakes.
I do not wish anyone to end up in the same place I did. If I can help you learn the same things I have without needing to go through the same process, then I am happy.
And with that said – onwards to the next year! This time not running, but rather one step at a time in a pace that is long term sustainable.
It’s the direction that matters.