And so the day came when life went full circle and I returned to the very place where my brain packed up for the first time - work. It had been seven months (and 17 days!) since the first attack and about five of those of genuine life rehab. Although this is an eternity in the fast-paced world of professional services I used to inhabit, time had flown by and I didn't feel particularly transformed or remotely ready to face the music.
In my head, after such a long time off and such a tough journey of recovery, I needed to show that something in me had changed, that I had evolved and the person that left a client board meeting mid-seizure in December wasn't the same one that was walking back through the door. I thought long and hard as to how to showcase this "new and improved me" and all I could come up with was 'FLAT SHOES! I'll wear flat shoes to portray a more relaxed, less go-getting version of myself'. Utter ridiculousness. It was, however, a great excuse to go shopping for work clothes and shoes after spending half a year in active wear (active wear, active wear... watch this YouTube video and you'll get what I mean.
I walked into our Mayfair office with a mix of dread and excitement. On one hand, I had missed everyone terribly and I had also missed being productive and feeling useful and important but on the other hand I had been out of the game for a long time so I felt slow, dumb and inadequate. Even the bloody version of Windows had changed since I'd been away, adding to the feeling of 'I'm useless and I don't remember how to do anything anymore'.
As the days went on, I took multiple rides on a rollercoaster of feelings from elation for being back in the workforce contributing to the world to utter despair because things that used to take me no time at all were now taking me hours. And then came the overwhelm when I realised that, on top of returning to work, I had to keep up with all my lifestyle changes post burnout like eating properly, exercising five times a week, meditating and maintaining good sleep hygiene hit home too. Being so balanced was going to hard work... I plodded along for a couple more weeks getting used to the old life again: getting up close and personal with strangers in the tube in rush hour, speaking in acronyms, raving to the hold music on conference calls, expressing myself through the medium of PowerPoint... All those trademarks of life on the corporate treadmill... Until it was time to go on holiday (I know, a bit rich from me having had six months off and having only been back at work for four weeks...).
After a couple of days in the madness of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, we landed in Mallorca, ready for a few days of utter, total nothingness - or being, like my now husband likes to call it. This was meant to be a great opportunity to switch off, rest and take stock of the first four weeks back in the real world. But instead, I turned into four days of relentless mental chatter, self-doubt and an overwhelming feeling of being a boat drifting into a stormy Med with no captain to be seen. I got stuck between two feelings: wanting to push myself hard at life to see how far my post-burnout brain and body could go and not knowing what on earth I would be pushing myself towards anyway. Lost didn't even cut it.
It appears that managing life post burnout is not as simple as returning to your old life but going a little bit easier at it. It actually requires some serious reengineering that I had not spent any time doing - all I had focused on was on going back instead of on moving forward. Armed with notes from counselling and coaching sessions I sat down to begin the life reengineering process starting with finding my definition of intrinsic success. Kiwi professional swimmer Laura Quilter (1) defines intrinsic success as "knowing that what you are doing means something - even if no one can see it, moving forward in a personally meaningful way and seeking internal approval". Key words there are 'no one can see it' and 'internal approval'. Intrinsic success is about YOU giving yourself pats on the head and internal high-fives, not about other people praising you or promoting you or giving you a pay rise. Those are nice extrinsic things but without some level of intrinsic motivation aligned with your definition of intrinsic success you are forever at the mercy of other people to feel fulfilled. Me down to a tee... My old life that led me to burning out was a mad, relentless chase of extrinsic success and having stepped away from it, I had managed to see it for what it really was and now I was having a visceral, almost allergic reaction to just casually jumping back in.
But what the hell was I going to do? Messed up or not, that was the only way I knew how to live. My old life may have been relentless and stupid but it was for sure familiar and safe. So after a good old cry (because surely life reengineering deserves a few tears...) I took to doing one of the things that brings me great personal joy and grants a few internal pats on the head - planning. On a brand new notebook, with a brand new pen. As of today, I have given myself 10 weeks to figure out what my "Life 2.0" looks like so I'll be back then with more burnout diaries and hopefully some answers!
In the meantime, tune in for some burnout lessons on nutrition, exercise, sleep, meditation and relationships that I've collected over the last few months with the help of experts and friends.
Much love and cortisol,
Paula (Instagram: @_burnoutgirl)
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