The Burnt Out Life

A few weeks ago I was having a rough day, in a rough week, in a rough month, in a rough year, that was technically at the start of a rough decade. It was one of those days when you don’t want to leave the house, and the idea of facing the sun or seeing people seems like such an insurmountable task that you will never be able to summon the courage to tie your shoes. It was roughly the 450th one of those days in a row, but I did what I always did, I slipped my feet into my lace free Merrells and tried to make the best of it. While coming back from errands I put on a podcast by a noted psychologist who’s voice and thought patterns I enjoy, but who’s books I can not connect with (sorry Adam Grant).

Within a few minutes of starting the episode (Burnout is Everyone’s Problem) I had to pull over. All of a sudden I felt something in my chest, my breathing changed, my vision went blurry, it was like a panic attack… but different. They were listing signs and symptoms of burnout, and for the first time in a long time I felt seen. It must have been the feeling that people get when they get a medical diagnosis, where the veil lifts and all of a sudden they can see a way out.

I know the past year and a half have been tough on all of us. There is nobody who walked out of the pandemic without some sort of psychic scars. But as someone who has been on the front lines since day 1 without a break I have to say that it has nearly broken me. I woke up every day for 9 months almost hoping that it was the day that I had a fever because that would mean a few days off instead of just pushing myself into a meat grinder even more. Once I got my vaccine I actually felt bad since I knew that I no longer had an excuse and there would be no breaks until everyone else got their shots. Since January 1, 2020 I have worked more than 600 hours of paid overtime, put in hundreds of hours of show up early stay late time, been the manager of 2 pharmacies, the staff pharmacist at 2 others, driven over 10,000 commute related miles, and suffered through the busiest flu shot season and the biggest mass vaccination period in US history. Add that all on top of 11 years of working non stop as a pharmacist, a lifetime of insomnia, and my relatively poor health status and I feel that burnout is an adequate diagnosis.

The thing is that just a month before the pandemic hit I was at my best and the future was bright. I was sitting outside at a meadery in Tampa, surrounded by some of my best friends, laughing, joking, telling the same stories over and over again. Life was good. I had been working out consistently for the first time in my life, and after almost a year I was down almost 50 pounds. I was spending half an hour a day with guided meditations and Wim Hof breathing, taking cold showers and committing to spending 8 hours a night in bed, and despite work stress I was mentally clear and feeling healthy. Hell I was even thinking about going to a therapist, quitting drinking, or getting a tattoo, all clear signs of a midlife crisis, but far better prospects than the semi nihilistic attempts at self improvement that I would have previously considered. But then a month later the world came crashing down, and I wasn’t up to the challenge.

Maybe that is the biggest thing that has lead to burnout. We all have a self image that we aspire to be, and I have always wanted to be a fixer, and I did throw myself into work, but I just didn’t have the bandwidth to continue fixing my life on all fronts. I stopped working out and my nutrition took a nose dive. I drank heavily for the first few months, partially to numb my pain, partially because I wanted to support local breweries (look at me, I’m a philanthropist), until I eventually got to the point that I had to take 6 months off drinking. I bought all sorts of things that I didn’t need, including a condo, in order to fill the hole inside me. I would go through bursts of reaching out to friends, but eventually settled into a semi hermit life. I stopped reading books, except for rereading terrible Tom Clancy novels that I read in high school, because I didn’t have the mental wherewithal to stay with the concepts. I rewatched old TV shows, and when I found a new movie that sparked my interest I would watch it over and over again because it gave me comfort to know how the story ended. I stopped doing comedy, didn’t paint, barely wrote, didn’t make any attempt at creating, and effectively stopped doing all the things that I enjoyed for so long that I don’t even know if I enjoy them anymore. I spent most of my days thinking about the things that weren’t possible like travel and hanging out in coffee shops instead of trying to make the best of things that I could do.

In a word, I was numb. I couldn’t taste the nuance of coffee or beer the way I used to. I couldn’t articulate the things I was feeling, and even if I could I had cut myself off from almost everyone who would listen. I wasn’t sleeping much and waking up tired every day. My days off consisted of me moving from the bed to the couch and eventually if I was adventurous out to the grocery store. And while these days would have sounded relaxing in the past they weren’t recharging now. I tried sporadically to work out, or meditate, or just get outside for a damn walk, but I couldn’t do it. All the things that I tried to do to get myself out of the funk just weren’t working. Isolation tanks, cold plunges, getting drunk by myself, getting drunk with others on zoom, unencumbered weekends with no plans, weekends where I packed in visits with a bunch of friends, trips to places I enjoy, a 24 hour trip to a hotel room that I didn’t leave just to escape Vermont, realizing a life goal of watching the sun come up over the Maine coast. Nothing worked, nothing made me feel even remotely human. But then I listened to that podcast, and while it didn’t automatically fix everything it gave me a twinge of hope.

Once I pulled over and got over the explosion in my brain I was able to focus on the podcast. A series of experts and people suffering from burnout gave info about how to avoid it and more importantly how to reverse it. Burnout is more than a list of symptoms, it is in itself a symptom of our culture, and is basically an epidemic among people my age. I could list the reasons why, but you either lived through it, or are unable to understand it and will just dismiss my life experience because I got a bunch of participation trophies growing up. The thing about diagnosis is that you can spend all your time thinking about how you got here, but eventually you need to start treatment or it will never get better by itself.

The past month or so I have gone out of my way to try and fight the burnout in small ways every day. By knowing exactly what was wrong, and trying to take control of my situation I can make it a little bit better. Every night after work I go for a walk around my neighborhood without my phone just to clear my head. I turned down two positions in busy stores that would have lead to a lot more stress and less chance for balance. I have taken a lot of mini road trips, some by myself, others with friends, getting out there and exploring like I used to. I started reading a lot more books, and am working my way towards things that feel more impactful. I am at least a few months away from getting back on stage, but I am starting to feel the joke ideas bouncing around my head like they used to. Right now I am sitting in a coffee shop and trying to write, no matter how forced and rusty it feels.

I want to make it clear that no matter how bad things may sound it wasn’t all that bad. I have a good job stable job, and am more financially healthy now than I was two years ago. I have a good support network both locally and within a phone call, I have colleges who I see daily who care about and support me (despite my terrible coffee breath). Even on the worst days I was able to find the little sparks of joy that come when Hey Ya starts playing, or when the yoke on a sunny side up egg sets up perfectly, or when you see the picture of a friend’s new baby wrapped up in a burrito blanket. Things weren’t that dark or drastic, at worst they were numb, which is a torture in of itself, but a surmountable one.

The path back to normalcy is going to be a long one for all of us. The world has suffered a collective trauma that will send reverberations through the next several generations, much like the Great Depression affected our grandparents. Although our sacrifices pale in comparison I wonder if those of us who worked through the whole thing will look back the way the veterans talk about their time in war. But thing thing about trauma is that it often highlights the resiliency of the human spirit. Those of us who are burnt out will eventually overcome our tiredness and step out of the whole that we have been living in and get on with our lives. As a wise man (Mark Twain, Abraham Lincoln, or The Rock I forget which one) once said “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”