Today, it’s exactly one year since I was put on sick leave for burnout symptoms. One year since I felt so hopeless and broken that I simply couldn’t get out of bed, get dressed and get to work. Thanks to other people who’ve shared their burnout stories I could identify the symptoms and was able to stop before I completely crashed. By sharing my story I hope I can help someone become more aware of their own stress levels and learn the importance of saying stop before it’s too late.
I remember it like it was yesterday and I can still feel the fear and shame I felt as I went to the doctor that day. Fear of not being taken seriously and shame for having to beg someone for help. Me, a strong and independent woman who’s never needed help from anyone. How did I end up in a situation like this?
I’d been experiencing stress symptoms for almost four years. The first symptoms started while I was studying at the university and it escalated quickly as I got my first job after graduating. I was hired as a comms assistant at a highly renowned startup house in Malmö. On the paper, it was the dream job, but in reality, it was a chaotic mess of organizational problems and master suppression techniques. For eight months I was micro managed by a manipulative boss who couldn’t let go of her control need. She’d check and correct my emails before I sent them. She’d send me long emails (while she was sitting next to me) where she scolded me for not being consequent enough for reasons like forgetting a dot or spelling “realize” with a Z one time and an S the other. She’d ask me questions about random stuff that she could later use against me in, what felt like, a power move. I was so scared of saying or doing something wrong that eventually, I couldn’t make any decisions for myself. I always had to get someone’s opinion because I didn’t trust my own knowledge and felt more or less stupid all the time. Not only did I doubt my own competence and intuition, I also knew that if the decision wasn’t what my boss was hoping for, I would definitely hear it–either in an angry message on Slack or as a snarky comment the next morning. I was slowly crumbling under the pressure of constantly being controlled and never getting to the bottom of my to do list.
The joy and energy I felt after I graduated quickly turned into anxiety and self-doubt and as my to-do list kept growing my self-confidence slowly faded away. No matter how hard I worked, it wasn’t enough. No matter how much I tried, I always seemed to do something wrong. I kept going like that for two years and it gradually transformed the ever so happy and energetic Elinor into a depleted and miserable version of myself.
“No matter how hard I worked, it wasn’t enough. No matter how much I tried, I always seemed to do something wrong.”
As if this wasn’t enough, I quickly realized that I was caught in the middle of an unhealthy system that didn’t align with my own values and that I honestly didn’t want to be a part of: the tech startup world. Although I loved working in an environment with ambitious and driven people who are on a mission to change the world, I hated the fact that it was run by men, money and power. I had a completely different view of this organization before I started working there – thought it was open to all kinds of ideas and innovative people – but it quickly became obvious that only a certain kind of people were welcome in the house: those who attract investments from rich men and women who want to make even more money.
There are, of course, many layers and sides to this story. I understand the arguments why an incubator would want to focus on a certain kind of entrepreneur, but I can’t stand behind those arguments. If there’s one thing that this whole process has taught me it’s that I don’t want to contribute more than neccessary to a capitalist world that doesn’t value human beings equally and where you have to be a “power woman” or man to make it.
The never ending list of stress symptoms
In the midst of this extremely unhealthy work culture was Elinor trying to make a career while still maintaining a social life and being the star of the party. I wasn’t living a healthy life and I was aware of the symptoms from an early stage. I knew that I was working too much — that it wasn’t healthy and that I should quit while I still had the tiniest bit of confidence and motivation left, but that’s easier said than done. I had worked for 4,5 years for this job. I wasn’t going to give up that easily. I’ve always been a stubborn person and I refuse to let anyone break me. I was also the youngest woman in the team which added another layer of having to prove myself. I would not be the one to crumble under some pressure. So I kept on going despite my ever-increasing list of symptoms: ulcer, recurring headaches, tense muscles , nerve twitches , emergency visits to the hospital because my face and arms suddenly went numb, stiff neck, chest pain, irregular heart beats, hurting back and shoulders, anxiety, loss of appetite, constant worry, extreme light- and sound sensitivity, fatigue, insomnia , nausea, dizziness, dry mouth.
After a year or so working for that company, my memory started to fail. It started with small things, like forgetting appointments and birthdays. Trying to remember things was like staring at a blank wall. Sometimes, I would sit and stare at my computer for several seconds because I forgot what I was doing. It got worse and worse until one day, I found myself talking to my best friend and couldn’t remember her name. I was looking my best friend in the eyes and wouldn’t have been able to recall her name if someone held a gun to my head. The first time it happened I freaked out. I never told anyone about it because I was ashamed and felt like an idiot, but eventually I just got used to it and waved it off with the excuse that: “I have always had a hard time remembering names”. Well… perhaps not my best friends, but whatever.
“I found myself talking to my best friend and couldn’t remember her name. I was looking my best friend in the eyes and wouldn’t have been able to recall her name if someone held a gun to my head”
My job was slowly taking over my life. I started canceling social activities because I had to work and when I did have time to rest I felt guilty for being a shitty friend who never showed up, so I pushed myself to go out anyway. I’ve later realized that there are so many more layers to stress than just a busy work schedule. For me, the social stress was just as hard to deal with, because I never managed to stay on top of all the things I wanted to do. I couldn’t understand how all my friends maintained a social life with activities every day on top of a full-time job, when my work made me feel so weak and drained that all I could do when I came home was to sleep. The stress of having to cancel on your friends and family was just as stressful as a long day at work–only I was letting down the people I actually love.
My body was so weak that the most basic things, like walking up the two stairs to my apartment or taking out the trash, made me want to fall over and cry. My brain was slowly shutting down its most basic functions to save itself from the torture I was putting it through until one day, I just couldn’t take it anymore. How could I let it go this far? Why did I give up my own happiness and health for a job that didn’t even care about me–that chewed me up and spat me out like I meant nothing? I had given up everything that meant something for nothing.
I had felt naseaus and dizzy for two weeks straight and was constantly thirsty–no matter how much I drank I just couldn’t quench the thirst. I feared I was getting diabetes, because something just wasn’t right. I wasn’t aware that nausea and dizziness were typical stress symptoms, but one morning I woke up and put two and two together. I finally realized the severity in my situation. So I made the best decision of my life: I called in sick and booked an appointment with a doctor I’d been recommended by two friends and colleagues who had gone through the same process (in the same organization…). I had to wait four days for an appointment and spent the time passed out on my couch.
When I finally got to the doctor that day I was quickly diagnosed with burnout symptoms. She had me do a quick stress test where I answered a few questions to see where on the stress scale I was at. If I remember it correctly, she said that a result over 18 points is worrying. I got 40.
The long road to recovery
After that, I was only allowed to sleep, relax, watch movies, read books, go for slow walks, and do things that were relaxing and joyful. I left her office with a mixed feeling of relief and anxiety–not sure what would happen with all my deadlines and projects and meetings and reports. But at that point I had, honestly, stopped caring. All I wanted was lay down and rest. So I went home and the second I sat down on my bed, reality caught up with me and my body completely shut down.
I spent the next one and a half months more or less passed out on my couch. My immune system was so weak that I caught every bacteria and virus that came in my way. I went through several colds, countless hours of sleeping and probably hundreds of episodes of different series. It was extremely difficult to let go of work and I was constantly worried about everything I should be doing. I felt guilty for leaving my position and putting my colleagues in a difficult situation, and I was ashamed and worried about what others would think of me. I lost 5 kg because I couldn’t eat due to my ulcer and the big lump of worry that constantly sat in my chest.
Some days I would feel good enough to go for a walk with a friend, but I only managed a couple of hours at a time before I had to go home and rest. Other days I would feel so bad that I couldn’t leave the couch. It was impossible to make plans because I didn’t know how I would feel from one day to the next. It was extremely hard to let go of my control need and accept the fact that I could only take one day at a time. There was nothing I could do but sit back and wait.
And so I did. I followed the doctor’s advice in only doing things I enjoy–something I hadn’t done for years. When she first asked me about my hobbies and what I like to do outside of work I couldn’t think of one single thing. That insight, that I had completely lost track of myself in the chase of a successful career, was a huge milestone in my recovery process. I remember feeling so utterly ashamed that I had let myself and people around me cross my boundaries and disrespect me to a point where all that was left of me was a broken mess. From that day, I made a promise to myself to never disrespect my body again and to give it all the love and attention it needs.
I slowly regained my energy and picked up my yoga practice and began meditating. For the first time in years, I saw a glimpse of peace and quiet in my mind. The worry in my stomach slowly faded away. It felt like stepping into a bright light after having been stuck in a thick fog of darkness for years. With that tiny bit of newfound energy I decided to quit my toxic job and get away from the city I’d been living in for the last six years. It only reminded me of all the darkness and my unhealthy lifestyle and I couldn’t even stand the thought of my own apartment after having been trapped there for two months. I had to follow my heart and listen to my body–it was screaming for attention. So I packed up my things and bought a one-way ticket to Bali with one intention: to heal. Mentally and physically. I ended up staying for four months and all I did was basically to meditate, do yoga, dance, and eat healthy food.
My learnings from this turbulent year
Fast forward one year and here I am, a thousand times wiser and stronger than ever. I’m forever grateful for the priviledge I had of being able to just quit my job and escape to the other side of the world to “discover myself”. And I am humble to the fact that that’s a gift that not everyone will receive, although I wish that everyone had the chance to take a year to only focus on themselves and discover life’s true purpose.
There aren’t enough words to describe what I’ve learned this year, but if there’s one thing I want to share, it’s the importance of respecting your own boundaries. I’ve realized that I never even considered my own boundaries and what’s important to me in order to stay happy and healthy. And since I didn’t respect my own boundaries, people could treat me however they wanted. I was pushed around. Used. Because that’s what’s going to happen if you never say no–if you don’t know what you’re OK and not OK with. I never told my loved ones that I needed time to rest, because I didn’t want to disappoint anyone or miss out on any fun. I never questioned my long work hours or mean messages from my boss, because I thought it was something I just had to accept in order to level in my career. But it’s not. You deserve to be fairly treated and respected. You deserve to feel confident, seen, heard, loved, strong. If people can’t accept your boundaries, remove them from your life or move on. Don’t sacrifice your health in the strive for a career – it’s not worth it. Trust me. Don’t allow yourself to be pushed around and suffer in a toxic environment where people use you for their own fulfilment.
Practice setting boundaries with people. Show up for yourself the way you want others to show up for you. Be selfish. It’s difficult in the beginning and it requires practice, because most of us, especially women, are taught from a young age to please others. But as you start to respect your own boundaries, people will also start to respect you. You don’t have to do things that you’re not OK with. You don’t have to do things that make you feel bad. You don’t have to do things to please others. Practice saying “No” kindly. It’ll save you from a ton of unneccessary stress.
There are so many layers to this story that I would like to share, but no matter how hard I try, I just can’t seem to find the words. I’ve rewritten this post probably ten times, but I have too much to say and share about this topic that I can’t possibly summarize it in one blog post. I feel like my words lack depth, but that’s OK. I just wanted to get this off my chest, because today, I’m celebrating my burnout. I’m celebrating, because without it, I’d still be stuck in the hamster wheel on the wrong track with the wrong priorities. Today, I’m celebrating a brighter future and a stronger me, and it feels absolutely amazing!