“We are all tired sometimes!”
When burning out resulted in living with chronic fatigue for two years, I felt hopeless. It seemed like I was never going to recover and I would spend the coming years completely worn out. Advice of people who never had the same problem did not help and only made me feel less understood.
I desperately needed to hear experiences of how people in a similar situation to me managed to get better — and feel hopeful again. I had to understand what was happening to me and what (not) to do in order to recover.
Now that the worst part of my burn out and chronic fatigue is over, I want to share my experience and take you through some of the phases of illness that I went through. You might find similarities that can be helpful to understand your own process, and you will find that you will get better eventually. Even though it might seem very unlikely at this point. Promise!
So what exactly was my problem? I had completely crashed. One day I suddenly felt like I could not move my body anymore. I had visited my grandfather and prepared to leave, when suddenly standing up and going anywhere became impossible. I felt so incredibly tired. A heavy veil of utter exhaustion wrapped itself around my body, and it was prepared to stay.
“What is happening to me?” I wondered.
I barely managed to get home, but I did. The next three days I felt nearly paralyzed by a complete lack of energy. I could not take care of myself or make food. I had to call in sick for work and literally just lay down on the floor. I felt really worried, and made an appointment with the doctor. Days later, blood tests showed a severe vitamin D deficiency — a cause of feeling exhausted. I was immediately treated. Still, the sheer exhaustion did not leave me.
Here I was, a 25 year old woman with less energy than some people in their eighties. I went to bed at 9 pm, only to wake up exhausted and go back to bed after breakfast. I had just about enough energy to get out of the house once every few days.
What did I do with the rest of my time? Nothing! Try do something. Crash. Feel frustrated. Cry. Rest. Do nothing. And rest some more. Repeat cycle.
Despite the highly energetic and active person I used to be, I was now back to zero. What to do? The first step was to recognize that I was ill. I was no longer who I used to be. My life needed a complete rearrangement. Work, friends, social life — everything had to change. All my responsibilities needed to be put on hold to make space for my top priority — my health. But it took a while before I came out of denial.
Despite reading up on burn out culture and supporting others in maintaining wellness, I had not been able to prevent burning out myself. All the while being conscious about the patterns of behavior that cause it! I guess theoretical knowledge and practice really are miles apart.
I felt embarrassed and looked for other reasons that could explain my problems. Might it be withdrawal symptoms from quitting coffee? Or how about my adrenal gland? Surely it should be a physical issue beyond my control, right?!
I held some shame for not being able to keep up with the same schedule as others. My weekly responsibilities were less than those of some of my co-workers with children and a household to run, fellow students and people of the same age. But still, I was the one who could not handle it.
Looking back, it is good to realize that comparing myself to others does notwork, as we all come from different contexts. Our lives has been different and we have different personalities. We carry different trauma, unhealed pain and unprocessed emotions, and each life requires different timing for when they need to be dealt with. My crash had been a build up for years. Add a bit of salt — a full time work schedule, and there you go.
The sooner I could admit to myself and my surroundings that I was not well, the sooner I was able to work with the illness and get better. However, the whole process of burn out is about slowing down and taking all the time we need. So if it takes you several months, and denial or resistance is still serving you in some way, be kind to yourself and appreciate where you are in the process. We are not here to be perfect. The most important thing now is to treat yourself gently.
With all due respect for the amazing doctors who work tirelessly to help people every day — Western healthcare formed a big source of frustration for me. Trying to get medical help for my exhausted body was not easy at all.
After the initial blood tests, solving my Vitamin D deficiency and still being completely worn out, it took me a while to convince my doctor I needed further help. I finally managed to get an appointment with a specialist in the hospital. Some weeks after the research, he called me up and declared;
“Just like I thought, there is nothing wrong with you, you are 100% healthy and you will turn 100 easily!”
I was 25 and could not take a ten minute walk through the forest without getting dizzy, my hands and legs shaking and having to sit down for the rest of the afternoon in a cafe to rest. A very educated doctor told me I was completely fine! Clearly I could stop trying to get regular medical help and had to figure things out by myself from this point on. Finally, I got much better through energetic healing performed by an experienced healer in the field of alternative therapy.
I felt really frustrated and confused by my illness being diagnosed either physical or mental. Because the reality is, it is both — and I needed both sides to be recognized and to be treated accordingly. I feel this is something that could be improved in Western healthcare and thought. Rather than considering someone as a body or a culmination of your organs, we could start seeing ourselves as a whole — a person with a body, a mind and emotions. We can practice preventive and holistic health care, rather than wait until diseases develop to go to the doctor. But this is for another story on the health care of the future!
In any case, it was good to exclude any other physical illness from my body by visiting the hospital. Burn out can go with other diseases like Lyme, malfunctioning organs and deficiencies, and you need to get a check up to make sure you exclude every other option of being seriously ill.
Quitting coffee and anything with artificial energy
Numbing down my fatigue for years is what led me burn out. There have been countless mornings getting in my car to go to work in the morning, with an inner voice shouting,
“NO! I can’t do anything productive today. I’m exhausted! Go back to bed please!”
And I would start the car and drive — I had responsibilities and people were paying me to do my work. So I ignored my exhaustion and drank coffee to keep myself going.
While giving in to the illness and stopping every activity, it was important to start feeling the sensations that had been numbed down for so long. I had to quit all substances that kept me from feeling tired, and just feel the exhaustion completely. It had not been time to feel for a long time — now it was time to feel. Living on seven cups of coffee every day was over. I had to rediscover my natural energy, and move away from everything that provides short lived and artificial energy such as sugar and caffeine.
Remember to be sweet yourself and do not punish yourself if you give in to any of the lesser evil substances again. But for people who take drugs such as XTC, you need to quit this as soon as possible as it makes you feel like you have unlimited energy, which you do not. It is exactly the opposite from what needs to happen, and that is feeling your limits.
Getting professional help
I held on to my healthy, active, social identity for a long time. Only after I could finally acknowledge I was burnt out, I started to adjust my lifestyle. I finally gave in to my illness. But in order to recover, I needed to understand how I got here in the first place. This was about understanding my conditioned patterns, behavior and beliefs.
Did I believe I had to give to others a lot? Was it hard to receive? Was there any pain I was trying to avoid feeling by being busy all the time?
I handled my illness by myself as long as possible. However, after more than six months, I realized I was not making any progress. I was still as exhausted as ever and could basically not do anything. At last, I finally followed up on advice to get professional help. I signed up for a year-long therapy program that supports people with chronic illness.
With a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, and guided physical exercise in order to trust the body again and regain some energy, I slowly started to feel more safe in my body. I became more hopeful to regain my health. But the insights gained during our therapeutic group discussions about perfectionism, crossing limits and feelings of responsibility that result in overdoing were most helpful. I recommend anyone alive in this slightly mad world to follow therapy at least once in your life anyway — with or without burn out!
Explaining my illness to others
Even though I was down with chronic fatigue for over two years and I still am not back up to my normal energy levels, I cannot even grasp the depths of exhaustion I felt. If even I cannot imagine this intense feeling anymore, could anyone else in my environment understand what I was going through? It was really important for me to inform people why I was behaving the way I was.
That I really did not cancel out on appointments thirty minutes beforehand on purpose. That I had taken rest two days before in order to have enough energy to meet them, but that my energy was so unreliable that I often crashed unexpectedly and just could not move. That I did not have enough physical energy to leave my house and transport myself to the appointment. That I needed a lot of breaks and sit down. That I needed to leave evening meetings at 9.30 pm to go to bed, no matter what. That I was not tired as anyone with a work schedule and a family life is, but that I was exhausted after just walking up stairs as my main physical movement of the day.
Explaining this as best as I could in an email to my housemates and family, improved their understanding of my situation and helped me to not cross limits out of feelings of responsibility towards others as often anymore.
Being ill can be a very lonely experience. At least, for me it was! And I suspect it was supposed to be exactly like that in order for it to have its transforming results. I deactivated my social media accounts and barely connected with my friends and usual crowd. It was not easy at all! I cried a lot and was very unsatisfied with my life the way it was. I worried for my future and felt hopeless often. If you feel like this, it can be helpful to try to find people who are in a similar situation or at least (partially) understand what you are going through. I was lucky enough to befriend someone who had the same problem. Sharing experiences and supporting each other was very helpful. If you do not meet anyone like this, try therapy groups or any of the sort.
Starting an online dating account was a fun distraction from having to rest all the time. Because I could not participate in public daily life, it was nearly impossible to meet new people. Making sure that at least potential lovers could find me online and going for an occasional date (or dates!) was a really nice distraction.
Connection, human affection and warmth saves lives!
Investing in my health
Before burning out, I did not prioritize my health at all. The lingering pain in my hips that I started to feel every day alarmed me that I had to do something. I went for my first massage, and it helped me tremendously. I asked for specific work on my hips — that are said to store old emotions. The next day my entire body hurt badly, but it was a healing pain. The kind during which you know a deep purifying process is taking place. I started to have monthly massages and taking better care of myself.
Even if massage is too expensive for you, ask a friend for a massage or gather funds for your self-care from family. Often, the people who love you cannot be of much help, but this is something concrete they can do for you. Allow yourself to receive it!
Making the leap
It can be really helpful to understand that burn out can indicate that you are experiencing a profound transformation. Life guides us through different phases, of which some are very social, active and outwardly focused. One might not spend a lot looking inward. When changes are needed to be made and inner work is needed, we get the opportunity to opt out of our everyday lives and spend some time just paying attention to ourselves. Sometimes we will literally be forced to do so, by completely blocking our bodies from doing anything — as happened in my case.
Burn out often results from a period of doing things that do not truly nourish us or match with our purpose. But the trumpet call has come!
It is time to make the shift.
What is our true desire for this life?
In the years before getting ill, during frustrating moments in which I felt unable to escape my stressful duties, I wrote what I was truly longing for. Nature, magic, love, connection, community and being outside, was on my list. Finally, I am adapting my life to what I truly want. Despite what societal expectations might suggest. This year has been a wisdom gathering holiday, with travels to India and learning about things that nourish my soul. I create my life by following my intuition and doing things that I love. My dive into darkness was an initiation into a much better understanding of my psyche, my behavior and the world I live in. I am more calm, know when to take rest and live a much healthier life than before.
You will get better
It might take years, but know that you will get better eventually. A lot of small efforts will eventually lead to a sustainable buildup of energy, slowly but surely. Even though they might seem insignificant, every day that you have taken rest, all the nourishing activities that have you feel excited for life and every time that you have kept your limits, are building stones of your healing.
This might sound unbelievable, but your energy will return. You will be at a social gathering after a while for the first time, and manage to dance a little more than just moving your hips from right to left. You will notice very small changes. You will surprise yourself. Your fear will slowly turn into trusting the body again. You will go through an entire day of activities and feel just fine. You will be able to work a day a week, and perhaps even go for a drink afterwards.
And someday you realize that you are truly recovering.
Relapses are usual. A short while everything seems to be going well, and then you feel that you are back to the start. But remember, this time you are more conscious of why things went wrong, how you crossed your limits, and do it better next time.
I am still learning. I am still repeating old patterns often. I cannot know for sure that I will never fall back. I am not perfect and it is a big thing to change from the person I used to be to becoming someone who lives a balanced and healthy life. But I made a huge shift, and that is good enough for now.