I’d known my new doctor for a whole twelve minutes before he wiped away my tears with a tissue from his pocket. There was a fresh box on the desk between us, but even he knew that I didn’t have the energy or willpower to dry my own tears and calm myself down.
He said he’d never seen anyone’s eyes as red as mine and the water he gave me was left touched but he understood how difficult it was for me to hold things without shaking. With my chest tightening and my mouth the driest it had ever been, I was punishing myself every second I went without a drink. But with absolutely zero fucks given about my own wellbeing, I knew something inside me cared because I was seeking medical help.
The burnout we often hear about has something to do with overheating, resulting in a reduction of fuel – cars and stuff. But the burnout I am more familiar with is a form of psychological distress that left me in tatters just months before graduating from university.
I passed it off as exhaustion because everyone in final year was exhausted. It’s pretty much a given when you’ve got lectures, three-hour labs, field trips, reports, group projects, dissertations, Masters applications, part-time jobs, relationships all with trying to maintain a social life at the same time. It’s not an easy for anyone so who was I to think I needed a break – a timeout from a hectic student life. Isn’t that kind of tiredness a rite of passage before the joy and celebrations that come with graduating and getting that first professional job? It was drummed into us at a young age that we are supposed to struggle and work flat-out now in order to earn the right to have a stable, well-paid job and a nice home later in life.
With that way of thinking, I didn’t have the right to complain about stress and exhaustion because everyone is exhausted. I “All Lives Matter”-ed myself and suffered the consequences all because I didn’t want to rock the boat and be seen as special.
But for me, I was more than just “exhausted”. I had given up on all my hobbies, had zero motivation, or a single ounce of enthusiasm for life anymore. Life as a hermit caused friendships to dissolve faster than the energy tablets I was slipping into my drinks every three hours, but I was completely disillusioned about the whole thing.
With all this came the frustration of not knowing what was actually wrong with me. My bones ached; my head constantly processed too many thoughts at once, leaving me dazed and unable to make basic decisions.
A stormy cloud of self-pity that billowed above my head went into overdrive every day and all I could do was stay still, hoping it would pass. The smallest of mistakes like leaving the tap running whilst cleaning my teeth could leave me hurling peppermint-infused insults at myself in the mirror.
This was not the same as anxiety and depression because I had experienced both for years and could tell that this was something different and brought on by something else. But what?
It’s not that I was overemotional; it was that I simply had no emotions at all. I had completely detached myself from my life and had no desire to restore what was once a really great life. I didn’t care at all because I saw myself as helpless and hopeless and that was that.
I was always told that more sleep would get rid of stress but I found myself oversleeping and wasting the days away. I knew I had to do something else before this weird state ruined everything I’d worked so hard for as just twenty-two years old.
I’m not alone, which is both a blessing and a worry. Research tells me that ‘Millennial Burnout’ is high amongst professional young women and burnout in general is high in the Black diaspora in the West. I see a link between the two mainly because I fit in both brackets: we are brought up as overachievers. Failure, no matter how small is weakness and that way of thinking is damaging young people. Overachievers can’t be quitters and we can’t make mistakes. Ambition and strenuous work comes first and everything is second – including rest. Minorities in particular often get lost in this mantra and sacrifice their sanity in order to make it to the same levels as our mediocre contemporaries. How many of us were told that “we have to work twice as hard to get the same place as other people”?
I took that phrase at a young age and ran with it. It left me always stressed and worried that I wasn’t doing enough to advance to a better class set/university course/job/lifestyle. It sucked the fun out of being young and I struggled relax around people because every minute I was at a party was a minute wasted not applying for internships, extra courses and jobs.
A lot is expected of young people, but we are seen as selfish, narcissists because we are creating new industries that are alien to other people. Most of us leave with degrees in a wide range of subjects (that wasn’t available to previous generations), we are seen as lazy for shunning manual labour and more traditional suit and tie jobs. We are seen as lazy because we are on laptops and smartphones all day and some older people can’t get their heads around that fact that times are changing and digital creative industry can bring in as much (if not, more) money as standard office jobs.
Now, burnout can come into play with a lot of us working remotely or freelancing. We forget to take scheduled breaks and can easily work well into the night. But because it’s ‘social’ media, we see browsing the web for work and pleasure as a single continuum – no clear boarders.
This is another way that life can become unbalanced, causing stress to take over.
I’m sure you’ve read this expecting a 5-step plan from me on how to cure burnout, but I don’t have the answers, beloved. Seeking medical help was a really good step, but I am still learning and a huge part of that journey is unlearning.
Unlearning the idea that you have to work yourself into an early grave to achieve your dreams. Unlearning the notion that everyone on social media is living an incredible life and mine is shit in comparison. Unlearning the once mentally crippling concept that young people need to struggle and half-kill themselves in order to one day accepted into adulthood. That’s the biggest lie of all.
Ambition is great, but so is balance and perspective. You can choose them all and have it all.
Written by Joelle Owusu