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Three years: part three
the burnout showdown
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It’s the end of 2021: over a year since separating from my wife and 4 months since leaving Almanac.
Disappointingly, I’ve not become a famous writer or gotten ripped during my time off. But my energy is returning. The depression has eased.
I feel like I’ve had enough time off and decide it’s time to get a job. For the first time, I decide to get a tech job in a bigger company. No startups this time: I want a role where everyone is not looking to me for answers. I want peers and benefits. I want to be paid in GBP and finish work at 6 pm.
After enduring many obnoxious coding tests, one company stands out: GoCardless. They are well-regarded in tech, the compensation is great and I resonate with everyone I speak to. Thrilled when the offer finally comes through, I promptly accept.
Landing the job feels like the first big win in a long time, the first peak above the clouds in this saga. Covid work restrictions rear their head for the first month, but I then travel to London once a week. After the lockdowns and loneliness, being around so many smart and beautiful people is exciting and deeply nourishing. I have never been so happy to be in an office and quickly vow never to work fully remote again.
I keep double-checking Slack at 8 pm. No one is online. I double and triple-check, almost in disbelief.
After the breakup, my ex and I return to the topic of financial settlements. Since our brief recoupling her ask has changed which leaves a bitter taste in my mouth.
We started the relationship on equal terms but, during the marriage, I’d co-founded Almanac and built up some savings, 50% of which were now on the table. The equity was the most complex asset: it may be worth a lot, may be worth nothing and it’s entirely illiquid. The court doesn’t care: it requires a single number that represents its value. Everything pivots around this imaginary figure.
Because of the inequality in our assets, the settlement is essentially a question of how much I will hand over. Mostly, I am resentful about having to hand over anything at all. I’d nearly killed myself at Almanac. The remaining equity feels like a small diamond—forged in the heat and pain of that time—that might redeem my efforts in the future. That a large chunk of it should be arbitrarily given to someone else is infuriating.
I’m also sick of being pinned down discussing the two things I left behind over the last year: my partner and my company. I want a fresh start and they both continue to loom large in my life, binding themselves together as I try to walk away.
The process is very draining for both of us and has been rumbling on for a year now. Despite the friction, we manage to come to some agreement without solicitors and send it off to the judge.
In January 2022, I write: I do feel in a better place, the divorce quieting down and work starting has made me feel like a corner has been turned. I’m busy and not lingering on things as much… yet I do still feel some lack of connection and meaning in work.
I have the energy (and being single, impetus) to start working out again. Instead of trying to revive running, I lift weights. I buy a bench and some adjustable dumbells. I love it and relish the sense of progression that has been absent for so long. I even build myself a Rails app called kratos to track my lifts.
Despite the bright start to the year, as early as March I feel a familiar, aching congestion in my body. The exhaustion soaks the front of my body from my face down to my chest. The bruised eyes are back.
I make some tweaks to help alleviate the worst symptoms. Keen to get promoted, I continue to take on more responsibility.
I go skiing and finally get Covid on the journey home. I crave yoga and writing during bed rest. Work is fine, but it’s not scratching my creative itch. And the time commitment means I’ve stopped writing again.
The divorce dance
The judge rejects our proposed settlement and tells my ex to speak to a solicitor. This is exactly what we wanted to avoid but he won’t sign off until she does. The solicitors encourage my ex to pursue more and our agreement breaks down.
After years of therapy and finally feeling comfortable telling people when I’m unhappy, I am forced into a situation where pushing back in any form will likely end up in court and having 50% of what I have left stripped away from me.
We play a very delicate game of back and forth. After many tense conversations and two in-person visits to the judge over a 4 month period, he gives our new agreement the rubber stamp.
It’s over. I receive an optimistic, auto-generated email telling me I’m free to remarry immediately. Like a runner making a last push over the finish line, I internally collapse and I realise how much energy this saga has consumed.
Into the fire
Summer 2022 rolls around. I’ve been at GoCardless for 6 months and my energy swings are becoming more pronounced. I start feeling like a Zoom-powered corpse and my mood begins to deteriorate again.
All of this feels painfully familiar… in the morning I clear the decks before meetings start. I open Slack. There are 80+ channels as well as one-on-one conversations with another 20-30 people. It’s the circus approach to communication: red lights peppering your vision, notifications trapezing onto your screen, and animal GIFs filling in the gaps. It’s lit up every morning, full of things to be assimilated. As you click one channel another lights up. I try and create some kind of to-do list from this shitty whack-a-mole.
Next up is email. I secretly prefer email. It’s much easier to delete everything that doesn’t need to be actioned, thus leaving a natural inbox/todo-list. I also derive some small joy from rapidly deleting emails, which is easy when most of them are irrelevant.
Finally, the calendar and the meetings. Once again, they levy the highest cost. The calls themselves are often not that stressful. The people are pleasant and well-meaning. But it is the airtight, repeating schedule that pecks away.
As I’m sucked into the next call I feel I could sleep for a week, yet tonight it will take me 2 hours to fall asleep. As I push through empty, a familiar horror starts to re-emerge. I can’t absorb anything else and start to dissociate from what’s happening.
Rest is necessary but it doesn’t touch the feeling of depletion. I feel fragile and want to drink to shift that foreground exhaustion into the background, whilst riding the alcoholic boost to get something interesting done.
How can this be happening again? Things had gotten busier at work—I’d taken on another role and soon I’d take on another team. But it was still much less intense than Almanac. I start to worry: am I unable to do this anymore? Am I cooked?
I revise my work approach to give me some more runway. I create a Second Brain to sort out my life. After three weeks I hate my Second Brain and my first one hurts even more.
In October, I abandon my laptop and spend 3 days on a communal farm in Wales.
My senses are drunk on swaying branches, sweet birdsong and a mandala of greenery that makes a laptop screen look like an etch-a-sketch in comparison. My eyes are singing with relief. Long walks and fireside conversations make me realise that I need to be writing regularly, again.
This short time away also gives me some comparison, some benchmark of well-being. Things are not ok.
I look up burnout for the 27th time and have all the symptoms, each one in spades. Each time I return to researching burnout, I find some relief: yes, this is what burnout does to a person. It’s not a personal failing but instead a whole-body response to intense, ongoing stress. I write I AM STILL BURNED OUT in my journal to remind myself of my incapacity.
The most painful realisation is seeing how bitter and cynical I’ve become. These days I feel so impatient and irritated with everyone. Everything feels like it’s impinging on me and I just want it out of my way. Facing this inversion of who I used to be brings a deep sadness. Burnout has stretched beyond exhaustion and now feels like an incursion on who I am at my core.
The inner voice
Something else is bubbling underneath my working life. As I tire of being an Engineering Manager, it increasingly feels like my mind is hungrier than ever to create something meaningful.
Even when I'm at my worst, I regularly wake up excited about writing and articulating this Big Picture that commands so much of my attention. The first coffee kicks in and the inner voice is narrating new connections; ideas start seeping through my pores, pleading to be written down.
Each morning I tell this voice, “We’ll get it done later! We just need to get through work”. But each day the voice is rapidly drowned out by Zoom calls and spreadsheets.
That inner voice has never faded, even amidst the worst of the depression. But I have often doubted its message. After all, no one else can hear it. They only see the person who looks exhausted and fed up. When I put myself in their shoes, I wonder if I’m deluding myself.
There is mounting pressure to use this fuel to do something, to let this voice speak. But I’m so tired. I feel like a hungry shell without a mouth.
In November, I take some time off and spend a week in Cymwyswyth, Wales. The Airbnb is in a remote valley—I arrive on bonfire night and don’t hear a single firework.
I let the inner voice take the reigns and the result is a turning point on a few fronts:
This was the first time I’ve been away and not imbibed nicotine since going through divorce and burnout. It felt predictably wholesome and nourishing. I spent a lot of time writing, making plans and reviving my blog. This was the perfect place to do that, an ideal writing retreat—mornings of coffee, keyboards & dopamine; afternoons of waterfalls, trails and wine.
There was a feeling of “this is what I needed” but also “I need this to be a turning point”, a strange feedback loop of necessity and intent. Either way, it worked.
I return with a new structure for my writings. In a slight mania, I write:
I MUST BREAK THE SEAL and PUBLISH.
I MUST BREAK THE SEAL and PUBLISH.
All else is masturbation.
I give up on the illusory ascent of work, of trying to take on more and climb the ladder. I have nothing to show for it.
The final stand
Burnout ebbs and flows throughout the Winter but in February 2023, despite various interventions, it is searing. The end of the year was intense: managing two teams as an EM, whilst also deputising as a PM.
I start feeling low again and, despite my denial, it’s clear that some depressive symptoms have returned, spreading quickly across the fecund ground of burnout. I write in my journal that “I just want to feel normal again”. I don’t know what normal means anymore, but the sentiment echoes loudly inside me.
For the first time, I consider SSRIs. Maybe they are what I need to click the right buttons and say the right words without this internal maelstrom pulling me apart.
I realise things are serious after I explain my symptoms to a doctor. Fortunately, therapy is available as part of my work benefits, and the doctor recommends I start there before considering SSRIs. I’m initially sceptical about the efficacy of CBT for depression but it turns out to be unexpectedly effective over the next few weeks.
It seems clear this time that burnout is the primary fuel for the depression. When I’m not working—when my attention is not pinned down to a perpetual sequence of conversations—I naturally inflate back into a three-dimensional human being.
I read Steven Pressfield’s The Artist’s Journey and resolve “I’m going to get better” out loud, three times, in the bathtub. In his book, Pressfield explains that the artist's journey begins as the hero's journey concludes. I decide it’s time to stop being a hero.
But I’m still confused. Compared to the conclusion of my last job, my diet and lifestyle are in a good place. My job has boundaries. Yet I’m still fucked. Halfway through a Monday, the physical fatigue is so heavy and my eyes are so sore.
I plunge back into the burnout research rabbit hole one last time. I know all the grisly details, but this time I see something else: all the beliefs that have stopped me from acting on the obvious until now.
“Burnout can’t be this bad”
“Other people have children and busy jobs and they’re doing fine”
“Only carers, doctors and nurses get real burnout”
“You’re just sat at a laptop all day”
“You just need to find a better way of working”
“You can’t be burning out at a healthy job”
In short, guilt and denial.
The trauma in burnout
Around this time, I listen to a couple of podcasts and watch an important TED talk.
The TED talk is Burnout and post-traumatic stress disorder by Geri Puleo. If there is a patron saint of burnout research, it is Geri Puleo. With her upbeat delivery, retro slide decks, and 20 years of research, she is the oracle of exhaustion.
Puleo’s thesis is that burnout bears more than a passing resemblance to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I’m sceptical of this claim. Comparing myself with a shell-shocked veteran feels fanciful and I’m worried about fuelling the contemporary tendency to consider anything one doesn’t like as a trauma-in-waiting.
But it does explain a lot, particularly the horror, detachment and ability to slip back into these states during familiar situations:.
During this conversation, Paul mentions another podcast where Natalie is interviewed by James Altucher. This second interview is particularly surreal as James is himself coming to terms with the fact that he’s burned out, as he’s learning about it.
Natalie’s own story and her insight into burnout resonate more than anything I’d read to date. During both interviews, all kinds of epiphanies are going off in my head.
Burnout is so difficult to face because it has no face. You don’t see burnout. It takes your vitality leaves you lost in its wake. It’s easy to become smothered by the daily details: I’m so tired, I’m irritatable, I’m not productive, I have to work harder, I feel trapped, I feel disconnected.
But burnout is upstream of all of that. You’re on the tail-end of a brutal chemical reaction. The present-moment cynicism, resentment and exhaustion have their origins in a process of depletion that has been pillaging your energy for months or sometimes years.
After sitting with what I’d learned from Geri and Natalie, a series of conclusions crystallises:
Bad burnout—or perhaps all burnout—is a traumatic experience.
Burnout is easy to slip into and hard to reverse.
Burnout can last a very long time. This phase is likely continuous with what happened before, despite the time off in between. I might have been in various stages of it for 4 years.
Even after time off, you can easily boomerang back into burnout.
Some personalities are more susceptible to burnout and I tick all the boxes there.
I’ve been in denial, not ready to grieve the loss. I knew it was there, but I didn't comprehend how deeply it had changed me.
I needed courage to climb about, but summoning that energy whilst in the throes of burnout is very difficult.
It seems clear what I need to do. But I’m still worried that there might be issues that are bigger than work and that resigning won’t help in the way I imagine. My therapist also cautions against making big decisions.
So in one last-gasp attempt, I take 3 weeks off of work. I go skiing and go to a spa. My girlfriend at the time laughs each time she catches me staring into the abyss. All I want to do is stare at a spot in the distance forever.
The space to breath outside of work is precious. But within 48 hours of being back at work, I’m frazzled. A couple days later, I resign.
As I tried to conclude this post and series, I felt an uneasy tension: the pressure to present a confident and assured story of how I got back on track. A resounding victory at the close of the trial.
As if in response, a memory appeared out of the blue in meditation. I’m looking at a train with my grandparents. It is an old, decommissioned train near Bristol Harbourside. It’s on track. But the tracks don’t go anywhere—they stop about five metres ahead. (I am still in awe of the applicability and timely delivery of this 25-year-old memory.)
You can ruminate about being on or off track but if those tracks take you over the edge or perhaps nowhere at all, you might not want to be on the train at all.
I’m not sure this particular train is one I want to be on anymore. At the very least, it’s time to pause and drink from some different pools. Things are open and hazy. Right now, that’s exciting.
I feel deeply grateful for this time off and have been balancing rest with letting that inner voice sing a little more. The first month was consumed by a bumpy recovery and the end of a relationship. The second month off has been an unplanned, child-like communion with nature. Everything wild and living has pulled me into its orbit of wonder; a warm antidote to the parts of me that feel frozen in place. I could happily watch bees and listen to babbling rivers for another 6 months. I’ve also taken up Tai Chi, brought a garden to life and started building things with my hands.
I have no shortage of ideas about what to do next. I have always enjoyed the coaching side of management and would like to expand that skillset to help people face the bigger challenges of purpose and direction. Consultancy is another way of working on my own terms.
Writing still excites me the most. Whilst reviewing my journals to help excavate this story, it is stark how the desire to write emerges every 3-6 months. Often, I’d devise a new project and sketch out a similar structure to the one I’d abandoned a few months before, but with little recognition of the duplication. This is a very surreal thing to discover in your own notes, down to the exact same phrases appearing each time.
I’ve always wanted to be a writer and have always written. But I often labour in silence and fail to follow through, slipping under a tide of perfectionism. Now, I feel like a tree with roots 100 metres deep and one tender shoot stooping under the weight of a fast emerging Spring. It’s electric.
Whatever it is in me that needs to write, it regularly demands that I sit down and pay homage. This time, I’m all ears. This time, instead of launching headfirst into the next grand project, the next spiritual treatise, I decided to sit with something more direct, alive and aching: the uncut, unflinching story of the last three years of my life.
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