‘How I Became The Poster Child For Burnout At 28’

‘How I Became The Poster Child For Burnout At 28’
Vasini Varadan

[This story was first published on Medium and has been republished here with permission from the author]

The 1st week of October is Mental Illness Awareness Week, and burnout is the WHO theme for World Mental Health Day. I can’t even begin to explain how relevant this theme is, and how much I connect with it.

At 25, I was living my dream. I was heading a behavioural health division; I had complete control over what I wanted to create, I had the resources and support from management, and a great team at my disposal  —  they would get excited about new ideas and initiatives with me. It was perfect. I built an entire division focused on school mental health, created pilots, expanded the business, became cash flow positive, and increased engagement levels with each of our clients.It was a dream run and three years in, I crashed. I was physically sick, emotionally exhausted and at 28 I was a wreck and was forced to take a break from work.

I’m currently working with Touchkin where I’m building a burnout plan on the AI therapy chatbot Wysa. My research shows that burnout is supposed to affect people who are ‘energetic, enthusiastic with high levels of engagement at work and ambitious personal goals’. This was so me- looks like I was the poster child for burnout. This process has me reflecting on my life and I can now see my journey through the 12 stages of burnout as devised by Herbert Freudenberger and Gail North.

Stage 1 — Compulsion to prove: I was heading the behavioural health division of a healthcare company and I was driven by an idea — I had to prove that mental health services were not just for NGOs and those with ‘serious’ illness. There was money to be made. Yes, I’m one of those social entrepreneurs and my vision at the time was to decrease the incidence of serious mental illness by providing children and adolescents with psychosocial education, emotion management skills and counselling interventions. I had to prove to myself that I could do it. I had to prove to my CEO that he’d made the right bet. And, I had to show people that there was money to be made and lives to impacted.

Stage 2 — Intensity: I was working like a maniac. I wasn’t able to switch off. I constantly innovated and added new services. I worked on a corporate pilot program and I was so excited about the work. I was more than all in.

Stage 3 — Subtle deprivations: We had a six-day work week and soon, two Sundays were sacrificed for the corporate pilot program. My schedule left no time for anything except for work. I saw them all as small sacrifices for something larger which would eventually pay off.

Stage 4 — Dismissal of conflict and needs: There were times I would feel like I was not content with work and I could not wrap my head around why. My coping mechanisms were tea (at one time I was on 12 cups of tea), erratic eating, obsessions with raw salads, smoking (I’d quit and started up again) and all this gave rise to an old digestion issue and I’d have discomfort and bloating most days.

Stage 5 — Distortion of values: This was a huge one for me. In my personal life, I was getting involved with a boy in a way which went completely against my value system and I did not know how to deal with it. At work there was pressure on increased sales and growth, I felt like I was constantly hitting up against a wall. My hobbies and personal time diminished even more and my sense of self-worth was tied to work, to client feedback, to the monetary value of the contracts increasing.

Stage 6 — Heightened denial: I was incredibly intolerant of incompetence within the team, I was very hard on them and even more demanding than usual. On many days I would ‘work from home’ and just avoid having to go into work. I was part of two communities outside of work; our focus was on creating on the ground solutions and building community engagement. I began to find it harder and harder to devote time and soon the thought of attending the meetings were seemingly unbearable.

Stage 7 — Disengagement: I was emotionally distant from myself and others. I just switched off and cut people off since I could not deal with myself or them. I left both the social communities I was part of. My social circle once robust, my social life once packed, was now incredibly small. I was isolating myself more and more. The feelings of tiredness and exhaustion had also caught up by this time and I would wake up tired.

Stage 8 — Observable behaviour changes: My friends and family were worried and brought up the changes in my behaviour and personal life choices. Much to my sisters irk my parents used to call me the ‘beacon of light’ ( I know right!) and I had fallen from grace, hard. I refused to see the issues and just said I was overworked and stressed. Internally I was feeling dead and my self-worth was at an all-time low.

Stage 9 — Depersonalization: I did not want to deal with anyone or anything. My mantra with my family at that time was LMA - leave me alone. By then at work, I’d asked for extra responsibility and was part of a new business innovation team and was in parallel going through the first 2 stages of burnout — proving myself and working with intensity.

Stage 10 — Emptiness: Inner emptiness was overcome by overeating, binge watching of TV shows, alcohol, and cigarettes. There were times I could not stand to be by myself and I would stay out until I knew I was so tired, all I could do was come home and crash. There were other times I would not want to see or talk with anyone and would just get lost binge-watching TV shows or re-reading the Harry Potter series.

Stage 11 — Depression: I was feeling lost, unsure and exhausted. Later a clinical psychologist diagnosed me as being a high functional Dysthymic (yay me, can’t even do depression normal) which comes with its own set of issues.

Stage 12 — Total burnout exhaustion: I was hospitalised for a few weeks, turns out that bloating was a serious bacterial infection and I was playing host to a massive colony shaped like a gull (don’t even get me started). I was advised 3 months off work. I had collapsed physically and mentally.

At that time did I know it was burnout? Of course not. I thought it was this bacteria and that I would get back on track soon. I looked at the 3 months as an opportunity to travel and spent all my money on visiting new countries and having new adventures. I come back with credit card debt and decided I can’t go back into work again. I asked my parents for help, financially and emotionally. I started working on myself. Through therapy I began healing and addressing the base needs and behaviours which lead to the burnout in the first place.

I now realise how many people, like me, are thinking they are doing well, that they’re on the right track and just stressed and overworked but are actually heading towards burnout. I’m hoping the burnout plan I’m building on the AI therapy chatbot Wysa, really helps people through this. If you think this might be of help to you let me know and as soon as it’s ready I’ll give you access to test it out.

It’s taken me three years, two failed business ventures, death of loved ones, a broken heart that’s slowly mending, many ups and downs and I finally feel like I’ve weathered the storm; I’m finally able to commit to working for a company again.

Note: A few of you have written in and asked me what Dysthymia is, I find this blog post to be extremely informative.

Feature image illustrated by Vasini Varadan

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