Written by: Jorinde Berben
Image credit: Jorinde Berben
Last Tuesday marked exactly one year after the first day of my burnout which later morphed into a fully-fledged depression. It was the first day I stayed home from work on the doctor’s orders, and it would be the first day of many.
Of course, on October 25th, 2021, I had no idea what I was in for.
Two weeks prior, I had been faced with panic attacks at home and on my way to work. I had trouble focusing, felt anxious all the time and my hands were constantly trembling. I knew I was overwhelmed and that there were certain stressful elements in my life, but I had no clue how far back the exhaustion went and what would surface if I made room for it. To say I had no clue is perhaps not completely true, because I suspected there were emotions just standing behind the curtain waiting to enter the stage in a rather dramatic fashion. Perhaps that’s why I didn’t really want to create that room and kept putting it off until my brain just called quits.
Initially, I had asked my doctor for two weeks off. She suggested I take at least a month to rest, and that we would meet before I started again to evaluate how I was doing.
The first two weeks, I planned full of ‘healing activities’ such as seeing my therapist, walks in nature, daily writing and meditation. These all sounded like great ways to replenish my energy, and, to be fair, they still are, but they were also a great way not to stand still.
Pretty soon, however, I found out that most of those activities actually took energy to get started as well, energy I just didn’t have. While I was still trying to run the first weeks, I was barely walking by half November and came to a full standstill in December. Toward the end of the year and in January, I reached a depth I had not seen before. There were weeks in which I felt I couldn’t take care of my children anymore, and had lost any desire to do so, which marked the absolute lowest point for me.
As the burnout/depression progressed, I lost the ability to plan my life, do simple household tasks or experience any kind of joy. All life energy I had ever had was just gone. Where I was able to hide my depression in the outside world before, I couldn’t and wouldn’t anymore and found myself withdrawing from most social interactions.
So what helped me get through this time? How did I make it out?
My healing took many, many stages and steps, but these were some key factors:
- My partner and my family were undoubtedly my main support for those most difficult months. They helped me with the practical stuff, making sure I had food, helping with the kids and just picking up what I had dropped, metaphorically and sometimes literally. My partner put his needs aside for a looooong time, because there was just no room for what he needed in the relationship. And he waited, with superhuman patience, for what he knew would someday end, even if I couldn’t imagine that it ever would.
- My therapist, doctor and psychiatrist offered me reassurances, again and again, that it was okay not to be okay. They helped me slow down and allowed me the space in which to reflect on what was going on without being fully dragged into it. They helped me find medication that worked for me and stood by as I tried to get up and fell back down multiple times. And they gave me hope, that yes, they had seen this before, and yes, it could get better.
- What was undoubtedly key in getting to a point of healing was my decision to give myself time. When my doctor, in January, told me that perhaps it was better to just sit out the rest of the school year at home, it suddenly gave me room to breathe. But also the decision not to return to school in September, but to fully join in the business with my partner, allowed me to finally envision a different life than the one I had been having the past few years in which I was constantly trying to catch-up and never could quite be the mother, teacher, partner or friend I wanted to be.
- My ADHD/gifted diagnosis also helped put things in perspective. It gave me a new story in which to fit the challenges in my life. Now I was no longer lazy, messy or flaky, I was just someone who struggled with keeping order, executive dysfunction and remembering social engagements. Shifting away from judgement and toward acceptance also made it much easier to start looking for ways to treat myself, both with medication (which I currently use only rarely) and with behavioral changes and CBT. It also helped me connect to other people who struggle with and benefit from similar brains. It helped me feel less alone.
- For a long time, I tried to keep the darkness at bay. Yet, it was only by actually allowing myself to be depressed, acknowledging to myself what it was, that I was able to deal with the depression. It took me a couple of months to be able to allow myself to do ‘nothing’. Actually, it took no longer being able to do anything, if I’m being honest. In that space of ‘nothing’, there was, in fact, a lot going on. I felt myself regress back to my teenage years and connect to the person I was at that time, the dreams I had, and the image of the future I held. Seeing how different I was, how different my life looked from what I’d imagined, was incredibly confronting. I saw myself reminiscing, and then grieving what I had lost and never quite recognized: first my youth, dreams I had held, then my marriage and how free I felt before I became a mother.
- Support for my son started up in January, helping me feel less alone in the care for his specific needs. Seeing a team surround him, talking about how to give him the safety and the challenges he needs to grow, felt incredibly supportive.
- All the friends, family and colleagues who kept telling me ‘to take my time’ and that ‘it’s okay to not be okay.’ I needed to hear this a lot. And I mean, A LOT! When you’re used to believing you have to keep control and do it all alone, or else things will fall apart, it’s hard to shift to a different gear in which you learn to rely on others. Obviously, it is also this tendency to keep going, to be ultra-independent and to put the bar way high up that puts people at risk for burnout. Chances are if you get into one, you’re also not a prime candidate for getting out quickly.
- My connection to nature was my lifeline for a while. I took long walks, just by myself, chanting mantras and affirmations to get rid of compulsive thoughts, or I talked to the trees (who were very understanding!). I discovered some beautiful places along the way, too.
- Any kind of creative endeavour that offered me a window into the current moment instead of being locked in my head was also a great help. I went outside and took photos, and I painted a bit. These moments gave me a little break and even offered me a sense of joy and accomplishment in a time in which that was a rare find.
- Finally, one more big help was writing. Writing this blog was one of the only things I held on to. Whereas I haven’t kept up my regular rhythm of late, I did write twice a week throughout the whole time I was at home on sick leave. It was an anchor that kept me accountable to myself. As long as I was still writing, I was still making an effort. I was still here.
I also journaled and wrote poetry, which helped me to process what I was going through. It put words to the feelings, thus making them tangible and giving me an in to start dealing with them.
Other contributing factors were watching comedy, spending time with my children and seeing differen professionals.
Obviously, everyone’s healing journey will be different, but I did learn a few things from mine that I think might apply to more than just my story:
I learned that healing from burnout/depression won’t be rushed. Any kind of pressure is the exact opposite of what you need. I did have pressures: the job of parenting, financial concerns and ‘am I not being overly dramatic?’ kind of thoughts. Those all slowed me down, for sure.
Healing is not a steady ‘progression’. There are steps forward, and then falls backward. And sometimes you have no idea in which direction you are moving at all.
It takes many, many, many different things. Often something will work for a while and then stop working, but that doesn’t mean you need to give up. Perhaps it helped you in a tiny, almost unrecognizable way. Yet all those small things add up in the end to create a patchwork of supportive practices, thoughts and feelings.
Taboos don’t help anyone. Whether it’s trying anti-depressants or just taking a loooooong time off from work, I had to change my mind about many things in order to allow the healing process to take its course. As an added bonus, it has brought me great humility and respect for the process others go through as well.
From the outside, it looks as if the person is simply unwilling, or lazy. It’s really hard to understand how it could possibly be difficult to unload a dishwasher, until you’ve stood there, next to the open drawer, feeling absolutely paralized and close to tears because you can’t decide which item to pick up first.
I have no idea what your difficulties feel like, unless you share them with me. And even then, I can only reflect them to the degree in which I have suffered in a similar way.
Suffering can either make you bitter and close your heart, or it can soften you and expand your sense of empathy. My heart has grown bigger and more capable of being with the suffering of others. Even though I am moved more easily and still feel tender, I am at the same time stronger and more connected to myself and those around me.
The most important thing I learned, by far, is that you can’t do it alone. Your own mind can turn into a cesspool of detrimental thoughts and convictions. Saying out loud what I was thinking to other people, bringing it into the light, was often the only way to dispel the dark magic of those thoughts. Depression makes us withdraw because it thrives when we are alone. It uses shame and guilt as ways to keep others at bay. But if we ask others to come sit with us in the darkness, to be with our feelings and thoughts, that shame and guilt will often lose its power.
Honestly, I hope to never go through this kind of time again. But I also know there is a chance I will. It wasn’t my first depression and it may not be my last. Perhaps, if there is a next time, though, I will be quicker to listen to what it wants to tell me, and to ask others to listen with me.