What’s it really like to live with chronic health problems every day? How do you deal with the physical symptoms, emotional turmoil and practical problems? In this interview series, real life ‘spoonies’ share their experiences and tips.
- Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m French living in the Netherlands. I studied French modern literature and specialized myself in didactic and intercultural communication. I’ve worked as a language trainer and lecturer for about 15 years, most of the time as freelancer.
At some point I wanted to explore new paths so I started a full time course to become an Interior Designer; I needed fresh air, new challenges. To still have a minimum income, I had to increase the amount of freelance work because my husband (who is also a freelancer) did not have work at all due to the economic crisis. The combination of my study, preparation/correction of portfolio, lessons to give, two very young kids plus the worries about my husband situation was awful. Nights when I could sleep four hours were the special ones. I was constantly under pressure and had to produce a lot of work and not to mention the way too often heavy headaches and migraines.
In order to work more (because of our financial situation) and to be able to manage all the tasks at home, I quit the Interior Designer studies; it broke my heart and I felt like a looser. A few months after that, I started to suffer from my right shoulder, it hurt a lot and I had difficulties carrying my kids. The physiotherapist told me that it came from too much stress, but I ignored his diagnosis, because I thought I had no choice and that I must carry on in order to protect and care for my family.
A couple of months later, while I was giving instructions to a group, I blacked out and could not speak at all anymore. I knew what I wanted to say but I just could not manage to talk, produce sounds and articulate. A very heavy migraine started, it lasted four days when I could barely open my eyes, talk and move. When I finally managed to go to my doctor, he told me that I, obviously, had a severe burnout.
- When did you first realize that something was wrong, that what you were experiencing was more than just tiredness and overwhelm?
As mentioned above, when I experienced a blackout during a lesson. At that moment, I thought that there was definitely something going on. I’ve been raised with the idea that if something does not work it’s because you did not work hard enough, and I truly believed that as long as you want, you just have to push and push and work even harder. In my work I met people who had experienced a burnout and I was horrified to see what it did to them, but I never actually understood clearly how this happens and that it could happen to me as well.
- In which ways did/does having a burnout affect your daily life? What did you struggle with the most?
Until the day that my mind shut down I was very active, constantly doing something either for work or for my family. I felt very uncomfortable to not be able to be active like I was. Reading was way too difficult, I could not concentrate. I could see the letters, the words, I understood them but an entire sentence was so much effort. It was also very difficult to deal with other people, crowd, noises. Doing groceries, for example, was a nightmare. My brain could not handle when it was too busy, and having long and profound conversation was not even an option.
In all this, one of the worst things is the image of you that people send back to you. Lots of people have an opinion (if it’s not a judgement) about what a burnout is and how you should be. A burnout is not written on your face, it is not something visible and that is the open door to a lot of weird/inappropriate/mean remarks. I was in a very difficult place where I did not really know myself what was going on, I just wished to become invisible.
All this contributed to the creation of Good Enough Darling, a couple of months ago. It is an online magazine where I share tips to help people to live and go through their burnout. It is a place with interviews with people who had one, tips for daily life, nice addresses (mostly in the Netherlands) where you can go and have a peaceful moment. Written content is as short as possible because of the lack of concentration you have when you deal with a burnout. On the other hand, there are a lot of photos in order to create a peaceful feeling when you look at them. With Good Enough Darling I want give others what I, and so many people, did not have while having a burnout: info, support, a bit of humor and mindfulness.
- What were the first steps you took to start your recovery process?
When I went to the doctor after my blackout, he told me that I needed urgent rest and that when I would feel a bit better I should consult a psychologist to help me deal with my perfectionism. When he mentioned a psychologist I thought to myself, no way, I’m going to deal with it myself and it will be ok. A few months later, I was not dealing with it, on the contrary, things were getting worth because I started to stutter. It felt like I was going down in an infinite spiral.
So I followed my doctor’s advice and started a journey with a psychologist. Thanks to her I learned what exactly a burnout is, the hormonal process in your brain, the physical reaction to stress. I also discovered that I was perfectionist and what I always considered as standard, the normal way of doing things (word hard and harder, don’t quit, push, push, push, not be satisfied with average) was actually perfectionism. The most challenging was to learn to listen to the signals my body was giving, to learn to stop and have pauses. I never used medication. I could have but I refused.
- Is there anything you can do to prevent a relapse?
Actually I had a relapse a couple of years later, but this time I saw it coming and quit working before my brain and body crash again. It stays challenging as I tend to push my body and brain. Obviously I’m still a perfectionist, it is in me and I don’t want to erase neither change that part of me but I’ve learned and still learning to deal with it in a way that is only positive and not destructive anymore.
- Any long-term illness comes with psychological challenges: feelings of sadness, losing a part of your identity, anxiety about the future or a lack of support from family and friends. How did you deal with the emotional side of having a burnout? Has it changed you?
Burnout has definitely changed me. It has been an extremely painful process. One day I was a praised lecturer and trainer and the other I wasn’t able to read a simple text and having a conversation without stuttering. It makes you think about who you are, what are you becoming? What kind of future are you going to have? Often I felt ashamed about not being more productive, active and “successful”. How often did I say to myself “what kind of example am I giving to my kids?” Fortunately I received an incredibly amount of support from my husband, but also from my children who despite their young ages understood my situation in their own way. Their love and support helped me heal and accept my “new me”.
While I was deep in my burnout I also started to photograph and it has been an exceptional companion and help. It helped me to see the beauty in little things, the beauty in nature. It gave me hope that I could do something for myself. Thanks to photography I could have a life as an individual (like I had when I was working) and not only be a wife and a mother. This photographic journey has been so far wonderful and I’m working now on making my first photobook. If someone had told me this while I was deep in my burnout, I would have not believe it.
- What would you like to tell others who are diagnosed with a burnout?
Don’t give up and don’t give up on yourself. You are not your burnout. It might sound cheesy but there is hope, there is a moment that you will be able to function again. Listen to your body, embrace life at your own rhythm. Trust yourself, don’t be afraid to say “no” and give maximum love to yourself in any possible way. You are worth it.
You can find more information about burnout on Good Enough Darling, Carole’s online magazine on how to live and embrace life with burnout. And check out more beautiful photography from Carol on Caroletta’s Treats or Instagram.
*Top image by Paulien Kluver
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