Vital Mind Stories: My Story of Burning Out, Bouncing Back and Breaking Through
Over the past year and a half I’ve shared a lot about what was going on with me in terms of my spiritual and personal growth, but the one thing I didn’t share about publicly was the debilitating burnout I was experiencing in the midst of it all.
I didn’t write or talk about it at first because I didn’t want it to be happening to me. I didn’t want to admit that I couldn’t “do it all” and was worried what people would think. I was ashamed I couldn’t just suck it up and push through like so many other people seemed to do.
I mean, we all know people who are stressed all the time and seem like they’re exhausted and overwhelmed, but they keep going and push through it all, right?
But then it got to the point where I couldn’t remember anything and could barely put two words together, and that’s when I got really scared.
It all started in the summer of 2015 when I went to get a bridesmaids dress shortened I’d bought two months earlier and I couldn’t zip it up.
I thought it was weird because I hadn’t changed my eating or exercise habits, but the fact was I’d gone up a size without realizing it. And I’d felt tired and kind of out of it too, which I figured was from being stressed out and “busy.”
But a few weeks later I started having trouble keeping up at work because I couldn’t think straight. I was getting really overwhelmed by simple things that wouldn’t have fazed me in the past, but instead of slowing down I just tried to be more organized, make better to-do lists, and work later to try and keep up.
I didn’t want to give in to how I was feeling and blamed myself for not being able to “get it together,” so I pushed myself harder. I drank more coffee and slept less.
I even stopped meditating because it became one more thing on my to-do list that I didn’t have the energy to make time for. I just tried to keep going. I mean, I didn’t have time to deal with the SOS signals my body was sending me, right? I was busy!
But as the months passed, I went from simply not feeling great and being a little foggy to barely functioning.
I gained 20 pounds in the blink of an eye, was so “wired and tired” that I rarely slept more than 4 hours a night, had trouble keeping my balance thanks to daily dizzy spells, and felt like I was stuck in a never ending dance between fight and flight.
I couldn’t keep going at the level I was at before in terms of physical energy, but I also just didn’t have the mental energy to keep all the balls I was juggling in the air.
Before I knew it, I found myself sitting in meetings unable to comprehend what people were saying. I just couldn’t put the words together in my mind to make sense of them, and my short-term memory was shot.
It’s hard to explain what that felt like, but it’s kind of like being in a constant state of panic because you can’t grasp on to any thoughts or think clearly, much less strategically. I tried to write down as much as I could because I’d forget what people said as little as 5 minutes later, but then I’d forget to even look at my notes, so that coping mechanism didn’t really pan out all that well.
It’s bad enough to feel like you can’t remember much, but the confusion and distortion of reality that comes along with this level of “brain fog” can best be described as feeling like you’re slowly losing your mind. I became completely disconnected from my intuition, lost my sense of center and felt like I couldn’t trust myself all in a matter of months.
I felt like everything was falling apart around me.
I hadn’t felt well for close to 8 months by then and had been to multiple doctors who’d diagnosed me with everything from Adrenal Fatigue and Hypothyroidism to Epstein Barr, among other things, but the various steps and multiple medications I was taking didn’t really seem to be working. I felt like I was getting worse instead of better.
And then last spring, I truly hit a wall.
I’d essentially dropped out of my life beyond work because I didn’t have the energy or clarity to deal with anything or anyone else. I spent the majority of my weekends sleeping and, most days, just getting myself up, dressed and out the door was my major accomplishment.
I was at my wits end and felt like I wasn’t actually living my life, but simply surviving it.
I reluctantly followed my doctor’s advice and took a medical leave from work because I was out of options in the state I was in. I’d reached the point where I literally couldn’t do my job, but I think I’d been hesitant to take that step because it made the seriousness of what was going on all too real.
I was also terrified of what people would think. Would they think I wasn’t strong enough to push through it? Would they think I wasn’t capable? Would I be letting everyone down?
And I have to admit that reaction surprised me a bit because I’d done so much work on releasing my fear of judgment, rejection, and asking for help by then that I thought I was past all that, but all those fears came roaring back when I had to make that decision.
And those weeks felt like what you might describe as a dark night of the soul.
They were full of countless doctors appointments, sleepless nights and feeling worse before I felt better, but in that space where I was focused solely on my health I somehow started to find my way back to the intuitive connection I’d lost somewhere in the fog.
When I was forced to slow down and rest I could see I’d been stressing myself out even more by trying to power through when I needed to push pause.
And as I started to try and understand why my default response was to push full steam ahead instead of slowing down, I thought back to the Judgment Detox workshop Gabby Bernstein had given a few months earlier.
As I looked back through my notes and thought about everything she’d said I realized just how much I was judging myself, how judged I was feeling because of it and how my fear of being judged had taken root in all areas of my life, including my health.
I’d been judging myself big time for getting burned out and sick in the first place, for not being able to push through it and for having to take the medical leave to get back on my feet. And I’d assumed other people would judge me for it too, which was just making me feel worse.
I’d thought being stressed out, too busy and not feeling well were the causes of my unhappiness, and those were the causes on the surface. But really, it was my resistance to facing the fears buried underneath all the stress and health issues that had been keeping me stuck, and sick.
I realized that even with all the spiritual and personal growth I’d experienced over the past few years, I was still equating being “busy” with being “worthy.”
When I understood that, I could see the purpose of it all. For so many months I’d asked over and over again, “why is this happening to me?” And I could finally see that this was happening to help me, not to hurt me.
Everything I was going through was bringing all the fears I’d said I wanted to heal to the surface and giving me the opportunity to do just that.
When I look at it that way it makes perfect sense to me. My body essentially forced me to slow down so I could see my life wasn’t falling apart, it was actually falling into place perfectly so I could heal the fears that kept showing up.
My penchant for perfectionism, lack of confidence in speaking up for myself, not wanting to inconvenience people by asking for help and playing small so I could be “safe,” which had all become the ways I protected myself from being judged or rejected, had all played a role when I tried to brush off feeling more tired than normal in the beginning and didn’t put myself first.
I’d valued being busy more than I’d valued my health and myself.
But going through this experience of being exhausted and confused all the time meant I couldn’t keep it all together. In order to survive I had to admit I wasn’t perfect, I had to ask for help, I had to be vulnerable and take the chance I might be judged for it.
I had to speak up for myself, have uncomfortable conversations, and put myself first. I had to do everything I was afraid of doing. And to do it all, I had to stop judging myself to break the cycle.
So I chose to lean into the resistance I was feeling and finally face my fears. It may sound simplistic to say that’s just a choice we make, but that’s really what it is.
We can choose to resist looking at our fears or we can choose to face and feel them. It’s not always easy, but it is that simple. And when I made that choice things started to change.
When I returned to work after a 6-week leave I finally felt like I was slowly starting to emerge from the fog.
I channeled all that energy I’d been wasting on stressing, judging and worrying into deepening my spiritual practice, focusing on my health, doing the best job I could at work, and feeling what I needed to feel.
And by doing all of those things I was letting my intuitive connection grow stronger because I wasn’t fighting against what was happening. By surrendering and making peace with the process I was going through I stopped resisting the lessons I needed to learn and started to heal.
At this point, I felt better emotionally and mentally than I had in months, but that was only half the story.
My body had been through a lot and my endocrine and immune systems had been in crisis mode for a year, so I felt like I needed to seek a more holistic kind of treatment that would go deeper than just medicating my symptoms. And that’s when I found Dr. Kelly Brogan.
My mom had mentioned her to me before, but I’d been resistant because I knew going to see Dr. Brogan would mean looking at all areas of my life and doing a major overhaul of everything including what I ate, the products I used, the medicine I was taking, and really, the way I was living day-to-day. But with my internal voice back in the driver’s seat I knew I was ready to take the plunge. I knew I had the chance to live a new kind of life and I was ready to live it. The doubt and resistance just disappeared when I thought about it that way.
And at my first appointment I felt more seen and heard by Dr. Brogan than I had by any doctor I’d ever been to in my entire life.
Everyone else just wanted to write me a prescription to suppress my symptoms, but she actually cared where they were coming from and wanted to get to the root cause and believed I could heal without popping pills for the rest of my life, which was music to my ears.
She helped open my eyes even wider to see why I was going through this, not just from a medical perspective, but also from a spiritual one. And although I couldn’t imagine how I’d actually be able to get off the plethora of meds I was taking, I trusted the intuitive voice that was telling me I could trust her to lead me in the right direction.
As I made the changes she suggested I started to feel better and I realized I’d been fighting listening to my intuition all along because I didn’t want what it was telling me to be true.
It was saying the lifestyle I’d created wasn’t working for me. It was telling me to slow down. It was telling me to take a serious look at the root causes of the symptoms and stress I was experiencing.
It was also telling me to speak up and ask for help and admit I couldn’t do everything by myself. It was telling me to stop resisting and let myself be guided. It was telling me I needed to walk my talk.
As all of this became clear to me late last summer I knew that I needed to fully embrace this new direction my life was taking me in.
It was pretty clear everything I’d been going through was a wake-up call and that it was up to me to listen, or not.
So, I decided to take a leap of faith and make a huge change. I just knew it was the right time and that I was doing it for the right reasons, which is an annoying explanation, I know. Whenever I’ve asked someone about making a big decision and they’ve said, “You’ll just know when you know” my reaction was something akin to “Huh? But how will I know when I know?!” But the truth is, that’s really what happens. I just knew when I knew.
I’d been working at ELLE heading up PR and editorial brand strategy for nearly three years, and loved it, but as I continued to dive further into my own healing I felt more and more passionate about wanting to do something new.
I wanted to do something entrepreneurial where I could take all the publicity and branding knowledge I’d gained during my 15-year career and fuse it with the mindfulness and stress resilience tools I’d used to heal myself and that I’d seen help so many people around me.
And to do that I knew I had to take another pause and make my physical healing a priority so that dream could become a reality.
So, in September, I left my full-time job at ELLE and transitioned to working from home as a consultant on editorial projects for them through the end of 2016. When I told my boss I wanted to make a change she was incredibly supportive and gracious, as she had been throughout my whole ordeal for the year prior, and I’ll always be grateful for the incredible experience I had working there.
And as I start this new chapter, I’m excited to be bringing all my skills and passions together to do a number of different things including writing, life coaching, and media training & public speaking coaching and consulting with a mindful twist.
For the past few months I’ve been working on staying present and building the foundation of my business, but I’ve spent the majority of my time focusing on my health and wellness. Coming back from a full-blown burnout like mine takes some time, but I’m happy to say I’m off all the prescription medication I was taking and am feeling stronger every day.
I know now that everything seemingly “fell apart” for me when it did because I was ready and willing to handle it, whether I knew it or not.
After all, through all the ups and downs I learned how to trust myself again. I found my voice and nurtured the confidence I needed to use it. I learned how to speak up for myself with conviction and how to ask for help without judging myself for needing it. I started living my life again, instead of just surviving it.
So, I wouldn’t change a single thing I’ve been through. It all got me to where I am today and where I am feels good. It feels fresh and new and full of possibility.
Susie Draper is a mindful media training & public speaking coach, writer and life coach on a mission to help women find their voice, face their fears, speak their truth and share their light. Follow her blog and get in touch at www.susiedraper.com.
This blog post was previously posted on Susie Draper’s website.
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