It’s 4:55am. I know my alarm will go off in 5 minutes so I turn it off. I get out of bed, and put the Nespresso on. I need to keep my stomach relatively empty because swim squad starts at 6am. I drink a short black with a tiny dash of milk. I check my sports bag, and mentally recite my ‘leaving home’ mantra: Phone. Wallet. Keys. I’m ready to head to the train station. It’s still dark outside when I get to the pool, but I can see familiar faces waiting for the pool gates to open.
“Morning Miko!” a chorus of greetings from my triathlon group. I wish them Good Morning back as we go poolside and get ready for training. I love swimming. I started swimming lessons when I was three and I’ve always enjoyed the feeling of moving through water. It’s an exercise that helps me focus on my breath, a little bit like yoga. I check my Garmin watch at the end of the session. I’ve recorded just over 4,000m. Good sesh. I take a quick shower and get ready to go to work.
Some days I have the energy to go outside. Other days are still spent all day in pyjamas. This is my reality. If I do an intense yoga practice in the morning, I am exhausted by lunchtime. I try to pay attention to a philosophy discussion, but I can’t. My brain is aching because I can’t concentrate. My mind drifts in and out, picking up random words, which I know are accompanied by stimulating commentary, but I can’t keep up.
I lie down and close my eyes. I’m still half-listening, but my body is sleeping. I wish so hard that I could just sit up and listen because I love philosophy and I want to indulge myself in the conversation that’s happening around me. It’s late February; almost nine months since I resigned. Where is my stamina? Why am I still such a struggler? My fellow yoga teacher Lea comes up to me later… “I’m not sure if you realised, but you were snoring during our philosophy session,” she told me with an awkward smile. How horrifying!
Burnout and its recovery
Burnout. It’s such a commonly used word in my life these days. It now holds the same weight as croissant or jumper, yet the way it’s weighed me down has had such an impact on my life.
I’m writing this in non-PJs today. Well done, me. Seriously, these are the small celebrations I have each day. Yesterday I was in bed all day, checking my phone and emails periodically and posting too much on social media. I receive an email from Google, giving me my blog analytics for the past month. What a crazy month it’s been. The number of readers increased by 28,963.36%. I guess I’ve had a bit more than the few I’d usually get (thanks, Mum and Dad).
Since I was having a “PJs All Day” kinda day yesterday, I decided I’d smash out all the messages I still had to reply to. I’m one of those people who can’t have a red number on my Inbox icon. It felt good to finally get rid of that evil little red circle on both Facebook and Instagram apps.. oh how irritating that little circle has been! As I reply to the messages, I realise how lucky I am to have received the support I have – from the bottom of my burnt out heart, thank you.
The big, bad world can be hostile, but when humans connect it really can be a small and warm nook. On the morning of Sunday 3rd February, I was a random Sydney girl, suffering the severe sequelae of burnout on my own. By that afternoon, a social media storm was gathering from strangers who related to my story, or just wanted to send their support. My gratitude goes to people across Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Japan, India, Qatar, South Africa, Norway, Finland, Germany, Poland, the UK, Italy, Canada, the USA, Colombia…
I have not been to half of these countries but I’ve realised that burnout is prevalent globally. This is sad yet comforting. We are all in this together, which leads me to the point of this blog post: an opportunity for me to share my recovery process. I hope that some of the things I share might help someone else. I’ve always been a bit “different”. I studied the Western paradigm of Medicine, but I’ve always been open to other therapies. I mean, some of these therapies have existed for thousands of years, and still exist today, so there has to be something in them, right?
I’ve gone through my own version of Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love journey. I didn’t go through a marital divorce like she did, but I divorced my career. I’m not saying that the two are directly comparable, but there are some similarities. Both come with a sense of loss, or grief. I have mourned the end of something I lived for. When I resigned, I spoke to a Paediatric Surgeon who said to me, “it’s like being in a toxic relationship. It’s hard to leave, but you have to do it for yourself”. And so I did.
I plan to write a three part series on my recovery dedicated to each of the domains; Eat, Pray, Love. Below is a preview of each one. If you’re interested to read my reflections in more detail, please look out for the in-depth posts to come.
I’ve blogged previously on the physical effects of chronic stress. Just last week, my GP weighed me and I am still overweight according to BMI (which I know is not the most accurate measurement of body composition, but it’s still alarming for me, as I’m about 5-6kg over my baseline healthy weight).
My cholesterol still remains elevated at 7.3, despite dietary modifications. However, my cholesterol profile has improved; even though my overall cholesterol level is the same, a higher percentage of it is HDL – the “good” cholesterol. I am not pressuring myself to lose weight, because I know that as my energy improves, I will be able to exercise more.
One good way to encourage exercise is to set a goal. I’ve decided to put together a team for the Sydney and Melbourne Running Festivals in September and October, respectively. If you’d like to run in Sydney with me, please search for the team #RestedDocs. The password is also #RestedDocs. I have decided to do the 10km Bridge Run as my goal. Depending on how my body feels over the next few months, I will either do the 10km again in Melbourne, or the half marathon… we shall see.
As well as exercise, diet is so important. My gut broke down when I was burnt out. What’s really helped my gut to heal is switching to a plant-based diet and consuming more pre- and probiotics. A friend of mine has been vegan for a long time. I’m not 100% vegan, but she’s helped me a lot since I made the transition last August. I will be blogging more about my diet in my dedicated blog post, Recovery Part 1: Eat.
This blog post will be focussing on my spiritual and emotional recovery from burnout. I am not religious, but I like to read Hindu and Buddhist texts, which have shaped my life philosophies. Letting go of a career I worked so hard for was incredibly difficult, and it’s the philosophy texts that have really helped me talk it out with myself.
As one of my symptoms of burnout, I became anti-social. I deleted my old Facebook account, which I’d had since 2007. I didn’t just deactivate it, I deleted it permanently. I was also on an Instagram hiatus for over a year. When I reactivated Instagram, I was serendipitously sent a mala necklace, which started my crystal craze. The mala necklace was made from a few different crystals, but the main one was peach moonstone, which eases emotional trauma. Reading about the different crystals and their meanings really captured me.
I’ve since owned a couple more malas, as well as crystals. When I was hospitalised in October last year, I was given some day leave when I was starting to improve. I used one such day to go to a yoga class, but I got there early so I walked into a shop, which happened to have crystals. There I bought my first crystal – rose quartz. Rose quartz is the crystal for love, including the promotion of self love. I’ll write more about crystals and yoga in my dedicated post, Recovery Part 2: Pray.
Self-love is something I didn’t really give any attention to. If I’d loved myself more, maybe I wouldn’t have tolerated certain behaviours from other people. It’s something that I’ve had to cultivate over the past nine months. Allowing myself to recover was the first step. I kept pushing my body, forcing it to get better quickly instead of just resting… which is probably how I declined and ended up in hospital.
I kept my resignation and mental health a secret from my family because I didn’t want to worry them. The biggest relief came from eventually telling them the truth, and the realisation that they weren’t mad at me for giving up, and that they actually loved me. It sounds so silly. Of course they love me, they’re my family… but I felt like I’d be such a disappointment to them so I didn’t tell them anything until the day I got admitted to the hospital.
Lastly, we all deserve romantic love. They say that in surgery, “if you start single, you’ll end up single”. This is the truth for many of us, especially if you’re female. First of all, there aren’t many men who are masculine enough to accept a woman who wants to become a surgeon. Unless they have a profession that they perceive to be equally “powerful”, it’s something that affects their sense of self, from what I have personally experienced. As a surgical registrar, I didn’t have much time for dating, nor did I allow myself to be treated well by men, because work made being treated like shit the norm.
I believe in the cliché that you need to love yourself first, to be loved by someone else. This is something I’ve worked on since resigning; teaching myself ways in which I can show self-love, and allowing myself to be loved by others again. For the most part, I have been too sick to socialise, but I’m finally ready to find love again after a very long period of living the single life. Maybe there’ll be a love story for Recovery Part 3: Love.