Burn, Baby, Burn(out)!
Holy shit, y'all... this fucking month! Or this quarter ... year, maybe? I don't even know where to begin.
According to my fancy bloggers dashboard, it's been almost 2 months since I published an entry. I started one a month ago, but never finished it. It's about 6 incomplete paragraph of blubbering about life with Major Depressive Disorder, and what that's like as a woman, as an entrepreneur, and as an individual with chronic pain.
But I'll get to that. The last entry I published was about the exhaustion of playing catch-up after returning from holiday. I spent weeks responding to emails, filling orders, returning phone calls, doing follow ups, balancing the books, scheduling advertising, debriefing with my assistant, debriefing with my PR rep, working on my article for the magazine I write for, and, of course, making up for lost time in regards to the excessive amount of school-related work I had to do. I was doing it - I was making progress! (In case you've forgotten, or if this is the first entry you are reading, I own and operate multiple small businesses while being in the final year of my doctoral studies).
Then, in early September, I got hit with an enormous wave of deep, deep depression. Like, showering was a great accomplishment depression. Like, my cognitive function was next to non-existent. Like, even my favourite activities held no pleasure. Like, I physically couldn't find the energy to reach over and click "Keep Watching" on Netflix. Like, every moment of every day I considered that, to be honest, if I were to just die it wouldn't actually be that bad depression. But here's the deal, this nonsense isn't new. I've dealt with Major Depressive Disorder my entire life. I even spent nearly two decades dealing with serious suicidal tendencies (no longer, thank goodness! Well, thank my amazing string of therapists). But usually, nowadays anyhow, this heavy darkness passes pretty quickly. A day, maybe a few tops. But this time it lingered. For weeks, and weeks. And I became concerned that this time it would just never pass.
During this time, my FMS/EDS flared up. BIG. TIME. Jesus Christ, I cannot remember the last time I was in so much pain for so long. Pain so bad that I began to think "Holy fuck man, maybe I should just die, 'cause this certainly ain't living!" Yeah, it wasn't good. And my fibro fog got really bad, which was magnified by the depression fog. I couldn't focus, couldn't hold a thought in my head for more than a few minutes. It was a problem. It would be a problem for anyone, but it was an extra problem for a gal who has businesses to run and a doctorate to finish.
But, like I do, I pushed through. Eventually the depression did pass, and my flare up has settled back down. But I've not quite returned to where I was at before. Since I majorly dislocated my hip a few months back, I've been having to use my cane almost every day. And despite looking fairly put together, I feel physically more broken than ever. But that's okay. It's part of it. Degenerative things degenerate. Entropy and all that. I continue to focus on making the most of the even relatively good time I have. But circling back around, I pushed through all the depression and the pain. And I kept working hard. And I kept taking on things. And I kept saying "yes!" to exciting new opportunities which seemed to be coming my way like gangbusters. I continued to go to conferences and lectures, and even a non-work-related event or two. I sure as hell wasn't going to let something like physical or mental disability keep me from achieving as much as I knew I was capable of.
And then I hit the wall. I hit it hard. I knocked the metaphorical wind out of myself. I was so exhausted. My inspiration was gone. I felt like I couldn't keep up. This isn't new. Anyone who's ever started a business knows this feeling well. It's part of the cycle. Things are great, and they suck, you're on top of the world, and a total failure, you have all the opportunities in the world, and are a no-body that no one will ever care about all in one day. It's the entrepreneurial way. You just keep your eye on the ball and don't quit, and you keep moving forward, and it's worth it. But this time was different. It wasn't the usual exhaustion, the usual rut. This was new. This was me feeling like I would never fully recover my cognitive function. It was a concern that I physically wouldn't be able to continue doing what I needed to do. It was me looking at myself in the mirror and knowing in my soul that, no matter how fierce and amazing I am, I will always be one crazy, chronically ill, disabled girl trying to do the jobs of at least 11 people. And I cried. I cried a lot. I thought about quitting. Like... seriously thought about it. I questioned my value as a person, my skill as a businesswoman, my contribution to humanity (god, do you think I could sound more dramatic if I tried?).
After pulling myself together, I did something I never do. I took a few days off. I slept. I read. I took many long motorcycle rides through the autumn New England countryside. And I did what I always do when I feel like giving up: I watched my favourite TED Talk. It's a physics talk (of course) that obviously has nothing at all to do with my field of work, but is a subject that I just really, purely enjoy. Anyhow, there's a point in this specific lecture that states that, even in "failure," or when we don't get the answer or the breakthrough we were looking for, we have not failed. We only fail if we quit. Because we are scientists and explorers, and exploration doesn't end when you discover nothing on your first or second (or 10th) pass. Exploration is infinite! Something about this, and the speaker himself, always inspires me. Pushes me to keep on keeping on. Keep exploring, keep trying, keep advocating, just... keep on. It's literally kept me from quitting (many things) about a dozen times. This time, however, in addition to my usual not-quitting revelations, and coupled with my time off, I had a new discovery: I AM BURNED OUT!
I was discussing my feelings of not accomplishing enough with a friend and fellow entrepreneur who I deeply professionally admire. She does so many things, has her hands in 100 projects, has a wildly successful business, in addition to being a perfect wife and mother. I told her what my standard week looks like, what I'm up to, and where I am failing miserably. I told her about my pain, my dislocations, my fatigue, my cognitive struggles. I cried a little. She was quite, and after a moment told me that she was stunned. She, a woman with no physical disability or pain, could not imagine having to keep my schedule. That she was in awe of all that I do, what I accomplish. This was a weird punch-in-the-gut moment for me. While very flattering and kind (and definitely something I needed to hear), it forced me to accept that, while I'm admittedly kind of badass and overachieving, maybe I'm demanding too much of myself. Maybe I'd be demanding too much even if I were physically abled, not in pain. Maybe I need to ask... less?... of myself. Maybe I need to allow myself to be a normal human being, and stop judging myself so harshly by my own astronomical standards, and by observing others as they depict themselves on the internet.
Rolling back 2 paragraphs real quick... I've been exhausted before. I've needed to take a break before. And of course, I've questioned the insanity of entrepreneurship a thousand times. But I have never actually been burned out before. Felt like I was wholy incapable of going on. This realization, thanks to a TED Talk, motorcycle rides, chats with my best friend and others, and lots of meditation, forced me to accept that I only have 3 options.
1. Keep on pushing forward at the same rate and risk failing harder than I thought possible, while also destroying my physical and mental wellbeing.
2. Quit. Just walk away.
3. Cut back. Do less. Pour my all-of-me into fewer things, and make sure that I am one of those things I invest in. Stop saying "YES" to every interesting opportunity. Stop feeling like I have to be the one to start every program, run every event, write every book. Do fewer things, better.
It seems so absurdly simple. It's obvious that I chose #3, right? Well, I did. But it wasn't simple. It was HARD! I'm not good at admitting that I can't do something... or everything. I'm not good at saying "no" because I'm afraid of letting people down. I've been let down and screwed over a lot, and never want to do that to others. I also am a dreamer, and I see the potential in everything and always want to be involved in the realization of that potential. Additionally, I am aware that people tend to default to not doing things, so if I want to see something happen, more often than not I have to do it myself. I also am super insecure. I mean, I know I'm kind of awesome, but, well... if I'm not the most incredible and accomplished human being on the face of the earth, who would give me the time of day? **insert dramatic eye roll here** I know, it's so fucking stupid. I'm still working on my personal narrative.
But as much as it hurts, and as much as I hate it, (and as much as I kind of hate myself for it,) I'm cutting back. I stepped away from my regular writing gig. I'm teaching fewer classes this year, I'm hiring the people I need to help me. I'm not taking on events that I have to run on my own. Just because something is shiny and new doesn't mean I need to be involved. Just because something sounds like an amazing idea doesn't mean I have to be the one to implement it. Ugh, these are the hardest things for me to say, but it's good. Because it gives me the space to be okay, to not fall to pieces. It allows me the freedom to actually grow the magnificent things I'm already involved in, and really give them 100%, maybe even innovate new things within them! But it still feels like failure, somehow. I'm working on it. I'm working on accepting that I am, in fact, only human. And a human with extra limitations, whether I like it or not.
I'm also taking a step back from taking shit from people. I've always had people-pleasing tendencies, and it's not been a healthy thing in my life. I've known this for a long time. But this kick-in-the-pants to cut back on doing everything and be more mindful of how I spend my energy naturally extends to what people and what behaviors I am willing to expend my energy on. Sometimes it means just letting shit go. Sometimes it means letting people go. Sometimes it means telling people that I love them, but I just can't right now. And sometimes it means putting my foot down and saying "OH HELL NO!" It's a balancing act. It's hard, but I'm working on it.
This burnout/take-a-step-back realization happened over a week ago. I'm still bouncing back and forth between feeling incredibly light and free, and feeling like I've completely surrendered all possibility of ever accomplishing anything worthwhile. But it's okay. I'm leveling out to more "free" and less "worthless." I think, or at least I keep telling myself that, in the end this choice to practice better self care and not spread myself so thin will result in even more productivity, and also possibly improve my wellbeing. We shall see.
Oh, by the way, my "cutting back" means only working my standard 9o hour work/school week. To all the people who keep telling me to "just work less and you'll feel better," see this post. I don't have the luxury to not work hard. I'm not wired that way, and I don't financially have that freedom, either. I am just making the choice to pour my hard work into the most important and profitable things, the things that ring my chimes and pay my bills, and not take on loads of extra stuff. Please don't tell disabled people how to feel/function better. It doesn't help. It's ableism.