Burn-ED

Authors: anonymous / Editor: Nikki Abela, Liz Herrieven /  Codes: CC24, CC6, CC8, SLO12, SLO2, SLO8, SLO9 / Published: 07/09/2021

Editor’s note: We decided to publish this as an anonymous blog because although there shouldn’t be any stigma associated with burnout, we wanted to respect the author’s confidentiality. So so many people are or have experienced burnout, and we hope this blog helps with taking the first steps to recovery. If this hits a note with you, please take the first step and seek out your support system.

I didn’t realise I was burned out until I was properly scorched. I’d been close before, but thought I was doing ok this time. Even proud of myself for noticing things were getting challenging and taking the occasional day off to rest. Obviously, I told people I had a “migraine” – no need to admit you’re struggling, huh? And I never really rested. I mostly moped and worried about being behind on things. But I carried on. I knew I was snapping at people more than usual – totally their fault though, not mine, right? I was angry a lot of the time. And quite tearful sometimes, getting upset by little things. I put that down to being tired. I hadn’t been sleeping well for a while. Probably the caffeine. Way too much caffeine. And sugar. And, yes, probably more alcohol than usual. But that caffeine and that sugar kept me going and the alcohol helped me unwind at night. It’s difficult to stick to healthy meals when you’re working all the time. Like, literally all the time. Meetings from 8am, late shift finishing at midnight, but staying late because how will they cope if I don’t? On evenings off, working until late at night in front of the TV. Because if I didn’t do things, who would, right? And it all needed doing. Right now.

There were lots of arguments at home, and the kids were playing up. I was way too busy to catch up with friends, get any exercise or do anything that might resemble relaxation. And there was COVID. I’m not completely blaming the virus, but it really didn’t help. Not only the increased workload, but the worry about keeping my family healthy, and the social isolation. Plus school closures not only stripped the children of their education (meh, they’ll catch up), but their contact with friends and their routine. Pent-up energy, lifestyle changes and young children is not a good mix. It also took away any chance of “me-time”. I was working way too much at my paid job, then straight home to work too hard at home, both doing work-related admin and being a parent. But I carried on.

Someone I trust took me to one side at work and said people were worried about me. I had literally no idea why – yes, I was finding things tough, but I was coping, right? And doing a great job of putting on a game face….. Right??

But then I got worse. More tearful. Anxious at silly times. And, although I didn’t make any mistakes, I was really struggling to make decisions as quickly as usual. I even started to think about what it would be like not to be around anymore. I wasn’t planning anything, but started to think that, maybe, if something happened to me, it wouldn’t be all that bad, really. Then came the clincher. I woke up one morning and couldn’t get out of bed. Not that usual thing of not being a morning person, or hitting snooze again, but literally not being able to get myself out of bed. I couldn’t function. I needed to take some time off.

A week, I thought, maybe two? I didn’t want to be off for long. I felt awful about leaving my colleagues in the lurch, my to-do list was far too long to ignore, and it would be growing by the day. How would the department cope without me? And I did feel a bit better after a week. A bit of sleep, some crying, lots of comfort food. But I crashed again, without warning, over nothing.

The realisation that this wasn’t going to be a quick fix took a long time to hit home. I mean, everything we see has to be sorted in four hours, doesn’t it? An illness lasting months just doesn’t seem feasible. I had days when I felt a bit more like me then, for no reason, the next day I’d be back in the deepest, darkest pit of hopelessness and sadness. Not only was I depressed, I was anxious. Popping to the shops left me shaking, lightheaded, feeling sick and completely unable to choose which flavour crisps to buy. What was wrong with me? I’d always thought of myself as pretty resilient. I was definitely not the type to have a panic attack in the confectionary and snacks aisle.

Occupational health were lovely. This happens to lots of people, they explained. I needed to get some rest, get more fresh air, try some mindfulness exercises. That broke me. I didn’t have time for rest, fresh air or mindfulness. I needed to get on with work and play my part at home. I was too busy, with too many demands on me to do yoga or Sudoku. Some of my work colleagues were great, sending messages of support and offering to talk. I didn’t want to talk though. I didn’t want to see anyone. I didn’t tell people I was off work unless I had to. I felt a bit ashamed, I think. My line manager didn’t help with that. “Time off won’t help”, “You need to sort your life out”, “I don’t know what you think I can do” and, “I can’t rely on you anymore”. That was nice and supportive, wasn’t it? Forget all that “It’s ok not to be ok” stuff, huh?

Eventually though, bit by bit, I’ve started to recover. Rest has helped. Friends have helped, when I’ve felt strong enough to see them. Knowing that people care has really meant a lot. I’ve started to realise that the department can survive without me. It’s ok to trust other people to get things done. Spending time with my family, actually being present and not distracted by my phone, has been lovely. And spending time alone, learning to be comfortable with doing nothing, or close to nothing, has been wonderful.

Counselling has helped me to realise the areas I need help with. Occupational health, despite my initial thoughts, have been great – guiding and supporting. Practitioner Health, the NHS service which cares for healthcare professionals, has been an eye-opener. Helpful and practical, as well as a great reassurance that I’m not alone.

My line manager? Well, actually, he’s made me determined to get better, so I guess I’m grateful to him too.

I’m not over this yet. I might never be, and I’ll always be wondering if I’m near the edge again, but I’m definitely in a safer space, away from the precipice and feeling so much more hopeful about making it down the mountain.

I know, I’ve mixed my metaphors, but who cares? What I want to say, I think, is that it’s really, really difficult to admit, even to yourself, that you’re not ok. But it’s the first and biggest step to getting better. Mental illness can happen to any of us, especially at the moment with the pandemic and the demands on emergency physicians, and it’s important to be kind to yourself, and each other.

If you’re not sure if this is you or not, re-visit our 2018 blog.

Many people experience burn out in different ways, and ways to recovery can be different depending on you. We’ve got some more suggestions on how to treat burnout in this blog page here

2 Comments

  1. Dr. Ivan DSouza says:

    Whoa! This one hit way too close to home. I often find myself grappling with how to get out of bed, the headaches, the caffeine etc, but keep telling myself it’s just one more day. And I’ve spaced my leaves out. That has helped. Oh, and by the way, Whoever you are, you are amazing!!!

  2. Helen Turner says:

    Too powerful this story. Any of us can feel this. Realising early and talking makes you see you are not alone.

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