How I Didn’t Burn Out

The last four posts in these series dealt with an unhealthy exposure to death as a possible reason of my madness. While that theory seemed really tempting for a while, I eventually ruled it out. Not completely, mind you, but at some stage I became sure that my life-long deathly contemplations and the actual premature departures of people I knew were not the single most important cause of what has bothered me a great deal since the end of 2016.

The next hypothesis I put to a test was burnout. It seemed natural enough. My symptoms overlapped with many of the burnout ones, and some of the most severe bouts of depression and anxiety (which is what my madness has in fact been about) coincided with intense and rather stressful periods at work.

Once I had a hard time stifling a severe panic attack during an interview with a job applicant. I had to leave my own office, letting my colleagues on the hiring committee to proceed without me while I locked myself for a long clammy breather in a toilet cubicle.

The guy we were interviewing was applying for a vacancy after a much valued friend and co-worker had left us quite abruptly. It pushed the whole team into a dire mindset during a critical stage of our project, so it comes as no surprise that I wasn’t happy about it. We found someone eventually and our project didn’t go down the drain, but I think it was just then when I started to realise I was barely ever doing any actual research anymore. And that was quite frustrating, because research was why I loved my job. I never wanted to be a scientist because I wanted to become a bloody research manager or professor, no matter how noble and desirable these leadership roles sadly seem to many people in my discipline while they never bother to think much about the actual scientific substance.

Could that sad realisation explain all those hours I spent lying on the harsh heavy-duty carpet in my office in 2017, staring into the ceiling instead of working on the next big thing? Maybe, to some extent. But could the growing frustration with my work really have been behind all the other things? The imagined stroke and cardiac arrest, the certainty that I was dying of cancer, the recurrent catastrophic visions, my increasing withdrawal from my family and life in general? Not really, but I couldn’t think of anything else back then.

The thing is that it’s pretty hard to tell burnout from an actual depression. The symptoms are very similar. You think everything sucks, you can’t sleep, you’re angry with people you love, plenty other treats like that. Yet I still loved my work on some better days, and after the more terrible nights of deathly expectations, I was outright looking forward to getting to the office. Even when my calendar was full of the annoying management rut, I welcomed it. It was an opportunity to make my mind busy with something that wouldn’t feel like an open mass grave. Which didn’t really fit the burnout after all, since people suffering from it rarely feel that more or less positive about their work.

The way I see it now, I embraced the burnout theory as a convenient diagnosis that could explain what was happening to me without putting that much blame on my own shoulders. And that was another stupid thing I did. I don’t think it’s possible to beat truly severe depression and anxiety unless one tries to be as sincere as possible with themselves in the first place. Especially if one is foolish enough to try and recover without any help whatsoever.

I realised my mistake eventually, otherwise you probably wouldn’t be reading this. But it took some time again, and during that time I nearly crossed the point of no return. Yes, we are approaching one of the grander dips on this deathly roller coaster ride. So stay tuned for more gore and drama than ever (but don’t you worry, there will still be bits of quirky morbid fun to put things in the right perspective… at least that’s the plan).

The feature image is a screenshot from the Brazil movie directed by Terry Gilliam. It was originally featured at this blog (the copyright holder is Embassy International Pictures and Universal Pictures).

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