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Friday, 19 August 2011

Burnout


“                   … Now that my ladder's gone,
I must lie down where all the ladders start
In the foul rag and bone shop of the heart.”
(W.B. Yeats, The Circus Animals’ Desertion)

This isn’t going to be an easy post, but I feel I need to write it – if only to prove to myself that I can, for reasons which I hope will become clear in the doing of it.

A large part of what we call reality is personally defined by our own perception; the way we see the world and ourselves determines the way we interact with events and our lives and the way we live them take form and direction as a result.

In the past few months it became slowly clear to me that my perception was darkening. More and more things in life seemed to demand a growing investment of energy just to be dealt with. I realised that I was increasingly withdrawing, finding excuses not to do things I normally enjoyed doing, letting things lie. Everything seemed to cost so much effort, effort which it more frequently often didn’t seem to be worth making.

Around three weeks ago, I realised that, apart from work, there was very little else going on in my life. And with that realisation came a further insight; it was because I was finding work so tedious, demanding and frustrating that I had no energy left for anything else.

There was no point in retreating into denial – I’m blessed/cursed with enough self-knowledge, experience and intelligence to be able to recognise clear symptoms, even when I see them in myself. I was exhibiting all the major signs of incipient burnout

The next steps were therefore clear, if difficult. They involved accepting that there was something potentially seriously wrong, making an appointment with the doctor and signalling to the relevant people at work that I had problems and would be dropping out for a while in the near future.

I’m not going to go into the concrete causes of this situation here – they are the usual combination of work conditions, a number of concrete current issues as well as older job-related stories. I believe and hope that some discussion leading to a few particular adjustments in my work situation will be able to defuse a lot of the specific difficulties. But such discussion is something which still lies in the future, in that phase of recovery where getting back up on the horse which has thrown you is the next step. I’m not that far yet.

The other aspect of all this has to do with myself. I am no stranger to depression. In fact, it was my memories of a major battle with it thirteen years ago which allowed me to recognise the symptoms with which I currently have to deal and act appropriately. And, as a result of that experience, I believe and trust that this time I was able to recognise what was going on before those symptoms had developed to a stage where they could begin to do serious damage to my life.

At any rate, I am now on sick leave and getting used to medication. Adaption to selective serotonin uptake inhibitors takes a couple of weeks and involves a number of side-effects which are, while not intolerable, uncomfortable. One aspect of this adaption is that some depression symptoms like apathy and anhedonia (a diminished capacity for feeling joy) can actually temporarily increase until, after two to four weeks, the anti-depressive function of the drug slowly starts to unfold.

While I am usually open enough about myself in this blog, it is not generally my primary aim to use it as an online diary or confessional. But there are two considerations which made me decide to write this very personal post.

The first is the fact that mental illness is still for many a taboo theme in our society. Some of the reasons for this are understandable – there is something very uncomfortable about the idea that there’s something wrong with your head, with your thinking and feeling. Someone asked me the other day how it felt to be taking prescribed substances which affect the way you think and feel and commented honestly that she found something very unsettling about the idea. And it’s not the kind of illness that’s easy to be open about either. If I were sitting at home with my leg in plaster, I’d have no problem talking freely about it. But many kinds of mental illness, particularly depression, are characterised by a pathological sense of guilt on the part of the sufferers themselves; that feeling that you are somehow shamming, that all you need to do is “pull yourself together.” The problem is, of course, that you can’t – if you could, you wouldn’t be ill in the first place.

Moreover, mental health issues are becoming so prevalent that society simply cannot afford to ignore them any more. Statistics released recently in Germany revealed that more working days were lost last year in the country through mental illness than as a result of any other category of sickness. We need to think about this and start asking harder questions about the things in our societies which are making so many people ill – putting it bluntly, driving them mad.

The second reason I’m writing this is as a kind of explanation for my relative absence on-line in all sorts of areas over the past month or so. One of the things I have realised recently is that my tendency to withdraw from all sorts of contacts has also been affecting my “virtual” life. Forums where I would normally have been contributing, blogs I would have been commenting on, mails I would have been reading and answering have all been neglected. My frequency of posting on this blog has decreased and I haven’t been replying regularly to comments. As they say, my dear friends and readers, it’s not you, it’s me! J

Well, now you know. And for me, there’s also something positive about having managed to write this. It relieves quite a lot of that low-level continuous feeling of guilt which I mentioned earlier – one of the nastiest components of my particular brand of depression; that nagging voice which keeps telling me, “you should be doing this, and that, you’re just being lazy, letting things slip is going to make you sorry … etc., etc.”

In 1984, the rock group The Pretenders released an album after a two year hiatus, during which two members of the group had died of drug overdoses. They called that album Learning to Crawl. It’s an excellent description of where I feel myself at the moment. But at least I am crawling, and there are days where it manages to get me to most of the places I want to go to. And you’ve got to (re-)learn how to crawl before you can start walking – and running – again.



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