My burnout is not your burnout

I’m usually a private person and I don’t publicly write about personal stuff - This is my first ever personal public piece. There are several reasons why I’m writing this; Since John Willis brought up the issue of burnout to the spotlight there has been a spur of blog posts and articles about burnout and some people have been gracious enough to share their personal story. After reading people’s stories I came to realize how important it is to share those experiences, I’ll get back to that in the end. For some people, burnout is the result of work taxing their life too much. For others, personal affairs is what send them over the edge. Every case is different and unique - but the result is usually the same. Today is my turn to share my story.

In the last two and a half years I’ve going through a very difficult time. Some people have noticed I was edgy and tense, but for the most part people generally missed it. But it got to the point where I was so burned out I lost all interest in work, or anything else for that matter. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

I can’t put my finger on the day my life fell apart. I remember a few days that were like falling off a cliff, but for the most part it was a gradual process. My wife - the love of my life and my best friend for 11 years - was going insane, only I didn’t know it at the time. The onset of insanity is a slow process and you rationalize every step of it, because the truth is too horrible to think about; It doesn’t even cross your mind until it’s completely and utterly undeniable. Also, it turns out the crazy are pretty good at hiding their insanity… until the point when they are so far gone they don’t feel the need to blend in anymore. “It’s phase”, “It’s a midlife crisis”, “It’s drugs” - I’ve told myself all of these and more. Eventually she was hospitalized and was put under forced psychiatric care. I won’t go into details - there’s really no point and it’s not only my story to tell; Suffice to say it was very bad. And like many other people I too felt responsible; If only I had noticed the signs, if only I had done this, if only I had done that. When the dust settled I was devastated but I told myself “I’m OK. Time to move on”.

Around that time my stepfather, to whom I was very close, has been diagnosed with cancer. He passed away several months after and I took it to heart. Seeing him fade away was the last straw I guess, I felt I was losing all the people I care about one by one. And again I told myself “I’m OK. Time to move on”. Only I couldn’t really.

You see, all this time I was working and juggling multiple projects as if nothing has happened. I may have even taken more on myself to try and immerse myself in work and avoid thinking about the stuff I’ve been going through. To be honest, I think I was pretty burned out even before everything happened but by now I was way over the edge.

I’ve completely lost interest in everything. Not just work, everything. I couldn’t enjoy programming anymore. Computer games weren’t fun. I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a book. Even dating seemed pointless, I wasn’t attracted to anyone and found the interaction tiresome at best. I would go have a beer with friends only to stare blankly at the void while they were chatting happily. There were physical symptoms too. I clenched my teeth in my sleep; often I would wake up with pain in my cheekbone and cheek muscles and blood in my mouth, I’ve gritted my teeth. My eyesight began to deteriorate.

But I couldn’t admit it. In my mind, depression, burnout, was something that happens to other people. Me? I’m fine. Yeh, I’m a bit tired right now, it’ll pass in a day. Nothing to worry about.

The worse part was the guilt and shame. I felt I was disappointing my colleagues and clients, that I wasn’t giving them the performance they deserve. I felt ashamed for letting my “personal shit” get to me. So I worked harder to compensate and it only made things worse.

Time went by. I started looking for ways out, I felt trapped. I tried to work on new projects, mainly to please my colleagues, but my heart wasn’t in it and it showed. I’ve toyed with the idea of relocating, of moving to another company and another country and again my heart wasn’t in it - and I would only be taking my problems with me wherever I go. Slowly I came to realize doing more of the same won’t get me anywhere.

I started seeing a professional and gradually reduced my workload. I’ve quit projects and eventually the company, but I couldn’t stop working. My professional identity was a big part of me and I’ve gripped it tightly; When you feel you’ve lost so much you cling to whatever is left. Even when I’ve put all of my stuff in storage and bought a one way ticket I made sure to find a client who was happy to let me remote work. I couldn’t allow myself to stop working, after all, if I’m not an Ops engineer then who am I?

Thankfully, distance and coincidence helped and I stopped working after a while. I took my first real long vacation in years and slowly started to recover. In the process I realized one important thing:

You can’t move forward until you let go of the past

So I’m letting go. I have no idea what I’ll do next but I know what I won’t do. I won’t go back to carrying a pager 24x7, working 300 hours a month and saying “yes” to every task people claim is urgent. Looking back I realize how much it has hurt the people I love and how much it has hurt me. I’m done with that.

I will never again work for a organization where everything is urgent, technical debt creeps up continuously, people put in overtime on a regular basis and blame gets pushed onto people. I know quite a lot of these companies and they all have excuses: “we’re a startup”, “we need to release before this conference”, “we can’t get enough people”. It all amounts to bullshit. There will always be another release, another conference, too few people and too much to do.

The importance of sharing

I’ve come to understand that guilt and denial are major players in this pathology and this is why it’s important to share these stories. It happens to many of us, it may happen to you too. It’s ok to turn down the dial for a while, to step away, to take a break. Things won’t break without you, and if they do then all the more reason to let other people get involved.

Parting words

I would like to end this post by thanking my friends for supporting me. Some knew what I was going through in real-time, most didn’t. But all of them were supportive and amazing. I’m lucky to have such friends. I would also like to apologize to all the people I’ve hurt over the last two and half years. If I have been unkind angry or impatient, I’m sorry. I truly hope it won’t happen again in the future.