Look, I get it. You want to be productive. So like many people, you have a long to-do list to take care of every single day. The grind never stops, they say. But is that really true? Even machines need time to rest and repair. And you, dear human, are no machine, you are a living being. Your body is always working on some function or the other 24×7. The least you can do is give your mind some rest by say, treating yourself to your favorite food, or indulging in a movie. Nobody said self-care is easy, but if you don’t do it, all the drive and will to hustle in the world will not stop your mental health crisis from arriving. Take it from me, it will arrive. I learned this lesson the hard way and I write my story with the hope that you won’t have to.
It all started mid-2019, when I decided that I needed to accomplish more in my waking hours. I was 28, recently divorced, and tired of dealing with the aftermath of a broken heart.
I had let myself process all my feelings for months and even went to therapy, but I couldn’t recover beyond a point. So I decided to get super busy doing something – and I thought I might as well make that something meaningful. I enrolled myself in a postgraduate diploma for journalism and mass communication. And I continued to work as a freelance writer as well. I also wrote my second book, which ironically is all about mental health. The result? Six days a week, I ended up being busy for most of my waking hours. Sundays were the only days I “allowed” myself to take some time off for myself. If I could have it my way though, I would work on Sundays too.
I know the whole thing sounds ridiculous now, but it seemed perfectly logical to me at the time. I had done plenty of binge-watching and it hadn’t helped, so I had to give chronic busyness a try. It seemed to be working for others—thanks for the lies, propagators of hustle culture—so why would it not work for me? Anyway, it was only a temporary phase – or at least that’s what I told myself. The thing is, we are creatures of habit. For better or for worse, the things we do on a regular basis effortlessly become a part of our daily routine. For example, if you wake up most mornings after hitting snooze a couple of times, it becomes a habit.
And if you work too much over a long period of time, your body and mind get used to the overwork. On a day you don’t work as much, your mind will feel restless and you will feel the itch to “quit being lazy” and get some work done.
The weirdest part is that you don’t even need to love your work or the state of being busy to get addicted to hustling. Like me, you could even hate overworking and all its consequences and still end up hooked to the ‘rise and grind’ lifestyle. I was cranky and miserable, but I just couldn’t quit. In fact, I felt guilty on the one day of the week I allowed myself some time to unwind and just be.
Anyway, this workaholism went on for about eight-nine months. The first few months were actually good as they were a great distraction; they prevented my mind from going to dark places.
It felt good to be so productive, to not have the time or energy to feel sorry for myself. I no longer had to worry about inane stuff like ‘what to do other than mope on weekends’ because Saturdays were hectic and Sundays were for crashing and sleeping for hours on end. Oversleeping was a red-flag that clearly indicated I was overexhausted, but I ignored it. I guess it was because I preferred tiring myself out to dealing with emotions like anger and loneliness.
But emotional avoidance is a temporary strategy and burnout is real. One day, I woke up and just couldn’t find the mental or physical energy to do anything. When one day turned into three, I began to panic.
My semester exams were two months away and I was terrified at the thought of being unable to “work hard”. Yes, somehow I had equated overworking to hard work. Even as I spoke about the importance of self-care as a mental health blogger, I failed to see that I was neglecting to do the same for myself. Only when things came crashing down did I have a moment of clarity: the voice in my head screamed at me to ‘slow down’ and I did just that.
I took the rest of the week off to do nothing but simply exist as a human being. I felt better doing that but I knew that I was far from recovering from burnout.
In order to fully heal, I had to define my boundaries and set healthy limits for myself. Unlike most people, I was the evil boss responsible for working myself to the bone, so it was up to me and me alone to figure out how to stop. What’s more, I couldn’t just take a break (even though I could definitely use one) – I had deadlines to meet and exams to prepare for.
The very first thing I did was sort my writing work on a priority basis. Except for assignments that had to be submitted immediately, I put everything else on hold.
I let clients know I would be unavailable for the next few months due to a severe case of burnout. Most of them were wise enough to understand and told me to take care of myself first. I worked at a slow pace even for work that had to be submitted quickly because I knew my mental health was more important than meeting deadlines. When I finally finished working on them, I focused solely on preparing for my semester exams.
Again, I studied only for a few hours per day and took the weekends off for relaxing pursuits like reading, journaling, and spending time with family and friends. Thanks to finally prioritizing self-care, I recovered from burnout in about two months. Yes, by the grace of God, I felt better right before my exams began. My mind, body, and soul felt rested enough to allow me to function properly and study for longer hours without feeling sapped of energy.
Now that the results are finally out, I am glad to say I did pretty well. I got a B grade and I am happy with it. Never been a straight-A student and that’s okay. But I digress.
I know for a fact that if I had not focused on fully recovering from burnout, it would have caused a depressive episode (I have clinical depression), worsened my anxiety (I have generalized anxiety), and even affected my memory (the official term is ‘brain fog’).
I would have probably had to give my exams again. Plus, I would not be able to write this essay for you as I would be dealing with a worse case of burnout instead. Just like cancer, burnout has different stages, and the higher up you go, the harder it is to recover. It’s unfortunate that despite my awareness of burnout and mental illness, it took an actual case of burnout for me to take it seriously. But the one good thing that came of this is that you don’t have to suffer like me to understand the severe consequences of burnout. So please, dear reader, slow down and ‘unhustle’. Because the old adage that goes ‘life is a journey, not a destination’ is 100% true. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.