6 lessons learned from severe burn-out
“Most painless way to commit suicide,” I typed.
I knew that this was silly. I’d been here before — and I hadn’t ended up dead. Instead, Google had cleverly taken me to Good Samaritans websites, cleverly disguised as a how-to haven for those who felt like they had run out of options.
Even when you wanted true autonomy, Google was watching. I rolled my eyes at the thought, a little part of me noting that there was a sense of life behind the simple gesture of eye-rolling. I ignored that thought, and continued with my search.
The last time I had done this search, I had ended up on the phone with a Good Samaritan in NYC, who saved my life that day. Not really though — I never truly intended to do it, primarily because of fear when it came to the actual acts required. But if someone had offered an off-button, I’d have happily pressed it like Dee-Dee.
Deep down, though, I knew. I knew that I’d have been unlikely to press it. Somehow, age has brought with it a balanced perspective. So, even at my worst moments — there’s a calm parental voice within me, an all-knowing one, that says, “Really, you want to die? That feeling is valid. But…. let’s sleep on it for a few nights. You don’t make good decisions when you’re tired.”
Luckily, that voice is strong.
And so, I spent a few hours doing my research, musing at the fact that if we saw death as a right, we wouldn’t be stopping people from making a personal choice. But that’s a discussion on euthanasia — and not what this blog post is about.
So… burnout. That’s been my reality for over 1.5 years — and if I’m being honest, possibly a few years longer. I can’t remember the last time that I had a holiday where I didn’t bring my laptop or camera (before I retired from photography). I can’t remember the last “day off” where I hadn’t spent most of the time stressing about the mountain of a to-do list that I’ve had since I was 13. In fact, I cant remember the last time I didn’t feel like I was behind.
And yet the years passed, and time decided not to stop to let me catch up. Proof, I guess, that being behind is just a concept we’ve made up, in a world where we forget that none of our rules will matter if we lose our health or life.
Then I left my forever-home in Kenya. A house I had been refurbishing — which led to me living in a construction site for two years — along with a studio I’d built from the ground up… All left behind in the span of two weeks. I never even got to use the studio more than once.
I hit the ground running in London, focusing for two months on my health and fitness. Then I had a spinal injury, ended up in a very toxic relationship that emotionally took me to the level of my physical fitness — became homeless, lived with even more toxic people who ripped into my confidence and any sense of independence I had — and finally lost the only person I had counted on for support on a daily basis for 4 years. He shot himself on a beach. Asshole.
And now, I was looking at sites for a similar route. Despite knowing that I’d never choose that route, simply because I knew what a gaping hole my good friend had left behind. I’d always thought I’d one day end up married to him — but he left, characteristically, because he wanted to spare his family the pain of looking after him as his illness progressed painfully quickly. Even in death, he thought of others before himself. He had found a way to be supportive to my closest friends, so the shock hit us all.
After we got the news, my sister said something in the smallest voice that still haunts me to this day. “Don’t leave me, Melissa,” she pleaded, and I promised myself I never would. So my research was a lie, really.
And yet, this moment of hitting rock-bottom once again taught me a few things. I hope that this will be of use to you.
Being suicidal or at rock-bottom doesn’t mean you’re weak.
There are people who write to me after every single one of my vulnerable posts with well-meaning advice, and the suggestion that a few activities will shift things for me enough for me to never hit those lows again. But those same people often are people who don’t know themselves, nay — they are people in denial of themselves.
We are so used to seeing “depression” and uncomfortable feelings as a bad thing. Why? Why don’t we view the discomfort as a natural part of being human? Why do we view these things with shame? Probably because others treat us with a certain sense of pity when we are honest with ourselves about where we are at.
But should we pity the person who embraces their lows with honesty and expresses that bravely, or pity the man who avoids a part of his own natural spectrum? You tell me.
I’ll say this: once I post my emotions, express, and confront myself, I can happily continue with my life with excitement and joy. The only person still stuck in that emotion is the fool who assumes that any expression that makes them uncomfortable is a permanent state. While others define me by the thing they themselves are afraid to face, I define myself by the bravery it takes to express in a world that tries to silence truth at every turn.
Sometimes you get more done with baby steps.
I have been obsessed with ritualistic behaviors for a long time. I’ve been perfecting morning routines and trying to create a formulaic schedule to keep me at my best for years — and after hitting this low I realized that I needed to take a step back.
I had reached a point whereby the appointments I had made to ensure I was at my best, were actually filling me with stress. Sometimes it takes hitting rock-bottom for us to realize that we are going the wrong direction. So I cancelled every single appointment and regular activity and tried to start from scratch.
So let’s say you’ve constantly been failing at a particular personal goal or routine. Look at the actual feeling that you’re aiming for, and create simpler steps towards that. In fact, choose the simplest baby step that you can think of.
So for example, if you would like to lose or gain weight — look at that goal with honesty. Weight changes are a medium, a path — they aren’t the thing you really want. Perhaps you want to feel attractive, or feel strong. So instead of choosing that rigorous diet or exercise that you know deep down you’ve somehow never managed to do every day — what’s something you CAN do without fail — right now — on a daily basis, that will help you feel attractive or strong? I can guarantee it isn’t that 1-month plan you had made that you’ve been failing at.
On my part, I understood that I clearly had been failing to go to the gym. Now, that doesn’t mean I’ll never be able to be that person who exercises for an hour every day. But during my lowest point, I needed to create a routine that matched my desired feelings — strength and balance. So I chose simple 5-minute routines that I could accomplish in my current state — instead of a massive plan that was doomed to fail. Perhaps we sometimes set ourselves up for failure, so that we can prove to ourselves that we aren’t enough. Our subconscious is tricky like that.
Maybe you’ll end up being that person who manages a rigorous routine one day. But until you find yourself there, for now it might just be a good idea to be honest with yourself and take baby steps towards the feeling you truly want to feel. You may just magically reach your earlier goals with ease — and a lot faster than you expected to.
Relaxation is just as important as work.
Matt Maddix and his son, Caleb, once did a Periscope livestream while they were rollerblading at around 5am. They said they considered that a productive use of their time, because they got to bond as father and son. Anything that moves you forward is productivity.
And yet many entrepreneurs and work-obsessed creatives punish themselves regularly by avoiding relaxation, splurging, and socializing. But what happens if you die tomorrow? What was the point of saving your enjoyment for a later date?
Matt called it “destination syndrome”- constantly saying you’ll wait until a certain point to do that thing you want to do.
And yet, I’ve found that my most productive and enjoyable moments were the ones where I said “Fuck this” and decided to relax even when I hadn’t planned to. Follow what your inner child wants — sometimes it knows better.
Besides, I read somewhere that relaxation is like sleep for your brain — it allows you to subconsciously recover and come back with fresh ideas. Why would you deny yourself that?
Your “fuck it” muscle is the most important one you have
There is a difference between giving up and surrendering. I find that surrendering to circumstances at times, allowing myself to go along with the moment instead of stubbornly sticking to a plan — there is magic in this.
This also counts for those uncomfortable feelings by the way. Owning up to — and healthily expressing — uncomfortable emotions will help you grow. There is so much power in being true to your current state, even if it doesn’t feel like it in the moment.
So all those times you’ve decided to be playfully reckless — without harming yourself or others — get rid of that parental notion that these moments are “bad”. Reframe that perspective — what if all those gut-inspired moments are actually the leaps you need to catapult you to where you need to be?
Like any muscle, this sense of healthy recklessness needs to be practiced. Perfection is the death of all joy and forward movement — what can you do after this article that excites you and fills you with fear? Release that blog post, share those thoughts without editing them, pick up your phone to call that person, tell someone that scary thing that’s been on your mind, book that flight, buy that thing, sign up for that workshop, go for that massage, and for goodness sake, tell that person you love them.
Nothing is permanent.
Not even your rock-bottom. Not even homelessness. Not even debt.
Nothing lasts forever — unless you decide to stay stuck there. You have more power than you realise. You can’t know what you don’t know, right? What if something seemingly impossible happened? What if some magic occurred that you hadn’t expected, because it came from a direction that you’d never been?
Be open to possibility — and opportunity will occur.
Nobody’s opinion is more important than your own.
Unless you make it that way.
If you stay true to how you feel and what you think in the moment, then everyone else’s opinions are just noise. That doesn’t mean I’d recommend hitting someone just because you dont like the look of them — but I’d hope that anyone who reads this far into my post will not be the type of person to do something like that.
As long as you are true to your emotion in the moment, practice empathy before expressing, and then release through expression — your strength in your opinion of yourself will grow. You’ll find that opinions start to hurt less — and motivate you less.
Sometimes we hit rock bottom because we feel the pressure of letting people down. We avoid saying no, and say yes to things that dont align with who we are.
How much of your energy do you think that eats?
Those who mind don’t matter — and those who matter, dont mind.
Saying no is one of the best skills you’ll ever learn.
Once you’ve figured out who you are and what you need, it’s not necessarily about changing or adding things. It’s about removing layers of BS that you don’t need — saying no to people, things, situations, environments and activities that don’t align with your truth.
Get rid of that clutter. Stop seeing those people. Cancel those appointments. Leave that environment. Stop ingesting that stuff that makes you feel bad. Delete that account.
No is a full sentence — you don’t owe anyone an explanation (though it’s often courteous).
And once you’ve said no to all the “ok”, you’ll find yourself being able to say yes to everything that excites you and elevates you.
“No” creates space — what will you make space for today?
If you would like my support in reconnecting with – and celebrating – every part of who you are, let’s start a conversation.
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