I was halfway across the world in a shabby Airbnb, somewhere in suburban Boston. It had been a week of intense meetings. I was staring pointedly at the screen – there in black and white text was my medical note issued by my GP for burnout. It had been sitting in my Inbox for two days, waiting to be fired off to my boss.
My therapist urged me to take some necessary time off from my very demanding PR job – many, many times. Two years of burning the candle at both ends, my body was practically begging me to cut it some slack. I needed my mind, body and soul to reset – even if just for a moment, a little respite. You would think with all these alarm bells I would do it. But I just couldn’t send the damn thing.
Burnout comes with very sharp edges – and with many sides that are not obvious at first. I believe it’s connected to our past. Like a lot of us, I had a checkered past: a lack of self-confidence, debilitating perfectionism, unhealthy relationships and loss – the list goes on. My childhood years were marked by a need to be an exemplary daughter who made her parents proud. I forced myself towards an uncompromising work ethic while still allowing time to be the best sister and friend to others. I wanted to tick off all the boxes.
I never gave myself time off. Even after my mother’s recent passing, I couldn’t let myself get away with not being busy. I used the ‘I’m climbing the corporate ladder’ excuse to put a band aid on my weeping wounds.
My therapist still reminds me of what I said when my head was buried deep within the sand:
“The only way I will take time off is when I end up in hospital.” She suggested I see a psychiatrist but I turned that offer down. I was certain I was strong enough to get out of this on my own.
After a recent break-up from an emotionally abusive relationship, a trip to Poland and Morocco over Christmas, was just what I needed. After that, I would be as good as new – or so I thought.
With an unknowing fear of abandonment growing inside me since my mother’s passing, I returned to the office in the New Year only to find that my line manager – a dear friend and mentor – had resigned. Yet another important person in my life, a professional role model, was ‘abandoning me’ and I couldn’t bear it. My way of dealing with it, once more, was to
soldier on. I let more and more responsibility fill my plate – like it was nourishing me. Instead, it was poisoning me. But being the people-pleaser that I am, I couldn’t say no. I needed this (false sense of) approval. My worth was pegged to getting a promotion and therefore more money. Nothing else in my life mattered.
My reality was grim. On most days, my burnout saw me out of breath. Waking up, after interrupted sleep, brought with it pain, sadness and no way out. I’d go to work and come home after a day stifled with back-to-back meetings, urgent requests and a bottomless Inbox. I’d pass out on the sofa – usually in the middle of removing my shoes – and not recall it. Simple tasks became a burden. I would drag myself into the shower to cry. I cried like a child who couldn’t face going to school. I was hardly clinging on at this point. But I still dragged my way into the office and did it all over again – day in, day out. I pushed my friends away. I had no semblance of a social life. My life became a torturous to-do list. Every time I thought I had reached the finish line, the corporate run kept going. I was broken
beyond repair at one point.
Burnout made me disorientated. I would have a conversation with a colleague one minute and the next I couldn’t even remember what we had talked about. My brain was just fog. There was no visibility in my life. But I did end up hitting ‘send’. If it wasn’t for a very dear friend back in Belgium, who sat through a two-hour phone call reminding me why I needed to do it, my story would have a very different ending.
When I was granted medical leave, guilt filled every vein and pore. I felt like I had let my colleagues down – that they had the pressure to pick up the pieces – because of my absence. I felt like I was being criticised for the choice I made. But that was my harsh self- talk telling me lies. I know it would have gotten far worse before it got better if I stayed in that situation.
Guilt, grief and judgement have always played a protagonistic role in my life. In my soul- searching quest to understand who is to blame for this, I realised that it wasn’t about pointing fingers to a culprit – it was about reassigning that diligence for my job, to me. I took ownership of myself, listened to my body and mind and put my health and wellbeing first –for the first time.
I was lucky enough to have a supportive family back home in Greece but also one in Belgium. My friends helped me so much and I am forever grateful to the people around me, close and far, who empathised, sympathised and answered to my cry for help. Burnout caused me tremendous pain, but the introspective experience that came out of it
was life-changing. We need to learn to gift ourselves the power of listening. I finally did and it made me understand what I need above misguided wants. I’m now almost out of the eye of the storm, with a clearer head and perspective. I’ve learned to be grateful for the past, allowing the uncertainty of the future to exist and being present in the now. I am proud of the person I am allowing myself to be.

Marianna Tzaerli

p.s. A big thank you to Georgie Bradley for sprinkling her editing magic.

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