Burnout

August of 2012. I suddenly had a lot of work to do. Building a new web app for my school and senior year coming up, that’s usually a good thing. This time it was a little bit too much. As the sole developer for the website, I had to finish the project under a strict deadline. Alongside, a long overdue project was glaring at me, and more smaller projects came on while I was trying to finish the bigger ones.

Low productivity caused me to compensate by working longer hours, often 10-12 hours a day, sometimes on the weekends as well. Of course, this lowered productivity even further. With college applications coming up and project deadlines looming, I thought I could handle it “just a little bit longer”. I had a vacation in December, so I kept thinking I would finish the projects before then, and get some well deserved rest later.

It didn’t work.

The Symptoms #

After about two months of high pressure, I noticed the first symptoms; decreased productivity and concentration difficulties. At the time, I dismissed it as the normal ups-and-downs. Who hasn’t had a bad day? But the problems persisted.

By the middle of February, I felt anxiety when thinking about work. I started to withdraw from social contact. Just after March started, my “boss” (one of the tech coordinators) wanted to check to see if everything was okay, as I hadn’t replied to his last email in over a week. I more or less told him that pressure was high, but I wanted to continue the project and see that it got even better than its current state, and that I felt fine.

I started to relax a bit knowing that I had gotten some of that off my chest. That weekend, I went to work at my other usual place, doing some IT maintenance. At first, I thought I would be staying only three hours. However, that started to stretch on as I got stuck on multiple issues and had to wait for many installs to complete. I then realized I didn’t feel fine at all.

That’s when I fell through.

Having realized I didn’t feel fine, I started feeling all the pent-up stress. When I got back to school on Monday, my anxiety grew stronger. I would feel a seemingly constant state of angst, though at times I didn’t notice it due to listening to teachers or other students. I slept past my alarm every day, having to be woken up constantly. Anytime I tried to start some work at school, I felt an acute need to get away. I could not concentrate anymore; the only homework I got done came while on the train/bus. I got home and just browsed Facebook, Reddit, or Hacker News, trying to forget my own life by learning about others’ lives.

I usually look out the window while on public transit to clear my head, and it normally lets my mind wander enough so I’m not thinking about what I have to do. However, now I felt as bad when getting off as when I stepped on. I enjoy military aviation, so I kept imagining I was sitting in an ejection seat and could pull the handle at any moment. I kept telling myself to “pull it together,” but on the inside I could not.

The Hard Part #

I knew this could not go on. I was hurting myself and the people who depended on me. I decided I needed to tell them how I really felt, rather than maintaining a facade.

That was hard.

I was already avoiding any social contact related to work or school, and started to ignore email. Coming forward and admitting weakness - and in my mind at the time, letting everyone down - felt incredibly embarrassing. So I talked it over with a very close friend, one that I knew would give me the advice I needed to get myself out of a downward spiral. She told me to let everyone involved know how I was feeling and that I was completely overwhelmed. After some initial reluctance, I decided this was the only way.

So I wrote an email. I stared at it for while, then sent it to everyone involved and went to bed. I woke up on time the next day.

Getting Better #

I received a genuinely supportive response from my “boss” and close friends. (Thanks!) Without that, my recovery would have been a lot more difficult and probably lasted much longer. I started by making a list of all the projects I was involved with, and prioritized them. I made a goal list. I didn’t work when I didn’t feel like it, and slept when I wasn’t getting any schoolwork done. Even if I still got the same amount of work done as when I was at the height of my problems, it felt infinitely better knowing that it was all OK. The mindset difference of knowing that nobody will be upset at me for what I had accomplished was completely necessary.

My other “boss” (another student) talked to me about the issues I was having. The infractions I had gotten by missing meetings were removed. I learned that multiple friends-of-friends had faced this, and that what I was doing towards my recovery was great. I talked to my original “boss” (the tech coordinator) immediately after. It was reassuring knowing that the issues I had in building the first version of the web app were completely normal, and that they were not my fault.

I found it helped me to talk to others about it. It was difficult in the beginning, sharing something that at the time felt very private and shameful.

As spring break came, I was still not back on my feet completely, but had improved a lot.

Staying Sane #

I spent the week before spring break on personal leave (deactivated Facebook, minimal email), and my spring break rediscovering lost interests. I came back as a new person, and even did my homework on time.

But I had some changes; I would no longer try to compensate bad planning by working harder. And most importantly, I would not let my sense of responsibility/self-importance get to my head.

So What? #

If I have helped anyone by sharing this experience, I’m very pleased. Be observant of stress-related symptoms and take them seriously. I got away with a warning, but I know people around me who were not so lucky. One of them needed a month off and a change of schools to recover. Take care.

Thanks to a couple close friends reading drafts of this, and everyone that has supported me throughout this ordeal.

 
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