The B Word

It was a day of change - I was in a consultancy’s fancy offices instead of my usual. I had to duck out of my all-day meeting there, going through sentences of the regulation we were writing in painstaking detail, for a catch-up call with my manager. He’s a friendly soul, the first person I met in my team two years earlier, but only covering temporarily while I didn’t have a manager. The call began; we joked about the fancy lunch I had. But otherwise, we got straight to business.

How’s it going?” came down the headphones. The project was off-track yet again, maybe it had never been on track. Our ever-changing deadline had slipped by 4 months at this stage and we were approaching a point where not finishing it would start to have serious, wider ramifications. My mind was stretched between hundreds of decisions, thousands of emails and I don’t know how many messages. I had not prepared how I might condense this into a status update; my legs bounced with adrenaline, my stomach twisted, I was just tired. I murmured some apology for not having a lighter update on a bright August Friday afternoon, and then I don’t know how we’re going to do this”. Every word was an effort, and my voice cracked on how”.

As I over-explained the situation for the next ten minutes, I did not cry, but my voice betrayed me. I watched myself in the bottom right-hand corner of the screen more than I watched him, almost eager that my way of asking for help would not be through words or tears, but downbeat, defeated, worn-out body language. Left hand propping my face towards camera, I listened as he steered me towards the acceptability of another delay.

The call ended. There was relief, for sure, but a dent in my pride too - for not meeting another deadline, for letting my feelings show like that. I breathed. I responded to the five new messages which had arrived during the half-hour call, I perused the new emails in my inbox without answering them. I walked back to the meeting room, and dived back into the detail.

I loved my cycle commute, especially in the evening, especially after most people had gone home. I could freely speed along the cycle superhighway, the cold November air burning away the staleness behind my eyes. I rattled along side streets, passing steaming bars packed with people having a good time. The route quietened; I swayed through the last turns of my journey and arrived home. The day was behind me.

A portion of food had been left out for me. Its microwaved warmth and that of my housemates’ jovial chatter cosied me in for the night. We sat together in the lounge, shooting the breeze with the TV on. I finished the evening with a customary sweet treat - still ice cream and chopped banana at that stage - and headed up the wooden hill. It was just gone 10:30: finally, a reasonable bed time and good night’s sleep lay ahead.

I snapped out of it when I put my bag down and opened it. My laptop was in there, and with it the reminder that I had not finished my day’s work. I had left the office out of hunger, allowing myself the luxury of a warm meal as a bookmark, not a bookend, to the day. To do before tomorrow morning: note for completion by 8:30am, 3 emails by 9am, slides for a 9:30 meeting. It was a well-rehearsed routine by that point - evening work to cover for my day in meetings, followed by hour of recovery from said meetings (when I achieved nothing), followed by my hour of stressing about achieving nothing. It wasn’t a matter of getting ahead of the next day or staying afloat; it was catching up before the next day, it was stopping myself from completely sinking.

Only this time, I couldn’t face it. I sat down, stood up, walked to the mirror, searched for myself in my eyes, felt sudden urge to punch mirror, watched myself despair at the relentlessness of it all, walked to desk, to bed, to the floor. My chest ached and head pulsed with the tide of emotion. I mouthed why?’ repeatedly to myself. I held myself. I could not face the hour of work that I had planned out for myself just hours before, not now. There was guilt for having allowed myself to relax, frustration at myself for not doing this work earlier, panic for what tomorrow may now bring.

The unfairness of the whole thing stung, but I caught myself. I did 45 minutes of work, while judging myself for the theatrical reaction which had just unfolded before me. At some point between then and hugging myself to sleep in a ball, a thought crystallised in my head for the first time: work shouldn’t feel like this.

I arrived at the office the next morning. Later than planned, more tired than hoped. I spent most of the day staring blankly at my screen, my thoughts busy with the inevitability of sinking and wrongness of it all.

I’m actually not feeling well and I’ve taken today off” I say as I walk into Victoria Park. Maybe it’s a cold or a cough, I speculate - there’s lots of those going round, but I don’t feel bunged up or especially sore-throated. It could be mild covid? I woke up with a pounding head, lethargic, couldn’t drag myself out of bed. I feel myself exaggerating a touch, if nothing else to persuade myself that the day off is legitimate. I fixate on my brain fog, which is, after talking through everything, somehow the most concrete symptom I have to grasp onto. Yes, that’s what I’m ill with. Not well enough to work, but well enough for a long wintry walk around Victoria Park. I’m suspicious of myself.

It doesn’t escape me that that was the start of our big, final-sprint week at work. We were due to publish our year’s work at the end of the week. Maybe I couldn’t face the intensity I knew that would bring when I woke up that morning. I felt a glimmer of poor health and clutched onto it. I can’t help feeling like I leant into the illness, encouraged it on some subconcious level, that I didn’t need the day off once I got up at 11:30. I said little of it to my housemates at lunchtime; they could see me in the flesh, their scrutiny could be dangerous.

To quash the shame that my 7am sleepful self may have taken a cynical decision to not do’ the day, I air my doubts in the softest terms possible. I mention that I’ve been under pressure for a while. I imply that some of my colleagues had been worried about me. I toy with the possibility that this unusual syndrome of brain fog, fatigue and other minor symptoms could somehow be the result of stress. But I don’t believe it as I say it, and quickly row back. It’s odd, I conclude, but it must be grounded in some biological, pathogenic reality.

It’s probably just a bug Hen” my mum concurs, over the phone. It’s what I need to hear.

You see, I cope very well with stress, I’m going to succeed in spite of this challenging work environment. Another Henry success story, maybe the most heroic yet. It’s Christmas soon anyway, the time off then will help me reset if I need to.

That was my first week off of nine in the next four months.

11th February, 3:17am. I am seated, but with my head drooped over my left knee, on the toilet. It’s my seventh trip of the night; I didn’t know it but I have nine or maybe ten still to come before the day breaks, it’s impossible to keep track. I am utterly hollowed out, drained, out of control of what my body will decide for me next. My eyes struggle for focus without glasses. Hair coats my head in a greasy mat, my bare torso looks and feels especially emaciated.

The hours around that moment have become blurred between the sleep, the near-sleep, the earlier hope that I might be getting better, the complete weakness and yet the pressing necessity of staggering through the dark from bed, past obstacles, to bathroom.

I laugh to myself, at the sheer grossness of what my body is doing. The frustration of visits earlier in the night has waned, I’m now resigned to utter misery. The night has already stretched beyond imagination, I don’t believe it’ll ever be done with me.

I don’t think of much beyond my immediate reality, and surreality. In a way, it’s nice to be present. The lingering unknown of what could be wrong with me doesn’t bother me in that moment. But my thoughts do turn, unexpectedly, involuntarily, to Outlook invitations, Teams messages, blue-topped Word documents, @ mention after @ mention after @ mention.

So this is how the stress comes out”, I think. It’s clear as day. In all my spaciness, the humour of my situation with work being literally shitty is not lost on me.

In the weeks which followed, times of greater composure brought greater anxieties. Stool tests followed blood tests, which followed doctors’ appointments, which followed more tests.

By the end of February I felt as good as I had done in a month, and attempted to return to work. But the day before was filled with the same true dread I had felt on that night in my room months before. One wet-eyed walk around the park, four pep talks from housemates, and countless rehearsals in my head of what to say to my manager later, I accepted I couldn’t yet return. The week which followed felt lighter, but the sickness returned and receded in waves.

My lunch one day in early March’s thawing sunshine was disturbed by a phonecall. I ran to privacy to take it - it was the doctor.

The good news was that all tests were back to normal for the first time. Inflammation markers were back to what they should be, I had no mysterious parasite (at least, none that could be detected), most other nasties could be safely ruled out. That was a relief, but it left the lingering question of why my stomach had not decided to play ball for weeks.

Henry I can see you internalise a lot of stress” she asserted. Work have taken advantage of you for a long time and your body is telling you you need a break.” She wrote me a note for another three weeks off, and that was that.

Her words rang in my ear long after she hung up. I had met her for 15 minutes before, and had spoken to her for 4 minutes in that phonecall. We had exchanged no more than a few sentences about how I felt about work in that time. How could she be so sure I internalised stress? She hadn’t seen me in action; she wasn’t there on the increasingly frequent occasions with colleagues when I would externalise the stress and talk about it. It was harsh to say that work had taken advantage of me. I felt like she had just hit me with generalisms which would sound accurate to anyone, a retrospective horoscope of my health.

But my most enduring reaction was the most telling: was it that obvious? And regardless of how she had come to that conclusion, hearing it made me, for the first time, truly believe it: that I had been overwhelmed by stress, and rarely let it out. It was an official medical doctor’s verdict, one which I could easily brandish when needed, one which I didn’t need to justify, one which people would unquestionably believe - not least myself.

How have you been?”

There’s a contrarian somewhere in me who doesn’t want to report falling into the common trappings of our times. I cringe when I say I’ve been busy when asked this question - it’s deeply unoriginal to the point of being meaningless.

There’s an anti-sensationalist too, who prefers to deliver accuracy over dramatics. Ultimately, you can grind any intensity or tangle of emotions down to I’m fine” if you consider it in the grand scheme of the universe, the billions of people in far worse situations than you today, those in history and those to come.

Let’s not forget the effervescent people pleaser - who am I to burden a throwaway nicety with heavy realism? Nor the voice of the perfectionist, the one who really hates failing, shouting that a negative response is a hairline fracture from which the perception of you as a good person could shatter.

So it was with me and the b word - burnout. Trendy (everyone has it!), melodramatic, starkly negative. Through all the snippets above I actively didn’t use it. But with time I realised the gravity of my exhaustion, the degree of my cynicism, my loss of motivation, the straight-up misery of not being able to process food for weeks at a time. I realised, in classic fashion, that I would never reasonably turn the critical eye of my contrarian, anti-sensationalist, people-pleasing and perfectionist instincts on other people; that I could describe my experience in an objective, detached way and still reach a diagnosis of burnout.

Now it’s my go-to, one-word description of the era which knits together the snippets above, amongst others. I don’t remember when it first slipped out, but it was gradual. It started nervously, with caveats or exaggerated quotation marks; I can’t guarantee these won’t re-appear from time to time. Using it feels honest though, like I’m honouring my experience with the title it deserves. And, maybe most satisfyingly, it flies in the face of those instincts which held me back from ever truly admitting my stress in this era and got me into quite such an uncomfortable place; it shows me a different way.

July 1, 2024