Breakthroughs and Burnout

Work Sprints are a good metaphor for the constant influx of urgency and work. Before you can manage to even recover from the last one, the next one is looming on the horizon, begging for your forethought and attention and then it begins. You are tired—just physically you’d like to convince yourself— and all you ever want is to sleep but you can’t rest now. The world doesn’t wait. Do you really want to get left behind as the world continues to spin beneath you?

My answer to that question, I discovered last Friday, is a resounding no.

Last Friday, we had another Friday Review, and while check-ins were less emotional and more of an attempt to be optimistic, a yes i’m really tired but i’m also excited about what I’m doing and what’s to come, our activity that day proved to be more harrowing than I’d expected it to be.

We were handed these wooden boards and were asked to write down our fears on one side and goals on the other. I did this easily enough. I even rolled my eyes over how cheesy this activity was. The fears were the easy part as I wrote whatever came to mind. At this point, I was writing them down almost mechanically, not feeling anything from these thoughts and it was more like taking inventory that these thoughts were there. The goals were harder for some reason—one of my fears is I don’t deserve good things— and so instead of writing down anything tangible and concrete, I came up with a sort of life motto/philosophy.

To live whole-heartedly, find peace with myself and do/make things that make the world a better place.

We then headed down to the basement to break these boards, karate-style. One of our coaches showed us how to do it. He read aloud his fears and then his goals. Then he placed the board between two chairs and we counted off as he broke the board in half with his palm.

More people went up and most of them—more than I expected—broke their board on the first try. What started out as reluctance in doing a cheesy metaphorical activity turned into an overwhelming sense of anxiety.

I’m still not sure what triggered it. I was fine at the beginning of Friday Review. Perhaps it was the fact that I was really tired and sleep-deprived. I was slightly dissociating, and the intensity of the sound as the boards broke literally made me jump and put my senses on edge.

The idea of reading out what I had written had also freaked me out a little. While writing out my thoughts made them more tangible, they were still private and mine alone. If other people were going to be privy to my deepest, darkest thoughts then I’d have to read through them, filter and edit them to make sure that they are presentable. And as I looked through the fears that I put down, the more I was forced to acknowledge them and this time they made me feel something—the panic I so often fear.

Of course, I realized that I didn’t have to read out my fears if I didn’t want to. I didn’t even have to go up there and break the board. But the thought of being the only one out of the cohort to not do it, to be the odd one out, made me sick to my stomach and reminded me of a sentiment, a rather deep-seated belief that I wish I did not hold with such conviction.

You are not ‘broken.’ You do not need to be fixed.

When I was first told this a few weeks back, I knew it was well-intended but my first instinct was to think that’s bullshit.

Everyone has their own struggles, their own demons. I get that. Maybe more than anybody else. But our struggles are also unique. We are each dealt different hands. All these things that go on in my head—they’re not normal, at least in the sense that not everyone has them. If breaking those boards is simply an issue of mind over matter, then my broken mind was a handicap.

I blink my eyes in surprise as I feel them well up with tears. I’m just tired and the sounds are overwhelming me, I told myself. I wasn’t convincing.

Every time someone finished breaking their board, a silence filled the room as the next person was called upon to come up. In these pauses, I could see expectant looks as I was one of the few people who had yet to step forward.

Don’t look at me like that, I said, and while my tone was more joking, I could feel the strings inside me become pulled taut and to release the tension I was afraid I would begin to lash out.

The tears started to have a mind of their own. They rolled down my cheek, oblivious to the extraordinary amount of energy I was exerting to keep them in. I felt warm and feverish, my throat felt dry and my nose snotty. My eyes started to nervously dart around. Then I started having trouble breathing and realized the control I have over my body began to slip away from me.

Fuck. No, not now. Not here.

Flight-or-fight. I was too tired to fight the panic so I fled. I placed my board down on the table and walked out the room. Once I was in the hall, I started running and sought refuge in the bathroom.

Fuck. Someone’s gonna follow me in here.

I lock myself in a bathroom stall and proceed to let myself fall apart. Ugly sobs clawed their way up and out my throat. The hyperventilating got worse, and normally that would’ve scared me, but I really was too tired to fight it. If I was going to have a panic attack, I might as well have it in ‘peace.’

Eventually, the panic subsides only to be replaced with another sense of dread—dread at what I’ve done and having to do “damage control.”

Oh god, I’ve made such a scene. Ran out the room like some dramatic teen.

The fatigue was still there. As I sat down to have a conversation with my coach, I cannot help but feel the weariness come from deep within my bones. He asks me to try to put what I’m feeling into words.

“I’m a writer so metaphors are a big deal for me. And I’m just so tired. If I don’t manage to break that board on my first try, the metaphor of it all will absolutely kill me.

It was foolish of me to think that perpetual motion could be accomplished without bringing about perpetual fatigue. Or that because the nature of the motion is perpetual, it also means it is self-sustainable, somehow able to produce the energy it runs on and feed itself with it to then make more. And endless loop of exertion and replenishment.

The only way out of this loop that I tied for myself is to “chill out” and stop caring, stop trying so hard to fulfill my ambitions. It is tempting to say the least, to decide not to care—in the way that other people seem to be able to do.

Maybe I was simply born with electricity running through my veins, maybe the panic is something I am hard wired for, something I could never avoid simply by being the way that I am. Because as much as I would like to, I cannot stop caring.

“You like to act as if you care about nothing and if you carry one like that then you’re going to drown in the abyss you have imagined for yourself.” — Alice Oseman, Solitaire

Desperation. Calling everything I’m doing right now as being propelled by ambition and drive is just a way to mask the desperation, disguise it as something grand and respectable. But the underlying need to leave some sort of legacy before I am gone, is an existential grab for substance in a world that goes on spinning regardless of whether I’m in it or not.

I am repulsed by how desperate I am to make something of myself.

My instinct then is to withdraw, tune out and convince myself that I do not care.  Yet here I am, running myself into the ground in the hopes that it’ll be worth it someday. I can either drown in my own indifference or drown in my own desperate ambition.

Either way, I’ve gotten very good at holding my breath.

—Karin Novelia, head underwater and you tell me to breathe easy for a while // the breathing gets harder, even I know that


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