I had a nervous breakdown at 26 because of burnout
Recently, an article has been circulating around on BuzzFeed News about burnout and how millennials are the burnout generation. Minus a few political jabs I don’t agree with, the article hit the nail on the head. I’ve been talking to my husband lately about some of the key points she made in the article and how I have seen the ramifications first hand.
One of the major themes throughout the article discusses how millennials were optimized as children. I got to thinking about my own optimization and how it now plays into my adult life.
I was looking at photos from high school and noticed they were pretty exclusively only at cheerleading practices and events. I didn’t spend a ton of time with friends outside of extracurriculars because it wasn’t going to help me get into college. I volunteered as a cheerleading coach, I worked, took the AP classes, volunteered at the local elementary school, worked with Big Brothers Big Sisters, etc. I did all the things but left little time to relax which is precisely how I ended up in the hospital for six-weeks at the age of 16 because my stress was too high.
Flash forward 9 years and that level of optimization is the only way I know how to exist. As someone existing in this tight-knit online female entrepreneur community, there is a heavy push for daily affirmations and mine were naturally optimized for success. Every day my phone would flash affirmations that said things like “sleep is for the weak,” and “destiny is for losers. It’s just a stupid excuse to wait for things to happen instead of making them happen.” All quotes courtesy of Blair Waldorf. I was working for myself and doing everything in the book to make it successful because I had people in the background telling me I could never be successful.
I felt selfish sleeping. I felt like I didn’t deserve to sleep when my business wasn’t generating enough income. I was skipping meals. I was seeing no friends. All of my social interaction came from church obligations and business calls. I checked my emails and social media obsessively. There was always someone I could be pitching, responding to, etc. I was optimizing my time always for success because that’s how I believed I needed to be.
My time was entirely spent in being hyper-productive mode. There was no off switch.
Operating in hyper-productive mode can only get you so far.
That’s when I called my friend Kendall and just sobbed hysterically. I was in overwhelm and couldn’t do it anymore. I had put myself in this hole and had no clue how to climb out.
She told me to get a hotel and rest alone. Maybe I needed a brain break from the family.
I felt like if I wasn’t working obsessively, I was failing.
When I told her I’d go that weekend, I knew it was a lie. I wasn’t going to be able to remove myself from the situation. I didn’t know how to function in any other capacity. I felt like if I wasn’t working obsessively, I was failing.
The next morning, I woke up, if we call what I did sleep, in a frenzy. I was manic. I couldn’t see straight. I couldn’t think straight. I was shaking from head to toe and couldn’t breathe. My anxiety was at an all-time high. I thought the only way out was to end it. But that wasn’t an option, too many people counting on me. I could only imagine the things my mother would say.
I got into a knock down drag out fight with my ex-husband and left the house. I was in zero condition to drive but drove myself to the Chester County Hospital.
I contemplated just crashing into one of the guard rails on my way there. A whole lot easier than going through the hoops at the Emergency Room.
I got to the ER and told them my anxiety was so high I couldn’t cope or function anymore. I told them I was suffering and couldn’t do it anymore.
They took me back right away and my blood pressure and heart rate were through the roof. I failed an eye exam with my glasses on. My body was so tense they couldn’t get an IV in.
My body was so tense they couldn’t get an IV in.
It took a few hours for me to relax enough for them to stick me. Then it took longer for me to relax after the meds came to stop the anxiety.
When I finally calmed down, the doctor told me I had a nervous breakdown and my treatment plan included bedrest for weeks. Three damn weeks.
I thought he was exaggerating until I tried to move my head and got insanely dizzy. I was not allowed to work at all. No phone. No computer.
I just had to be and if you know me, that’s incredibly difficult. Hell, my husband still has to force me to relax.
But here’s what I learned.
I have suffered from some stage of burnout my entire life. I used to think I was hardwired this way until I realized, I’ve been trained this way. I was always doing something. As a kid, it was golf camp, dance lessons, cheerleading practice, equestrian competitions, attending political events, etc. In high school, it wasn’t enough to just have my own practices, but I coached two cheerleading teams, still did dance, choir, a volunteer with Big Brothers Big Sisters, rocked the AP classes and interned at a local elementary school.
Was I volunteering so much of my time because I am naturally altruistic or is it because I’ve been conditioned to be this way? At what point do I stop giving?
For me, there was no natural stopping point. For me, the stopping point is admittance to the hospital.
For me, the stopping point is admittance to the hospital.
What started in high school as a migraine, left me six-weeks in DuPont’s Children’s Hospital because I couldn’t manage to relax. I was taking on so much, trying to ensure my resume looked good enough for college, that I simply burned out. After bringing in specialists from other hospitals, the conclusion was stress and overwhelm. They were shocked to see a teenage girl in their hospital with such high levels of stress. They said it wasn’t normal. But the reality is, it was and still very much is the norm for millennials.
This habit of never relaxing has stayed with me.
When I hit my burnout point at 26, I was volunteering in multiple LDS Church callings, I was getting a Master’s, running my business, fostering a troubled teen and dealing with the opioid addiction of my ex-husband. I didn’t know how to stop. I didn’t know how to relax.
The problem is that I’m not alone. The problem is that as a generation, we all function this way. It’s why we struggle to do mundane things like the laundry because, for me, I don’t see the point in having clothes nicely folded. Do I love how it looks in my room when there aren’t clothes four feet high piled next to my bed? Absolutely. Do I really value the time and energy it takes to make the room look that way? Absolutely not. I could use that time spent folding clothes to be more productive. I could use that time to sign another client. I could use that time to watch another episode of “You” so my mind can wander for a minute. So for just a minute my life doesn’t have to be hyper-productive.
I can’t speak for all millennials, but the general feeling I get from my peers is that if it isn’t moving the needle forward or helping us cope with the stressors we face, like unmatched student loan debt, low paying jobs, and outrageously expensive health care, then it is not worthy of our time at the moment.
There are very few people my age, in my circle, that doesn’t have a college education. Why? It’s not because I simply choose to surround myself with people who have reached that academic achievement but it’s because it’s all our generation was told. We were told to go to college, get a good job, retire and enjoy life. The problem is that we all had to compete. We’ve been competing against one another from the moment we were born. We aren’t hardwired to be these stressed-out lunatics who suffer from extreme burnout but we were raised that way.
We’ve been competing against one another from the moment we were born.
The idea of competition is so ingrained in us, it’s in everything we do. If we look at Mark Zuckerberg, before he had Facebook, he was known for creating Hot or Not, a rating system to judge co-eds at school. With the boom of social media, everything needs to be Instagram worthy and we’re stalking Pinterest for the perfect recipe. We’re looking for the way to show the world we have our shit together when in reality we’re all a mess.
That’s where millennial burnout differs from other generations. While baby boomers will stick it out when they face a workplace burnout, millennials will just leave because we face burnout in every single aspect of our lives and work is the easiest to control.
I have yet to speak to a baby boomer that cares about how many Instagram followers they have or worry about checking their email every three minutes.
Most of my own activities are what led to burnout. Activities I still very much engage in. Always being camera ready when I leave the house for something more than a trip to the grocery store. Making sure the weekend is well documented. Making sure every road trip, a glass of champagne, mom fail moment is ready for my social media accounts because I have followers who look for my content (their words, not mine). People are waiting for the next funny mom fail morning I have or waiting to see what topic I’ll write about next. I can’t ever really turn it off.
We all have to constantly be “on” because everything we do is a brand. I remember hiring team members and college girls having their own websites to send out as a resume. I don’t remember my baby boomer coworkers talking about their personal brand or having a website to highlight job experience.
Without having tools in place and an amazing support system, this article could be about how I’ve had two nervous breakdowns before 30. Due to hyper-vigilance on burnout activities and be sure to stop ignoring my feelings, stress, overwhelm, anxiety, etc. I’ve learned to avoid the serious burnout. I’ve learned to stop the burnout in its tracks before I land myself an extended stay in a South Georgia hospital.
But it took a nervous breakdown to do that because I couldn’t stop doing the things that burned me out without it.
So while I have the tools in place and the support system around me, I still don’t see the point in exerting energy in putting away socks and hanging t-shirts. That pile is still four-feet high and not slowing down. I may not ever fully recover from the optimization of myself but I can be aware and continue to acknowledge when those moments arise. Sometimes I have to check myself and ask if I’m doing something because I want to or because I think it’ll help grow my brand.
I think when we start doing more of the things we enjoy and stop doing the things that make us feel in constant competition and worrying about our personal brands, we start to solve the burnout problem.