because none of us is fucking up like we think we are, is what i'm trying to say

Sunday, 3 April 2016

Burnout

photo by @babeswithgin
I was in the basement of a Japanese restaurant with my three best friends when it happened. My throat got tighter, like an invisible something was pressing on my windpipe. The walls of the room loomed inward. A voice I’d never heard before but that came from within me, a little man sat just inside my right ear, said sinister, shocking things about my worthlessness. My pointlessness. My un-love-able-ness. My friend was speaking, telling a story about I-don’t-remember-what-now, but I couldn’t hear her. The world was smudged with Vaseline. I was surrounded by the people who love me most, and totally, utterly, alone.

It was terrifying.

When I snot-cried assembling furniture in my new house, and every day thereafter, I thought I was just tired. When I stopped sleeping, I presumed it was excitement and worry, both, about the book. When I ate packets of biscuits at a time because I didn’t want to leave my desk long enough to prepare an actual meal, my reasoning was, I am busy. By the time I had a panic attack in that restaurant, I knew: something was very, very wrong.

I had depression in my early twenties. I was medicated for it. I know what darkness feels like when she tugs on your sleeve and asks that you follow her. But this wasn’t quite it. It didn’t feel the same. I read Girl On The Net’s new book – I thought I was in for a sexy, saucy romp, and yet she authors it so humanly that when suddenly she has anxiety it knocked me sideways in the light it shed on my own condition. We’re getting closer, I realised. Then there was Jessie Burton’s piece Success, Creativity and the Anxious Space. Jessie spent the whole of her twenties, like me, working on her book, and then by thirty saw her name on a cover for the first time. What do we do when our dream has come true? she muses, and I said a silent thank you to the gods for giving somebody else the courage to speak up so that I might feel less abandoned by my own sensibilities. Finally, I saw this, and with it found a word that made more sense than anything else: burnout.

"Since writing full time, I talk about nothing but my work... Finding work I love isn’t the problem – it’s the value I attach to it."

Millennial Burnout Syndrome tends to happen mostly to women, and at around thirty years old. Most research I can find is American, and focuses on high-powered women in tech and finance, but the sentiment resonates: we’re smart, driven, know what we want and won’t stop until we get it. Rest? Why rest when there’s a world to be conquered?

That has been me.

One of the closing quotes on the Fast Company piece is: "If it isn't fun and it isn't your passion, you will burn out… [Now] I work all the time because I really like what I am working on. And I am more productive than ever." This is where the article stopped being helpful to me, because: Nope. That’s poor advice. I have loved my work too much – so much that it has defined me, and I have put in twelve, thirteen, fourteen hour days for months on end. Maybe eighteen of them, if I start counting properly. Nobody asked me to. It was my call. I have lived and breathed the thing I love – telling stories – so much so that away from the laptop I am a bore. Since writing full time, I talk about nothing but my work. I spent three days with Megan recently, and it hit me: even though she is wildly successful, her job is like, the fifth most interesting thing about her. Finding work I love isn’t the problem – it’s the value I attach to it.


"What’s so special about being special, anyway?"

For me, getting published has been the only thing that has ever meant something. Then it became, getting published with this particular book. “Becoming”. Because, well. Because if I could get a book out of something so humiliating and formative as I went through, then maybe it was all for something. Megan and I talked about that a lot. That when things hurt, we try to find the meaning in it. We cannot believe we ever hurt for nothing. The brain likes neat answers, so we find one. For me, it was okay my boyfriend dumped me and married my friend, because I’d become an author through it. That need for meaning, coupled with the millennial entitlement that is “you deserve an extraordinary life” means I believed I was special. I had to believe I was special. Destined for something. If I see one more fucking mug with the fucking phrase “keep not settling” on it, as if exhaling is a fucking weakness, I will goddamn fucking scream. What’s so special about being special, anyway?

I want to “settle”. I want to stop. Ambition is not a dirty word, and no-one should ever be made to feel guilty for throwing themselves into the things that they love. But – I want to love something else, now. I want my work to be the fifth most interesting thing about me, too.

There is a poem by William Martin that says, do not ask your children to strive for extraordinary lives… make the ordinary come alive for them. The extraordinary will take care of itself.

I did what I set out to do. My name is on a book spine. The extraordinary happened, but at the expense of the ordinary. And so, it is time for a break. A pause. Breathing room. A change of direction.

"There’s a lot to be said for not expecting your “art” to also be your income."

I have become a nanny.

My #GirlSquad is three charming, intelligent and thoughtful humans who also happen to be 11, 9, and 6. I make them breakfast and take them to school, and at 4pm pick them up and take them home. We eat a snack. Do homework together. Have three-minute kitchen discos. Thinking of them does not wake me up at 3 o’clock in the morning and I am paid enough for my rent and bills, gym membership and grocery delivery. I have six hours of the day free, and all my evenings, and am seeing my life through new eyes because children are glorious, and I am naturally so very good with them, and this isn’t a side hustle. This is another hustle. One that isn’t quite as consuming. One that will leave me room to actually finish the books I start, and pick up my Italian again, and experiment with pleasure instead of purpose. I am looking forward to calling my parents everyday instead of letting weeks slip by, and running (oh! To run!) and gardening. I’m un-ironically throwing myself into my garden. I want to go to the cinema in the middle of the day and cook grand dinners even if it is only me. Especially when it is only me. I want to laugh.

I am not giving up writing. I will do commissions when editors ask me, but I will not pitch. I will not do any more copywriting. I am working on a TV series, but slowly. Occasionally. With no great rush or objective except to see how it works. If I can. For fun. I might start research for my next book – a novel – but have zero plans to start writing it, and certainly none to try and sell it, something my agent is 200% supportive of because she knows this love affair I have with writing is for life. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, and what I do next will only be good if I live and then write, without writing to live. I am very lucky to have her.

There’s a lot to be said for not expecting your “art” to also be your income, but I’ve taken a long, convoluted road to get here. I worked too hard on Becoming, sacrificed too much, to not be cognisant of its publication, too. I am doggedly determined to soak up the sense of accomplishment for that, and to do it I have to make room. I am making room by giving myself permission to still be a “writer” even if I do not write everyday, or make all my money that way. In fact, I feel more of a writer than I ever have because I take what I do seriously enough to know we need a break from each other.

Burnout is real and scary and debilitating. Burnout robs you of perspective. Burnout tricks you into believing it was all for nothing, and so what is the point. Burnout makes you feel isolated and afraid and confused that everybody else is fine, so what’s your goddamn problem? Burnout exists, is the thing. Recognising that is my biggest learning curve yet. 
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