One brave mama shares how she used her burnout to find time for herself and create a new way of living.

I am sure many of you have read the famous novel Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. There is a scene where the female protagonist starts crying in the bathroom endlessly not knowing why and she has no idea how to stop. Something similar happened also to me.

What was Happening to Me?

It was the winter of 2008, I had been jumping on at least 6 planes within one month and I was about to become 36 years old. I was single, owned my own apartment and was Operations Manager for a department of 200 people. From the outside, people would have described me as tough, determined, successful, independent. However, in December I started feeling weak, could not get up in the morning, was dead tired and could not sleep at night. I went to the doctor thinking of all possible diseases, but they could not find anything.

After the Christmas holidays, I returned to work. I had to. Someone in my role, I thought, cannot stay home for days! Every day was a battle not to cry. I was sitting in my office hoping that no-one would come and talk to me because I was afraid I would burst into tears. And once I was at home I could not stop crying and at night I always had nightmares. At the same time, while being at the office one of the few things that gave me some moment of tranquility was to secretly surf the net and buy fabrics. About three years ago, I had taught myself to quilt, and now surfing and choosing fabrics was the only way to escape the terrible crying spells I had. Later in time, this particular detail would explain a lot!

Dealing with the Diagnosis

Not long after, I summoned the company doctor, once I realised I could not change the way I was feeling physically and mentally. He looked at me very quietly and said: “Miss N, you have a burnout. You are going to take your bag now and go straight home and try to sleep and rest, do not come to work and we will talk again in two months. You are not allowed to have any contact with your office, expect occasional calls with HR. And remember, if on a day the only thing you can do is go out and buy a pack of milk, then so be it.” I looked at him and simply said, “No, first I have to go to my department, do a hand-over…” His response: “No, you will go straight home. If tomorrow you die in an accident, your department will still move on without you. So it will do the same now. Go home.” Desperate as I was to continue, I knew I could not go on like this and reluctantly took his advice and home I went.

And I slept, and I slept, and I slept. And when I was awake, I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and I still did not understand what was happening to me, nor had I accepted the idea I had a burn-out. I slept, ate, took a shower, and watched some TV – for the rest I was not doing anything. I could not quilt, I could not read, I could not go out and socialise. It was all exhausting for me. Everything else had become too much for me take in. They had explained to me that, when having a burn-out, the reserve pack of your reserve pack of energy is empty and you simply cannot do a lot. The only solution is to sleep and rest.

This is what I did and slowly. Within two or three months, the big turn in my life showed up on the horizon. A big support and human connection at this time was a mentor that was assigned to me by my employer. I will be forever grateful to her. She helped me understand what was happening to me, put some sense in it.  She helped me understand that my creative talent was pushing desperately to come alive. She helped me understand how talented I was. And she taught me the big lesson – you do not have  to demonstrate anything to anyone anymore. With very simple words, she made me think and every time I met her, there was an AHA! moment, where I thought, “why did I not see this earlier? It is so simple!” She helped me understand so many things about myself and I always wish I had met her earlier.

I do not wish a burnout on anyone. I think it is a traumatic and terrible experience. However, on the other hand, I am grateful it happened to me, because I had the opportunity to completely review my life and change for the better. And I firmly believe you can come out of a burn-out so much stronger.

The Post-Burnout Life

What has changed since then? In the summer of 2009, I met my current boyfriend and father of our soon-to-be-born daughter. We met and have been together since that day. I think during these difficult months, I have become more balanced, the tough business-woman gave way and left room for the softer, and more gentle woman when navigating relationships. I always thought I had to demonstrate to a man all I could do. Instead, it is so much simpler. You can just be yourself, also with your vulnerable side. Why did no-one tell me earlier it was OK to be vulnerable?

In the summer of 2010, I left my employer. I realised I did not want to have that kind of job anymore and also statistics state that in 90% of the cases, employees that have experienced burn-out leave the company within a year. The change you go through as a person is so intense that you are likely to want to look for new places to start a career. It is also true that if you have had a burn-out during your time in a company you will always have a mark and be considered a “risk”. Sad, but it is the reality. I spent the coming months looking into what I wanted to do next. My boyfriend and I wanted to start a family,  I wanted to have a part-time job in a different industry than my previous job, and I wanted to transform and give my quilting activities a more professional look. Because of the family planning, I wanted to have a little online quilt shop, where I could present my quilts to an audience, but without the pressure to grow big, make big marketing campaigns and so on. It was important for me to have a presence on the net to showcase my talent and be able to produce quilts at my own pace and this is how my Etsy store came to life.

Ultimately, I wanted to be able to decide for myself how much time I wanted to invest in this activity. Now that the birth of my daughter is coming close, I know I will not have much time to dedicate to the store. But that is OK because my priority is my baby now. I know I can pick it up anytime when I am ready for it again. I also have a new job. I now work four days a week in a small international office. I love it. I accepted this job because it was what I was looking for; I did not mind the pay being lower than what I was earning before. I wanted to learn something new and I was willing to compromise. I am so happy I took this step and dared to try it out. I am not ready to live completely out of my own business – but I am ready to start building on it so that maybe one day I can. 

What Really Matters in the End

I believe there is no right or wrong in business, it is about prioritising and what you feel comfortable doing and I choose to stay small for the moment. For me, passion is what counts. When I quilt I put all my passion into it, whether I make one or forty quilts. So, as long as I cherish my little business and cultivate it like a little garden as the time passes, I am satisfied with it. I prefer to offer my customer ten quilts in my shop that are extremely well-made, rather than forty that are mediocre.

And now I am pregnant, our first child will have already been born by the time you read this. How am I going to deal with work, quilting and a new child in the coming months? Well, I would love to tell you I know it all, but I do not. It is my first child and so while I have quite some experience with children, I still need to face the reality of it. The way I see it is that my child will have first priority and then I will see if there is the possibility to cut some time out for quilting. Otherwise, I will wait until she is a bit older. But I do not feel that I have to do it all at once. There is a time for everything.

The summer after my daughter is born, I will return to my part-time office work, my daughter will go to the creche and I will decide then how much time I can spare for quilting. I am not in a hurry and I know now that I do not have to demonstrate anything to anyone anymore.

For advice on where you can find support for burnout, see Mamas Recommend: Support for Parents Experiencing Burnout

You can find some lovely examples of La Nina quilts over at the Etsy store.

photo credit: pbev via Flickr cc