Burn out is not a necessary ingredient for success
You know sometimes there seems to be waves of people experiencing the same thing in your life all at the one time?
In the last few weeks I’ve had family, friends and clients all experiencing the repercussions of pushing too hard, for too long, without acknowledging the flashing lights warning them of an approaching dead end.
When you’ve got piles on your plate, and you put your head down and charge on through it’s amazing how much you can get done. But there comes a point where the constant charge becomes unsustainable; and if you’re not paying attention when your body starts to let you know you can very easily fall head-first over the edge into burn out.
Back in my corporate life, without even realising it, I was drowning in the corporate cult of ‘busy’ – always working, always more to do.
I was working 60/70 hour weeks. Running on my adrenals all the time, (although I had no idea what that even was). I was living a work hard, play hard lifestyle:
Lots of drinking.
LOTS of coffee.
Lots of late nights, networking and events.
I was in my 20’s, living in Sydney, working in a fast-paced, exciting industry. I was good at what I was doing - I got the promotions, I climbed up the ladder. And I was totally numb to the fact that I was completely disconnected. From my body. From my soul. From my purpose.
And then my body decided enough was enough. I was so used to bulldozing my way through fatigue and just pushing myself harder, that I didn’t even register the first few warning signs (feeling run down, extreme tiredness, needing to drink even more coffee than usual to keep pumping through the work).
Signal #2 - a killer migraine - wasn’t enough to stop me for longer than it took to take some pills and sleep it off.
#3 - I got a wicked, snotty head cold. So I took some cold and flu tablets (with a good dose of pseudoephedrine in them) and kept on going.
Then I pinched a nerve in my back. I hadn’t done anything unusual, that I could put my finger on. I was out at drinks with a client and when I stood up searing pain shot from my lower back down the side of my left leg to my knee.
It totally took my breath away, but I covered it up. I didn’t want to show any weakness in front of a client (this particularly charming client once commented that my team and I were like blonde barbie dolls. My crazy, warped response had been to work even harder, putting in crazy hours to prove to her – yes HER – that she was wrong. So allowing her to see me in pain, even though I could barely stand up straight, oh so not an option.)
I managed to get myself into a cab before bursting into tears. By the time I got home I was almost incoherent – I think Pete thought I’d had a stroke or something. But I took some strong painkillers, with a glass of wine (soooo sensible) and went to sleep.
Next morning I doped myself up on more pain pills and went into the office.
And I so clearly remember thinking ‘wow, I have had a seriously shitty run of things lately, WTF is going on?’ But I didn’t for one second consider that it was linked, or that they were signs from my body that I needed to sort myself out. I was in the middle of what was probably the busiest, most stressful time in my career, I did NOT have time to lie around in bed.
Within two days of pinching the nerve in my back, still taking lots of painkillers, I started to get pain down my left arm. I did some Googling and saw that it could be the same pinched nerve, so I assumed that’s what it was.
A little bit later in the day I noticed a lump starting to pop up on my left wrist. Which was weird, I thought, because nerve pain shouldn’t cause swelling, should it?
Through the morning typing started to get really painful. My wrist was killing, the lump was getting bigger and it was going a bit red. And then there was this weird little boil looking thing on my other wrist…
I wandered down the road to the local medical centre, where the doctor told me I’d been bitten by a spider. It’ll go down in the next few hours, she said. But if not, then you might want to get someone to look at it again in the morning. The boil thing was nothing to worry about, just don’t scratch at it.
In hindsight I feel like such an idiot for not paying more attention to what was going on with my body; but at the time I was really only thinking about getting all the work I needed to do done before I had an event to go to that night.
By mid-afternoon I was cradling my left arm, attempting to type with one hand. And the pain was getting intense - intense enough for my disconnected, numb brain to actually start to pick up on some of the serious concerns flashing across its radar.
I was in the bathroom and ran into the HR manager, who took one look at me and demanded that I go and sit in a meeting room, where she promptly brought the managing director to see me.
I didn’t want to make a fuss. I didn’t want things to be a big deal. It was just a little spider bite, it would be fine. Maybe I should go home and work from there for the rest of the afternoon.
I showed the MD my wrist, which now had red tracking marks coming from the lump and moving up the veins in my arm – my arm that had started to curl up on itself, the muscles tightening and clenching up so that I couldn’t open out my hand anymore.
She called her dad, a GP, who told her to call an ambulance.
I was conscious, so the ambulance wasn’t going to prioritise me; instead Pete came to pick me up and take me up to emergency.
You know how you can totally keep it together when you’re in a scary, stressful situation around work colleagues, but as soon as you see someone you love, you just lose it?
As soon as I saw him I crumbled.
It actually hit me that something really, really wasn’t right.
By the time we got to A&E I was rushed straight through and given some Endone. Now, I can’t remember the pain (amazing the way our body helps us forget that kind of trauma isn’t it) but I can really clearly remember the intensely blissful relief of that morphine kicking in; the slow, icy cool of it spreading from my shoulder, down my arm and eventually all the way to my tightly spasmed finger tips.
Long story-short, I had Septicaemia. Blood poisoning. A mystery case, the doctors could never identify a source.
I was in hospital for over a week. Recovering at home for another week after that.
I had a cast on my wrist for even longer, which made it really hard to type, and the super strong antibiotics I had to take wiped me out and made me nauseous.
It was only after all this, looking back over everything that I saw I’d burnt myself out beyond what my body could handle. I blatantly ignored every warning sign and opportunity to listen in to my body, acknowledge what it was telling me I needed and so it had to physically, forcefully take me out of action. It had to go for the full K.O because I wasn’t willing to hear anything less.
I’d love to say that from there on in I became completely attuned to my body and my inner guide, listening in to that innate guidance and following its wisdom. In reality it took me a few more years to really come to the point of developing an intimate relationship with my own intuition – but it was the beginning.
I was actually really lucky this happened at a time when I was in a secure, permanent job with paid sick leave that gave me the security to actually focus on recovering. Now, a self-imposed K.O like that would come with significantly more stress and anxiety.
The moral of the story? Prioritising your health and wellbeing is an investment in your business. Working yourself to the bone is a short-term approach with long-term repercussions.
Running your own business, especially for heart-centred entrepreneurs, is a journey fuelled by passion. Everyday we’re working towards bringing our purpose, our ‘why’ to life. We’re serving and giving to others. We’re sorting out our own tech issues, or doing the books, or writing the marketing plan, or answering customer service enquiries.
Everyday is filled with endless things that you could be doing. Endless opportunities to do more. But you can’t keep going at full speed forever. Believe me, there will come a time when your body will not allow it.
In hindsight I think I’d probably been operating with adrenal fatigue for months before things came to a head. Totally out of sync with my body and my spirit.
But you don’t have to be disconnected from your purpose to become numb to what your intuition is telling you.
Don’t let the love of what you do cloud that inner voice. She knows what she’s talking about. And if you don’t take action, she will.
And her action will be drastic if that’s what’s called for.
Honour the necessity for downtime. Invest in your own wellbeing. It really is an essential, sacred part of running your business. And you know what? Your work will be better, you’ll be more productive and you’ll kick those goals with less effort and struggle if you give yourself the rest you need.