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Why I'm Actually Thankful for My Mental Health 'Burnout'

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It is Sunday morning. I wake up feeling anxious about my day. I have church in the morning, which is fine. But it’s the tasks that follow that are killing my anticipation for the day. Group projects have never been easy for me. The leader keeps asking that I follow up on my portion I thought I was done with. I start to feel overwhelmed, suffocated and find it difficult to breathe. On top of all this, I have a midterm the next day, which screams for my attention, and never stops. My mind is on the verge of breaking down.

Growing up alongside my Chinese peers, I was taught from an early age to never stop doing things. I am “action Helen.” I am a woman who is always on the go. I never take breaks. I always move on to the next thing.

Coming home from church, I am preoccupied with midterm stress. My anxiety keeps screaming that I will fail, and my childhood reminds me I should stay up all night studying nonstop. I start to become irritated at everyone and everything in my path. I start to lash out in my anger, as if those people are my emotional punchbags. I start to blame myself for not working hard enough, for not being a superhuman overachiever like my peers. My self-blame only makes me more overwhelmed, tenser and angrier at myself.

But despite lashing out, my to-do list remains. I have made zero. progress. on. anything.

My fiancé tells me I’m not usually like this. What’s happening to me? I am experiencing burnout… on top of my daily struggle with anxiety. It is my body’s way of telling me I need rest. now.

I am mentally drained. I have reached my limit. I am a mental health activist, but I forgot my own mental health in the process. I feel that the one thing I can’t lose is finally burning out: my passion for mental health.

I hear too much, I see too much and I am tired of all the myths people believe and mindless comments people say, Christians and non-Christians alike. “Don’t worry!” is one of these phrases that don’t help me in the least. If I am a Christian, then why should I feel anxious? Why am I burnt out? I think I should feel happy, but why am I not? I should be productive, but I am procrastinating. I should be caring, but I am ignoring others. I should talk to my friends, but instead, I shut myself down. Again. There’s this perfect image of me in my brain, flashing at me over and over again, but in reality, I fall short. I want to be a social worker to help others, but why do I find myself struggling with anxiety and burnout?

It is suffocating. It is overwhelming. It is a constant urge to scream and lash out. I feel lost.

I don’t recognize myself anymore. I feel strange about the fact I no longer care passionately about mental health, which I believe to be my identity. I feel scared my identity has been taken away. I start to believe that I lost the right to care about mental health: I think mental health activists shouldn’t burn out, but now I am.

Truth is, I experienced burnout for the first time. I burned out because I worked myself to the limit. I forgot I am human. Truth is, I set unreachable standards and force myself to reach them. I give myself too much pressure and then beat myself when I hit the breaking point. Burnout is my body’s alarm clock: it wakes me up to the fact I need to slow down.

Burnout is a topic most people would rather avoid. Our society is driven by productivity. Society may forget you if you are overwhelmed, anxious and numb, or if you feel apathetic about the things you used to care about. But these are the clear signs of burnout. It is more common than we think. I am still struggling with the fact it is OK to experience burnout. I still don’t know why it’s OK to feel what I feel. Burnout left me with a negative and truly uncomfortable feeling. But I do know one thing: I believe burnout should never be a taboo topic.

We all burn out from time to time. And we need to know it is OK to feel this way, even when, in the midst of it, we hate it to bits.

People cannot tell someone is burned out just by looking, maybe because they look just fine on the outside. I want to open up about what it feels like on the inside: it is real, and it is loud.

Burnout, I meet you face to face for the first time. It is such an unexpected and unusual way we met. I hate you, lots. You are the worst I have ever felt. You rob my identity as a mental health activist. Burnout, you left me empty. You left me all alone to deal with the mess you created: emotionally, mentally, physically. You took me away from my friends. Honestly, burnout, I don’t love you — not even close.

But you were a blessing in disguise. You were the alarm bell my body rang out to tell me I need to take a step back and re-evaluate everything on my plate. My desire to be a social worker has been with me ever since the first day I stepped into my social work class. Burnout, you led me to reconsider my career path — it might not be what I want to deal with for rest of my life. I realized I don’t want to be at the verge of burning out every day. I want to have something left to offer to people. But this means I have to see myself as a person first.

Burnout, you reminded me in my fight for mental health that I am a person too. You let me know I am a fighter, not a quitter. I ended my presentation on a great note. I passed my midterm. Burnout, you even helped me to renew the flames for my passion for mental health. I feel I love mental health even more and became a stronger person as a result. I even started to embrace myself as a person. After I fought with you, I ended up feeling closer to God, to my friends and to my goal of being a fighter for mental health. Burnout, I want to thank you, even though I still hate you and never want to see you again, because I am grateful for the things you taught me.

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Getty Images photo via Amit Vashisht

Originally published: December 12, 2017
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