It was late December 2007.
Driving through the thick, freezing fog on a dark Winter’s night in London to my nightshift in Accident and Emergency, I told myself again and again that I just had to man up and get on with it. I got a few days off once a month, I was nearly there.
I had a fever and a chest infection so I had to take maximum dose of painkillers just to get out of bed. Sure, I thought about calling in sick, but that would have been a disaster for my work colleagues and I couldn't let the side down. I couldn’t be weak.
A few days later, after my 21 shifts in a row, something was very, very wrong.
All that stress had blown the fuse in my internal circuitry. I was beyond exhausted, but couldn't sleep a wink. I felt giddy and my balance was faulty. I felt extremes of hot and cold but my temperature was normal. I spent several days with my head under my pillow trying to get through a headache that wouldn’t budge. I felt sick as a dog. I had tremors. My complexion was pale grey. When I finally could sleep, then I couldn’t stop. But it didn't matter if I slept 16 hours, I was tired in every cell of my being, all the time.
After a week with no improvement my Doctor and my bosses (who were Doctors too) started to suspect Glandular Fever (Mono). After 5 negative test and many more weeks in bed with no real improvement and no proper diagnosis, they said what Doctors usually say in this sort of situation: depression.
While it’s true that I was feeling pretty down as anyone would during an illness like that with no promise of recovery, I knew that depression was not my problem.
My immune system also took a major hit. Any kind of injury would result in infection needing antibiotics and for years I spent at least one week per month in bed with a virus.
I went to many Doctors over the years that followed. It was always the same: they started hopeful that I would show diabetes or lymphoma or something they could analyse in a lab. I watched as again and again they ordered hundreds of blood tests, always coming back normal. Doctor after Doctor shrugged their shoulders, stopped making eye contact with me and made it clear that it was time for me to leave now, there was nothing they could do apart from give me anti-depressants.
Every time, I left in despair. If you have had or know someone with this illness, you will know exactly what I mean.
What had happened to my life? One minute I was a successful, vibrant Doctor. Next I was a shadow of my former self. I had no idea where to go for help. A few people suggested things like nutritionists and acupuncture, but my Medical training had taught me to be highly suspicious of such quackery.
In desperation, my mother took me on a yoga retreat in Thailand. I was still unwell, but after practicing yoga I was able to experience moments of feeling ok again. I had to be careful though, because too much and I was exhausted again. But at least I had found something that helped.
Yoga opened my mind to other possibilities for healing. I found myself on a journey through many healing modalities, eastern and western, evidence-based and totally out with the fairies stuff. I started to piece together what happened to me.
Burnout can range in severity from mild irritation and resentment towards the people you are trying to help, to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and collapse of the body systems. I was suffering from adrenal fatigue, something not recognised by the mainstream medical establishment but accepted by alternative therapists.
The adrenals are what helps us respond to stress. Too much stress over too long a period causes the body to stay in the stress response, because that’s more energy efficient than repeatedly trying and failing to recover. When the stress response is on, immunity is off, digestion is off, hypervigilance and fear are on turbo.
In short, you feel terrible, not just physically but your emotions are all over the place too. How can you feel good when the brain is in fear mode? How can you make life plans when you don’t know if you will be able to get out of bed in the morning? You can’t.
One of the most confusing and distressing things about this condition is how it comes and goes, good days and bad. That leaves a lot of Doctors and patients having the sense that it’s all in their heads, which only adds to the stress and self loathing that people with burnout and chronic fatigue feel anyway.
Since my recovery I have found too many other people living this half life. I can’t tell you how often I meet someone, tell them my story and they sob with relief, finally feeling understood, and finally realising there is a way out.
In my experience there is no magic cure for this state, but there are many ways in which you can make little changes that over time add up to recovery. You get gradually better and one day you realise you are ok. It is all about re-teaching the body to move into relaxation mode. Everything you do, eat, say or think can affect this.
If you are in the place of burnout, or feel you might be at risk, please get help sooner rather than later. This condition affects men and women, young and old, usually hard-working, highly motivated, caring and sensitive people.
Remember. You are not alone and it does get better. Please don’t give up hope.