Unsustained Glory – journeying with burnout

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(Sharing a deeply personal journey in the hope that others will avoid making the same mistakes. I am now ready to share.)

Through a random series of events including a missed return flight home, I found myself having cocktails at a beach café in Cape Town on Friday night with a few new girl friends. After hearing my story and with encouraging nods of support, one declared that I should read Arianna Huffington’s book Thrive because “you need it!”.

After a fall due to exhaustion, Arianna’s “aha” moment took her on a journey to redefine success beyond money and power, adding a third metric that creates a life of well-being, wisdom and a sense of wonder. While I am grateful for this book, it is taking me on a journey of reflection on the events leading up to my very own burnout and my journey to recovery…

To begin with, I live a pretty glorious life. Not always easy, but pretty glorious. I do the kind of work that I truly believe is my life’s calling, providing me with new experiences almost daily and taking me to distant lands I wouldn’t have imagined I’d possibly travel to. The journey of a first generation entrepreneur in your family is one of the toughest paths that one can choose. Nobody before you is fronting startup capital or buffer income to live off until you generate a profit and it does not come with a great social network of contacts to broker strategic deals. It’s a tough struggle and the risk of failure comes with dire consequences.

Despite this upward battle, I managed to have successes along the way, including awards, loads of recognition through media coverage for my work, great feedback from those who have benefited from my offering and I get invited to be part of awesome opportunities. Along the way I did however lose myself. With a steep learning curve and low on resources, I allowed circumstances to slowly start chipping away at various parts of me for the sake of the business. Not only is pulling all-nighters or sleeping for four or five hours at best over-glorified in the entrepreneurial community but I let go of all my hobbies one-by-one. My spiritual life took a beating and I was never available to friends – either because of being too broke or busy the calls slowed down and eventually stopped. I always felt guilty for not being available to family, but kept prioritizing mounting deadlines anyway. When not working I was mostly out at networking events with the lines blurring between friendships and acquaintances until hardly any identity remained beyond a work context.  My most meaningful relationship was with my business partner and when that relationship disintegrated, it followed a huge depressing void, but the fight needed to continue despite the loneliness and skills gap – and so it did.

I have never been a sickly person but in the past three years I have been battling allergies and when I get ill, I’m wiped out for about a week. I got first stage shingles when my business partnership fell apart and somehow still managed to travel and speak at conferences, wearing long-sleeved shirts to cover the evidence of painful boils. At some point my doctor put me on a six-month immune booster and encouraged me to “take it easy” as I suppose they all do. My life literally came to a crash when my car got hit by a bus with me in it, missing the driver’s door which possibly saved my life but the car was a write-off. The accident was no fault of my own but I do believe that God was trying to give me a wake-up call. What did Lesley do?….. well, I had my car moved and got a ride to my next meeting (face palm moment). Soon into the meeting I had a migraine which lasted for a week. I forced myself to work only to get a kidney stone a week later. Lying alone on my bathroom floor clenching my belly, throwing up and with the most excruciating pain I would not wish upon anyone was eventually my “aha” moment.

Journey to recovery…

After closing shop last June, I went to Calitzdorp in the Klein Karoo to look after the farm of my old priest for a week. I forgot my cellphone charger in Joburg (thanks God) and spent the week praying, meditating, journaling, reading and taking the dogs for long walks through vineyards, olive groves and the valley. I spent five months mostly sleeping, crying and starting my recovery from burnout with the help of a few sessions with my psychologist, gifted business coach, priest and five remarkable friends who allowed me to be depressed without judgement but also gently (and sometimes harshly) spurred me on. I say “starting my recovery” because I feel like an alcoholic in the sense that you can’t ever stop managing it.

The second half of 2015 was about reconnecting to God with a sense of wonder, appreciating this blessed life that I get to live. With this core in place, I can now re-imagine the kind of life that I want to live. It is essential that I start my day giving thanks and I have recently started taking up yoga again. I’ve never been a jogger but after a three-day hike in the Semien Mountains of Ethiopia where I realized just how unfit I am; I’ve started doing it at my own pace – small steps while taking deep breaths. I am trying to alternate between hiking and biking over the weekends and can see my guitar giving me the side eye from my bedroom corner. Who knows which hobbies I’ll discard and pick up again. I am rebuilding me. My weight and body shape may never be what it once was but I appreciate this vessel for carrying me thus far.

Work pressure is always there but I now consciously try to see my family weekly, make time for unexpected new and wonderful friends I have been gifted while at the same time guarding my time and heart by letting the worthy in. While difficult, I am attempting to be disciplined by not going out two nights in a row; I am simply not effective and tend to be grumpy if I have less than seven hours sleep for two nights in a row. In the end this is counter-productive to quality work output anyway. It’s also great to have an open heart for dating when the brain goes beyond the daily checklist 🙂

I do not claim to have now mastered self-care but it is a daily practice that I have to prioritize. I now understand why the flight attendant says “own mask first” because I am of no use to anyone if I am not abundantly refilled. I’d like to give from a place of joy, not depletion. I’d love to have a sustained glorious life.

*A special thanks to Thokoza Mjo, Norma Young, Rosie Motene, Freda Isingoma, Debbie Donaldson, Pascal Frohlicher, Simon & Jen Cashmore, Kevin Naidoo, Jason Ross, Christoph Birkholz, Davina van Wyk and Family for being gems in my life in 2015. Your wisdom, support & grace carried me. I am eternally grateful 🙂

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6 thoughts on “Unsustained Glory – journeying with burnout

  1. Pingback: Sharing our vulnerabilities – Chris Corrigan

  2. Ellen Mthombeni

    Thanks for sharing your story which will help so many in this frenetic world that measures our successes not by the lives we touch but by the fame and glory of realising rapacious ambition!

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  3. Thanks for your simply said yet powerful story. It resonates with so many innovative-minded women who also get burned-out. But not all find understanding when they need it and recover their ‘bounce-back ability. After this a person is always more vulnerable to hyper-vigilance (being overly alert to a perceived threat). Have you read Adriana Huffington’s book on women called ‘Fearless Women.’ I find it inspiring when things get overwhelming. Go well and be gentle with your self, and find time to put joy (and not just work) into each day.

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  4. Pingback: I know longer want to be Awesome, I want to be Well – Lesley Donna Williams

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