My story starts in 2010, I was highly successful in my career. I started in the Information Technology (IT) Industry in 1997 in a large corporate. I had high career aspirations for myself and spent many hours learning new product offerings and technologies or skills to support my career shifts. Every two years or so my title would change and all along a very well thought out plan I had. Being a structured individual and focused on execution I knew what I wanted to achieve and had laid out multiple plans to get there.
In 2003, I left the industry and went to work on a newly founded Wine Estate. This was never part of the original plan. I fell in-love with my husband in 1998 and soon after we wed. I had my future wedding pegged at a much later date in my life. A few years after we got married we decided to start planning for our first child. I was in a technical role within the IT sector at this time and having been introduced to the Wine Estate before to do their technology installations I considered whether a combined role in this industry and a slower pace would be good mix for starting out parenthood. The saying of you never know what you lost, until you lost it stands very true in this regard. Not only did I have two miscarriages in short succession of each other, the pace of my new job just felt way to slow and the distance to travel daily felt like miles away from home and it was.
The IT industry pace seemed more suited for me and I ventured back into the role I aspired towards. Eventually I had the opportunity to practice the skills and have the title I had aspired too. A few months later our company lost the Company contract and I was redeployed. Not knowing it at the time I got a lucky break and ended up in my first management position with huge responsibilities. Not only did I have to ensure that the existing contract was renewed, I needed to build the team and implement additional services at the same time ensuring that the customer satisfaction increased. This was all new to me. And so, the long hours started …
Before this life was relatively simple. You woke up in the morning, went to work, utilized your skills to deliver the tasks due for the day and every now and again you might have the odd standby shift you needed to work as part of your technical responsibilities. When you stop noticing the beauty around you while driving to work and you are constantly focused on the end game you eventually realize many years later, for some of us, that you need to stop and smell the roses.
After two and a half years of many early mornings, late nights and sometimes not getting sleep for three days in a row due to operational issues that required the attention of management to ensure that your customer’s business was operating adequately you feel washed out and absolutely exhausted. You always the one finding the solutions to problems when all other avenues have already been exhausted or trying to pull workgroups together to manage the crisis on hand. I actually can’t recall how chasing the next opportunity became important. I handed over my existing role and stepped into a Sales role for the first time.
Little did I know that the chest pains I was already feeling were the onset of panic attacks. Fast forward to two years later and superwoman continues to operate at high intensity for long hours. One morning I woke up feeling completely lost. I normally knew what my goals were and how I was going to set out to achieve them and this morning I had no goals and no plans. This continued for a period of time and I asked for the assistance of a Life Coach for some directive coaching. This was nine months prior to the onset of depression and burnout. I knew something was wrong and that I needed to do something, but what?
My client at the time was a large Financial Services Institution and I spent most of my time residing within their enormous Head Office building. The client therefore had easy access to me as they could just come down a few flights to see me in person. Lately I was surprised by these visits and felt an onslaught of sweaty palms and shortness of breath when these encounters occurred at the least expected times. I am generally a very confident individual and yet I found myself stuttering during these confrontations. Being in a service led business the conversation is not normally a pleasant one of giving thanks but rather of why is something not working and how long is it going to take to restore the services.
I started to realize that I was experiencing similar symptoms to what I had first felt in 2007. Later on, the psychologist confirmed that these episodes were indeed panic attacks of which I experience up to 3 daily at times. I continued my days focusing on service excellence and trying to maintain a sustainable turnaround time for delivery against my responsibilities. I was becoming more and more irritable and this was starting to have an impact on my relationships. I recall walking down a very long passage surrounded by high structures on either side on the way to grab yet another coffee and I experienced tunnel vision for the first time. Something was seriously wrong, but slowing down was not an option in this highly-pressurized role. My own need for perfection was adding to the pressure.
I was sitting at my desk looking at my inbox with an influx of emails and the phone rang simultaneously. I was completely overwhelmed by emotion and felt like I could not handle the load. I left the office immediately and sent my boss a text message saying I am not feeling well. During the drive, home my senses seemed exceptionally heightened and listening to the radio was even too much. I decided to phone a friend on the way home. She could hear the distress and said come for coffee which I did. On arrival at her house I could not get out of the car and I couldn’t stop crying. My husband was also perplexed at why I was home so early in the day.
After 3 days of being a complete hermit and avoiding life, my husband said please go and see a doctor who referred me to a psychologist and I was booked off for two weeks which would be reviewed thereafter and extended to another two weeks. The message was to be sure to completely disconnect from technology and do the things you love doing more often. I called my boss to share the news with him. I had a scheduled lunch later that afternoon with my aunt during which my boss returned my call. I committed to going into the office on the Monday morning to handover my client responsibilities and discuss the current situation.
I completed the required handover information prior to the meeting on the Monday and met with my boss and the regional manager. The discussion was surrounded by the support that I required in my role and had asked for numerous times. We agreed that the situation had to change and that we needed to pull me off the customer contract and allow for the recovery time needed. Before reaching this conclusion, my boss was adamant that Human Resources (HR) should be involved and that disciplinary action be taken, on what grounds I have no idea. The regional manager was a lot more concerned about my well-being. My employer really did not handle the situation very well at first which didn’t help the situation.
I had no energy and in the initial period did not listen to doctors’ orders. The regional manager decided that it was best to disconnect my phone, a Blackberry at the time, from being able to receive work emails which would result in not feeling the need to respond to them each time there was a notification. After 2 weeks, my progress was assessed by the psychologist and the decision to book me off for a further 2 weeks was taken. At last I started to do all the things I never got time for even though they felt like chores left undone at first. I have always been good at getting things done by checking the boxes. I didn’t understand how to not be busy.
Towards the end of the 4 weeks in totality I was starting to feel myself again and knew that work was looming. I heard that the now managing director would be in town and I had a longstanding relationship with him from previous engagements during our previous roles. I asked to meet in person during his visit. It was a tearful conversation at first about the way that the situation had been dealt with and that I felt I had a lot of value to add to the organization. I recovered from burnout and continued my career aspirations after having the courage to ask for the support I needed.
I did not go back to my previous role and I was very concerned what everyone in the office was saying about my time away. It seemed to a be joke that so many people were battling to cope and required medication in order to assist them. I assisted with an interim function and then got an opportunity to startup a new department, however it required me to commute between cities. I would be home for 1 week and commute the next. Allowing me time to recuperate in-between and plan for the upcoming week. I continued to commute for nearly 3 years. At first I was driven by my career aspirations and each week I was away the pressure continued only to return exhausted and spend a week recovering before the next trip. I was still driving me! The interim setback hadn’t really sunk in and I wasn’t taking any corrective steps to ensure that another setback would not occur.
Life restored to what it had been before with one big difference that I was in a different city frequently and was building a second life in a way around a career and new friends that I worked with frequently while there. This was impacting my longstanding relationship and I was becoming resentful to leave my family behind each time I needed to leave. Often there were instances that required my presence back home while I was away which left me feeling annoyed. I used my busyness to avoid things that required my attention. When presented with these situations now I was noticing that there was a shift in what was important to me. It was time to make the next change. I had to choose to move between cities to continue my career aspirations, or I had to choose a lifestyle. I chose the latter.
I seemingly did not learn all the lessons required as in 2014, I had a severe nervous breakdown. It has taken me a long time to recover from this most recent breakdown. It has been a journey of self-discovery and having the willingness to be vulnerable and explore some of the drivers. I was fortunate to change my working circumstances completely and scale down to allow time for the things I love doing and most importantly time for me. The story I have to tell might not seem inspirational to you at first, however thinking that superwoman’s wings are clipped temporarily and that your pressure cooker lid handles the same pressure before was a complete misnomer. I was my own worst enemy and daily I am still learning how to undo some of those default behaviors that are so ingrained in my being.
Featured Photo Credit: 8:55 AM by John St. John on Flickr