The problem with breaking off to “fix” burnout

Resting means that underlying fears and sadnesses come to the fore.

I have walked a long way on tarmac, and my feet ache. I’ve been forced to confront the uncomfortable.

I decided to take time out from my work as a journalist and foreign correspondent. The duration remains unspecified, as I don’t know how much time is necessary – or how much I can stand. After working non-stop, I had exhausted myself. I needed – and still need – some time to rest, to drain my overflowing brain of the constant barrage of information, data, ideas, quotes, stories, and sentences that form a ticker-tape across my mind.

The problem with prising myself away from this non-stop flow is that it forces me to confront the emptiness. Holidays are filled with the discomfort and loneliness of being – things that I know I usually ignore. I am on a break in a place (Washington, D.C., USA) so different from that which has become home (Beirut, Lebanon). I have spent a week “moseying”: I have walked the streets of the U.S. capital and made my feet hurt, wearing myself out to try to distract myself again from the sadness. I have shopped, and bought clothes that perhaps don’t fit the life that I live (shift dresses and crop tops don’t really fit my work beat – reporting on political Islam and post-conflict societies). I have finally met contacts who have become friends. I have laughed with them, and been driven on DC’s clean, efficient roads, and eaten tasty meatloaf. I have used a clean, quiet underground train and drunk bad coffee that looks and tastes like brown water. I have smiled at public parks and wide boulevards and proud, grandiose museums, and people kayaking on the Potomac.

I have smiled at public parks and wide boulevards and proud, grandiose museums, and people kayaking on the Potomac. But I’ve also been forced to confront the thoughts and feelings that I normally make myself too busy to deal with.

My surroundings have been lovely – almost too nice (apart from the brown-water-coffee). But I’m still just trying to distract myself from the ache.

I’ve been forced to confront the thoughts and feelings that I normally make myself too busy to deal with. It’s a curse: leisure time is haunted by the doubts that I normally suppress; they are seldom allowed to surface, and that means they make me shy away from the holidays during which they might surface. It becomes exhausting in itself, and I have begun to fear holidays for the loneliness and anguish and questions that accompany them. I consider my journalistic career – particularly the freelance one I have pursued since 2016 – a sort-of success. But what next? And what of the “normal” lives I see in front of me here in DC ? What if I stopped work at 6pm, like these people I see along Connecticut Avenue or at Metro Center train station, and went home and did “normal” things, like cook, and listen to music, and watch Netflix with a partner ? What would happen if I took an office job in a big city, which paid better and soothed my fears about my financial future, but which didn’t consume me, and which I didn’t love ? And what about my family? Am I a bad daughter, for leaving them to pursue the career I love, thousands of miles way in the Middle East, thus becoming the one absent in the photos of my sisters and grandfather ?

And my health? Have I really overcome the eating disorder that plagued me for more than 10 years, given that I have been walking around thinking about food: the peanut butter-everything; the ice-cream and coffee combos; the huge portions; the smell of fried chicken. The news ticker-tape is replaced by calorie calculations that make me screw my face up in shame and anger. Without the imperative of a job to get done (I’m normally propelled to eat by the concept of what my mother used to call “brain food” – the need to eat to make my brain work to perform the functions I’m demanding of it) these anxieties return like clockwork. It gets to the stage where I associate relaxing with being hungry, and I shamefully remind myself of the slippery slope towards developing a full-on eating disorder again that crawls so close to me. Normally, I am focusing on the next deadline, or the next meeting, or pitching my next trip to Iraq, for example, to editors. As a former fellow inpatient at my old eating disorders unit so perspicaciously put it, now I have to confront what it feels like to be in this body. I have more time to look at the pores of my skin and the broken veins on my legs and feel what it’s like to physically take up more space than the 2-D person that I once was. I try on clothes and everything feels uncomfortable, because I’m torn between embracing my relative youth – I’m 28 – and buying teeny-tiny clothes that I won’t be able to reasonably get away with in 15 years’ time – and hiding in comfortable bag-like outfits that make me feel thin.

There is not really much that can be done, other than accepting how these feelings intrude on my attempts to “switch off.” I have dealt with such black dogs enough times to know this by now. I’m too tired and my brain too saturated to return to working, and yet leaving it – even for a holiday – leaves me feeling lonely and sad.

I’m too tired and my brain too saturated to return to working, and yet leaving it – even for a holiday – leaves me feeling lonely and sad.

Sometimes, though, resolutions come out of the thoughts and feelings I’m forced to confront. I have decisively realised that I love my job as a field reporter too much to leave it for the creature comforts (electricity supply, clean water, green space, etc.) that other parts of the world have in greater abundance than the countries on which my work focuses. The life I have chosen is not conducive to the commuter normality of regular office hours, or a smart wardrobe, or those things called “leisure activities”, or a stable relationship. But it is conducive to professional satisfaction – I love my job, almost too much. It exhausts me and, as at the moment, I sometimes burnt out from it. Time away from it forces me to confront questions that are too enormous for my quotidian life, but linger all the same. My feet ache, and they remind me of the exhaustion that lies in all directions, of the fatigue from which I’m grappling to escape.

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