It was May 2019 and I’d recently turned forty. I didn’t feel right. In fact, I felt so little like myself I went to see a doctor.
‘I can’t sleep,’ I said to her. ‘Everything overwhelms me. I’m on the verge of tears all day, my mood swings are erratic. I have pins and needles in my hands and feet and sometimes my face goes numb. I get headaches and feel faint. I think I’m perimenopausal or deficient in something.’
She asked me some questions, I couldn’t stop crying, she placed her hand on my arm and said, "you are burned out and experiencing high levels of stress. You need help before you have a complete breakdown."
Breakdown? I didn’t understand.
I knew what burnout was. It was what executives got, what celebrities went through, and what people with high-powered, stressful jobs experienced when they pushed themselves too hard. I couldn’t possibly be burned out. How? I was a freelancer and an author and a mother. I didn’t have a boss. I didn’t even have a regular income!
But the doctor was right. Had I not sought help, I would have got very ill indeed.
What followed was twelve weeks of one-hour, face-to-face, cognitive therapy, a lot of self-discovery, and an insight into the dangers of trying to control the uncontrollable.
The term ‘burnout’ describes a severe stress condition that leads to serious physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. It was coined by psychologist Herbert Freudenberger in the 1970s and is not the same as exhaustion or depression.
We’ve all remarked on occasion that we are ‘really stressed’, but chronic stress can be the cause of serious mental and physical health implications, and in extreme cases can lead to a heart attack and death.
This all made sense to me in theory, anxiety can manifest itself in many different ways. but I wasn’t a world leader or saving lives on a day-to-day basis — I was just writing books. How can staying at home and making up stories lead to such high levels of exhaustion and stress that I was losing the sensation in my face?!
Trying to control the uncontrollable
In 2019 I was at a crossroads in my writing career, as I also briefly mentioned in my interview introducing this column.
My debut novel The Path Keeper (the first of a trilogy) had done well in 2017 but the publisher’s imprint had folded, and I’d been left with no one to publish the rest of the series. In 2019 I was with a new publisher who was re-publishing my book again. It felt like a ‘now or never’ opportunity.
This unique scenario had me telling myself narratives about my career that were simply not true:
"If this book doesn’t do well my career as an author is over."
"If I work really hard I can make a big difference to sales numbers."
"If my book bombs, it’s all my own fault."
In short, I was taking on the mental responsibility for something I had zero control over. It was akin to telling someone, "if it rains on your sister’s wedding day tomorrow it will ruin everything. So make sure it doesn’t rain."
Mentally, that was a huge and unnecessary strain. But physically I wasn’t looking after myself either…
Living a reactive life
The life of any creative is not a simple one. When you work from home with no fixed hours, no fixed salary, and a head full of ideas, it’s very easy to find yourself living a reactive, and unhealthy, lifestyle.
I would wake up at 1am with an idea and get up to write it immediately. A client would ask me to work on a project and I’d drop everything to take it on straight away because I couldn’t say no to money coming in. I’d be waiting six weeks for my editor to get back to me with feedback then get given a week to complete my edits.
Living this way, along with raising two children and running a home single-handedly (my husband was away with work often and we live in a different country to most of our family) meant I wasn’t putting my health first.
I would eat erratically, sleep erratically, not get any exercise, and take on more work than I could manage. The fact that I was also trying to control the uncontrollable while feeling empowered by the damaging superwoman myth meant I didn’t even recognise anything was wrong.
I took pride in doing too much, pushing myself too hard, and expecting so much of myself. I thought I could do it all and it didn’t even occur to me to ask for help.
How could I possibly reach out to others? I was living the dream! I was an author, and a freelance writer, I had two wonderful children and lived abroad with a husband who has a great job. What did I have to complain about?
And that’s why many people in the creative industry get ill.
Not because our work is any harder than that of others, or because we are less able to manage our workload, but because society doesn’t deem what we do as difficult or worthy enough to get stressed about. So we don’t ask for help when we struggle to cope.
‘Why don’t you just stop?’ people said to me. ‘You don’t have to write books if it’s too much for you.’
And it was hearing those truths that made me keep my mouth shut and keep going without letting those around me know just how hard I was finding it all. I wanted this life, I wanted it all, and I made myself ill doing it badly.
How to avoid burnout as an author
I learned a lot during this difficult experience and the subsequent cognitive therapy I received.
I’m still an author, a freelancer, and a happily married mother of two children who lives abroad, but I have learned how to lead the life I want in a healthier (and more manageable) way. And here’s how you can too:
Recognise when you’re feeling anxious or exhausted and allow yourself a day off. Just because you are your own boss doesn’t mean you can’t take it easy now and then.
Plan your day and stick to it. Work the hours you set yourself, and don’t be tempted to get up at 3am to write that story.
Eat well, sleep well, exercise. You’re worth it.
Communicate with those who love you. Your job may look easy, but they don’t know what mental strain you are dealing with. Reach out and ask for help.
Manage the expectations of others too; your clients, your children, and your friends. Boundaries are a must when you don’t have a place of work to go to each day or a fixed itinerary.
And finally, share your story with others. For a long time, I was ashamed that I’d allowed myself to get this ill over what was, fundamentally, not a life-and-death situation. I could have avoided those six months of physical and mental strain had I recognised the symptoms and given myself a break.
And that is why I have written this article in the hope that other creatives will also be kinder to themselves. The arts are not a meritocracy, not everything we do moves the needle in terms of increasing income, sales or exposure, and sometimes a little rest and a little grace can go a long way.
As an artist you have a lot to give the world, so don’t let your creative dreams get in the way of looking after yourself!