Adventures in Burn Out

Maybe something positive comes out of the pandemic shutdown.

I’ve just been out of work for almost seven months due to the pandemic. That’s the longest since I came to the United States in 1996. But being forced to stop and take a break made me realize how burned out I’d become with my job, and my circumstances in general. That was a surprise since I thought of that work as a “good job”, liked the show and liked the people I was working with. I also thought of things generally as improving from previous years.

What went wrong?

Honestly, I’ve never done well with “regular” jobs where I’m going to the same place to do the same thing every day on somebody else’s schedule. My two favorite work situations have been as a computer programmer, where I set my own hours and could just obsess over problems as the mood took me, as long as I got the work done, and later in freelance video production. Being a freelancer was great because I had regular clients with a variety of work, got paid well, and had lots of down time for my own purposes. Now, however, I’m mainly on longer term projects with daily schedules, which has the advantage of predictability but gradually wears me down and is too much like a “real job”.

The process of gradually being worn down led to a bigger problem. Like the apocryphal frog in a pot of boiling water, I’d normalized burn out.

I have a history with burn out. I grew up in a high-stress environment which focused heavily on will power and self-discipline to get by, rather than problem solving or managing yourself. It’s not that self-discipline is a terrible thing. It’s very useful. Usually, I can make a conscious decision about achieving goals and push towards them regardless. But there are limits.

Having grown up in that environment, more of my habits are about pushing through to reach the goal than looking after myself. This is something I need to adjust and manage more carefully.

Now I know about ASD, I also realize that self-discipline is to some extent fighting against physical processes in my own brain. Which means taken far enough it will eventually reach a breaking point. It’s not a magical solution. It has to be used with some discretion.

More curiously, you may not actually reach the breaking point. But you may skirt the ragged edge of it, not imploding but never escaping it, like a star trapped in a malignant orbit. This is where I got myself earlier this year.

In this state, things that seem like useful coping mechanisms are actually just allowing you to continue as a smoldering wreck, without resolving underlying issues. Even when I thought of myself as doing well, I was really just getting by. I’d come to accept a lot of stressful and undesirable elements in my circumstances, partly because I couldn’t change them but partly out of habit. I had built routines that got the job done, but perpetuated skating on the edge. At some point, you stop questioning what you’re doing or why you’re doing it and whether there’s a better option. As the burn out spiral heats up, you lose the ability to think on a higher level, and just become focused on getting through the day. And the next day. And the next.

So then the film and television industry went through a period of massive disruption due to COVID. Production can take months and involve dozens or even hundreds of people working closely together. You’ll never get finished if your cast and crew are deathly ill, incapacitated, or worse. That’s given me a chance to rethink and reinvent my conceptual circumstances, some forced by the need to work remotely, but some by choice.

My current puzzle is: why am I not bouncing back like I used to? My previous strategy has often been to just do nothing until I can’t stand it any more. Then I’m motivated to get back to things I care about, discard ones I don’t. Maybe this isn’t working now because 2020 has not been a normal year. We had to deal with a fire evacuation on top of everything that’s been happening on a national level. Plus being out of work is not like being on vacation. The other possibility is I need some wins, not just stasis and time off.

At least, now, I feel more like I’m back to making proactive choices rather than getting by and hoping something changes.

By the way, I prefer the concept of “burn out” to “depression”, even though the symptoms are similar. With “burn out” I know how I got here and have some idea what to do about it, which makes a difference.

The next challenge is to get back to productive activity, without falling back into old patterns and burning out again.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: