I’m exhausted and everyone around me is exhausted, but it doesn’t feel like we’ll ever get a chance to recharge, writes Liadán Hynes
I’m sitting in the waiting room of my dentist leaving a friend a voice note. “Finally here,” I tell her. I am there to get a root canal, and I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks. My dentist has promised me I won’t feel a thing (he wasn’t lying), that I would just sit back and listen to podcasts. No parenting duties, no urgent emails; untouchable. Bliss.[restrict]
I’m aware of the ridiculousness of looking forward to a trip to the dentist as a break, so I’m a bit bashful in the voice note. But my friend gets straight back, and instead of being bemused, she tells me I’ve inspired her; she’s booking in every kind of personal NCT task she can think of. Smear. Teeth cleaning. Micro breaks, somehow only justifiable because they are taken in the name of unpleasant personal upkeep.
Is it weird that I sometimes fantasise about being sick? I had asked a friend a few weeks before. Nothing serious, or painful, but enough to require a few weeks in hospital, where all I could do would be lie there quietly. Maybe read the odd book.
“Twice a year,” she replies immediately; she has the same fantasy. “Two stays.”
I am exhausted. Bone tired, the kind of exhaustion that doesn’t disappear after a good night’s sleep. And so is everyone around me. In the space of two weeks over various chats with four of my closest friends, they all reflect back the same thing. The barrel is utterly empty and none of us see any opportunity anytime soon for proper rest, for the chance to struggle back even to neutral.
A planned day off gets cancelled, and I cry all day, like a small child, inconsolable. I tell a friend about the crying, mortified, and she says matter of factly, “Oh yes, I cried all day Monday. Stopped Tuesday, then back at it again Wednesday and Thursday.”
Another says she worries if she started crying she’d never stop, then a few days later tells me she cracked, and had the crying day.
A third is just out of nearly 20 days isolation with two small children and her partner. She worked through it (from home) despite having Covid. She sits on my couch doing a thousand mile stare. Get to October, a medical professional she went to for back trouble told her, a reference to her current big project being over then. But then all the other stuff will be there, waiting to deal with, she says. She is self-employed and a mother of two children under five.
I am also self employed, a single parent of one daughter. Having small children means you are used to being constantly low-level tired; running your own business means it’s hard to ever really switch off.
But this is different.
There is an immersive quality to this; life itself is tiring. Living through a pandemic is exhausting.
And a pace that was manageable previously, because it was balanced out by other stuff, is now draining, because the other stuff has been taken away.
“I know exactly what you mean, I’m just too tired to articulate it further,” one friend says.
“I google the symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome daily,” says another.
Others speak of feeling completely overwhelmed, never switching off, guilty when they take a break, unable to stop thinking about everything that needs to be done, and missing their pre Covid outlets. How even the previously nice stuff, like meeting a friend, can feel wrought with tension now.
In the past 18 months, I‘ve seen my friends work full-time while also parenting and schooling children. I’ve seen them experience severely stressful work situations, mental illness, businesses falling part around them, absolute lack of outside assistance, and keep going.
So it doesn’t surprise me that they’re all exhausted in a way that feels totally different from the norm. I’ve experienced this kind of exhaustion before; when I was going through a divorce. Life itself, rather than one aspect of it, felt exhausting.
Like back then, I find much of the advice around burnout deeply frustrating. Take some me time. Cut back on stressful clients. Work less. REST.
So much of this advice seems to ignore the realities of people’s lives: Bills to pay, rent or mortgage to be covered, parenting children, or other caring roles to be filled, none of which can be simply stepped away from because you’re tired.
It often feels that there’s an underlying misogyny to a lot of burnout advice, as if women’s work is, under it all, a sort of hobby. Lovely for them, but ultimately, if it all gets too much, something that can be cut back on. As if making a living isn’t part of the point.
I listened to a male author talk about this kind of thing recently, and expound upon his strategy of only doing three things from your to do list a day. The notion that a to do list is not something that is self perpetuating feels… divorced from reality. Informed by a way of life that involves, well, a wife figure somewhere in the background, running the house, the kids, the life admin.
So I don’t want advice that acts as if the load can be lifted. It cannot. I want something more realistic than that. Not something which ignores reality.
When I speak to Chartered Clinical Psychologist Dr Nicola McGlade, she explains that it is totally normal that so many of us currently feel completely spent. We might be lifting restrictions all over the place, but that doesn’t mean the impact of the pandemic will similarly disappear. “Over the past 18 months we have all been continually exposed to multiple Covid related stresses. Many of these stresses are still there. The uncertainty of what is the future, when will we be back to normal, or if it’s not normal, what will that look like?”
Simultaneously, now that we are, hopefully, past the worst of it, the emotional effects of living for a sustained period in a condition of fight or flight are being felt.
“Covid has been a collective trauma. Exposure to stress, particularly long term stress, will have a significant impact on us, no matter how resilient we are. Often the emotional impact of a trauma comes after the fact. We go into fight or flight initially. It then overwhelms us. So all of the emotions that we’re all experiencing at the moment are really, really normal. Those emotions are going to have an impact on how we feel physically.”
Experiencing a trauma can also affect your levels of motivation, your desire to engage in the things.
“There’s stuff that we can do in general to start healing this trauma,” Nicola explains. “Good lifestyle habits are a start; good sleep, good diet, exercise, social contact, watching our alcohol consumption.” Change heightens emotions she adds, hence everything feeling a little more intense right now, when it can feel as if we are living in a constant state of change and uncertainty.
Simply just acknowledging to yourself how you are feeling can help bring the strength of those emotions down a notch, Dr McGlade explains. “Identifying and labelling our emotions helps to reduce their intensity. I am overwhelmed and that’s making me feel really tired, it’s making me have thoughts that I can’t cope, and that this is really hard. That might run into thoughts of maybe there’s something wrong with me, that I can’t cope with this, it makes me want to withdraw, and kind of jump into bed and hide under the covers, or open that bottle of wine and have a drink, or get cross and angry.”
If we can identify the trigger of the emotion, what is making us feel this way, it takes the focus and momentum off the stress and moves it towards what is going on, and points you towards feeling slightly more in control, as our natural human instinct to plan kicks in.
“What can I do about this? That then gives us hope, and gives us focus, and something of a feeling of control.”
A lack of an off switch option is something counsellor and psychotherapist Ejiro Ogbevoen has noticed in many of her clients at the moment. Often, they’re working in the home, and so they leave the work space to move straight into family life. “You’re literally continuously doing something.”
We need to make a significant shift in our perspective, otherwise we will simply repeat more of the same behaviour, she explains.
“We really need to stop, and take a look. ‘Should I be going the way I’ve been going?’” Otherwise breaks won’t have much of an impact, because afterwards you will simply jump back on the same non-stop treadmill of overwhelm.
Next, it is necessary to change your mind-set around the stuff that needs to be done. “You are coming from a standpoint that says ‘when it’s done, I’ll be ok,’” Ejiro points out. “As opposed to, ‘you know what? I’m ok. And I’m going to do as much as I can’.”
Because the thing is, it will never all be done. Better to accept that, than try endlessly to get to the bottom of the list (this will never happen, I speak as someone currently operating off a six page to do list).
“If we can adjust our mind-set a little bit,” Ejiro says, “come from a sense of ‘all the dishes are everywhere, the laundry is everywhere, the jobs, and the emails are all there, but let me take a moment, catch myself, be ok, and go as far as I can’. Because you are not going to get it all done; we need to accept that, and support ourselves in that.”
Become aware of the signals that will alert you to the fact that you’ve gone into this state of overwhelmed panic, Ejiro explains. Check your momentum; how fast are you going, is the pace sustainable? How much are you trying to do, and how realistic are those aims?
Check where your perspective is focused. “Are you looking at all the things that need to be done? That’s not helping. It’s about taking one step at a time, and just staying with that as you’re doing it, because the list is always getting longer.”
Notice if you are in a state of agitation, that ‘oh my god’, panic voice in your head. Or if you’re self–judging, comparing what you are getting done to what others are managing. That there is a lot to do is a given, she says. How can you best support yourself?
Crucially, we need to reconsider the notion of self-care, Ejiro points out, focusing more on internal work.
“Most people, when they think of self care, they think time with friends, holidays, the gym. It’s really down to taking care of things in house. Are you meeting your needs? Are you drinking water? Most people forget to eat. You’re demanding of yourself, physically and mentally, but you’re not giving yourself what you need to do all that you’re expecting of yourself.”
It’s important to stop looking at self-care as if it’s something that happens as some kind of punctuation. It should be consistently woven through the fabric of our lives, in miniature ways. “We need to look at self care as if it’s breathing, as opposed to something we take a break to do. You’re doing it as you’re going, in the same way as you’re breathing as you’re going. Otherwise it’s like holding your breath until the weekend.” This is important because it helps to consistently replenish our energy, something we often wrongly treat as if it is an infinite source, Ejiro adds.
Both Nicola and Ejiro advocate the taking of small moments of respite during the day, and both say it is important to figure out something that works for you, rather than taking from some arbitrarily decided cannon of self-care. Walks aren’t for everyone. It might be a quick cup of tea, a few minutes in nature, five minutes of yoga, breathing or grounding exercises (see the internet for endless examples).
“Find the things that you flow with,” Ejiro says. “It doesn’t matter what it is that works for you, but let it work. The things that help you find ease. Otherwise you’re just giving yourself a hard time. Find opportunities to down tools, no matter how important your work is. Things, people, places, that promote your ease and your comfort, whatever that looks like for you, not what the experts are saying.”
This may not come easily to some of us, Ejiro points out, and we may need help in getting started with these new habits. Simply getting back to some kind of normal will not be enough to heal the trauma of Covid, Dr McGlade points out. “More support may be required, and people should not be afraid to seek support if they are struggling. A GP is generally a good place to start.”