In this series of authentic conversations around burnout, clients and people from my network share their transformative journey openly with the world. The intention with this series is to create awareness and understanding around burnout and chronic stress. My hope is that these stories will inspire others to be brave, challenge their beliefs and speak up on their needs, to avoid burnout and other stress related outcomes.
Below you can read the story from Marianne.
Bonjour! I am Marianne, a 43-year-old French madame. I have been living in the Netherlands for over 11 years. I started my career as an embedded software developer, and I am now responsible for all software development in a small medical company. I am the mother of two girls, and step-mum to my Dutch husband’s daughter.
What was your moment of truth?
Queen Elizabeth II once used the now-famous expression "annus horribilis" to describe a year that she would rather forget. 2012 was my "annus horribilis". In January, my perverse narcissistic father stepped up another level in his cruelty and announced to us by email that he was leaving our mother. He told us that he would live with his mistress and hoped we would be able to celebrate this wonderful development in his life with him. We were not as enthusiastic about his choice, and certainly not the way he chose to proceed with it. From that point, years of emotional manipulation by my father ensued.
In September that same year, my relationship with my partner and father of my two children came to a bitter and acrimonious end after 13 years. Years of mutual anger between us followed, and this, along with the problems with my father, caused me regular peaks of stress. A few months after that, my ex-partner decided to move back to our home country, and I became a single mum, in a foreign country, to my then 3- and 7-year old daughters.
From that moment, I entered into a mercenary mode. My goal: to make enough money to be able to keep our house, and continue the after-school activities of the children. I wanted to keep their lives identical to how they were before the separation. I worked full time and taught piano in the evenings and weekends to make that happen.
I tried to embody the softness of a mother and the authority of a father. I was the moneymaker and the stay at home mom. At the same time, I was also my mother's emotional support during her separation from my father. All of this while I was dealing with my own anger at my father and the emotional distress around my own separation. On top of that, I was trying to perform well at the new job I had just begun in a start-up, to take my career to the next level.
What beliefs or expectations were you carrying at this point?
I thought I had to do it all because that was the way I was raised. Our motto was: “You put others' needs before your own, you have to own your responsibilities because you are the adult in the room, and you protect your children whatever the cost.” The idea of not being able to cope with all of that meant that I was a failure.
I carried on like this for 3 years. I consciously ignored all the warning signs of distress my body was giving me until one Friday at work, we had a particularly stressful situation. I came home stressed and that evening I could not fall asleep. Neither could I fall asleep for the next 4 months. I just stopped sleeping COMPLETELY. I had been ignoring my body’s signals for so long that my body took things into its own hands and went on a full-on long-term strike. At the time I didn’t realize it but looking back, THAT was when I went into burnout.
Sleep was always my secret weapon to sustain such an active life, and without it, I felt like a tortoise without its shell. Immensely vulnerable, and thrown into a state of total depletion. After a few days of complete sleep deprivation, the panic attacks started. I felt that I would never get out of this hole and that created a downward spiral.
My first restorative reaction was to call my mom that Sunday to share with her what was happening. She came the following Tuesday to help me with the children. She ended up staying for four months…
I got in contact with my nearly retiring Huisarts who told me, that yes, it was tiring not to sleep but that sleeping pills were addictive so I should just let go and everything would be fine. Not what I needed to hear obviously. Finding the right care and the right ear in the Dutch health care system was an added difficulty. I think my Huisarts did not understand the acuteness of my situation. Or maybe I failed to explain clearly because I was not taking my symptoms seriously enough. My father has a history of antidepressant abuse so I refused to even consider going that way. Taking medication was being like him, a weak person, and I could not be that person. At the same time, being the sole breadwinner in the house, I had no choice but to continue working as I was on a temporary contract. I realized later that so many mornings I had put my life at risk, doing my long work commute by car when I had not slept a full hour the night before.
Antidepressant treatment and inner work were my saviors
3 more months passed, and although I had a lot of support at work from my employer, and at home from my mum, my family and my LAT partner, I continued to spiral downwards. I refused to hear my mum's pleading for me to temporarily take medication to help with the emergency of my situation. My aunt and uncle, who were my father figures, stepped in at that point to tell me that although my stubbornness was legendary in the family, I must stop the nonsense and get some medication.
Reluctantly, I started taking an antidepressant treatment that would also help to restore my sleep pattern. In a matter of weeks, I had stabilized myself again from a sleep perspective but was still suffering from anxiety attacks. I started to work with Eva to learn how to restore the communication between my mind and my body, and stop the war they were having with each other.
I stopped the medication after just a few months, despite everyone's warnings, and I relapsed. Often, we want a quick fix to our problems, but there was no quick fix for recovering from burnout. After a year, I could slowly wean off of the medication. Overall, it took me 3 and a half years to recover. It is only a few months that I feel I am back to my "old self’’. It took a lot of therapy, and a lot of questioning of my beliefs that I could not be weak, and that I had to do it all or I would be a failure. It was painful and scary. I had to find a new definition of myself where I could allow myself to be vulnerable. I had never wanted that! But finally, I surrendered to my vulnerability. And that was a blessing.
If you had told me in the first weeks of the burnout that it would probably be the best thing that could happen to me, I would have simply smacked you in the face. But now I believe it is. It forced me to drop the armor. To show my vulnerable self to my children, my partner, my boss, my friends, my colleagues and the rest of the world.
I was always the listener, the counselor, the strong one. And in a way, it prevented me from really connecting with people because I was not allowing them to be there for me. It was a hard, hard, hard thing to let people be there for me. To let myself need their help. To become more human and not this superwoman I thought I had to be.
Almost 4 years down the line, I have learned that stress comes... and goes. That there are sleepless nights but they will also pass. So, when they come, I acknowledge them, I let myself experience them. I befriend them. They are not my enemies anymore. They are my partners, my constant reminders that I have to pause for a while. That allowing myself to pause makes me a better mother, a better wife, a better daughter, a better human. And that I deserve to be all of those things without any pressure.
What advice would you give other women who identify with the situation you were in when you landed in burnout?
I would like to advise other women who identify with my situation to think about the safety instructions in a plane: “Please put on your own oxygen mask before helping others”. When you are passed out because of a lack of oxygen, you won’t be able to put an oxygen mask on your child’s face. It seems like common sense but I feel like a lot of women are raised, or pressured by society, to believe that they have to do it all: be perfect mothers, perfect partners, perfect workers.
Women are often raised with the sense that it is their duty to take care of others. But if you have no oxygen mask, you will pass out. It’s normal. Taking care of yourself, pausing, slowing down, is your oxygen mask. By showing vulnerability you also teach your children the most important lessons: they don’t have to do it all perfectly, they can pause, they can fail, sometimes they won’t be the best parent, partner or worker but they will be their best self and, in the end, that is more than enough.
I want to thank Marianne for her bravery in sharing her recovery story. I hope you will take her learning to heart, and listen to the wisdom she has gained through this experience.
Together we can change the narrative around burnout by being open about how we deal with the challenges in our lives. As being open in our vulnerability is the real strength. Women owning their stories, aligned with their bodies and souls, are the real power women, and the new leaders we need in our (business) world and society.
My wish is that this story inspires you to become real about your own life. To be brave, to start to reflect on your beliefs and lifestyle. My desire is that you take your body and soul seriously, and that you can see that you are more than just a walking head. A head that constantly pushes us to do more, and better.
The first step is to take a moment to pause and reflect. To start to connect with your body and soul. This practice of pausing and reconnecting with your body will help you to transform your life, so you align with who you truly are. Living from an aligned mind, body and soul gives burnout no chance to take hold.
Hi, I am Eva, and I support women who are working hard to climb the career ladder, or grow their thriving small business.
I facilitate them to create a life and career with purpose and wellbeing, so that they can create a balanced and conscious life. I do this by helping them to reconnect with their body and soul. This alignment creates authentic leadership and contributes positively to our current changing world.
If you have any questions about burnout, or you feel you are ready to ask for support to create purpose or wellbeing in your life, feel welcome to contact me. Find out the different services I offer for women like you.
I would also love to hear from you if you have had a burnout, are now recovered, and wish to share your story on my blog to inspire other women. If so, you can contact me here.