My Burnout & Recovery Journey: A Framework For How I’ve Understood It

My truck dashboard a few days ago that is a good representation of where I was

In my mid-twenties, and before starting a new job in a new town, I took two weeks off to clear my head, do some thinking and get a change of scenery.

I wanted to do an extended roadtrip across the country and get some air and see some new places.

My ultimate destination was Savannah, Georgia. (Gorgeous!)

Then back home another way.

The roadtrip was just what I needed.

The gift: TIME and SPACE … for just me.

And as I’ve reflected on my Crash and Burn(out) starting around Dec. 2021, I’ve thought back about that roadtrip as a framework to understand my burnout and recovery journey so far.

My intention in sharing a reflection of my burnout and recovery is (1) to know you’re not alone, (2) to inspire you and help you think about your own journey and finally (3) most importantly, to not go it alone, and to seek support and guidance from a trained professional if needed, and from the people who love and care about you most.

(For further background, you can reference my posts on Everybody Hurts and It’s OK to Ask for Help and the Iceberg of Life here as well as the posts before this one.)

With that, I share my burnout journey and the framework for how I’ve thought about it.

The Check Engine Light Starts Blinking

This is a photo of my truck … the Check Engine light has been on for years

October 2021 — This phase was the preceding months of my crash, when I was physically and emotion exhausted. But it was a culmination of a lot of events (the sale of my company, leaving my beloved team, and feeling loss of identity, meaning, purpose) and years spent driving as fast as I could — constantly in the redline.

As in cars, if you drive in the redline of RPMs for too long, it can cause real engine damage.

I had done so with my body and mind, treating myself like a racecar when in reality I wasn’t in my 30s anymore but mid-40s.

I felt the wear and tear in my body and mind.

Physical Pain

In October, I broke my foot running in the backyard barefooted with my kids, and at a doctor’s suggestion wore a post-operation boot on it. Then I started a 4-trip 3-weeks string of straight business travel (it seems glamorous, but I’ve dreaded most of the travel I’d done for the last 15 years).

Simply put, I hadn’t taken good care of myself. For years, I drank cup after cup of coffee all day to amp me up and keep me going, then at night had drank away my pain and gotten terrible sleep.

Emotional Pain

Although I’ve had a therapist for over a decade, some of my deep inner work had come to the surface, including my recovery from alcohol addiction (April 2019) and some extended family conflict.

It was time to do that deep inner work.

Breaking Down & Pulling Over

December 2021 — With all that, I rolled into the holiday break relieved to get some time away from “work” and rest my aching body and heart.

I thought a good two-week break or so of rest and recharge, disconnecting from work and taking on some overdue house projects (cleaning out the garage) would suit me well.

But I needed much more.

As the break ended, and it was time to go back to work, I started having near panic attacks and debilitating gut pain when I got near “work” or a keyboard.

I’d quickly get overwhelmed and crushed.

When I tried to even rev the engine and get back on the road, I’d find myself laid up in bed the rest of the day.

There was no revving to be had. And I knew something was really really wrong.

Checking the Gauges & Popping the Hood

January 2022 — All the years of neglect of my physical health, I felt very much like I was broken down on the side of the road, with four flat tires, an engine steaming and a dead battery.

I couldn’t go fast. I had one speed: SLOOOOOOOOOOW.

To do anything more than that meant I was back in bed.

Professionally, being an entrepreneur for over a decade with its highs and low had finally caught up to me. Emotionally, I’d been carrying all the weight of the world on my shoulder (worry, competition, conflict, pressure, responsibility), and physically doing things that were out of my normal speed for too long (GO GO GO, constant business travel, few real detached breaks where I left work at work) made me miserable, tired and broken.

As I started to review the major areas of life and check the gauges, I knew I had been driving on fumes for too long with a neglected engine.

In January, I asked my therapist for weekly appointments (Friday @ 10 am) to help me figure out where I was and what to do next.

Going Off Road

This was the longest stretch, but the core of my recovery.

It’s where the real healing, recharge and recovery, the new perspectives, and appreciation and gratitude for the simplest of things grew in my heart.

All I could do was walk. Step by step. Take on very very little that resembled my professional work. Mostly just sit, rest and be alone with my thoughts.

“Slow and steady” was my mantra.

All the options of “work” seemed stripped away from me. I stopped checking email, going near my laptop … and with my wife’s support and help we told our team I was “out indefinitely” and she took over the two businesses I was running.

I hated it.

Loathed it.

Kicked and screamed against it.

I tried everything I knew and could do to get back on the road.

But nothing would work.

Just slow and steady. Slooooow and steady.

The message my body and heart were telling me was: It’s time for a long overdue break. A real one. And because I couldn’t do it, I felt my body was telling me: I’ll do it for you.

This is why I often refer to this journey as my “forced” sabbatical.

The early days of this felt like being lost in a vast uncertain wilderness without a compass.

But the “fix” for what I was going through was the perfect right thing I needed:

TIME AND SPACE

Time and space to …

  • Lose the identity I had wrapped so firmly around my work as an “entrepreneur”
  • Lose the purpose and meaning I had attached so firmly inside of my work “making people’s lives awesome” except my own heart
  • Detach from the emotional burdens of carrying the world on my shoulders, while going as fast as I could, that ultimately ended up crushing me — at one point, I said, “Let it burn. I don’t care.”
  • Feel absolutely lost and the uncertainty of the dark wildness — “sitting” with my emotions as therapists say. I had no choice.
  • Go on Airplane Mode, step out, step away so that I could start the painfully slow process of untangling, letting go, giving up, surrendering

I went sober from work.
I had to go sober from work.

To many of my family and friends who asked, I eventually said I was on an extended “sabbatical.” That was an easier way of saying, I wasn’t working and I couldn’t work. I was scared, worried and didn’t know what the next day or week meant for me professionally.

Eventually that wandering and lostness turned into exploration and curiosity and renewal … it transformed eventually, painfully slowly, into TIME AND SPACE to:

  • Reassess and reevaluate what happened and more importantly why
  • Relearn the basic practices of self care, putting myself and health first
  • Identify and understand the areas that caused me heartache and starting to find about options and alternatives with my Support Team (my wife, counselor, my entrepreneurial group)
  • Rediscover and reconnect my passions, interests and what I really wanted from my work
  • Recalibrate and rewire my approach and attitudes for how and why I did things, with a view that they aren’t fixed, but with a “growth mindset”
  • Reestablish my identity, my purpose and meaning in all of life
  • Start on my deep inner work and deepen my recovery
  • and finally DREAM again …

The Pull Back

April 2022 — I started to feel a small tiny tug and pull back to work. But as I tried work, it scared me. I needed more time. So I took more time.

I couldn’t put a deadline on it as I always had.

But this tug reminded me of my Savannah cross country roadtrip. At some point, I just wanted to go back home.

May 2022 — Then I got invited to a two-day summit in New York City for work. It was a good test. Just two days. Minimal travel. I took it very easy. Very easy.

When I returned home, I felt good and accomplished. It felt like a good test and practice to do things differently, especially as it was one of the things I came to loathe about my work.

June 2022 — I went, alone, to a big work conference in Europe. Although the people at the conference are some of the greatest people, in one of my favorite places on earth, it was a previous business travel nightmare. Half a day on a plane with multiple connections, and another 3-hour leg by train to go.

AND my luggage was lost.

But it had lots of high points too, in particular, spending quality time with some amazing friends and my 45-minute nighttime stroll to my hotel from the conference.

I’d be lying if I came out of that unscathed. It was part a regression and part a solidifying turning point for me of all I’d learned.

When I got back home, I counted my blessings and felt overall it was a good test and another bigger practice of some key ways to manage it all better. (Spoiler alert: Don’t go alone, check out when I’m done and take lots of walks!)

Starting Back Driving on the Service Roads

June-July 2022 — as I type this I’ve been back to work for several weeks now, taking on more and more responsibility, but still slowly.

I’ve limited myself to 20 hours a week and not sure I want to change that.

I still get overwhelmed sometimes and stuck in corners and darkplaces.

I still find myself taking on the weight of the world.

But I have fresh perspectives, boundaries, awareness, practices and learning to keep applying to my work.

All because I got TIME and SPACE from my forced sabbatical.

Afterword

In all of this, I did not go alone.

I didn’t do any of this by myself. I had love and support and care from dozens of people. And I learned even deeper to go together … but to really lean in.

My Wife

First and foremost, I had the incredible support, help, love and care of my wife, Lindsey.

With the prospects of two businesses we own that I was running suffering and me crashing personally, Lindsey stepped in in 1000 different ways that I’ll never be able to express and show my gratitude for.

If it weren’t for her, so much of my life and our lives would have gone so from worse to bad and I fear not able to recover.

She didn’t just keep things afloat personally … she paved the way to make it better for me professionally too.

I like to think I choose my spouse well, but I actually hit the ultimate Jackpot with Lindsey. She’s my lover, my best friend, my partner in all the things. For 12 years now together (11 married) she’s everything and more. I could not have dreamed of a better human for me than her.

For better or worse, richer or poorer, sickness and in health was put to the test with a huge wallowing dose of self-guilt … but she just kept showing up, supporting me, and juggling the burden of her businesses and mine (all ours) plus all the other things of life.

Beyond her love and care, she afforded me what was so critical for all of this and gave me the priceless gift of TIME and SPACE to take care of and work on … myself.

Thank you so much for this time and space, Linds.

Takeaway: Who you marry or choose to spend your life with is not just absolutely crucial to your “success” (she has been exponentially) but infinitely more so to your health and happiness and everything else. Choose wisely. Find your person and lean on them when you need it, and be the one to lean on too.

My Therapist

I already had a therapist (since 2010 – mine now is Trent) but now I asked for weekly standing appointments (Fridays @ 10 have been my mantra). I knew I needed help and support of a professional.

Each week Trent helped me work through, untangle, rewire and simply understand what I was going through, what I had gone through (The Body Keeps Score) and how to just take the next step.

Takeaway: You benefit less from not opening up to your therapist. When I got really real with him, it took our work together to a whole new level and for my best.

Those Who Rush In When Others Run Out

I’ve talked and thought and practiced having that vital Support Team around me for years, but this pushed me further into ASKING for support more than ever.

I worked to lean in on them all. And felt and received love and support on another level because I needed it.

There are so many to name, but my team (and community), my entrepreneurial group (who welcomed me back in January with open arms), my dearest friends and family (you know who you are) I got to reconnect and deepen relationships with through my sabbatical made all the difference for me as I felt lost and wandered.

I love you. Thank you for being you in my life.

***

Now … how are you doing? Like … really.

Are you taking time and space you need?

Is it time to book that two-week recharge?

Find and book an appointment with a therapist?

Are you leaning in, or isolating?

As always I love hearing your stories.

***

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