Some Myths and Realities of Burnout

Nothing scares me quite like burnout. For someone with so much general anxiety, I have few specific fears these days. Needles? Sign me up. Literally, I’m a plasma donor. Heights? I’m free to go ziplining again tomorrow. Snakes? They’re my buddies. Public speaking? I do it for a living. 

But burnout strikes fear into my heart. “I got burnt out once,” I’d say, with the thousand yard stare. 

The real problem is that I wrap burnout up in a lot of other things. The time I got “burnt out” was actually a psychotic break/the onset of paranoid schizophrenia. I basically dropped out of tenth grade, losing my life plan at the time and most of my then friends. Around the same time, my parents got a divorce; I cut off contact with my dad, and I moved out of my childhood home, soon having to rehome my beloved cat. A lot happened at once. 

The next several years were rough: frequent, severe panic attacks and general anxiety, developing an addiction to self harm, culminating in a suicide attempt, navigating my social and sensory issues with new awareness, plenty of hallucinations, delusions, and other psychotic symptoms, frequent, severe dissociation, seeing an ever changing cast of mental health professionals, with several near hospitalizations, trying what sure seemed like most of the psychiatric meds known to mankind, having various physical health issues, failing to accomplish much of anything, so on.  

But that’s not really burnout. That’s a lot more than burnout. Still, that’s what I think of burnout as, and the idea I was just straight up burnt out from the intensive magnet program I’d been in (plus extracurriculars) was thrown around a lot for a time, especially before the schizophrenia diagnosis. 

And going through that again is what strikes fear into me like nothing else. 

In a way, I can’t go through most of that again, logistically. And you can only develop schizophrenia once. Yes, I’ll have symptoms every day for the rest of my life, but you only have your first unexpected, confusing, world shattering psychotic break once. 

So there’s still, really, nothing to be afraid of. 

Actual burnout is unpleasant, but (typically) less world shattering. Still something to be avoided, but maybe not something to be feared. And pretty much every kid I went to that magnet school with had that. 

Burnt out isn’t exactly a healthy personality trait, yet it’s one that many former gifted kids add on to the label long term. And why do these things so often go together? 

Gifted kids are a bit of a cultural phenomenon. As a society, we hold an intense fascination with these kids that just seem to have something we don’t—a gift, if you will. Almost everyone loves the precocious child on a talk show who’s a prodigy at this or that, but that love is, frequently, tinted with something dark. There’s an element of jealousy—why didn’t I get this precious gift—combined with the denial of how much of this gift is frequently just the capacity to be obsessed, and very hard work. (I talk in another post about how privilege plays into, and doesn’t play into, productivity.) 

But the other factor, I think, is that when something is an extreme, we want to see just how far it can go. Gifted kids of all levels and types are frequently told how much potential they have, that they can do anything if they set their mind to it, and are often pushed to their limits. 

In explaining to these kids how much they can and “should” do (with not living up to your potential often framed as the worst thing one can do, despite the fact that not using every ounce of your energy is actually very healthy), we fail to show them where their limits are, teach them how to set boundaries, teach them that they are an asset they need to protect, teach them how to take care of themselves. We teach them that they need to be challenged, often in any way the adults feel like, often regardless of their actual skills or passions. 

So of course many of them become burnt out (and therefore unproductive) adults. They were never shown how to do anything but run at 101% capacity. 

And I do still actively try to avoid burnout. I subscribe to the philosophy of self care isn’t escaping, it’s creating a life you don’t need to escape from. Now, everyone just needs a break or to mix it up sometimes—and scheduling that in advance may be a part of preventative self care—but the point is, creating something sustainable. Not running at 101% all the time. 

I think one of the most important things is boundaries. Many productivity guides talk about what is the minimum I will do but not what is the maximum I will do (though, that’s starting to pick up, as we talk about work life balance in a world with more remote work). That is something we must all also think about in advance to avoid burnout. 

For example, I have limits on the events I’ll run. How many events I’ll teach or organize in a given week or month. 

I also schedule physical and mental self care as part of my minimums, including the basics, and things like various forms of meditation, tarot reading, hiking, digital detoxes (and having general digital boundaries), journaling, spending time with loved ones, traveling, reading, and other things that help my mental health, help me look inwards, unwind, connect and disconnect with the right things, and learn new things. 

I need to be realistic about my goals, and focus on only the essential: hence my belief in values based productivity. 

I know what’s important to me, and that’s what I put my energy into—and that’s what I take time to recharge my energy for. 

And that’s what matters. 

Schizophrenia in Creativity and Productivity

I honestly don’t remember much around the origins of one of my other blogs, The Schizophrenia Diaries. It was summer 2020 (and let’s face it—who has a great memory of summer 2020?). I wasn’t yet back on antipsychotics (by weeks to months), I was facing a pandemic, a world on fire, the recent death of my grandmother, and the one year anniversary of discovering my father’s death (leading to PTSD). I was mostly lost in a creative haze, spending hours every day on the swingset at the nearest park in heat over 110*F—dissociatively daydreaming up new plotlines with a song on repeat—or curled up in the fetal position on the floor in my office, near catatonic and hallucinating. It was A Time. 

However, it was one of the most prolific periods of my life. After spending most of a year after my father’s death pouring emotions into Contrivance, my primary fiction project of almost a decade, instead of sleeping at night, I was (mostly) taking a break from Contrivance’s dystopian doom and gloom that now seemed all too realistic, focusing on what I thought would be a quick, simple side project to perk me up, which eventually became the I’ll Give You series, my first real foray into erotica, which now has four books published and more in the works (spoiler alert: not a quick, simple, or always cheery side project after all).

And, I started The Schizophrenia Diaries, after having casually maintained a different blog for about a year. My first post wasn’t about writing or creativity at all. It was about Farrah, my so called schizophrenia tamagotchi, my recurring golden retriever puppy hallucination, who had recently come about. From there, I wrote about all manner of mental health related things for about six months, essays as ideas came up, then floundered a little on what to do with the blog. I was back on meds, and out of therapy. Vaccines were on the horizon. The election was over. I’d recently gotten married and published my first book. Things were good, and while I was grateful, I wasn’t sure what to write about now; without acute symptoms to reflect on, I got a little lost. Things on the blog slowed down, and I didn’t make a post in 2021 until mid April.

I had thought about it in the meantime. I didn’t really want to abandon the blog. Schizophrenia is highly stigmatized and misunderstood. Stories of schizophrenics are rarely told at all, and even more rarely do we get to tell our stories ourselves. I felt it was important—part of something bigger than me—to write on it. But, the blog was neglected when I was doing well, which gave me mixed feelings on it, and I wasn’t sure what I had left to say. I thought that maybe I needed more of a theme, an angle, something to ground the project besides processing symptoms as they arose.

I reread some early posts on the blog. What grabbed me was my last post before things really slowed down, a September post before two more that December and then silence for four months. It was about psychosis as a part of my writing process, how my schizophrenia and my colloquial tortured artist syndrome intertwined, about how my psychotic daydreams fueled my writing, how the darkness of the things I tended to write about both contradicted my triggers and calmed me down, and so on. 

That. That was my angle. Because even when my symptoms improved, they were still there—and the most cohesive way I could talk about them was through how they impacted my creative processes. No matter what, I was always writing. I always had that to talk about. 

With reframing and revising, things picked up on the blog again, even as my mental health has largely been okay. 

That said, The Schizophrenia Diaries is my home base for talking about psychosis and creativity, art, writing. 

But what about psychosis and productivity? 

I mentioned that one of the worst time periods in my life as far as symptoms was also one of my most prolific—how does that work? 

There’s definitely a balance.

After having made it without meds for about two years, when I started again, the first night I took Seroquel—well, firstly, it knocked me out so unexpectedly hard and fast I fell out of my chair at my desk—the change was immediate. For a few days, I was basically symptom free. It was almost like I didn’t have schizophrenia, overnight. I realized how bad my sleep had been—which didn’t help anything. It had been so bad, I realized, as Seroquel knocked me out at night, I wondered if I could chalk almost everything that year up to sleep deprivation, the miracle of Seroquel to the miracle of sleep, more than its use as an antipsychotic. 

But during those few days, I felt… conflicted. 

When Farrah—the dog who’s not real, mind you—found out—when I decided—that I was likely going back on meds, she worked those puppy dog eyes real hard. Why would you want to get rid of me, Mom? I tried to telepathically communicate to her that as far as I was concerned, I was happy to keep her, if I could get rid of the corpse and the blaring music and the black blobs and the flashes of light and the white noise and the maggots and all of the other issues. Later, I came to realize that Farrah—this is my current working theory, at least—represents the part of my mind that wants to be psychotic, freely creative without the limits of pesky reality.

During those first few days after Seroquel, I felt… a little empty. Numbed. Better than I had in months, maybe a year, in certain ways, but… something was missing. My daydreams were missing, my fiction fuel—they were back in the normal human range. It was like watching a movie on a decades old television versus watching it in IMAX 3D. I couldn’t get reality to go away entirely even when I tried—and normally, I didn’t have to try; in fact, normally, I had to fight to get back when my alarm went off telling me it was time to make dinner or something, nudging me out of daydreams. 

Despite how well I seemed to be doing, I wondered if I might lower the dosage. 

But, my body quickly adjusted. A few days later, I could sink into my daydreams that deeply again, but I had some more control over starting, and I didn’t have to fight quite as hard to stop. Other symptoms stayed improved but didn’t vanish. And, not lost in the daydream stage forever, it was easier to get out when I wanted, to grab a pen, and start putting daydreams on paper. But things can get pretty bad—lots and lots of time lost in fantasy on the verge of hallucination, not quite in my control—before I stop getting to the part where I write them down. After meds, I was overall less prolific, except for a few really, really bad parts of that prior year or so. 

However, that was just about writing. I thrived in other areas like I never had before, where psychosis was mostly a burden. It’s not much of an advantage as far as being a housewife, a landlord, a butler school student, an alternative sexuality educator, a group organizer, or even a nonfiction writer (overall, my blogging writing has picked up since). In fact, those last three non writing areas were all things I seriously picked up within a year after meds for the first time. I found more balance. I wrote a little less (we’re still talking frequently upwards of 25,000 words per month), but I did everything else that was productive a little more, more than enough to fill the gap. 

I see this psychosis equals creativity but lack of balance thing in my past, too. My schizophrenia was early onset. My symptoms first appeared around my fifteenth birthday, mid ninth grade. I was producing writing like crazy—even winning multiple rounds of National Novel Writing Month per year (this means writing upwards of 50,000 words in a month—many times, I got closer to 100k). However, school wasn’t going so well. I dropped out before the end of tenth grade. Now, I see why I was writing fiction like crazy while failing to turn in five-hundred word essays that weren’t word salad gibberish, or be non catatonic long enough to show up to class, or finish taking a test without yelling at demons only I could see.

So are there pros to schizophrenia for productivity, for me, as a fiction author? Yes. In other areas? Less so that I see right now, though I frequently joke that my general, various anxious neuroses are the edge that keeps me moving so quickly, lest I die tomorrow. Are there cons? Of course. Many. Still, I wouldn’t quite hit the cure button, for myself. 

It’s just, as many other things are, about balance.

On Conflating Skinny and Productive

It’s a long story, and, while crucial background, it’s not the main point of this post, so to give a quick summary: I’m schizophrenic, I’m a fiction writer, my line between character and self is a fine one, I kind of absorb my characters’ traits with time, I accidentally absorbed one of my characters’ anorexia.

(That was a lot. I know. Bear with me.) 

Seeking support, I joined a few online communities for people with eating disorders. One discussion topic I saw posted really got my mental gears spinning: 

Why do you really want to be skinny?

Because eating disorders aren’t really about food. 

The answers held all kinds of insights. To be desirable, or even lovable. To feel in control. To make their struggle visible. To be special, or good at something, or have an identity as the skinny friend. To prevent aging. To fit in with their gender identity. To self harm via starvation. To cope with prior food insecurity. To take up less space in the world. 

And what does skinny really represent to me? 

Productive.   

I wasn’t the only one, either. It’s not too hard to see where the idea comes from. 

My romanticized toxic ideal was the workaholic who’s too busy for meals, who happily gets wrapped up in work and forgets to eat, who’s a little nauseous with stress and excitement and caffeine, who turns to long walks or runs as moving meditation and to burn off nervous or excited energy, the tortured artist who self neglects. That image is common in media. Even I’d written that before.  

And I fell into that somewhat organically. But when the organic level only took me so far, forgetting to eat in a fit of inspiration became “forgetting” to eat as I stared at the wall, thinking only of food. I chased the external look anyway. Fake it till you make it mentality. I wanted to be that. I knew it wasn’t entirely healthy, but most tropes come with both pros and cons, and the pros were things I’m a sucker for: extreme productivity, psychosis influenced creativity, passion on the verge of obsession. 

But the cons were big Catch-22s. It’s hard to be productive when you’re hungry, when all your energy is going to re-counting calories and exercising, when you’re scrolling eating disorder memes to cope. 

And if what skinny meant to me was productive, could I lose the obsession with skinny by focusing on productive itself? By telling myself I needed to eat in order to be productive, that productive was the important part of skinny? 

Kind of. That’s been my most convincing thought process when I need to reconnect with why I’m recovering. I’m not sure if recovering is the word, but at least mostly trying to turn down the urges for disordered eating. But eating disorders—especially ones born of psychosis—aren’t quite that simple. 

And the skinny equals productive image is still out there. I recently threw myself back into productive—not just being productive on my actual projects, but reconnecting with my passion for productivity itself. I drafted and taught a webinar on the subject with great results, and got some fresh reading material on productivity, as I started this blog.

But something keeps catching my eye in the productivity books I’m reading. When talking about goals, weight loss keeps coming up as an example. Creating a habit of eating healthier, or less. Exercising more. Even routine weigh ins seem to come up constantly in morning routine lists, food logging in information system ideas. The idea of eating sweets only as a self reward (and not as a reward for weight loss).

All things I’m mostly trying to do the opposite of now, because I’d gone too far. 

And why do those things need to keep coming up? Why is there the assumption that someone reading a book on productivity wants to lose weight, eat less, exercise more, weigh themselves more, think about food more, treat food as a reward? There are so many other ways to be productive. Can people who are already in a healthy place—or too far down the other end of the spectrum—not be interested in this book on productivity?

I’m using the techniques these books teach to do the opposite of their examples, and eat. To stop losing weight at a rapid pace and stay in a healthy range, to stop exercising before I pass out, to not hop back on the scale every thirty minutes, to not count calories, to not think of food as a reward for starvation. 

Why can’t the go-to example be anything else that’s actually tied to productivity for people in a normal, healthy place?  

Then again, normal and healthy aren’t necessarily the same in this case. Just look at the stats of the average American’s weight and how they feel about it, versus the ideals. I get that, and the books may be targeted at normal. And, given that many of these books are also classified as self help, they may assume that there’s some kind of problem. Still, there are other examples like that out there. Why must we continue subtly conflating skinny and productive? Why must I?

Things to think about.