While sometimes hard to admit, I’m still learning how to handle burnout

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by Brianna Albers |

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I was all ready to skip this week’s column, convinced I had nothing to say and no energy with which to say it, when I realized something.

I’m burned out.

It crept up on me so quickly I barely had time to prepare. One moment I was crafting a plan to revise the book I’m writing to take it to the next level, and the next I was stuck. I had no motivation. I could barely bring myself to check my email, which is saying something, because I love an empty inbox as much as the next person. I was so burned out that I had to take a few days off just to feel like a human being again.

I didn’t understand it. I’d been taking it easy after finishing the book’s first draft. I was still working, but for the most part, my days were pretty laid back. I supposed my health issues could be taking a toll on me, but even that didn’t explain the degree to which I’d burned out.

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Going beyond my limits

After some reflection, I realized it wasn’t the number of balls I had in the air; it was the speed with which I was juggling them.

I took a week or two after finishing my draft to decompress. But then I was right back at it, planning with a frenzy, working toward my stupidly idealistic goal of revising 44 chapters in a little over a month. I wanted to finish by the end of May, when my parents and I would be leaving for this summer’s Cure SMA Conference in Austin, Texas.

My days were laid back, especially compared with my drafting schedule, when I was writing upward of 1,000 words a day. But I was still pushing myself. Revising one chapter a day wasn’t enough. To reach my frankly unrealistic goal, I had to revise 10 chapters a week.

It was possible. But it wasn’t realistic.

What drives my work ethic

Part of it was the siren’s call of productivity. Finishing this draft by the end of May would allow me to send the manuscript to critique partners to read while I was traveling. It would’ve worked out splendidly.

But it was more than just the desire to seem productive. Drafting took longer than expected; I wanted to make up for it by ripping through this revision. I wanted to prove, to myself and others, that I was a valuable member of society, that I could churn out books at the rate of my peers.

I’m never satisfied. It doesn’t matter how hard I work or how many hours I put into a project — it’s never enough, simply by virtue of who I am.

SMA takes up so much of my time and energy. In an ideal world, I could put 100% into my work; realistically, I can only put 50%, because the other half goes straight to survival. Medical appointments, chronic pain — it all adds up, chipping away at my capacity until I’m running on fumes.

I’m burned out because I struggle to accept reality. I want so badly to operate on the level of my peers, but I can’t. Instead of acknowledging that and accommodating my body, I push myself to the brink. I run the same scenario over and over, hoping this time it will end up differently.

It never does.

I’ve struggled with burnout for years, but it’s become even more of an issue since the pandemic. I earned my master’s degree four years ago, right after the pandemic started. I transitioned to full-time writing during the lockdown and have since written two novels (three, if you count the manuscript I shelved halfway through 2021). For all intents and purposes, I work for myself now. I set my own schedule. I determine what is enough and when. Everything is up to me, which would be great if I wasn’t obsessed with metrics that don’t serve me.

A few days ago, I was explaining all of this to my dad. He said something that has stuck with me: “You need to figure out how to do this sustainably, or you’ll never last.”

He’s right. If I want to write for a long time — and I do — then I need to accept my limitations. More importantly, I need to embrace them. I need to forgive my body for what it can’t do. I need to learn how to balance productivity and joy.

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Note: SMA News Today is strictly a news and information website about the disease. It does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this website. The opinions expressed in this column are not those of SMA News Today or its parent company, BioNews, and are intended to spark discussion about issues pertaining to spinal muscular atrophy.

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