This week I felt like my mind would fall apart. I had intense headaches. But even worse, everything felt like a heavy burden. My work, my side projects, my family.
I woke up in the middle of the night and all my thoughts were scrambled and overwhelming. All I could do was to focus on my breath, try to relax. As soon as I let go, all these thoughts came back to suppress me. Thoughts about all my responsibilities and tasks. Is this what a burnout feels like? I tried to accept and probe the feeling. I felt like I was barely holding myself together.
During the day, I tried one meeting with nice coworkers, but couldn't think clearly, couldn't be positive. It felt like everything was failing, I was failing. Eventually I just accepted everything would burn down and I called in sick. It took some pushing from my wife though. Ofcourse nothing bad happened in my absence.
I was cold and tired. I cycled a bit as excercise (the weather was good for once). Then I binged on Netflix shows under a blanket. On the one hand, it was great to just give in. On the other hand I hate doing nothing useful, but it seems it was necessary.
It lasted about 30 hours. Maybe two days, because I woke up for two nights feeling weird. It's one day later now. I am still tired, but the headaches are mostly gone. I have positive thoughts again. I tried working, it was fine.
I have to record this episode. I committed to experimenting with more energy variation. So I predicted I would have periods of extremely high energy followed by low energy. I hope this was the lowest possible energy valley.
To be honest I had been having a growing number of minor headaches in the past few weeks. I also disliked work more. Maybe should have seen this coming.
The nine symptoms of depression are (according to DSM5 and this blogging psychiatrist):
Low mood (could be that you feel sad all the time, but could also be that you don’t feel anything at all)
Sleep problems (could be anything from having unusual trouble falling asleep, to waking up too early, to sleeping too long)
Loss of interest in activities (you no longer enjoy pasttimes/hobbies you used to find fun)
Guilt (or rumination about how bad you are, or low self-esteem, or excessive anxiety that you’re failing people / letting them down)
Lack of energy (you can’t get out of bed, you can’t make yourself work hard or pursue goals)
Appetite problems (could be either that you’ve lost all appetite, or that you eat more than normal – especially common with junk food)
Psychomotor retardation (you move more slowly than normal – kind of a rare symptom and hard to notice)
During this two day episode I suffered from items 1 to 6. Fortunately only temporarily. Imagine feeling like this every day... dreadful.
It's a few days later. It's a sunday. I still feel incredibly tired. Colleagues at work said I looked tired. My wife called me absentminded and she said I had a grumpy face. Try to just SMILE.
I did nothing noteworthy this weekend. Sat outside in the sun with the kids, or lied on the couch bingewatching Ragnarok on Netflix. I left a few pointless comments on social media to get some small dopamine boosts. I hate doing nothing. I have all these skills I want to learn, people to chat with and projects I want to work on.
I am not looking forward to working tomorrow. Still I think it will be OK, since I will coach a weeklong Julia bootcamp. So I have no tough decisions to make, no high concentration coding and little 'acting like a leader' bullshit. I don't even have to do the hard teaching work, since I'll be coaching the trainers. Any stuff I am teaching will be second nature by now.
I am slowly getting better. Dropped at least two points of the depression list. I am not feeling guilty anymore, just accepted this and mentally dropped all commitments. That also helps me sleep like a baby. Other points are slowly rising I feel (low energy, low concentration, low mood, low interest). At least I had some ideas for blog posts and I am writing this now (granted, I finished Ragnarok, so I have nothing else to do).
So the ground state remains bingewatching Netflix. I am still curious about that. What's up with passively watching simple stories that we humans can do it with the least amount of effort. In principle these stories are pretty dense in information, but we consume them with ease.
One higher energy state is doing some simple human interaction I guess. Chatting with nice and interesting people. Reading and posting on social media (I hate it, but it is easy). Slightly higher energy is reading other people's blogs. Beyond that lies the realm of creation: blogging, coding, organizing and more.
My mind is slowly clawing its way out of this dark pit, back up to those sunny green fields. Up there the only limitation is the amount of available time. Right now the limitation is energy, energy, energy.
Monday evening now. It was a decent day as expected. Light headache at the end, but it's already mostly gone. I like teaching motivated people. I wasn't really needed that much, but I enjoyed sticking around, helping a bit, chatting about what I know, writing some simple, elegant code. Julia is still a beautiful language.
Tuesday morning. I have a light headache again. Not a good sign. I'll try a meditation session before work, never did that before, since I always meditate in the evening.
Ok, did a 10 min meditation. Even used the Muse 2 to make sure I was relaxing. Aced the relaxation graph, but feel only slightly better.
In the evening now, it's going pretty good. Doing calm teaching helps.
Wednesday. Left the Julia bootcamp to the trainers, so I could join a bunch of meetings. Heachaches are back.
Perhaps I found the highest energy state: the management work. Context switching every 30-60 minutes. Making decisions. Talking with lots of people about boring topics, just to get a few things done. Trying to be on top of things and looking 'in charge'. It energizes some people, but not me. I do it because it's necessary to help myself and other engineers build stuff.
Teaching the bootcamp is different. It's more like a tribal gathering, where you talk to the same people all day about the same topic. And we constantly build and demonstrate small pieces of code.
I got a bit poetic about my state of mind:
A nebulous cloud of voices in endless meetings. I condense into droplets to fall back to earth, but I keep on evaporating. The ground is too hot, the promised paradise not there yet. Is this cognitive dissonance manifested in my physical agony? Must I choose? The cloud of clueless managers or the army of despairing developers.
Friday afternoon. I had some more meetings today. I don't feel awful, which I consider progress. I am not super productive yet, but maybe I am through the worst of it. As soon as I can work happily on side projects again in the evening I will consider myself completely recovered.
A lot or advice around burnout/depression/moods seems to revolve around noticing and avoiding it. It's definitely great, I don't like having such an episode long term. But perhaps even more important is learning to get out of such a bad mental state? I roughly recall the following advice:
Are you drinking enough?
Are you eating well?
Are you excercising enough?
Sleep and rest more
Do something fun
Try something new
Talk to nice people
Stop doing whatever makes you feel bad...
And in case you didn't grasp it yet: energy management > time management. Stop squeezing as much activity as possible in a day and start creating a system that provides you with a lot of energy. Then you can get important things done.
Reflect more often on yourself when you are happy and energetic. What causes that? How to get yourself energized? Fragility is trying to avoid a low energy state. Antifragility is learning to get out of a bad mood quickly. Rise like a phoenix from the ashes of your own mind.