A burnout story

Scene: Spring 2015, Tokyo Narita or another Asian airport, 6am…or 6pm

Time + day?— I didn’t know (or care) anymore. I would find out when we boarded.

Quick [arm] pit and breath check: Yep, they were still fresh, even after the workout on the first flight.

Wait, did I pack [insert random object/resource unavailable in destination country] ? *Cue disproportionate anger and self-hate

Man, I’m an idiot. Of course, of course I forgot that.

Better make something happen — finish a to-do right now to make up for it.

Layovers and boarding time became a challenge — How much can I get done while we cue?

The flight attendants were dressed in matching berets, neckerchiefs — relics from a time and persistent culture of accepted discomfort and people (i.e. women)-as-automatons. I systematically, instinctually moved to the back of the plane, beyond my “assigned” seat, to stand with a furrowed, concerned brow — obviously focused on my phone at some obviously-important task.

All quiet on the Eastern and Western fronts, for now.

I continued to clear out emails and Slack notifications like a desensitized junkie. The small drips of dopamine barely even registered from each response. Faceless team members were @ addressed, replied to in a flurry of specific, actionable, problem-solving replies.

An impossible goal-state was temporarily achieved when I saw the highlighted channel revert to an acceptable state of blandness.

Do you know where your seat is, sir?

Oh yes, I’m fine thanks. Just waiting for the, uh… bathroom.

*cue practiced smile and mostly-sincere thank you nod

The strategy paid off again. The achievement felt empty.

As the final, flustered late-comers settled into seat assignments, and the gaps were revealed — wide open rows and empty seats to re-create a 1st Class space in Economy, complete with a full bed, multiple charging outlets, and the delicious isolation and possibility of a 12-hour flight.

With the anxious kind of confidence and desperation of the over-connected, I “settled” into the optimized space. It was natural to befriend the attendants in small moments as everyone slept around me. We were trapped in the same obligations of our roles, serving others and other causes beyond the conventional expectations of the grounded.

I switched between frantic sprints of writing and strategy development, cueing up content, specs to push and new tasks for post-landing. My “breaks” were overly-intense body weight workouts and deep stretches in the wide-open rear alley of the 747 (another strategic location, timed for use between meals times).

My meals were doubled and tripled up by concerned airline employees as I ravenously devoured and nervously asked for extras — always plentiful and gladly delivered. Older attendants hated to see the waste of unused meals, as they often told me, watching my consumption in semi-awe. On the third serving, I would even dare to watch an in-flight movie — at least part of one — before the anxiety and non-productivity itch became a mental infection.

This was my “life” —in different shapes and shades of fire engine red— for as long as I could remember.

It had included all of the “healthy” drivers that I had settled on and accepted as my principles for operation. As any given type of modern human, I bet you can relate to extremes of diet, exercise, and schedule.

These are specific to my eccentricities:

  • Career: a constant, overlapping series of sprints for startups and tech companies in diversifying roles, skillsets, speaking, representing (previously for political campaigns)
  • HIIT and powerlifting as functional supplementation for competitive Jiu-Jitsu training
  • Hardcore high-protein, low-fat Intermittent Fasting diet (fighting hunger in the a.m. and orthorexia at night)
  • Leading dual social lives of a professional networker and appointed social/party organizer + default D.D. (designated driver)
  • a jack-of-all-trades-master-of-none approach to everything else
  • Singlehood and abstinence: ain’t nobody got time for…anything distracting

The sprint never stopped — a relay race where I could only hand the baton back to myself.

My only escape, what I thought was a balance, came in over-training and extremes of exercise — combat sports, equally risky wannabe powerlifting, seeking external validation as a tough-guy.

Training partners and the brotherhood kept me sane, functional as toxic stress met a toxic masculinity mindset and compulsive exertion.

You already know where this is heading.

Life felt like a constant struggle. Forever escalating in its intensity and responsibilities, the “opportunities” became sacrifices and overwhelming efforts dominated by endless and unfulfilling To-Do lists.

I hit the wall — and it was covered in slimy, black mold.

A health crisis had caught up to me. It used the constant focus of my own overcommitment to quietly rise to overtake me.

It did not care what timezone I was in.

It did not care what was on my To-Do List.

It used my exercise and productivity addiction against me.

Silver linings and nature’s gifts of humility are hard to see and appreciate when you feel like you’re dying. With an accumulation of stresses, ignored maintenance and overload signals, all released and allowed to shut you down by biotoxin exposure — you actually are dying.

Like the machine I was — I needed to see data to make a conclusion. The evidence was everywhere, and my rock-bottom was just taking shape…

Continued in Part 2 of “Juggling Timezones — A Burnout Story” — The Journey Back from the Brink

Originally published at medium.com