I’d only been in my new position at the agency for two days when I decided to take a mental health leave for a week.
On paper, starting that position shouldn’t have been a big deal: I’d be staying at the same agency I’d been working at for over a year, working with many of the same people. I’d even be keeping the same job title: senior proofreader.
All that was changing was I’d be working in a bigger department, and I’d have to learn some new software and manage a slightly heavier workload.
Still, it quickly became clear that this was going to be too much for me.
I’d already been noticing a decline in my mental health for months. It wasn’t just work stress: I’d been finding it increasingly difficult to cope with living alone during quarantine. The ongoing social isolation was starting to wear on me.
I’ve lived with depression and anxiety for most of my life. However, I’d never gone this long without physical contact or being able to count on one hand the number of visits I’d had with friends or family over the course of a year.
Things had taken a turn for the worse when my two friends at the agency – temp employees like me – hadn’t been kept on at the end of March 2021, but I had been. The combination of a new level of loneliness in the wake of their departure, and a deep sense of guilt about the fact that they had to look for a job and I didn’t, took a toll on me.
I was struggling.
Struggling enough to take an unpaid week (c’est la vie when you’re a temp – no sick days) to try to get back on track.
Unfortunately, I saw almost no improvement in my mental state by the end of the week. But a week was all I could afford to give myself, so back to work I went.
Depression and burnout are cousins, not twins
I realize now that on top of my usual cocktail of depression and anxiety, I was dealing with burnout, and there’s simply no way you can cure burnout 1) in one week and 2) when you’re going right back to the job that’s burning you out.
I knew I would need six months off work to recover and get my energy back, but that wasn’t in the cards for me. I didn’t have that kind of money. It seemed like I had no other choice but to keep working.
I thought I might be able to make it.
Then, just a couple of months after my week away, our editing team of three was cut down to two when our senior editor took a sick leave. He was going to be gone for three months.
My anxiety skyrocketed. That didn’t help my precarious mental state.
My boss could see how much I was struggling, and eventually we agreed that it wasn’t working out for me to be in that position on her team. Less than two months after the senior editor went on sick leave, I resigned.
You can’t cure burnout by working
I want to coin a new phrase: “wishful working.” The idea that, when you’re burned out and struggling with your mental health, the solution is working the same number of hours but with minor accommodations.
The inconvenient truth is that, sometimes, the solution isn't working differently; it’s not working at all.
But who can afford that? Especially as a temp: there are no paid sick days, let alone a paid sick leave. If you take time away from work, you’re putting yourself at a financial deficit trying to deal with your deficit of energy, health and resilience.
It’s a stressful decision to have to make: prioritizing your mental stability or your financial stability.
In my case, the decision was made for me. I reached the point where I was struggling to function at work, so my mental health grabbed the reins and said, “I’ll be driving from here on out.”
I left my job in August 2021 to focus on my mental health. As luck would have it, the Universe presented me with a job offer within a week of my resignation. It was a position I knew I couldn’t handle, but it was also an offer I couldn’t refuse. I grabbed the reins out of the hands of my mental health in a misguided attempt to rush to get financial stability again.
Suicidal thoughts are a red flag
I took the offer I couldn’t refuse – a lucrative editing job – and started in September. It proved to be way more stressful than I'd hoped it would be, and I was completely unequipped to handle it.
It was a 12-month contract. I only lasted three weeks.
Three weeks that were punctuated with two sobering commas: I’d brought myself to the emergency room in mental distress twice by the time I left. I was having stronger suicidal thoughts than I could remember having in a very long time.
The situation wasn’t sustainable.
So, once again, I left a job with no other job waiting, and in no better condition to work than I'd been before. In fact, I was in worse shape. I’d taken a step backwards in my attempt to recover from burnout.
I worked a total of one day in the months of October and November.
I was running out of money and options. My parents paid my November rent. I couldn’t ask them to pay for December’s, too.
I decided to take matters into my own hands and make arrangements to live somewhere without having to pay rent.
It would mean crashing with friends for a while. Crashing with friends would mean getting rid of all of my furniture and most of my possessions.
And that’s exactly what I did.
Buying my sanity by not working full-time
I worked a bit in December and January.
I’m working four hours a week in February. (Yes, four.) I’ve accepted that working four hours a week is as much as I can handle right now.
That’s a lie. I’m working more than four hours a week. I’m just not getting paid for it (yet).
It’s something I didn’t have much time or energy for when I was working 9-to-5 jobs, but it’s what I've wanted to be doing all along. It’s just that 9-to-5 jobs happen to pay the bills.
Free from working full-time the past few months, I've had the opportunity to devote much more time to writing, and it's been good for my mental health. I've also been spending much less time alone now that I'm living with other people (and a cat) for the first time in 10 years. I'm beginning to feel more human again.
I know I haven't fully recovered from burnout yet, and the depression has been weighing heavily on me, but I feel like I'm drifting closer to where I’m meant to be and what I'm meant to be doing. I feel like I’m closer to sanity than I have been in years.
Burnout is preventable
The jobs I resigned from didn’t cause my depression; it’s a pre-existing condition. However, doing those jobs when I wasn't well did lead directly to burnout.
I wish I still had the steady paycheck, and I miss being able to afford my own apartment. In the end, though, I’m glad that things happened exactly the way they did, because the price I was paying for that life was far too high. I was paying for it with my mind, body and soul until I felt internally bankrupt.
I’m in a better place, literally and metaphorically. I’ve moved from the city to the suburbs and I'm slowly recovering from burnout. I’m also making more progress getting my writing out into the world than I ever have before. I know these things are related.
I’m remembering who I am outside of the daily grind I was struggling in for so long.
I know that nothing I can do will eradicate mental illness from my life. It’s something I’ll always have to deal with. Burnout, however, has a beginning, middle and end.
In the end, I had to leave the 9-to-5 behind. The pressure of having to make as much money as I was just to stay afloat from week to week was too much for me, especially as a temp with no paid sick days. In a way, now that I'm only working a few hours a week, I'm finally able to take all the sick days that I've needed for months, if not years. It's coming at a financial sacrifice, but it's worth it.
I’m going to coin another phrase: “investing in sanity.”
I’ve bought myself time, and a more livable life, by dropping my living expenses so I can invest in recovering my sanity, and it’s already paying off.
In 2022, time is far more precious than money. And I know that investing time in my well-being now is the only way to avoid subjecting myself to "wishful working" in the future.