Writing through burnout

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Source: Death to the Stock Photo

Sometimes I like to dress up, put on the music, pile on the make-up, and tell myself that it’s okay, that I’ll get through the day and it’ll be awesome.

Other times I change from one set of pajamas to the next and spend my morning staring at the screen, while bemoaning the state of my hair.

And then there are the times when I just stare out the window, wondering what the fuck am I doing with my life.

Sometimes, I rotate between those three states multiple times during the course of a single morning. On the whole, I find that I feel better if I can get out of the house and take my work to another place, although not always. And I definitely cannot say that writing always helps me through it.

As a person who experiences episodes of low mood and depression, I’m aware of the tropes surrounding artistic talent and mental illness. Artists are crazy. Are manias drive our genius. Our art saves us and it dooms us. We’re either blessed and cursed, never in between.

Yeah, no.

There are times when writing was helpful to me, although for some people,  it would not be for the “right” reasons. Growing  up, as a child and teenager, I wasn’t very much loved at school, my social life felt precarious, and while I got good grades, they were a source of stress rather than validation. Art, and writing in particular, were things I did for their own sake, and they rarely caused me trouble; but they were also a source of validation and comfort. Adults praised me for what I did. They encouraged my efforts. If all else failed, I could count on my stories and drawings to provide identification for me.

It wasn’t until later in life, when I started putting my back into it, that I realized art, too, could also be a source of considerable stress for me. (As privileged children sometimes discover when they reach adulthood.) Sure, when it’s going well, it’s well, fantastic even. But I don’t know what makes it go well. As far as I can tell, it has something to do with how the planets are aligned and if the sertraline is messing with my taste buds on a particular day, and also if I’ve been exercising and haven’t crushed any of my fingers with car doors.

As far as I can tell, burnout, anxiety, depression, they affect you the same way whether you’re an artist or not. You feel tired. You feel hopeless. You doubt yourself and anybody who has ever praised you in your lifetime. You wonder what you’re doing with your life. You try to push yourself to work just to prove that you’re not a failure. If it happens to be a productive workday, you may succeed, but there’s no guarantee of that. And if it isn’t a productive workday, God help you, you’re going to end up feeling like crap.

So here’s my advice on writing through burnout:

Don’t tell yourself that you will feel better once you sit down and start putting words and sentences out. You don’t know that. Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. But try checking your expectations for a second. Make a list if you want.

What are you hoping to achieve today?

Is it a realistic workload, or are you overdoing it?

Are all of these urgent, important things that you need to finish today? (If it’s a big list, you might want to take a moment considering how that list came to be – it may be that you said ‘yes’ to too many things.)

If you only achieved 50% of the tasks on it, would you still feel successful?

Is it possible to cut today’s to-do list by 50%?

This isn’t all compulsory – if  you have a system that works better, go for it, that’s awesome, and you rock for finding what works for you. If  you’re looking for ideas, it might be worth asking yourself some of those questions, though.

Depression, anxiety, exhaustion, they warp our perceptions of ourselves. They blow our faults out of proportion, diminish our successes, and make us feel like we’re supposed to “earn” our existence in this world by doing more and more and more, achieving extravagant tasks and finishing huge to-do lists every day. They don’t care for variation or nuance, even when those things are a vital part of life.

They make us feel worthless, when we’re actually not doing too bad. They will never be satisfied, even when we stop.

Maybe it’s time to call them out on that.

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