How did I burn out and almost lost my mind
On the brink of insanity. No connection with people, extreme anxiety and panic attacks, vertigo, desperation, low self esteem and depression. That is how I felt when I went through burnout two years ago. I was in a deep hole. Until an unconventional illegal drug experience helped me turn my life around and I started to feel again.
I’m following software developers on social media and many have their own stories with burnout, anxiety and depression. We can call these psychological issues the dark side of our profession. I’ll share my experience here and maybe it’ll give you a few helpful pointers how to avoid going so deep by noticing symptoms earlier than I did.
Here comes tiredness
I’m a freelance iOS developer. Back in 2016 I had a really good client from United States that provided me a steady flow of projects. I started working with this client when I had no projects for some time, so I was really trying to be the best I can for them.
I’m based in Estonia and a client in United States means 7 hour time difference and late night working hours. I also had a personal programming project going on. That meant personal project in the morning Estonian time and client stuff in the afternoon. I was pushing 12 hour workdays and tried to squeeze family time in there as well.
The very first thing that hit me was constant tiredness. I was tired and at some point I started hearing high pitch noise in my ears.
It was a tinnitus. I was still excited about work and I was doing exactly what I wanted to. I was just so tired, that during the evenings, after 10PM or so, I could not come up with results. I was staring at my screen and nothing useful came out of me.
At the same time while feeling tired I was not able to sleep well. I woke up at 4AM most of the nights and was unable to fall back to sleep. I could still sleep in random times during the day or when I wanted, but it was still annoying to have my head full of thoughts and my eyes open wide from 4AM to 6AM.
My immunity seemed to be going down too. I tried to get it up by taking C and D vitamins, but it did not seem to help much. I still caught the flu whenever I was near someone sneezing.
As I had a big project in my hands from the client and being the only iOS guy on that, I could not slow down. I pushed myself further and worked until my eyes were red.
Here comes depression
Soon I started feeling down emotionally. I had no distinct emotions or when I did they were all negative. You know the feeling when you think government is trying to screw you and everyone around you are arseholes.
I did not feel like going out to socialise. I started avoiding birthdays and dinners with friends and giving lame excuses about too much work when I was invited. I remember once, we were supposed to visit family friends but, at the last minute, I took a rain check and my daughter and my girlfriend went without me.
Gradually I stopped connecting to people. I did talk to them over instant messenger, but I never went out to meet anyone. I hardly spoke to my family. I just continued working on the stuff that came my way.
From the negative thoughts I sensed that something is wrong. I read self help books and delved deep into Eckhard Tolle and Alan Watts. They helped me out temporarily, but I was still steadily going downhill.
At one random point I decided to take a month long trip to south of Spain. I had money so I rented a nice apartment, took my guitar and went there.
You can run away from bad weather or people, but you can’t run away from yourself.
So in Spain I just continued working. There I had nobody to talk to and I was really alone with my thoughts, feelings and depression.
Here comes anxiety
In a couple of weeks being all by myself, working long days, in Spain, I had a really bad migraine attack. This ate all my energy and soon enough I started to constantly feel that something isn’t right. It was anxiety.
Then all of a sudden I was having severe panic attacks. Tried to calm myself down. Felt my heart bumping really fast and thinking I might be having a heart attack. I thought I’m losing my mind.
Then the panic somehow became worse ending up being a vertigo attack. When vertigo hit me I had to lay down and feel the room spin around me. That shocked me so bad that I took the next flight home.
I could not work any more. I could sit behind my computer for a maximum of two hours. After that I started having vertigo again and tinnitus became really loud. Also the ears seemed to be pressurised somehow.
I was clenching my jaw constantly and I had totally lost the ability to connect with people.
I also had panic attacks every now and then. It was a frightening place to be.
I visited many doctors about my symptoms. The most problematic was the tinnitus, as it was constant. My doctor showed me some exercises how to balance my ears and make the tinnitus go away. It seemed to help a little, but not really in the long run.
I also visited a neurologist who performed a magnetic brain scan on me. I was afraid I might have a brain tumour. Lucky enough, It turned out everything was fine. This good news calmed me down a little. Tinnitus, slight vertigo, very low immunity to viruses and anxiety still remained.
Now looking back, it actually was a huge, long lasting, panic attack with ups and downs. It felt very much like insanity and it scared the shit out of me.
After visiting several doctors I was convinced I had nothing wrong with me. I concluded that it’s probably the burnout that’s still affecting me and started a long road to recovery. Although I’m feeling good now, this recovery actually still lasts until this day, two years later.
I made quite many lifestyle changes. I started to meditate daily. Whenever I felt even slightly anxious I went jogging to calm myself down. I started to eat healthier and more regularly.
Gradually I started to feel better. Around half a year later I could work again. It was still ringing in my ears and I had panic attacks and anxiety here and there but no vertigo.
Going to extremes with self medication
Around half a year after the big panic and vertigo in Spain I was still unable to properly connect to people. I was there, hanging around with friends and talking to them, but I did not feel connection with anyone. Even my best friends felt distant. It’s difficult to explain and it was really weird feeling of detachment.
Then one evening I took illegal party drug called MDMA with a couple of people. It was my first time trying it but I guess I was desperate enough to take any measures to finally feel okay. Even for one evening.
Then all of a sudden when the drug kicked in, I felt a deep connection with the people I was with.
This reminded me how it is to feel again. A skill I had forgotten for so many years. A spectre of emotions, especially love, poured out of me. The next day and later when the effects were gone, I could remember how it feels to be happy. This memory somehow realigned my brain to feel better about the world and myself.
I’m not here to promote illegal drugs. I haven’t taken any illegal drugs since. And please don’t try this for yourself if you’re feeling down. Most likely it’ll drag you down more.
Getting back to almost normal again
From that, drug infused, night on, I started to recover faster. I understood that social interactions and connections are the most important things in life. Humans are social beings. My friends and family keep me sane. They help me when I’m down, but only if I let them. My professional life does not matter as much as the people I am with.
I stopped feeling sorry for myself and my inability to work did not bother me that much any more. Because of this I did not think about it that much and I was able to get some rest mentally.
By that time I was broke. I had broken up with my girlfriend, the mother of my daughter. I had quit my long time hobby, playing guitar in a band called ‘Köömes’, but I started to get the sparkle back to my eyes.
It was time to patch things up again. I reconnected with my bandmates and I was extremely happy that they took me back after almost a year away.
10 months after the big panic I got a really cool iOS project to work on. At first I took it part time to see if I can manage. I handled it nicely and it all started getting better. I was also socially active. I gradually had less and less tinnitus.
To this day two years later I sometimes hear tinnitus but it seems to happen less and less.
Now, beginning of 2019, I’m feeling happy. I have built a few really cool iOS apps over the last year for a couple of different clients and have dedicated much bigger piece of my time to spend with the people I love.
It took me about a half a year of not giving myself slack and not listening to myself to burn out.
Now it has taken me around two years to recover from it.
It was difficult to be on the brink of insanity and to feel I’m unable to work on my trade. This made me reevaluate and gave me a totally new perspective on life.
I think I’m much smarter now when working. Whenever I feel my ears stuck or ringing I take a walk or meditate. I also got a fair bit of help using Pomodoro technique when working on an intense project. Working smarter, not harder is my motto.
I now appreciate people around me more and always put my family and friends before work.
Another activity, besides jogging, that helped me to calm down was drawing. Whenever I felt really anxious I would, and still do, draw silly/creepy faces. In fact just a couple of weeks ago I put together an exhibition showing these illustrations.
I’m 40 now. When I was younger I always thought I could take on anything. Pulling all-nighters was not a problem and over-working was not an issue. Working too much aligned nicely with my ambitions.
It is okay to work hard. Just overdoing it seems to be more dangerous than I first anticipated.
Looking back to my experience, I believe, burnout happens when your brain decides to take extreme measures to get some rest. It’s a very strict warning to yourself that you have pushed it too far.
While my experience was scary and devastating, I believe burnout to me was important for personal growth. I now understand when my body and brain tell me to stop pushing so hard.
Notice the symptoms and seek help
So if you feel you are somewhere on the downward spiral, I suggest you take the symptoms extremely seriously. Listen to your brain and your body. Seek help with depression and anxiety. While not fatal, Anxiety is a terrible state of mind that screws up your life and relationships with people around you.
Please make sure you relax and rest enough. Even if you are ambitious pulling all-nighters when working, make sure you cut yourself some slack after that.
Go see a movie. Sleep until mid-day every now and then. Go party. Talk to people. Get connected. Get inspired. Life is not a sprint but a marathon.
Although they really did not know what I was going through (many are probably surprised when reading this article), I am truly thankful to have a really tight family and an awesome group of friends around to support me during the difficult times.
People with depression usually don’t seek help themselves. If you suspect your friend is feeling low, please try to convince him/her to seek help.
Although I have read Carl Jung and am interested in psychology, I am not at all a psychologist myself. So please seek professional help if you’re having a depression or any of the symptoms described above. It’s very difficult to get out of it by yourself and it surely will take much more time.