When resilience is overwhelmed

January was an awesome month. I handily met my primary goal of ten paid client sessions per month. (By the 17th!)

But January was also featured a series of unfortunate events.

I want to tell you about them, not to complain or get your sympathy – I’m fine now – but because there’s a fascinating lesson demonstrated here.

The first thing to happen was three days of violent illness. I spent a lot of those three days lying on the couch moaning and cursing my reproductive organs. But I wasn’t sick every minute and I still got work done, including a whole new resource for The Provocateurs. And I bounced back immediately, still getting more than half the work on my weekly plan done. Resilience was high!

Four days later…

a reaction to new medication delivered another two days of couch moaning, and extra days where all I could eat was dry crackers. At the same time the rain, driven by tropical cyclones up north, was a non-stop barrage that soaked you any time you went a metre from the door, and provided continual overcast – something that always makes me feel tired.

The illness and rainstorms combined to sap me quite a bit. I didn’t bounce back to 100%, this time. Instead of jumping back into work, I kinda more plodded back. Resilience was there, but more determined than cheery.

The next day…

my PC got infected with malware. I did my tired-brain best to remove it, but it was too persistent. So I had to format the computer, and reinstall everything from scratch. After this, my bounce-back was even lower – did I mention it was still goddamn raining? – and I was aware of myself teetering on the edge of burnout. But I soldiered womanfully on.

Then, three days later…

the river that runs in a loop around my house broke its banks. We lost power for 24 hours, and spent the entire day moving items to higher ground and hoping the flood didn’t rise as high as two years ago, when it was half-way up the house.

It didn’t! We were soggy but safe.

But I was officially broken.

My resilience was exhausted, like a piece of saggy knicker elastic. There was absolutely no bounce-back whatsoever, just an exhaustion and lack of focus so deep it was completely indistinguishable from an intense depression. (Maybe it was? I dunno.)

I was completely, utterly, pile-the-dishes-in-the-sink, sleep-ten-hours-a-night, everything-weighs-quadruple, three-naps-a-day, eat-because-The-Dude-tells-me-to, out-of-arms-reach-is-too-far, sorry-what-did-you-just-say wiped out.

For a full week.

I was barely able to manage the essentials (client calls, urgent emails, vitamins and the occasional shower) before my energy was completely tapped out. I was too tired to rest well, too exhausted to get anything done, and nothing I did (or didn’t do) seemed to make an improvement.

After the first unfortunate event, all it took was one decent night’s sleep to get me back to 100%. After the sixth one, rest had no noticeable effect. I was at zero, and I stayed there for some time.

It was fascinating to watch my resilience get overwhelmed.Horrible, but fascinating.

It’s been a looong, long time since so many unfortunate things have happened to me at once – thank god – and so I watched how each small problem left me slightly less well equipped to deal with the next one, and on and on down the spiral.

If any of these events had occurred in isolation, I would have been over it by the next day. It was all of them that combined to sink me for an extraordinary length of time.

And this always, always happens when you get to the bottom of the barrel. In this case, I didn’t create any of the events that overwhelmed my resilience, but in the past I’ve been here because of adding too many things to my plate, and it’s exactly the same.

Recovering from even 95% tapped out and recovering from 100% tapped out are so different they bear almost no resemblance to each other.

As long as you aren’t completely tapped out, there’s always a teeny bit of bounce to help you bounce back. Rest and good food and long showers and going for a walk and good company all recharge the batteries, and you can feel it happening. You heal, you mend. It’s wonderful.

But when you get completely tapped out, that actually kinda stops working. Even complete rest doesn’t seem to have much effect. It’s like you need to hang around, exhausted, fuzzy, and miserable, until your resilience machine remembers to start up again. Only after that can you start to recharge and regain your energy.

It sucks hardcore.

So I guess what I’m saying is this:

If you’re already feeling a bit overwhelmed, do absolutely whatever it takes to avoid adding that final straw to the camel’s back. Reschedule, renegotiate deadlines, cancel, get your mum to take the kids for a day, take a social media hiatus, outsource, ask for help, spend your savings, steal a thermonuclear device, whatever you gotta do! This is your most urgentest priority.

Do not, if it is even vaguely possible, keep adding weights until you get to the bottom of the barrel.

And if, despite your best efforts (or due to the vagaries of the weather gods) you do get completely tapped out: understand that it is going to take way, way longer to recover than you anticipate, and react accordingly in regards to email auto-replies, scheduling, and making commitments.

You’ll likely need up to a week to have the brain to start creating anything – even an intelligent email reply – and even after that low-down week you’ll only be starting to rebuild your energy and you’ll need to keep being gentle on yourself for at least another couple of weeks in order to not meet the bottom of the barrel again. Flaggellating yourself about your growing to-do list will really not help. Lower your expectations. Be gentle on yourself.

Do you have any stories to share or tips on how to recover from the bottom of the barrel? Leave a comment below and tell us about it!

18 thoughts on “When resilience is overwhelmed

  1. I’m on day 10 of a cold. I have asthma, so any time I get anything respiratory, it’s hell. What I’ve accomplished this week: sleeping, and producing snot. Any time I try to do anything else, my body quickly reminds me that what I’m good for this week is sleeping and producing snot. So that’s that.

    I hope next week brings more energy and less snot.

  2. I’m just discovering in the last month or so how deeply depleted I am – that I’ve been running on reserves MOST OF THE TIME! and that this is officially Not Good™. So I’m paying more attention to what nourishes me and what depletes me and adjusting as I can to be filling the tank more then draining it – and you know what. It’s working.

    1. It’s magical, isn’t it!

      I realised there was a delightful upside to this whole clusterfuck, which is an appreciation of how long it’s been since this has happened, and how many events outside of my control it took to knock me over. I’m getting good at this whole self-care thing!

  3. What Andy says! Just paying attention is restorative in and of itself, I find. And everything you say, too, Catherine – these are good guidelines, and I’m following them.

    Thanks – as always, your writing is full of sanity and larfs and gives me a big lift.

  4. Hi Catherine, I am so glad you made it out. I love your comparison of 95% to 100% and how far apart they truly are. When I was down for the count six years ago with a mystery (or not so mystery…long story) illness, I simplified everything. If I could, I went for a walk. I wasn’t able to walk very far, but I did it. Little by little, the walks grew in length and now I’m healthy and happy walking 5 miles a day. It really was just one step at a time. Thanks for writing!

  5. Multiple times burnout victim here *raises hand*. I think you’re right, 100% is different than 95%. At 100%, your body sabotages your efforts and there’s just not much you can do about it. So much better to take care of yourself along the way. When I think of my younger self working hours straight in front of the computer without even wanting to take a pee break, I want to shake some good sense into her.

    1. Beautifully said! Exactly – at 100% you have no allies in your attempts to get better.

      I am super-proud that it’s been more than a year since my last collapse – how about you? 🙂

  6. Goodness, I’m glad you made it through all that. Aaaaaaand then turned it into a valuable lesson not just for yourself, but for all of us, too.

    I think this is what happened to me toward the end of 2012 on the business side of things. It took me most of January to even want to open any of my biz-related projects. I keep calling it hibernation, but I think it might have been that I depleted too many of my reserves to keep going. The result was that I basically hid, ostrich-with-its-head-in-the-sand style, for a month. Since you’ve brought what was going on (most likely) to my attention, hopefully next time I’ll catch it before I reach this point and be able to build in some recovery time.

    1. From experience, the biggest warning sign I know of that I’m getting down to the bottom of the barrel is this: I ask myself, “Hey, what do you want to do today?” and the answer is, “Nothing”. When I don’t even wanna skive off and play WoW, things are getting DIRE.

      1. That’s about where I was. Listless, wander-y, just clicking from site to site aimlessly online because I felt like I “should” be working. It wasn’t until I gave up the pretend working and turned my attention to simple stuff I love to do that I started to come back. And I couldn’t rush it. I had to force myself not to pile on the fuel and smother my precious baby fire.

  7. I needed to read this so badly… I am at the very edge of my rope this week. Once thing after a-freakin-nother is hitting me (mostly financially) and I am straiiiining to keep it all in check. 🙁

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