When I describe the last, oh, six months or so of my life, there are two stories I could tell. The first is all wrapped in bright colorful wrapping paper and filled with anecdotes: I could tell you about the spring semester and how it was the best semester of my life, how I achieved and did and reached. I could tell you about the smiles, the laughs, and how lovely the feeling of dreams coming true is.
And you would believe me. You would see the TEDx Talk I gave, and my grades and my Instagram posts. You would walk away saying “Wow, 2019 is really your year, Yumna.” And you would be right. At least, that’s what the evidence would say.
The second is the one where I take my rose-colored glasses off.
Since January, I’ve been experiencing what would commonly be referred to as burnout. I’ve tried defining it, both in this essay and a thousand drafts that came before it, and it has never come out right. I’ve always been a writer, always been dedicated to finding just the right words for just the right situation. This time? My words have dried up. It feels like I’m flipping through a thesaurus finding synonyms that almost mean the same thing, but not exactly. Try fatigue. Try exhaustion. Try other. Try dissociated, or blindfolded, or dead on my feet tired. All there, but not there.
Throughout my life, I’ve always been a do-er. A go-getter. A try-and-try-again-er. When I entered this haze, it felt like a wall had gone up. I couldn’t do, or go, or try. All I wanted to do was take a break. See, again, fatigue, exhaustion, and dead on my feet tired. Everything, even things I loved, felt like a chore. Stuck in this blurred haze of emotions I can’t even explain, I found myself feeling completely separate from the person that I thought I was. I felt like no one at all.
This is where it gets complicated: according to everyone else’s vantage point, I was fine. I was busy, yes, but I was good. I was doing the things I loved. I was doing more of them, and excelling at them. Everything felt like a chore, yes, but I still enjoyed them.
Burnout, I learned, made reaching out an impossible chore, too. I knew what people would think of me if I told them how tired I was. They would see through me. The compliments I had been given, about how amazing or inspiring or accomplished I was, would melt into the truth. Try not good enough. Try lazy. Try fake or broken or ungrateful. The words that I had been saying about myself for months.
There’s only one word that I know is in the definition of burnout. Scared.
When I started telling the truth about how I felt, out of a mix between pure desperation and adjunct loneliness, the words that I heard weren’t the ones that peppered my brainscape. Instead, there was “vulnerable”. There was “honest”. There was a lot of “thank you for telling me”. Most importantly, it confirmed that what I was feeling was important enough to tell people. Which meant it was important enough to fight against.
Coming back was a tooth and nail climb—coming back is a tooth and nail climb. It’s using the energy I have when I have it, and being grateful for it even when it feels like I haven’t done enough. It’s catching the negative words I throw my own way. It’s taking a break when I can and recognizing when I’m overworking myself (which is more often than I’d probably like to admit). Most importantly, it’s opening up to the people around me.
I’ve been stuck for a long time. All of the last year, if I’m honest. I’ve been hiding in plain sight, hoping that no one could see how tired and overwhelmed I was. But talking to people, allowing myself to be honest and vulnerable with them, has at least greased the wheels.
Now, I would say I’m feeling at least 99% normal. Again, this is hard to define. Try comfortable. Try home. Try awake, alert, alive.
So hello again. It’s been a long time. But I am very, very happy to say that I am back, or at least mostly so. It might be a while before I’m completely back, might be even longer before I’m functioning at my fullest. But I’m here. And that’s enough.