Shades of Kefalonia and the Reality of Recovery

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A restless butterfly whirls about the pine trees; flashes of yellow and white amidst fir-clad branches. Perched atop a rocky outcrop overlooking the Ionian Sea I hear the distant murmur of surf tickling the sandy shores below. My eyes blink closed and, for the first time in what must be years, I feel completely at peace. Everything is OK.

At the apex of my sickness if someone had announced that in three years time I would happily hop on a flight to Kefalonia, by myself, to spend a week at a Greek yoga retreat with a throng of total strangers, they’d have got a smack in the nose. I would have felt a likelier candidate for space travel – that I was being taunted with a delicious, but unrealistic, dream.

But I made it. Several hundred miles on from a bleary-eyed and anxious morning at Gatwick Airport I’d boarded a plane solo for the first time in years, thrown off the shackles of bad health and opened myself up to a whole seven days of new experiences, growth and, well, just good old fashioned…fun. Nestled in the idyllic paradise of Vigla Village I started to realise what recovery looks like. I allowed myself to languish in the acceptance that illness doesn’t rule my life anymore.

But I got cocky. I came home feeling invincible. I stopped bothering to do any of the things that keep me on the straight and narrow – my healthy diet degenerated, I drank more, rested less. And guess what – I wasn’t, in fact, bullet proof. A few hiccoughs at work, a disastrous romantic encounter and one house move later found me feeling less than fighting fit. Fatigue crept in. A dark cloud swept over my head. I felt awful. Not to mention incredibly foolish for daring to entertain the prospect of a new, symptom-free reality.

I pulled through. A month on as I sit tapping away at this blog, I’m feeling much better having focused on eating well, getting the right balance of rest and exercise and just giving myself time to digest various recent life events. Nourishing myself – body and mind. And simultaneously feeling pretty damn sheepish – at how naive I had been to think that chronic illness can simply vanish into the night.

My health is something I have to manage. It’s not perfect and sometimes I live alongside some pretty unpleasant ailments, aches, pains and difficulties. It’s a constant work in progress and I felt ridiculous for allowing arrogance to shake my commitment to staying well.

But despite this realisation I know that I’m in a good place now and that I’m lucky to inhabit the life that I have. Many live with much, much worse. Joy finds me on a far more regular basis than gloom these days – and that will do just fine for me.

‘Bouncing back’ from burnout

Stress vs BurnoutRecently I saw a magazine article entitled ‘Bouncing Back from Burnout’ and I laughed so hard my lunch nearly came out my nose. Why? Because you don’t ‘bounce back’ from a state of exhaustion – you crawl back very slowly, on your hands and knees, pausing only to weep hysterically on the shoulder of a sympathetic friend, family member or passing stoat. In this sorry state you’ve got less ‘bounce’ than Henry VIII attempting the pole vault.

I should know – when I reached the point of no return when it came to my health, I wasn’t just burned out. I was charred to a crisp. I was wired but exhausted, angry, inexplicably driven and hyper, sleepless, and my emaciated reflection resembled Voldemort and Gillian McKeith’s love-child. It took a long time for my body to reach such a critical state. A long period of self abuse through poor diet, high stress levels, inadequate rest and far too much adrenaline – and it’s taking a long time to recover too. I’m learning patience, the importance of balance, how to say no, as well as how to relax properly – and I won’t be walking, skipping or bouncing back to my old, toxic lifestyle. Not ever.

I’m currently chugging about eight vitamin supplements a day, and even this concentration of vital nutrients speeding towards my ailing internal organs won’t make palpable changes to my health for a little while. My nutritionist still thinks it will take at least three months of this regime before I start to see any positive transformations whatsoever. I’m in it for the long haul, whether I like it or not.

The same goes for exercise. Currently I can manage about four lengths of my local pool before the lifeguard starts to look nervous I might drown in less than a metre of chlorinated water. If I can extend this feat to eight lengths before Christmas, I’ll be happy.

The article I read recommended taking a few consecutive days off work to cure this thing we call burnout. ‘You may even need an entire week,’ the writer posited, gravely. Man, if I could heal my wrecked body and mind in just seven days it would be like Christmas, all my birthdays and Chris Hemsworth declaring his undying love for me, all coming together at once in wonderful and wildly unrealistic symmetry.

There are no quick fixes for burnout and exhaustion. Reclaiming my health for the long term is requiring a gentle, focused and sustained approach to change. Subtle changes, but change nonetheless. What I eat, who I spend my time with, how often I relax and what I realistically expect from my life have all seen alterations. It’s a gruelling trudge, not a bungee recoil.

It took me a very long time to really get to grips with the lengthy time-scale I was dealing with for my recovery plan – our society’s ‘now’ culture was just so deeply ingrained in my consciousness. Three months isn’t actually all that long to wait for change, but these days everything we need is but a click of the mouse away – and we want it all faster, bigger, cheaper and closer to our lazy, privileged backsides. My health wasn’t going to come back to me at the speed of an Ocado delivery – expectations had to be seriously adjusted.

Our ancestors dealt with death and danger every day as they battled to survive fierce predators, vicious climates and scarce food supplies. These days our fight or flight response is more likely to be triggered by a quinoa shortage than the appearance of a woolly mammoth and yet somehow, as cases of ‘burnout’ sky-rocket across the globe, we’re managing to wear ourselves out even more than ever through 24/7 emailing and burning ambition. When an immense tiredness comes along that we can’t instantly dispel with caffeine, we’re flabbergasted – and a five-point-guide to ‘bounce back’ within the week is about as useful as a chocolate teapot.

There’s no bouncing back from burnout. These expectations of bouncing, swerving and speeding our way through life at 100 miles an hour are what make us sick in the first place. When your body tells you it needs a break, it’s time to listen – there’s no magic pill or wonder cure that will have us back on our feet tweeting, internet shopping and making business calls within days.

Instead of feeding us unrealistic quick fixes for our fatigue, the media needs to get real and tell us what we don’t want to hear. That recovering from burnout requires large and sustained lifestyle changes or the only bouncing we’ll be doing will be straight into an early grave.