Burnout, depression and the road back

It was about 12 miles into the 2019 TCS New York City Marathon that my legs begun to feel the heaviness and fatigue that I might usually encounter between 20 and 23 into a marathon, and in peak condition sometimes not at all. At that point, admittedly, I didn’t have burnout, depression and the road back on my mind. But that’s where I was about to find myself.

However, if ever mental and physical condition was telling a story of its own, it was on that sunny New York morning in November 2019.

A grimace instead of the customary smile
A grimace instead of the customary smile

What I thought

I knew I was carrying an injury and not in peak physical condition. But that was it, I had it in my mind as purely physical.

The heavy legs and exhaustion betrayed that lack of physical fitness and I was still tired from the transatlantic flight less than 48 hours previous.

I’d already told myself that this was one race where I was there only for the medal! When you’ve travelled to the Big Apple, when you’re chasing the Six Majors, you do whatever it takes.

However, it also betrayed much more.

It laid bare that, mentally and physically, I was a far cry from the man who ran 18 marathons in 2017, a year which included two sub-3 hour marathons in the space of 14 days, and during which my slowest time of 3:26:21 came a mere 4 days after running the London to Brighton 100km ultramarathon. Quite frankly, I felt unbreakable during that year of 2017.

Winding forward to 2020, I felt anything but unbreakable as I walked out of one of London’s top sports injury clinics last Thursday night, a privilege afforded by my job. It is a job I love but one which has impacted far too much on other areas of my life during the last twelve months.

So I was injured? Was it just running?

Having got married in February 2019, it seems to me that I’ve spent rather too much time in a relationship with my job, sacrificing precious time with my beautiful wife.

It is that very attachment to my job which, I think, has led to an injury plagued last few months and has left me nervously awaiting the results of an MRI scan which I should receive in the next few days.

But the running was still going well even in the early part of last year.

Last year’s Spring marathon season was, eventually, a success. I say eventually mainly because Manchester was a disaster of my own making. It is not often I misjudge a race completely but this one I really did.

I got carried away with feeling very easy over the first half of the race, forgetting that only 6 weeks after marriage and honeymoon, I simply didn’t have the miles in the tank. It was always meant to be my ‘long run’ for the challenges ahead, but race day excitement and ego very much got the better of me and the second half of the race was not one that I enjoyed.

However, Paris was redemption as I paced a much more even and very enjoyable 3:08:59 on a beautiful and crisp Parisienne morning. I suspect it was much more fun for me than for my wife spectating in temperatures barely rising above 2 degrees Celsius.

As ever, the highlight and target race of the Spring season was London. I try every year to talk it down, but every year it consumes me a little more. There is something very special about running in the city where you live, seeing so many people you know out on the course running and spectating.

And last year, I shocked myself with 3:01:44 on a day where the beautiful city delivered another spectacle. Of course, it was also the first time I was running London with my wife spectating, as well as mum, some great friends, and hordes from Clapham Pioneers and Mind.

Milton Keynes followed a few weeks later and that was that for the spring! I could say that a short break followed but rest is not something I’m well known for. Besides, I was about to embark on a much more difficult race for the months ahead.

Life is about balance, buy I was beginning to lose mine.

As I said earlier, I love my job and I love the people I work with. However, my own team had gone through a huge amount of change in a short period of time. The upshot of this is that, since last April, I have continually been taking on extra work whilst growing a new team.

From August onwards, I’ve pretty much been doing the work that used to be covered by 3 people, whilst also managing 8 people globally, of which only 2 had been with the company prior to July.

It was gradual, but I was on a dangerous road of working 60 hour weeks and, with meetings crossing 3 time zones, I was never really shutting off.

In short, I burnt out.

I knew it was coming; you don’t have significant lived experience of mental illness or close to ten years speaking, campaigning and raising awareness around it without having a sixth sense. The combination of burnout and depression was a new one but I still knew.

It started last summer with anxiety, the severity of which I’d not experienced since my early 20’s (I’m 45 as write this). Over the coming months, this led to depression, again with a severity which rocked me.

Before I talk about the six months which metaphorically and literally brought me to my knees, let me deal with a few truths and misconceptions around the relationship between burnout and depression.

So exactly what is burnout and how does it relate to depression?

Burnout and depression may indeed be two distinct illnesses but there is extreme overlap between the symptoms.

Burnout is seen as a ‘work’ illness whilst depression is as impacting our lives universally. However, the ability to compartmentalise our lives drawing a black and white division between work and home is a myth for most people. Typically, when things are difficult at work it impacts elsewhere.

Irvin Schonfeld is a professor in psychology and describes it as the following:-

The emotional exhaustion component of burnout, which is the core of burnout, is reflective of a depressive condition. There is a lot of evidence that indicates depressive symptoms become elevated when people work in adverse conditions. People who have jobs with heavy workloads and little autonomy are at risk for developing elevated levels of depressive symptoms.

How did this apply to me and how did it leave me in a place of despair and virtual breakdown?

I had autonomy but my workload was leading me to work 12 or 13 hour days, this in addition to trying to continue training and find quality time with my wife.

Throw that recipe together and rest was out of the equation as was the opportunity to stand still and be, something that my deeply introverted self needs in order to function.

The reality is that despite being defined independently, burnout and depression present the same clinically in many cases with scientific evidence that they are not separate conditions. In my case, as Schonfeld describes, my depressive symptoms were elevated by what was going on at work.

In short, burnout and depression were one and the same for me during this debilitating period, presenting the same symptoms and preventing me from functioning even close to normally for long periods.

I’ve lived with serious mental illness before so I thought I knew exactly what to expect.

I’ve written and spoken openly about nearly losing my life to mental illness, but with Bipolar I was out of control; depression and anxiety were mainly offset or exacerbated by mania, a cycle of chaos that, even now, I cannot quite comprehend. And actually, mania was often accompanied by acute memory loss as I described recently.

This was different.

It may sound strange, but this was actually a new experience to me. This extended period of anxiety and depression was slow, prolonged and just left me feeling numb in so many areas of my life. I was in the room but not present for so much of the time.

Actually, the one area where I continued to function was in work, but this was absolutely draining me of life anywhere else.

I was exhausted but couldn’t sleep, I was around my wife and friends whom I love with all my heart but had nothing to give, I was grateful for every blessing but unable to feel any joy at any of them. I was terribly guilty because the people I love, Claire in particular, could see the darkness closing around me and, for all their love, they could do nothing.

There was no denial, I knew what was happening but was unable to do anything about it. I was running a one way marathon to burnout and there was nothing in my armoury to stop it other than hanging on to the love of my wife and friends, the comfort and redemption of Jesus Christ, and, every bit as appreciated, the stolen 90 minutes of joy and escape watching Liverpool Football Club.

Even running, very much my outlet, had no impact. I was beginning physically to hurt which was impacting on any enjoyment anyway.

Running has so often been my headspace but, during this period, I couldn’t actually find the headspace to run. Morning after morning came when instead of lacing up my trainers and putting on my backpack to run into work, I put the pillow over my head so I could escape the world for a bit longer.

What I didn’t realise, at the time, was how injured mind was leading to injured body.

And the impact has been self-perpetuating…. don’t worry, I’m not going to draw a diagram, but it goes something like this.

  • Work very long hours
  • Get home a little later and persuade the wife that take away is a better option than cooking healthily
  • Comfort eat junk food through anxiety and depression
  • Still run plenty but not find the time to stretch properly either before or after
  • Sleep less than six hours a night
  • Continue running on a body physically compromised by stress and burnout
  • Continue running on an injured body

And all of this was leading to and exacerbating absolute burnout where I found myself not only mentally unwell but being referred by the physio, to a leading sports consultant, to try and diagnose an injury that she was unaable get to the bottom of.

Today is 4 weeks since I last ran, the longest I have gone by some distance in seven years since I started running.

And yet, I feel just fine and encouraged!

I am awaiting the scan results of what I initially thought was an unexplained groin injury. However, the symptoms point to a hip injury which would be in keeping with what the physio had told me prior to that painful run in New York back in November.

Worst case scenario is early degeneration of my hip, something I don’t want to consider but have to. Much more palatable would be a stress fracture because it would now be very close to healing. I suppose what I don’t want is an inconclusive result.

Mentally, I turned the corner around the Christmas period.

Spending time with my family and also making decisions to change the destructive pattern of work.

In fact, it was working on a couple of high profile mental health campaigns which was the catalyst. It was a reminder to put into practice what I tell others about when speaking in the mental wellbeing space.

I feel like I am ready to explode (positively) back to life! I’m just entering the second year of marriage and so excited about the road ahead. I am changing jobs in March and take, with me, huge learnings about setting and maintaining boundaries.

Despite injury, I’m working hard in the gym and enjoying it as I try to lose the couple of stone I’ve put on in the last six to twelve months. And the coup de grace, the Mighty Reds, my lifelong love are about to reclaim our perch as the champions of England!!

I’m immensely stronger for every experience. I’ll have learnt as much from this as from anything I went through during my darkest times.

Life is a journey, and marathon running is a metaphor for that journey. There are times when we have to dig deeper than we would ever want to, but the joy when we overcome the tempest is always very special.

The smile is real. As in life, digging deep often brings a deeper joy
The smile is real. As in life, digging deep often brings a deeper joy

As I reflect, limping over the line in Manhattan’s famed Central Park last November was right up there with any of the preceding 35 marathons that I had run.

Of the 36 I have completed, it was my slowest at 3:41:11, but that just means I had to work a little harder! Adversity really can serve to strengthen us.

The one thing I have learnt in life is that God constantly grants us redemption. That I have everything I do after three suicide attempts, and a life shattered by mental illness for so long, is testament to this.

I received His latest little redemptive gift at the weekend when my qualification for the 2020 New York City Marathon was confirmed.

By the time November comes, I will definitely be back in peak condition mentally and physically, and ready to be my best.

And yes, it will be one of the 20 in 2020! Although I will be more than a little late starting the party, I still have every intention of seeing through my fundraising challenge for the year, one to which people have already given so generously.

So that is a wrap for now. Am not sure what the title will be for this post… “general look back at a crappy time with hope” seems a good one, although I’ll probably end up using something much more pretentious and using the word reflections!

As I finished writing this, mental health awareness was very prevalent in the days immediately after the death of Caroline Flack. Mental health has been even higher on the agenda during the pandemic.

I would just urge all of you to remember that a smile is only skin deep, so please take the time to ask people how they are, to tell people how much you care.

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