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What does burn out feel like?

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I’ve worked in the charity sector nearly all of my career and it is a sector I have a love/dislike relationship with. Helping people in any capacity is what propels me but it is a sector that likes to take from you.

More than once I have emerged from a job like a husk, hollowed out and dried up. My last full time job in the charity sector taught me a lot – I was bullied, a bit mentally battered but also it gave me the push I needed to go freelance, I regret nothing.

Burnout is a term bounced around the charity sector for a good reason, plenty of people experience it. Santa brought me a lovely case of burnout this year – but what does it actually feel like?

Let me tell you a true story.

Earlier this year I was feeling frazzled, particularly sad after a visit to the care home to see my Nana so I did what always makes me calmer, I went to the sea. I have written a lot about water and the positive effect it has on me.

I drove to Aberavon beach, a favourite place of mine with Port Talbot Steelworks in one direction and the Swansea seafront and Mumbles in the other. A homely and comforting vista. I stripped off my clothes in glee, happy to see the briny sea in front of me and looked around, not many people about. The sea looked a bit choppy but I needed the water.

My feet went into the sea, ankles, shins, calves, thighs and I felt the familiar tingle of utter joy and the slight shock of the temperature difference between my skin and the water. I submerged myself to my shoulders, pleased that I was getting better at just getting in and began to walk in and bob about. Not too far from shore but just inching in, taking my time.

Not long afterwards I heard the waves before I saw them, a roar, a gurgle then the spray giving me a ‘thwack’ on my back, just a little warning, not pleasant but not bad. I realised I needed to get swim further out to try and avoid that happening again, get ahead of the waves. No big deal.

The sea, the cruel mistress is, had other plans. No sooner than I was moving my limbs in a slightly desperate attempt to push myself forward I saw the wave and I just knew…. it was too big for me, I was in the wrong place and could do nothing about it. I attempted to turn my back to it, trying the give the broadest part of me the impact, but it did little to help.

My senses were simultaneously dulled and ignited as I felt the ‘whoosh’ and ‘roar’ of the water over my head. My body was swept underneath the water, I had no control of it and I quickly realised I couldn’t put my feet down. In what felt like hours. my face resurfaced and I spluttered with the utter shock and panic of what had just happened. My throat burned, my eyes stung and I knew I was in trouble if I couldn’t take control of the situation.

I stole a glance at the shore and saw the woman I had walked past on way to the water, she was reading and looked so far away, a tiny dot. I felt so alone.

A further problem was that another wave was already forming and I was feeling absolutely panicked yet weirdly accepting in the real possibility of drowning. I decided not to fight too hard on the next wave and let my body submit to the power that was looming over me. I went under again and felt totally disorientated when I came back up. Truly terrifying.

The next few minutes are a bit of a blur, I just tried my absolute best to get closer to shore and desperately wanted to feel my feet touch the sea bed. I can only imagine at this point I looked like a mad sea creature, all limbs and movement. I don’t remember seeing colours, it all seemed grey and black.

When I realised that my feet could touch the ground the relief was instantaneous, my legs felt like lead but I staggered to shore and made myself laugh thinking of the difference of myself getting out of the sea and Halle Berry in that orange bikini in James Bond.

To think, I had wanted to keep my hair dry…..

I could’ve laughed like a maniac in that moment of walking back to my car, at the sheer terror I faced and how easily I could have slipped away. I tried not to let the many hours of Bondi Beach Rescue footage I have watched panic me into believing I could secondary drown from the water I had consumed. Life at that moment feel precious and vulnerable.

Yeah, that’s what burnout feels like to me.

If you feel like you’re headed towards burnout then please don’t keep it in, tell someone and most of all, look after yourself.

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