Burnout - Turns Out African Women Are Not Immune
Hello friends. It’s been a while since I put out a blog post. 8 months to be precise. Incredible how 2022 has flown by!
Hope everyone has been well. In this post, I would just like to share a bit about where I’ve been and why there had been a complete halt on blogging and many other plans I’d had for the year. For this post I will keep it brief but will unpack a bit more about the experience in a number of upcoming posts.
My year started out busy, as is typically the case with anyone who works in accounting and has a 31 December 2022 year-end. However, in addition to that, there where a whole lot of extenuating work issues and personal issues at play that had made the preceding several months particularly challenging for me. But as expected of an African woman, I had soldiered on forward with the things that needed to be done. Along with my team, we powered through it. Financial Year end close, Audit, New system implementation, Board reports - all while dealing with extremely toxic work politics that were at play. Being used to pressure, I just carried on doing what needed to be done. I was stressed and I was tired, but that was nothing out of the ordinary. After being stressed and tired for long periods of time (months or years), it begins to feel normal. It doesn’t feel good, but not feeling good eventually becomes your default state. So, despite how you are feeling, you manage to keep plodding along with “the doings that need to be done”, although sluggishly, you just kind of, get on with it so to say.
When I think back now, I’d realised as far back as October last year, that I was struggling with burnout. I did not exactly know what it meant, but I had seen this video from the awesome Youtube page Pshych2go, and related with every symptom they had listed.
I remember mentioning to my boyfriend in October, that I think I am burnt out. My assessment was just based on this and similar videos. But after the conversation, I just forgot about it and carried on with life. In retrospect, I realise the reason I just carried on was that I did not even understand what burnout was, and I definitely had no clue what one was to do about it anyway. So, I just kept doing what I knew, which was to push through and carry on doing whatever I needed to do.
Fast forward to 8 March 2022, in the midst of all the dramas of life and work, I woke up on this particular day, and I could do nothing. I had reports due, auditors in house, hundreds of emails flying into my inbox as usual, and I just could not open my laptop to engage. I physically could not open the laptop. At that point I knew something was wrong, and that I had to do something about it, because I could not, not meet the obligations on the table, and at the same time, not be seen to be trying to do anything about it. At that moment, I was sort of stuck in a corner. Because I really had no idea what to do, I just knew I had to do something if I wanted to not get into huge trouble at work. So, I started looking for a psychologist. Till that moment, I had never really considered seeing a psychologist ever in my life. I held many of the stereotypes held by most Africans about psychologists – What is the use telling someone your business if they do not have the power to solve your problems? But well, my perceptions aside, in this moment, I had no choice, I had to do something, anything. So, I reluctantly started googling “Psychologists in Cape Town”, “Black female psychologists in Cape town” and other related searches. And started calling around frantically. I was also calling my medical aid to try and understand how this whole thing works. Would they pay for the psychologist? Would I have to pay? I honestly was not willing to pay for this thing that I was very sceptical would be of any use anyway. After several hours of frantic calling, I ended up with an online consultation with a black female psychologist based in Pretoria for the next day. May I add that it is extremely difficult to get a black psychologist in Cape Town. Female or male. There are very few and the waiting times were between weeks and months for an appointment. I needed to see someone the next day. I would think it should be obvious why the psychologist had to be a black female, but to spell it out plainly, I would struggle to open up about personal challenges to people who simply have vastly different lived experiences of moving through the world. Only a black woman can relate to the lived experiences of being a black woman. Fortunately, a friend who lives in Pretoria connected me to a psychologist she knew and who did online appointments, and that is how my first ever psychologist appointment came to be.
After securing the appointment, I reached out to my boss, and told her what was happening… That I was not okay… That I did not really know how to describe what was wrong…. But that I just know I could not do the work that was urgently due…. That I had reached out and made an appointment with a psychologist that would be the next day … that I would keep her informed the next day with what was going on as I figured out what was going on myself. She was understanding, I suppose given that she was going through intense stress herself. But I don’t think either of us was ready for what unfolded the next day.
The next day came, and reluctantly I went into my first ever session with a psychologist. I had no expectations of the session whatsoever. I was just there because I had to tell my boss I was doing something about my problem. I just wanted the psychologist to give me some quick tips of things I could do to get my head back in the game and get back to my mountain of responsibilities that awaited me. I got into the session and met a warm and lovely lady – certainly not what I expected that a psychologist would be like. She made it easy to talk. I can’t even remember what she asked me. But I recall telling her about all the pressures and issues, and everything I needed to do and how I was letting everybody down. She listened empathically, affirmed my thoughts and feelings, but at the end of session, her immediate recommendation was that I just needed to STOP! Everything. Just stop. She tried to explain her reasoning, but I could not hear her honestly. I kept pushing back and telling her how much I had to do, and how I could not possibly at this time take a break. There was too much to do and the stakes were just too high. Maybe we could consider this break later, but for now, I just needed to get back into the game. Before I got into trouble at work or even lost my job. I had no time for this break.
She probably spent a good hour trying to convince me that I needed to stop. I recall her saying that she had dealt with patients who where in a less severe state than I was who had had a sudden stroke. You are sick she told me – what you are dealing with is severe burnout. There was that word again. The word I had heard for the first time a few months before but did not really even understand. “No one chooses when to be sick” she said, “But if you do not stop and deal with it, it will only get worse”.
And that friends, was the beginning of a most unexpected saga this year. I will leave the story here for today. In upcoming blogs, I will share a bit more of about the other symptoms I experienced (Including a complete mind shut down that caused me not to be able to read at all for over a month), what I learned through this experience and how I am getting past it.
I am choosing to share this experience, because I think it’s worth unpacking the realities of mental health and experiencing a mental health challenge in Africa. Like most Africans, I knew it was something that existed, but never thought it could affect me. I have always held the view that you just needed to stay positive despite any challenges and eventually you would get through it. I never imagined myself seeking help. I never really even imagined seeing a psychologist could genuinely be a helpful thing to do. So well, hopefully sharing my experience might help someone. Perhaps people who were as sceptical about the impact of mental health challenges, and the value seeing the right healthcare professional can provide.