The way in, now 🍵
The intention of this piece is to share my experience living through burnout during the pandemic, from awareness to recovery. I recognize that to take the time away from work and precious leisure time, to write about this is a privilege, one I try to spend wisely. At the same time, the need for connection has never been greater, which is where my urge to write stems from. I hope this reaches those who have lived something similar, and exchange resources that may help people who struggle to find freedom in the middle of a world crisis.
Years running away from home
In October of 2018, Brazil was divided, ironically in a very similar way the United States is today. I never saw my friends so politically active in my life. We really thought we had a chance of defeating a cult led by narcissistic and incompetent candidate, actively campaigning for Fernando Haddad, a politician that I admired for the work he had done on the democratization of education in Brazil. Despite our best efforts, #BolsonaroGenocida was elected.
My husband, who is a social scientist, knew exactly what that meant for our future. As a white middle class gay couple, we were well aware of our privileges, and we knew that even with those, at the very least, our mental health was at stake. I talked to my manager to discuss my options to work in the United States. At the time, that was just what we needed to flee from a place that was no longer safe for us. We were really lucky at the time, as my manager fully understood our sense of urgency and worked with me to find a way to transfer me to the Bay Area in California. My husband did not have a work permit yet, but he kept in touch with a network of people in the Bay Area that would later be instrumental for him to land his first job, a year later.
The frenzy-like work I started doing as soon as we arrived was vital, as I had to get promoted to earn enough for us to live in one of the most expensive regions in the world. At that time, I was already coming out of 4 years of intense work as I kept pushing myself out of my comfort zone, as I was trained to do in college. In my mind, everything was running at the speed of light. I felt exhausted every day. I thought it had something to do with jumping out of bed at 6h20, running to grab the shuttle to work to be there by 8h00, jump from one meeting to another until 16h, when I took the shuttle back home, where I worked in traffic, to arrive between 18h-19h at home, trying to channel whatever energy that was left over to work out for 1h, fix dinner and be in bed by 10pm. I did that for almost a year, before I had earned enough hours to take vacation. My husband was concerned about me. It felt like I was doing everything I could to run away from myself.
So I stopped
In February of 2020, I decided I needed to take care of myself. I enrolled in a two day course called “Search Inside Yourself” to dig around what was important for me. The course was full of meditation practice and deep self discovery journaling exercises. I brought back my earlier visions from 2018, before all the idea of moving to the US happened, I was already invested in a career pivot. I was reading Finding Your Element, by Ken Robinson, a thinker I followed since 2009, when I found his first Ted Talk on the relationship between schooling and the humanitarian crisis we live in today. The constellation of institutions that deal with formative stages of our minds, including university and companies, which sustain structural oppression, I have always tried to learn more about ways of working in this problem space, since I was a teenager. As I creeped into the corporate environment, this was a constant struggle that I tried to balance. I needed better alignment between my aptitudes, my passion and what the labor market was looking for. My hunch was that I wanted to work towards empowering historically excluded voices, something related to people development. I thought about supporting YouTube Creators of underrepresented groups, or becoming a learning designer for human resources. I am lucky to be in a company where both routes seemed possible to me at that time. So I made a multi-year personal development plan and enrolled in a 9-month brand new course called Inner MBA, co-created by the same developers of “Search Inside Yourself”, from Wisdom 2.0. I told my manager I was ready to break through.
All plans fell off
When we moved to the US, we expected to go visit family and friends back home every year, alternating our time back there so that we could keep company with our expat cats. My husband went back in February of 2020, right before the pandemic was declared. I was ready to finally take vacation in March, to celebrate my birthday with my husband. We were going to Las Vegas for the first time, to watch several shows of Cirque du Soleil. I was excited that for the first time in my life, I could afford tickets to those shows with my own money. Shortly after, I would go back to Brazil to celebrate my friend getting married. It would be my first gay marriage to attend as a guest, a couple of years after my own. So many firsts were about to happen, I was in love with life then. However, we all know what happened in March of 2020. Less than a week before we were leaving on vacation, everything closed due to COVID-19.
We had to stay home, safe. We celebrated my birthday, my husband and the cats. I cancelled my vacation time. There was no point to spend my hard work’s earned time off in suburban San Bruno — where things never change much, before or after the pandemic. As we lived in a one bedroom apartment, our cats, Midi and Minuit were probably the first to suffer when the living room and bedroom were turned into improvised office spaces. They could physically sense that our home — the shelter from work and the outside world stress, was stolen. We faced the most difficult time in our marriage, it was virtually impossible to create boundaries in our physical space. We were suffocating our affection for each other. Adapting to the work life in the new place took almost exactly one year, which coincided with the time the borders with Brazil shut down — it was when we had to come to terms with the fact that we were still in the Trump administration in the USA.
The air was heavy, and so was my work load. My team had to pivot strategy and adapt tactics overnight, multiple times. My dearest manager moved to a new role, and we had to float around with interim managers. People moved teams, and all of the sudden, I was the person in our team with the most knowledge in the work we were doing. I started to take more scope of work, to the point I was chosen to lead a global project and turn around a plan for it in just a couple of days.
I needed boundaries
I didn’t know what boundaries were then, but I had to figure it out. Thanks to therapy, which I resumed mid-pandemic, I was able to recognize that I really needed help from my husband and most of all, myself. I had some of the most difficult conversations with my husband at the time. It helped me understand how I was responsible for my own needs, and the need to take action. I fulfilled the needs of the business and I left my own entirely depleted. The more I tried to realize my own professional goals, the less purpose I had in fulfilling my “stretch goals”. At the same time, the situation at home was reaching a limit. My husband had to put up with me using the living room and our bedroom to have my video conference calls all day, even at night, since I had to work with my counterparts in the Asian continent for my project. I delivered my project with great results, but with a price that I was not ready to pay: my sanity. I felt disoriented, like a tree whose soil was washed away by a sudden inundation. That was my lowest point at work. I would be inclined to blame myself for this entire experience only if I was the only one experiencing it. However, I wasn’t alone. Virtually all of my colleagues were “tired”, on the verge of burning out. Our team was entirely unprepared to deal with the crisis, and we experienced a collective well being collapse, to the point that even our leaders admitted total failure — naming the “tax” which the success our team had during the pandemic imposed on our people. Then I realized I was experiencing a common phenomenon, a systemic issue.
The only way out is the way in.
I think I read that somewhere on social media in one of these mindless scrolls. I knew I had to hold on firmly to my own purpose. Not the soil of the past, which was rapidly slipping away, but my core values and my own vision. There was nowhere else to find peace, so I cultivated it inside. I decided to do whatever I could to pick up where I left my personal development. I blocked off time each week to follow through with my Inner MBA, devoted more time to meditation, writing and connecting with my friends. The more I talked about my struggles with friends, I realized I needed to do something about my work situation.
I prepared a hefty feedback session for my new manager. It was not the first time I had to deliver difficult feedback, and I knew how easily things could be put out of context and put the whole thing in jeopardy. It took me almost six months to figure out the whole strategy to deliver it. I researched feedback methods, the Radical Candor, Difficult Conversations, Crucial Conversations, you name it. I wrote down my words and practiced with my therapist. It was such a vulnerable process, to find a way to communicate that I was only human, and I was not enjoying wasting my life on a project that was literally consuming all of my love and joy in life. I kept trying to find the right moment to deliver the feedback and get going with my life.
The end of 2020 finally arrived
We took off on a trip to Mount Shasta, and I had a moment of sublime bliss, seeing snow for the first time in my life. That one experience was sufficient to shift my perception, and it brought me back to life. To lift things up even higher, on the way back, just on the first day of 2021, my husband and I listened to Brené Brown’s podcast with Sonya Renee Taylor on “The Body is Not an Apology”. Sonya’s quote on never going back to normal, described my experience of running into depletion with stunning precision: climbing the ladder of oppression and upholding the oppressive system by doing so. This brought me to a definitive pivotal moment in my personal growth. I pre-ordered Sonya’s book immediately and could not wait to get into it. This moment gave me energy to push forward with everything I needed to do to get myself into a better place, both mentally and physically.
I finally found the courage (or self-respect) and spoke my truth to my manager. The work I was doing was depleting me entirely out of purpose. I asked my manager to support me to do something about it. I went overboard to secure partners to not let any of the spinning plates fall off. I found a three-month assignment opportunity program management for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and left my core job temporarily to do that, and basically drove the most meaningful work of my entire career at Google in those three months.
As rent prices went 25% down across the Bay Area, we decided to move to a two bedroom apartment in San Francisco — now we have a studio to work from and a view to appreciate when the fog is not completely taking over our neighborhood in the Inner Sunset.
I do not want to leave anyone under the impression that a miracle happened here. It’s been a lifetime journey of self discovery, but in the words of Sonya Renee Taylor, this year I bought a one way ticket to radical self-love. These last 18 months of COVID-19 pandemic expedited, among many other things, my own self actualization process, sending me back to my roots, and providing me with the sense of urgency to live my truth. It is a forceful reminder that no one can control forces of nature, both outside and within. It also sent me back to the drawing board to think of ways to help each other identify parts of the system we can stop, analyze and get together to reimagine how it could support our entire community.