In my mid-twenties, I was a project manager for a small company that partnered with hospitals to provide follow-up services. Once the sales team secured the contract, I traveled to the location of the medical facility and managed the onboarding process.
I would love to tell you that I went to exciting and adventurous places, but that was not the case. My projects were in places like Grand Forks, North Dakota; Van Buren, AR; North Platte, NE.
While at each location, I lived out of a suitcase and made budget hotels my home for three months, only going home once every three weeks. I thought I had everything under control and felt like a badass jefa traveling to different parts of the country hiring, training, and managing projects for a big city company. It was all part of the game, I would tell myself, not knowing much about the rules back then.
During my time in Arkansas, something unexpected happened. I developed an intense fear of flying. And I’m not talking about preflight jitters, I’m talking about my plane is going to fall out of the sky kind of dread.
Panic attacks. Night sweats. Burnout.
This phobia came out of nowhere, or so I thought. Anxiety has been my lifelong sidekick, but this was different; It was irrational, illogical, and didn’t make any sense.
I remember sitting in my hotel room with a sense of dread as I thought about going home for Thanksgiving break. I called my then-boyfriend and told him I didn’t know what to do because there was no way I could board a plane.
“Viv it’s not like all the planes are going to fall out of the sky,” he said.
“Are you sure about that?”
Back then, I didn’t even know the word burnout existed. There were no cute Instagram graphics telling me how to identify and deal with what I was experiencing. I loved my job and enjoyed going from project to project, building relationships, and representing the company I worked for; I thought I was doing the right thing.
I was thriving in my career. I was stepping outside of my comfort zone and gaining new skills. Little did I know I neglected my needs and failed to listen to the signs. And it was already too late, because burnout had officially triggered my fear of flying. I was overworked, over-caffeinated—and apparently, over flying.
Anxiety and burnout got the best of me, and it wasn’t pretty. Thoughts of dread consumed my life and I couldn’t think of much else—not very helpful when you are trying to please customers and hire and train employees. I became too focused on my work and everything else around me that I didn’t notice how exhausted I was.
Thanksgiving break came around, and I had no choice but to get on that plane and go home for the holiday break. I took deep breaths and tried to conceal my anxiety as I boarded my flight—even though I was on the verge of tears. That’s when I noticed the flight attendant coming toward me, looking straight at me.
I was sure she had sensed my anxiety and was going to offer me help. Instead, she leaned down and told me there was a lady who was terrified of flying, and since I looked so calm and peaceful (how?), she wanted to know if I could help out. Was this a joke? What was the universe trying to tell me? I couldn’t even say a word; I just nodded nervously.
To this day, I don’t know how I got the strength to do this, but I held the lady’s hand throughout the flight and comforted her as she cried and expressed her fears to me. When we landed in Dallas, she expressed her gratitude and thanked me for my help.
Something clicked for me that day. This had nothing to do with flying. What this was all about was my inability to take care of my needs. I was being everything to everyone: the customers, the company, the lady on the plane. And in doing so, I had put myself dead last. It was a race I was destined to lose.
Once I learned to honor myself and my needs, life went back to normal. This experience was a wake-up call and one that I hope to never, ever repeat. In hindsight, this was burnout at its finest. The sneaky thing about burnout is that it looks different for everyone, and it’s up to us to notice the signs before it’s too late.
Have you experienced burnout before? How did you handle the situation and what are you doing to prevent it from happening again?