A retrospective on burnout

In the second half of 2013, I suffered a clinical depression. I never thought that this could happen to me and so did a lot of people around me. On the first of July 2013 I slammed on the brakes and I spent a month in the burnout clinic in Meiringen (Switzerland) from mid-July to mid-August 2013. Very good doctors and support there, in my opinion. Here a few take-home messages: burnout (not an accepted medical term) or clinical depression is a severe chemical disorder of the body. It may have a deeper underlying psychological cause, but while in burnout the body is badly broken. I opted against using any of the psychopharmica - but whether with or without them, the only way to really heal is to follow a strict circadian rhythm and allow lots of time. In other words, sleeping and eating always at the same time of the day, getting enough sleep (which is really hard at the beginning of recovery), and then healing takes many, many months. A burnout clinic is excellent at helping achieving this. I found the various therapies at the clinic to be more a way to distract myself from everything rather than anything else, with the notable acceptance of psychotherapy and Feldenkrais therapy. I did not work for 3 months (the first day I got back to work I simply deleted all eMails, unseen, and amazingly enough there were no negative effects of doing this). I restarted work at 30% and made sure I kept sleeping OK. I increased to 50% only when my sleep was back to 8 hours a day (no drugs) one month later. Three months after that I got to 70%, still making sleep quality my first priority. In that period, a little bit of stress at work resulted in very poor sleep (i.e. 4 hours total and waking up several times). Only after 8 months after slamming on the brakes, I got back to 100% working. In hindsight, I cannot believe how naive I was in thinking that my sleep disorder I experienced in June 2013 would fix itself during the vacation - planned half a year before -for July 2013, instead I fell "off the cliff"...
Ronald, spring 2014

It is now more than a year since I slammed on the brakes. The best decision was to undergo a stationary treatment at the clinic. It also was one of the most difficult decisions of my life to make. I was away from everything: work, family, chores and hobbies, and at that point in my life other people took full control of it. On the second day at the clinic, the doctor gave me a diagnosis after a 30-minute interview. Note that my house doctor had not been able to diagnose me after seeing me four times during the preceding 6 months. It took me over a week to accept the clinic's diagnosis. Even then, when they said '3 months not working' I thought to myself I'd do it in 2 months. I have never taken drugs of any significance in my life, including sleeping pills. This turned out to be my savior: I took Zolpidem-CR (Ambien in US) for the first 6 nights at the clinic, which allowed me to sleep thru the night, which I had not done for 6 weeks at that point. In the next two months, I took it only sporadically (2 times a week, on average). I now see these chemicals as the 'emergency brake': use them, but only in emergencies. If you use the emergency brake every day, it no longer functions as one. I left the clinic too early. When I went there, I had the naive view that I would be out of there in 2 weeks. I stayed 4 weeks and I should have stayed at least 6 weeks. Returning home after the clinic was very hard. From one day to the next the 'support system' was gone and it took weeks to set that up again. This required energy that I did not have, as I was still in the early phase of recovery. I still get acupuncture and osteopathy therapy now, and watch my sleep like a hawk.
Ronald, 27th July 2014

It is now June 2015 - 2 years ago in June I went thru the month of very poor sleep. I am doing well now, it really took close to two years to get back to where I was two years before the burnout was diagnosed. I work as hard and accomplish as much as before. I carefully watch my sleep - I go to bed early if I am tired (some nights at 9.00pm). The single largest change compared to the first half of 2013 is that I no longer have the thoughts 'I must - I must - I should - I should'. In hindsight, I was my own largest stressor. I now spend a lot of time on my refound passion: gliding. My burnout phase was the most difficult time of my life. Worse than relationship breakups. I am sure it was also very difficult for the people close to me, especially my wife. I would not be doing nearly as well without her support.

Recently I gave a presentation at the place I work about my personal experience in burnout. Clearly there is a lot of need to discuss burnout openly. There are thousands of pages in the Internet that describe burnout - all of them I looked at are superficial. The only document that has any real facts is the ICD-10, but that one is close to impossible to read for non-doctors.
Ronald, 16 June 2015

It is now early 2017. Last year was a really difficult year again. Starting mid-April I got problems sleeping. Knowing that this is really important, and not wanting to back to the clinic I started to take sleeping pills. After two weeks, Zolpidem stopped working and I took the higher dosed pills. One week later that also stopped working and I started to notice various side effects. Then I took a month off from work and slowly was able to stop using sleeping pills. Sleep only became consistently good again mid-November. This was a huge battle - I hope that I do not have to go thru this again.
Ronald, 10 Feb 2017

It is now end of October 2019. It is now 6 years ago that I left the burnout clinic. I am doing well - having started a sabbatical at the ETH Zurich beginning of this year. I make career decisions also including the objective to avoid another burnout. Sleep is OK - I get a sufficient number of hours each night, although I still need to go to bed between 21:00 and 22:00 each day. Recently I had a trip to Boston and was able to deal with jetlag OK. I have started taking L-Tryptophan to help me sleep. This is not addictive and I find much better than some of the herbal supplements like Baldrian. I take one 500 mg capsule 30 minutes before sleep.
Ronald, 31 October 2019

Contact me at ronald ( a t ) swissluijten (dot) com if you like to discuss this with me... (changed email address Jul 17 - too much spam on previous one)

Ronald's Manifesto

I came across the Holstee Manifesto, which inspired me to write The Ronald Manifesto to capture what I learnt from this difficult time in my life:

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last page update 31 October 2019 @ 15:00