On Burnout

Today, I made the announcement to my students and colleagues that I will be taking an indefinite hiatus from teaching weekly group classes, effective immediately.

This is one of the most difficult decisions I’ve ever made. I know it’s the only reasonable choice right now, and that I’ve put it off for far too long. It still hurts like hell.

I started seeing a therapist to address serious burnout in 2018. We did a lot of very good work together, and she helped me deal with a lot of underlying issues (everything from trauma, to undiagnosed neurodivergence, to poor communication skills) that were making things worse. She helped me build good short-term coping mechanism to tide me over until things settled down, but stressed that I couldn’t fully recover without reducing my overall workload.

I insisted that I would take more permanent measures as soon the short-term crisis that needed all of my energy and attention was over. That I would rest as soon as there were fewer people relying on me and the needs of my community felt less urgent.

That was 4 years ago.

Things never settled down. I was never able to delegate my responsibilities or step back from the work I was doing. Nobody ever came to rely on me less — instead, the extra load I’d taken on “temporarily” became the new normal, and everyone (including me) assumed that was just how things worked now.

By late 2019, I could feel myself starting to fall apart. I didn’t have the time or energy to train outside of teaching time, and was losing my physical conditioning. My sleep and eating were a mess and I routinely under-recovered. My short-term memory was declining. My emotional regulation was non-existent. I went into the school every day dreading the sound of the front door opening. I became grateful for injuries because they gave me some much-needed downtime without the guilt of “quitting”, being selfish, or voluntarily putting my own needs before those of my students.

By early 2020, it felt like things were maybe starting to stabilize. I started entertaining thoughts of slowing down a little. And then the ceiling at Valkyrie’s training space sprung a severe leak (after years of intermittent issues that never really got fixed), flooded, and ruined our training floor.

Crisis time again! No time to rest!

As the only member of our lead team without a full-time day job, I was the point of contact for our landlords and the contractors. Other coaches came and helped when they could, but I had to be there for pretty much all of it. I remember tearing up moldy bits of flooring hours after getting a fresh tattoo, going stiff from the pain and trying not to scrape myself raw(er) on the edges of boards. I remember crying a lot and promising myself that if I just got through this one emergency, I could finally sit down and reassess my workload and make those long-delayed changes.

We re-opened after floor renovations in the first week of March, 2020. On March 13th, the provincial health authority started shutting down large gatherings and recommending social distancing measures due to the spread of COVID-19. On March 17th, the city shut down all fitness centres and other group training facilities, and we “temporarily” cancelled in-person classes and moved to remote training for what we thought would be a few weeks. I immediately began teaching video lessons in my tiny living room, and didn’t stop until October 2021 when we finally moved outdoors.

In the intervening year and a half I was the primary administrator and, frequently, sole point of contact, for Valkyrie as it navigated a global pandemic and tried to stay afloat in the midst of illness, death, and massive uncertainty. I was the target of an online harassment campaign, had my school’s entire website vanish overnight due to a targeted hack, and lost friends and professional contacts after speaking publicly about a bad actor in the HEMA community (a choice that it’s easy to see as ill-timed and reckless in retrospect, but that felt unavoidable at the time).

I closed the doors to a space I had helped build with my own hands, and that had been a symbol and a refuge for a community that I was desperately trying to hold together in the face of massive changes. I spent the next year figuring out how to still be that school without a space.

I wasn’t entirely alone through this process. I had partners and friends who loved me, and a rotating crew of fellow coaches, and the financial backing of my business partner. But I was The Only Person In Charge for a long, enormously stressful stretch of time. It felt like, if I’d quit doing what I was doing, Valkyrie would have ceased to exist within a month.

My physical and mental health continued to decline. Other life stressors that I might have been able to handle under different conditions became unbearable. My non-verbal episodes (a reasonably common symptom of autism that leaves me unable to speak for anywhere from an hour to most of a day) went from being something that happened a couple of times a year, to a weekly occurrence. I started cancelling classes a few hours before they began because I wasn’t capable of leaving the house to teach. I didn’t write a word of the books I had planned as follow-ups to Fear is the Mind Killer for almost two years.

And now we’re here, and I have no choice but to stop. I was terrified of letting my students and my colleagues down by ending my classes, but I’m letting them down even more by being an unreliable, unfocused, unenthusiastic teacher.

It is time to let others with more energy, and with different interests and visions, shape the future of Valkyrie. I will be there to support them in whatever capacity I can, but that’s going to be very limited for a long time. I ultimately think that’s a good thing. This was always meant to be a collective project and it’s been dominated by one person for too long.

I’m also hoping that this break from teaching will allow me to rekindle my love of swordplay. I’m excited to find new areas of interest within this vast field. I’m excited to get back to work on my writing projects. I’ll still be appearing as a guest instructor at a few events, and am looking forward to having the time and energy available to prepare really excellent workshops and use them as a means of furthering my research. I’m excited to reconnect with my community in ways that nurture and sustain me.

I could just end this post on that optimistic note. Part of me would really like to. But I didn’t really come here to give a tidy narrative of someone struggling through difficult circumstances and finally taking the break they’ve needed for so long. I came here to openly reckon with my own responsibility in this mess.

This isn’t a story about a heroic entrepreneur who survived against impossible odds.

This isn’t a story about a victim of circumstance who was ultimately laid low by years of impossible stress and adversity.

This is a story about how “I’ll rest as soon as this is over” is a trap.

This is a story about how I made choices that ended up harming me, and harming others around me, because I held myself to unreasonable expectations that I would never apply to anyone else.

This is a story about how “hustle culture” is profoundly self-destructive, and how those of us it harms are also responsible for feeding it and making it more powerful.

This is a story that could have ended differently.

Here are some hard truths that I am finally starting to internalize. I’m sharing them for myself first, to make them stick better in my stubborn head. Maybe hearing them from someone else will help a reader or two accept them as well:

  1. The perfect time to stop doesn’t exist

    There will always be another crisis. Sure, the global events of 2020-21 were a bit of an outlier, but there is always going to be a reason why you can’t quit yet. Someone else will be in trouble and will need your support. Or your finances will be too tight. Or there will be an important milestone or event on the horizon.

    Eventually, you’ll have to take a break anyway, because your body and mind will literally stop functioning well enough for you to continue. Odds are very good that the timing of that breakdown won’t be optimal either. My current break is happening without all the support infrastructure I’d prefer to have in place for my colleagues, without wrapping up the current training topics with my students, and at a time when my household’s finances are ill-equipped to handle a reduction in my income. It’s happening anyway.

    The best time to stop is as soon as you can convince yourself to do it. The second best time is now. If you wait for the “right” moment, it will never come.

  2. The longer you wait, the more time off you’ll need

    Burnout is chronic stress. While the specific kind of chronic stress that comes from overwork isn’t categorized as a separate health condition, the effects of chronic stress on the body are well-studied.

    Long-term chronic stress can cause chronic pain (including migraines and tension headaches); anxiety and mood disorders; heart disease; an increased risk of heart attack and stroke; chronic fatigue; metabolic illnesses like diabetes; immune disorders; digestive illnesses; and issues with sexual health and fertility. It also worsens pretty much all existing conditions (here’s a more detailed summary of effects from the American Psychological Association).

    a lot of these effects are long-term — sometimes even lifelong — conditions that can take years to recover from and learn to manage. You may be able to get over a few rough weeks with a really nice, long, vacation. The same trip won’t do anything to counter several years of the same level of stress.

    At this stage, I won’t be returning to regular teaching until next year, at the earliest. It may take longer than that. I may never come back. It’s too early to know anything beyond the fact that I have a very long road ahead of me.

  3. The only long-term solution to chronic stress is a lifestyle change

    Vacations and even long hiatuses are a stop-gap. They are a way to treat the symptoms of burnout and give you a little more capacity to carry on. They cannot fix the underlying cause, and you will eventually end up feeling burnt out again (probably faster and harder each time, too, because full recovery is very difficult on a standard vacation schedule).

    The biggest value of the break I’m taking now is the opportunity I have to build a different working life and a different relationship to my career. It’s a necessary disruption of the cycle of overwork that I trapped myself in, and a bit of freedom from inertia and habit. If I don’t use this time off to make fundamental changes to how I work, I won’t have fixed anything, and I’ll fall apart again in a few years.

    It’s possible to begin changing things for the better without having to stop working entirely. Start earlier, work incrementally and steadily to build a life that isn’t killing you, and you may avoid Big Burnout altogether.

    I don’t have advice on how to do that, because I sure as hell didn’t manage it. This is a personal essay and not a self-help guide. There are good resources out there, though. I’ve heard from a few women and AFAB folks in my life that this book is pretty solid.

  4. Our culture makes all of this harder

    North America’s obsession with individual achievement and the mythology of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps (a feat, it’s worth remembering, that is physically impossible) means we view overwork as virtue, and any rest more than the minimum required to survive as excess.

    Addressing burnout requires embracing things that we’ve been raised to believe make us lazy, selfish, and unworthy of love. It doesn’t help that the idea of “self-care” has been turned into a marketing term for actual luxury goods: fancy bath products, exclusive “wellness retreats”, indulging in buying those clothes or expensive electronics you’ve always wanted.

    Combine that with a weak (or sometimes non-existent) safety net, and burnout seems like an inevitable outcome of keeping your head above water. How do you indulge in retail therapy or take a relaxing vacation when you’re working multiple jobs just to survive? And how can you be selfish enough to prioritize self-care when there are people depending on you? How will you ever get ahead if you’re not constantly hustling?

    We need to recognize that burnout will literally kill us. And even if it doesn’t do that directly, it’ll eventually make it impossible to keep working and to support the people who rely on us. Breaking down from overwork isn’t conducive to long-term stability—or even survival. And often, self-care doesn’t look like luxury and self-indulgence, but like fighting for better working conditions; building community support for vulnerable people without a family safety net; union organizing; and pushing back against the idea that work is a gift or a privilege.

    In order to stop working ourselves to death, we need to let go of some pieces of our worldview. We need to change our culture and not just ourselves.

  5. Working yourself to exhaustion can be more selfish than resting

    This has been the hardest lesson to learn.

    One of the biggest ways I justified not taking a break was seeing myself as indispensable. And sometimes I really was the only person who could do a particular task, for reasons of scheduling or skillset. Sometimes, though, I was the only person who could do a thing because I habitually did it, and some of my colleagues didn’t even know it was something that needed to be done. Or several of us could do it, but I did it fastest and most consistently, so it became “my thing” over time.

    I resented being the one holding things together, but it was also deeply validating.

    I am a person who struggles with self-worth. One of the only ways I reliably feel valued and worthy of love is by being useful to others. And I’ve come to realize that, for people like me, indispensability can be like a drug.

    It made me feel safe. It made me feel like my position in my community was secure, no matter what. And letting go of that central role, especially in times of emotional crisis that made me feel extra vulnerable, could feel like an existential threat. So I resisted making myself less indispensable even when it was a major factor in my burnout.

    I took on more responsibility than I could handle, and I also deprived others of opportunities to grow into that responsibility. Of course I was the best person at [task X]—I was the only person who’d practiced it enough to get any good at it!

    And rather than letting someone else struggle and fail and learn (you know, those things I wrote a whole damn book about the importance of allowing to happen), I dug in harder and decided to just do it myself. Forever.

    This made it easy for others to leave me to handle everything myself even when I was drowning because, as far as they could tell, that was what I wanted. It also made it harder for our work to be genuinely collaborative and for them to have real power to shape the school.

    Putting myself in a position where my catastrophic breakdown was pretty much inevitable wasn’t fair to my colleagues. It turned our workplace into a ticking timebomb that they could do very little to defuse. It was even less fair to my partners and my household. As stressed or upset as they might have been by me cutting back my workload and income by even a substantial amount a few years ago, I guarantee that my current state of “sad potato who can’t even manage a part-time job” is far worse.

    And my students? My community? Sure, they got more time out of me than they otherwise would have. But a lot of that time was spent dealing with the worst version of me: exhausted, scatterbrained, out of shape, emotionally volatile, and unreliable. I’d bet decent money that most of them would happily give up a few years of working with Horribly Burnt Out Kaja if they got to learn from Actually Functional And Enthusiastic Kaja instead.

    I hurt myself by trying to power through years of overwork on my own. I also ended up hurting (or at least not helping) all of the people whose needs I’d used to justify being a stubborn tough guy.

So there we are. Burnout is a hell of a beast, and part of why it’s so powerful is that we can often be our own worst enemy in fighting it—because of the toxic ideas we’ve internalized about work and ourselves, because of the ways we tie our self-worth to our productivity, and because it’s really hard to walk away from something familiar and validating even when it’s doing us serious harm.

As much as some of these hard truths might read as a mea culpa, my goal here isn’t to claim that this was all my fault, or that burnout is always the fault of the people who experience it. That puts us right back in the individualist “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” trap I talked about earlier. This was everyone’s fault and nobody’s fault all at once, as is the case with a lot of big, human, problems.

I hope that writing this out today helps me to recognize the parts of this situation that I do have control over, and to use this break from teaching to build something better for myself and the people who rely on me. I hope that I can learn to be gentler with myself and more willing to accept help. I hope that, if you struggle with some of these things as well, you can do the same.

I hope that we all learn how to take better care of ourselves, and each other, especially after these last few years that have pushed so many of us to the breaking point. I hope that this is the beginning of something better.

A very tired Kaja curls up to nap with a grey cat. Most of the colours in the image are very desaturated, except for Kaja's hair, which is a very bright magenta.