It’s a topic that’s becoming less stigmatised, but mental health is still something that people talk about in hushed tones. Unlike telling people about that time you broke your leg while skateboarding, talking about your recent panic attack or your growing depression still isn’t really seen as accepted conversation. It takes people standing up and leading to make the change, and I really love groups like Puka Up and Knights of Suburbia for encouraging talk among predominantly male groups like cyclists. So, as exposed as this makes me feel, I now want to add my bit to the conversation, on when I burnt out, what I wish I’d done differently, and what you can learn from my experience.
I think I’ve always been an anxious person, getting nervous before tests at school. When I started med school, that feeling multiplied, and the first two years of uni I spent almost every spare moment studying. I’d feel guilty if I took a Saturday afternoon to go to Chadstone, because that was half a day less of study. Bear in mind, this was in the first year of a five-year degree: there’s no way that sort of pressure is sustainable. But the first two years of med, I did well. I studied hard and I got good marks.
Come third year, my motivation to study started to wane. I started triathlon the year before, and it was so much easier to go for a ride than it was to study. My marks dropped a bit, so I thought maybe I was spending too much time training and should pull back to focus on study for fourth year. After all, fourth year was the year with the scary exams, so if there was a year to focus that’d be it.
Fourth year, 2017, was the year it all came to a head. I actually have very little recollection of that year beyond it being a dark year. I knew I needed to focus on study that year, so decided I’d take a break from triathlon from the end of the season in March until exams were over in November. I told myself 8 months of focus wasn’t that long, I’d be able to do my own unstructured training, I’d be fine. Suddenly 6 weeks went by without doing any exercise, until, when sitting at my desk trying to study and feeling horrible, I finally forced myself to go for a half hour run at 9:30 at night. The next week, I sent my coach Sean an email asking for a ride/run program, and 5 minutes later I got the response, ‘I was waiting for this email.’ Looking back, that was probably one of the best things I’ve ever done for myself.
Once I started back doing some riding and running, my mood improved a bit. However, I still had the pressure of exams at the end of the year, and the pressure to revise everything I’d learned the last four years in preparation for the biggest exam I’d ever sat. I’d feel guilty every moment I wasn’t studying, but when I tried to study I felt overwhelmed and didn’t know where to start. As exams got closer, the pressure built but my ability to study seemed to wane.
Although I can’t remember exactly when this happened, sometime toward the end of the year I distinctly remember standing at the intersection near my apartment on the way to Woolworths, thinking how much easier it’d be to walk out into the traffic than it would be to keep going. It was just a split second of a thought, but it terrified me that I could even consider ending my life.
I made it to the end of the year knowing that the next year was a research year and would be slower paced and less stressful. That year was exactly what I needed, a break from assessments and exams, and a chance to work at my own pace. It was only as I started feeling better that I realised how horrible I’d felt, and it’s taken me until this year, and a presentation on burnout, to actually recognise that I was burnt out and depressed, and tell people how I felt.
So what have I learned from looking back?
- To pace myself. I took my mindset from year 12 into first-year uni and studied as much, if not more, than I did in year 12. There is no way that’s sustainable for 5 years, so it’s no wonder I started burning out after a couple of years of that.
- That people actually want to know if you feel crap. It took me almost 2 years to tell my mum that I’d thought about walking into the traffic that day. I don’t know why – maybe I didn’t want to burden her, maybe I didn’t think she could do anything to help. But when I finally told her, a few weeks ago, it was a relief. Even if someone can’t fix the situation, just telling them about it can be a relief.
- That exercise is important. I should’ve known this from when I was studying for school exams and my mum would kick me out of the house (nicely) for an hour to go for a run when I started getting grumpy. That’s not to say everyone needs to go all out and do an Ironman, but the endorphin high is a real and necessary thing. At the time, I, and others, blamed triathlon for my slipping marks, but now I’ve realised training was my coping mechanism, and was possibly one of the reasons I got through that period.
If there’s one thing I want you to take away from this, it’s that it’s ok to tell someone how you feel, and it’s ok to ask how someone feels. I wish I’d spoken up sooner, and can’t say exactly why I didn’t. I think I didn’t know how to start, and part of me felt like I’d be putting too much of a burden on people if I told them. Part of me wishes someone had asked and given me an opening, but I’m also not sure if I’d have taken it if someone did ask. Fortunately, I made it through to the other side, and have hopefully learned so I can spot the signs of burnout and depression earlier. So don’t just limit RUOK day to one day – ask someone how they’re going, but also remember you don’t have to wait for the question to tell someone if you’re struggling.