The fall of 2011 I suddenly had a lot of work to do. Being self employed in a newly started company, that’s usually a great thing. This time it was a little bit too much. As the sole developer, I had to finish a new project under a strict deadline, alongside with another long overdue project with the customer growing impatient.

Low productivity caused me to try to compensate by working longer hours, routinely 10-12 hours a day, with the occasional saturday thrown in. This of course lowered productivity even more. With impossible deadlines, I tried to push through, thinking I could handle it “just a little bit longer”. I had a vacation planned in february, so I kept thinking I would finish the projects before then, and get some well deserved rest later.

It didn’t work.

The symptoms

After about two months of high pressure, I noticed the first symptoms; decreased productivity and concentration difficulties. At the time, I dismissed it as the normal ups and downs. Who hasn’t had a bad monday? But the problems persisted.

By December, I felt anxiety when thinking about work. I withdrew from social contact. Just before christmas, my “boss” (actually a customer we have been working closely together with) expressed her concern about my health. She asked how I felt, and told me that my health had to have the highest priority, even with customers demanding progress. I more or less told her the pressure on me was indeed high, but that I felt fine.

Over the Christmas holidays, I gave her words some more thought. I really relaxed a bit for the first time in months, and perhaps allowed myself to actually listen to my body and psyche. I realized I didn’t feel fine at all.

That’s when I fell through.

Having realized I didn’t feel fine, I started feeling all the pent up stress. When I came back to work, my anxiety grew stronger. I would feel an almost constant state of angst, sometimes with almost physical pressure over the chest. I could not sleep, staying up until four in the morning. Anytime I sat down to work, I would feel an acute need get away. I would spend days getting nothing done, just reading Reddit. I could no longer concentrate, sometimes not even for watching a movie. I would read a lot, and watch sitcoms.

I usually run or walk to clear my head, and it normally works really well. Now, I felt just as bad when I came in from a long, brisk walk. I would constantly feel hurried, munching down my meals quickly, just because I felt stressed. I would sometimes feel like I would cry at any moment. I kept telling myself to pull myself together, but I could not.

The hard part

I knew this could not go on. I was hurting myself and the people who depended on me. I decided I needed to tell them how I really felt, rather than maintaining a façade.

That was hard.

I was already avoiding contact by phone, and even email when I could. Coming forward and admitting weakness – and in my mind at the time, letting everyone down – felt incredibly embarrassing. So I wrote an email. I stared at it for a while, then sent it to everyone involved and went to bed.

Getting better

I received a genuinely supportive response from my “boss” and coworkers. (Thanks!) Without that, my recovery would have been a lot more difficult. I began by just not working when I felt too bad, or if I couldn’t get anything done anyway. Even if the end result in terms of getting work done was the same, it makes a huge difference in knowing that it’s OK. No one will be angry with me or disappointed. The difference was entirely inside my head, but it was necessary.

We removed my deadlines. The customer was told the project would be delayed due to illness, and I would work as much as I felt I could handle. Some days I actually got some stuff done, other days I didn’t even bother. Slowly, my health improved.

I found it helped me to talk to others about it. It was difficult in the beginning, sharing something that at the time felt very private and shameful.

As my vacation came, I was still not back on my feet completely, but had improved a lot.

Staying sane

I spent my 4 weeks of vacation thinking about work as little as possible, and came back as a new person. I even looked forward to work again.

But I had some reservations; I would no longer try to compensate bad planning by working harder. And – I believe – most importantly; I would not let my sense of responsibility get to my head.

So what?

If I have helped anyone by sharing this experience, I’m very pleased. Be observant of stress related symptoms and take them seriously. I got away with a warning, but I know people around me who were not so lucky. One of them needed a 6 month period off and a change of jobs to recover. Another one hasn’t fully recovered still over five years later. Take care.

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07 April 2012