The year of no pay (and burnout)

published April 6, 2016

Recovering from burnout and depression is strange, because rock bottom is feeling nothing, and the first step up is feeling shitty.

Yesterday, I tweeted the above as a throwaway. A surprising number of responses popped up, which probably indicates that there are a lot more people out there going through this than I realized.

Last summer, I quietly took a step back from product design and tech by quitting my job and starting on what I jokingly call the year of no pay. In actuality, it’s a year in which I explore a lot of different types of work, including incorporating a benefit LLC to launch a social good conference that’s not for profit.

Besides organizing a new event on my own (which I would not recommend, by the way–there’s a reason why 99% of conferences are run by at least two people), I’ve been sitting on the board of a nonprofit, mentoring junior user experience designers, doing hands-on work for tiny startups (mainly two-people companies that aren’t yet making money either), helping friends and friends-of-friends find jobs, and occasionally writing and speaking on tech culture (which does sometimes pay, thankfully).

If you’re thinking that this is a strange way to recover from burnout, you’re not wrong. But for better or worse, I’d be even more depressed if I didn’t have anything to throw myself into, and overall, it’s less hours and emotionally taxing than before (likely because I get to be choosy about the people I’m around).

When I list out the things I’ve been working on, it sounds vaguely impressive. From the inside though, it has primarily been a haze of trying to find reasons to get out of bed. (Perpetually working through this one in therapy and in general, don’t worry.) Plus many, many days in which everything is a gigantic effort, from getting out of the house to bothering to feed myself.

Most people work towards optimizing happiness in their life. For me, happiness is not as important as being able to help others in some small way. Unfortunately, this has often gotten me into situations where I’m giving too much and not getting enough in return, or not taking enough opportunities to take care of myself.

Since I’m still in the middle of feeling iffy about my life, albeit much less terrible than I was feeling months ago, I can’t say for certain whether I’m getting any closer to doing it better or anything like that.

But, I have noticed that I no longer fall asleep with the dread that I’ll wake up the next morning (again, yes, I’m in therapy) and lately, I’ve begun crying randomly. It doesn’t sound like a positive thing, and yet, it means that I’m no longer experiencing life through a muted, robotic filter, so I have to recognize it as a tiny step forward.

I apparently even feel good enough to admit all this publicly.

Small victories, but I’ll take them where I can get them.