My burnout story
Info: This is part of the Freelance & Prosper series, a series about how to prosper in a job that can feel very insecure and not very stable to some.
I was early in my freelancing career when I was contacted about an opportunity to freelance for a major Danish company, which was in the process of creating a new platform for its entire portfolio. The project sounded exciting. It was a big and complicated project, I was taking the lead on it, and they were paying a high rate. I was pretty happy with myself when I landed it and was energized to get started.
The long story
It started out fine, but fast became more complicated - not to mention exhausting - than I expected. There was a lot of internal politics in the company, politics so toxic that a VP decided to publicly and loudly scold the entire IT department in full view of the rest of the company. There were staffing issues, a terrible decision to keep on a dev team with no experience with - or interest in - the new platform, and my own inexperience with being a lead developer, lack of project scope or understanding of what having a platform meant, and much more. The project quickly went from exciting and complicated to draining and near impossible. We took on new freelancers, built an offshore team - something the company had never done - and tried to prevent scope creep—all to no avail. The project kept growing in size and complexity, and as it grew, so did my hours. I had started out hard - as I always do early in new projects - to get up to speed and enable myself to answer all questions. I was already working 45-50 hours per week when I started the contract, and within months it would escalate.
After the first three months, I was running haggard. I was treating my body poorly, and it was beginning to show. I drank around two liters of soda and consumed up to half a kilo of candy per day. Meanwhile, I was not exercising, eating breakfast, or prioritizing rest. When I did sleep, it was erratic and not nearly enough. But it wouldn’t end there. I accepted more responsibility and started putting in more hours to reach impossible deadlines. I slept at the office (or the hotel nearby) more often than I could count because going home would “waste” too much time. I was working 14-16 hour days at that point, and this went on for roughly four months, and I wasn’t taking care of myself at all or reaching deadlines. I spent 5-6 hours per day on meetings and still putting in at least a full day of programming on top of that. What little extra time I had, I was getting drunk with friends, pretending everything was fine, and going as hard at the beer as I was the work.
My contract was to expire about two months later when I was told they had found a permanent employee to replace me. I was grateful, and when I realized I knew the guy, I was relieved. Exhausted, I still mustered the energy to start filling in my replacement, and little by little, I let him take over my responsibilities in meetings. I was sleeping better but also drinking more. I was finally getting time to be a developer, so I was still working 45-50 hour weeks “getting shit done.” I was taking 1 day off work, Sundays… these days were usually spent sleeping 12-14 hours and trying to recover from whatever drunken adventure I’d been on during the previous evening.
About 2 weeks before my contract was to end, disaster struck. The guy who was supposed to replace me had quit. I was being informed by the head of development - someone I really liked - but I knew what was coming, and I was beginning to hate him. He was telling me about some things that had changed while I was out of the loop, but I wasn’t really paying attention. When he was done, he asked if I could stay on for another 6 months. I was dying inside and wanted to throw up, but I said yes anyway. I understood that he was in a tight spot, and I wanted to help him out, but I was also exhausted and ready to collapse. We agreed that I wasn’t needed in all meetings, and I needed more time to work on the complex solutions we still needed to make for the platform. This meant I could cut down on hours, focus on the development, and avoid most office politics. That plan soon fell apart.
The following six months are a bit of a blur. I know I worked with the offshore team a lot, fostering an open and healthy culture of cooperation. We delivered another site and went back to the first one with an upgrade that took longer than expected. I decided to go back to regular working hours at least half a dozen times but failed every time. I ate more candy, drank more soda, and lived more unhealthily. I began drinking energy drinks - lots of energy drinks - to keep up my energy. By the time the contract finally did end, I was relieved it was over. We were close to another site being released but way behind schedule. The project was starting to hit its stride, though, and the platform was close to being fully featured. And I was exhausted, mentally and physically.
I could rationalize and say that I didn’t see the warning signs until it was too late, but I was much too inexperienced to even see them. In fact, I was about to make it worse.
The shorter story
I was heading to my dad’s place for Christmas, thinking about all the money I’d made and the present I’d gotten for him when I got a call about a contract starting in January… After a short negotiation, I accepted it because why wouldn’t I? It was more money, and I was again taking the lead. An exciting new project… and I would work fewer hours, take better care of myself. At least that’s what I told myself. In reality, nothing changed except the project.
I took all the bad from the previous project with me into this new project. I was working long hours, eating candy, drinking soda and energy drinks, and I was actually feeling OK. I thought the Christmas holiday was all I needed to recuperate, and I was just moving on. My dad was the first to voice his concern about my hours. When he came for a visit during the spring, he expressed concern about my appearance and food habits, but I didn’t listen. I felt invincible, and I was high on adrenaline, sugar, and caffeine.
A month after, I woke up in the middle of the night, with my heart pounding as if I’d just finished a marathon. I immediately went to the bathroom to wash my face but ended up puking for half an hour instead. My stomach was constantly upset after that, and I started waking up with pounding headaches in the morning. I took some meds for the pain and more coca-cola for my stomach. “It settles the stomach,” I was always told - that was a lie, though. The upset stomach, periodic puking, and headaches continued for months, and I started trying to eat more greens and generally get something down there, but it continued. More often than not, I would wake up with my heart pounding and run to the bathroom to puke.
One night - at the end of the contract - I woke up, heart and head pounding, nauseous, and with a constricting pain in my chest. I could hardly breathe. I called the emergency services, thinking I was having a heart attack, and got a hold of a doctor. He asked me a few questions, and as he did, the pain started fading. I was told to get to the emergency room for some tests, but the doctor didn’t think it was a heart attack.
Tests were conducted, and I took a personal day - my first in almost 2 years - to see my doctor for the results. I had developed an ulcer, and it was a bad one. I also had high blood pressure, my blood sugar levels were dangerous, and my internal organs - including my heart - were encased in a layer of fat. I was given meds and a strict diet and exercise routine. My contract was to end two weeks later, but I told them that I could only work about 20 hours for health reasons. We made up a plan, and I followed it to the letter.
Road to recovery
The first month was brutal. I came entirely off sugar and soda. I began eating more healthily, went to the gym three times a week, and started feeling better. I didn’t want to work, so I said no to everyone, saying I was busy. I’ve always wanted to work with computers, and I’ve done so since I was around 12. But I didn’t even want to look at a computer screen if I could help it. I didn’t want to go back to that world where it felt like life was sucked from me. I had plenty of money to stay away from it for a while.
After about three months, I started traveling. When I’d done that for a while, I came back home and started fishing, an activity I enjoyed as a kid with my dad but hadn’t done in years. I visited my dad and my other family. Gradually, the will to work as a freelancer again returned, and more importantly, my love of being a developer.
Mistakes were made
I’ve reflected on how those events unfolded many times since. I’ve concluded that ultimately it’s my responsibility to take care of myself, and I failed at that during this period. Having people around you who will tell you when things are getting out of hand is vital because we can have trouble seeing it while we’re in it. My girlfriend was a precious resource in a recent instance, and while I didn’t quit, I decided not to accept an extension to my contract.
I don’t think anyone could have done anything different back then, including myself. Faced with the same situation today, I would have made other choices, but this is part of the learning experience of life. Keep a close eye on your health, physical and mental. Be as honest with yourself as you can, and remember to forgive your past mistakes when you’ve learned from them. Listen to warnings from those you trust, especially if they start saying you’ve changed. Remind yourself that while we should all take care of each other, your first responsibility is to take care of yourself.