By: Mike Walther
A Note from Jessica:
My husband Mike was by my side through my burnout journey, and I didn’t realize until months after that he also was going through the most challenging season of our marriage and life. When I look back on my time working through the darkest days of burnout, I see that I was physically and emotionally incapable of supporting, helping, and loving my husband as I typically do. Now Burnout Institute stands in support with partners and spouses of those going through burnout. To help others understand his journey and how to get through this with your partner, Mike opened up about his own experience.
Here’s his story…
The first signs of burnout
I noticed it right away. A slow descent into a higher level of emotion. Jessica isn’t typically over-emotional, but little things would set her off, and they were never positive emotions. She was angrier, breaking into tears for no reason. After work, we’d watch TV and not talk. In fact, there was little I could talk about when it came to my own issues, as burnout took over our lives. I was in a terrible job too, but I couldn’t talk about that. Everything was pushed aside.
In our pursuit to make it to the top at a young age in our careers, we’d accidentally and slowly dedicated everything to work, 15 hours per day at a time. Business never gives a shit to take the time for your own mental health if you don’t take the time. We had worked through holidays and vacations, and the emotional burnout started to move from emotional to physical quickly. Jessica stopped sleeping, had high anxiety levels, and became obsessed with the topic as if she was another person entirely. She was so frail, and I would walk around on my tippy toes, as anything could set her off. I’d be like “Hey it’s 8:30, should we eat dinner?” and it would result in a major meltdown. It was the weirdest thing, like a car accident you know is coming but can’t look away from. Looking back, we should have quit working, should have taken more breaks, but we were in survival mode in those first weeks. All we thought about was getting through the next 24 hours.
The isolation, and stepping up to the plate
Over time Jessica’s despair became so isolating that she wouldn’t leave the house after we’d finally had an intervention with several of her supporters to take a medical leave of absence to improve her mental health. She’d spend hours in the bath. It wasn’t really about the bath, but rather finding time to yourself to try to seek some peace and something you could hold onto to keep you sane. It was very lonely, as if suddenly my wife was taken away from me and replaced with a shell of a human, struggling to exist and work through devastating emotions. On top of supporting her, I had to pick up the slack of our personal and social lives, doing alone what we’d once done as a team. It resembled taking care of someone with a physical illness who can’t do anything for themselves.
Our friendships started to dissolve as she wasn’t able to go out with them or entertain anyone at our house. I’d have to make excuses to friends, as I couldn’t really say “Oh sorry, my wife’s having a mental breakdown, we won’t be making it to cocktail hour tonight.” I could have, but neither of us was really ready to go there. I didn’t fully understand it and I didn’t feel comfortable. We’d always been a unit, one thing. Eventually, instead of cancelling, I started going by myself to see her parents and friends. You do whatever it takes, but the amount of strain on the spouse or partner can’t be overstated.
A pivotal trip to Paris
In our personal relationship, every conversation was about work. I finally brought her with me on a business trip to Paris, which in retrospect was the turning point. She spent time looking at the fashion and the beauty of the buildings, and started writing. She had an epiphany that her experience, and what competitive businesses expect from young professionals, was wrong. She thought, “I have to do something about this.” She realized her experience wasn’t unique, and that there were few resources to get through it. I chose to leave my company as well after the trip, seeing I was headed down the same road as she was. Her recovery, and ours as a couple, had begun.
Her next phase was all about filling the void, grasping for anything to move on to, and to pour her creativity into. “I want to cut my hair, I want to move to New York, I want to go to fashion school.” I realized my role was to let her discover that these options weren’t really what she needed at this point, without judgment or coercion. I’d support these exploratory paths, I thought, up until the point of action (the minute she really tried to move us to New York, or enroll in fashion school, I’d have to intervene). Obviously, if these options had been her true path I’d have supported them, but she was trying to fill a void that needed healing, not filled with something else.
A peek at the light at the end of the tunnel
Then one day it happened: I finally heard her laugh. A true belly laugh I hadn’t heard in maybe half a year. I knew at that moment we’d come back from this, and that things would be okay. It must be like watching someone who is relearning to walk after an injury take their first step, or someone who was paralyzed tie their shoes for the first time. A full year later now, after therapy and community and building an entire business to support others, she’s still about 90 percent back. I don’t know if you ever fully recover.
For five tips on surviving that I wish I’d known from the beginning, click here.
Written by Jessica Walther, CEO of Itivate