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  • Carola Kolbeck

From Passion to Pain: Confronting Creative Burnout

Working my creativity into the ground and being unable to write made me reassess my obsessive work ethic.

The first time I noticed something was wrong was when I was teaching one of my lessons in secondary school. Standing in front of this particularly challenging class was nothing new for me as I’d known them for years. But as a wave of unrest rippled through the class on this particularly dreary, grey, and dark December afternoon, I suddenly felt like my consciousness was leaving my body and floating next to me. As I stood and stared, somewhat perplexed, I wondered whether I’d finally lost the plot. Then, a familiar ringing started in my ear, first quietly, then louder and louder, until it blocked out most of the classroom noise. 

The physical symptoms of burnout are manifold and unique to those who experience it. They can include fatigue and exhaustion, lack of concentration, loss of appetite, dizziness, heart palpitations, anger, anxiety, depression, and isolation. And whilst I knew that my reserves were running low, I kept on going, because I had primed myself for most of my life to just keep on working, no matter how overweight the load I carried was.

Doing my everyday jobs as a language teacher, a writer pitching and looking for freelance work, a mother of two young children, and a partner and friend to my social circle, you’d have thought I was just fine. But inside, I was broken and my creative fire was extinguished. 

Fifteen months prior to feeling like I’d never be able to string a coherent sentence together on a piece of paper or my laptop, I’d taken on a freelance job as a content writer, alongside my teaching responsibilities. My love for writing and the urge to break into the creative industry (which we know is particularly picky with whom it grants access) turned me into a workaholic, who soon worked every single day, including evenings, weekends, and holidays.

My family joked I was becoming attached to my laptop; I found it difficult to spend more than an hour away from it. Writing, editing, researching - it became an obsession. And after my freelance contract ended, I realised that somewhere, along the busy trek on the hamster wheel of work, work, and more work, I’d lost my ability to play and create. 

Suddenly, my passion project of writing articles and being playful with words became a chore. The thought of just opening my laptop to work on an interview became so stressful that I found hundreds of other things to do, as long as I didn't have to face turning up on the page. And when I finally did make it, finding the right words was a bigger struggle than trying to convince my 6-year-old to get himself dressed in the morning. I’d experienced writer's block before - and overcame it. This, however, was a whole new level of despair.

As someone who had relied their whole life on their brain to come up with colourful ideas, lively stories, and expressive words to construct stories, to suddenly find that there was nothing left, was devastating. I felt like Maleficent without her wings. The magic had gone and I was unable to fly. 

So, I took a break. Not just because I couldn’t produce anything anyway, but also because I didn't want that permanent ringing in my ear or to feel like floating next to my body anymore. I wanted to feel better and somehow try and coax my creativity back home to me, where it belonged. Of course, the mind takes a lot longer to recover from any kind of exhaustion, and creative burnout is no different.

Apart from rest, sleep, and watching copious amounts of Friends whilst scoffing my favourite chocolate, I allowed myself to just be. After a week of purely doing nothing, I suddenly noticed, in the middle of a morning walk with my dog, that creative thoughts had entered my head again. Shortly after, I managed to finish a poem I’d been working on, and a little while later I also completed the interview I’d been putting off for so long. 

I’m still struggling with the aftermath of my burnout and am not quite my usual creative self yet. I have moments when I feel utterly overwhelmed and panic rising, scared that I’ll lose the ability to write and put some magic on the blank page. But I’m also learning to take it easy and stop overloading myself, especially with tasks that don’t serve my creative mind. I’m treading gently around myself, going to bed early, reading lots, and allowing myself many moments of just staring into space. I cut right down on my alcohol consumption and am learning to say “No” instead of pleasing everyone.

As I type this, I feel a sense of achievement and know my creativity is slowly refilling its reserves. It remains to be seen if I have learnt from this enough to prevent burning out again. For the love of writing, I hope this won’t be the case.


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