Getting Off The Hamster Wheel: Dealing with Grief, Burnout and A Sabbatical at 22

Content warning: Death, Loss, Trauma

I pride myself on being a very resilient person; nothing has ever been able to keep me from striving for excellence on paper and achieving my goals, not even the death of my ex-boyfriend, whom I was in a relationship with for nearly a decade.

On March 1, 2020, I woke up in my Brooklyn apartment and the only thing on my to-do list was to pick up lotion at my local Rite-Aid. I glanced over to my phone that morning to see a strange text from a distant but dear friend Mohamed from high school. “I’m sure you already heard, but I am sorry, I’m here for you,” read Mohamed’s text. I didn’t need to ask for context, somehow in my gut, I already knew. He was gone; my former companion. The person who I grew up with from ages 12 to 21, had died. I didn’t believe it at first. I somehow thought it was some kind of sick joke someone was playing on me as if we were in high school again. I called his mom to see if it was true only to hear the sounds of her crying to confirm the unbelievable.

I paced my room, unsure of what to do, who to call, and where to go. If I was back home I would’ve gotten in my car and driven to his house, which was less than a mile away. However, I was in Brooklyn, nearly 3,000 miles away from the people who I was closest to at the time and from anyone that knew him. Little did I know that on top of losing my ex-boyfriend I would also have to face a global pandemic all at once. Clearly, he never had great timing.

At the time of his death up until October 2020, I was in online therapy until my university had cut ties with the therapy provider I was using.  Following this, I took a three-month break in therapy, only to return to online therapy in February 2021, this time with my university counseling office. 

My ex’s death was the catalyst to an epiphany that I had after my recent 10 weeks in therapy. This epiphany came to me when my therapist called me out for having trouble being vulnerable and seeing me physically hold back tears. I didn’t allow myself to cry, not even in therapy where it is supposed to be the space for tears and unraveling. I would allow a tear to fall and then wipe it away quickly returning to my resilience. With each session, I became more and more comfortable with crying and allowing my strong walls around my emotions to collapse before me. I knew I couldn’t go on like this anymore, I needed a break.

During this time I also realized that the person who I once was outside of school, my job, and as a journalist was gone. Some days I can’t even remember who I am outside of those things and I find that to be extremely depressing. Throughout my college career, I’ve been quite successful, maintaining a 3.9 GPA as well as being accepted into a few of my dream schools such as Boston University, University of Southern California, and others before I chose The New School where I am graduating with honors this May. I am proud of my success so far and while I still am hungry for more I can’t deny it any longer that I need to pause and give myself time to heal, grieve, and process the traumas that I’ve carried with me the last four years. Self-care takes effort, and I am proud of myself for realizing that I need to take this time for my health.

Now with less than two weeks left to go until I graduate and my 23rd birthday on the horizon. I have done a complete 180 and have decided to pump the breaks on my non-stop journey to being a successful writer. I have finally decided to take a mental health sabbatical and reflect on what I have accomplished while going through these traumas. While I sometimes feel guilty for deciding to take the summer off from my writing career, I also have accepted that this is what I need to do for my well-being. 

My mental health has declined immensely thus leading me to neglect my physical health as well. I struggle to find the motivation to do things outside of work and school, and even then sometimes getting out of bed can take all the energy I have daily. Too often, my restless nights are filled with me crying from chronic pain at 3 a.m. and from a never-ending anxiety loop that won’t loosen its grip on me. I cannot keep going the way I have been living my life for the last few years. I know many people in my life that know and believe that I am strong, that I can handle and go through anything, and that I will be okay, but this time I am worried if I don’t stop I won’t be. The truth is I am tired, or rather, exhausted of being this strong and seeming like I’m put together. My therapist told me recently, “Being strong comes easily to you, resilience is your second nature, but being vulnerable that’s the hard part.” So here I am being vulnerable for all to see. In order for me to actually start healing, I have to be honest with myself and start tearing down the brick wall I’ve made for myself over the last two years, brick by brick. 

My ex was an adventurous person, he lived life on the edge always without fear of consequences or regrets, a part of him that I loved but also made me fear for him. I learned a lot throughout that relationship, and his death was a reminder of the lessons he taught me. I know he would hate to see how much of a workaholic I’ve become and how I’ve lost sight of simply enjoying life. On the day after he died, I still went to my classes crying on the G train and the breaks in between classes, a testament to how resilient I am I’d like to think. One of my favorite professors spoke to me after class, I told her what I was going through and that I apologized if my work was not at its usual level of performance. “Sabrina, you need to go home,” she said with her hand on my shoulder.  She told me she saw a lot of herself in me, laughed, and said, “and that scares me.”

I remember my forehead hurting to the touch that day because of how much I had been crying, and that scared me. “Okay maybe I do need to go home,” I thought. So I took the next one to two weeks taking it slowly, barely grieving,  and then it was back to pushing through my pain in order to finish the semester strong. I now realize that the reality is that I have been pushing through immense personal pain my entire college career without giving myself a break to heal. 

My therapist told me, “There are people who have not gone through the traumas you have gone through, or any at all, and still take breaks. This doesn’t discount what you have accomplished and worked for so far.”

I don’t want to be the person that gets straight As and spends all her time working towards being a successful journalist. I also want to be the person that goes to the beach with friends, sings terribly to Lady Gaga in the car, and does yoga for pleasure. I want to remember and rediscover who I am again. Sure, I am not alone in this as many people are experiencing burnout due to the COVID-19 pandemic and other stressors like hearing about the deaths of victims at the hands of systemic racism in this country. I think the more stories we share of our own experiences might hopefully help someone feel less alone. Especially in the journalism industry, we are expected to keep working virtually non-stop producing stories and content, much like being on a hamster wheel; and sometimes we need to get off that hamster wheel. 

At the very least, writing this has been a way for me to process all that has happened to me in the last few years. We have to stop wearing burnout on our sleeves like a badge of honor, much as I did. Now I realize, I don’t want to be that person anymore.

Throughout this painful time there has been a Lady Gaga song titled “1000 Doves” that I keep revisiting that explains so well how I have been surviving for years. 

She sings, “I’m not perfect yet but I’ll keep trying 

When your tears are falling I’ll catch them as they fall 

‘Cause inside, we are really made the same 

In life, waiting’s just a stupid game 

Lift me up, give me a start 

‘Cause I’ve been flying with some broken arms 

Lift me up, just a small notch 

And I’ll be flying like a thousand doves.”

 

Someone recently told me, “We don’t heal ourselves to put ourselves back on the grind, we heal to have a healthier life than before.” I trust that after this much-needed time off for myself, soon, I will be flying, just like a 1,000 doves.