A year ago my mother carefully asked if it was really burnout. I was adamant in response.
“I just wondered… with your history… it sounds a lot…” she said. Her voice was careful. Tight and thin. How scared did she have to be.
I hastened to assure her. “Oh, no, Mum, it’s okay. It’s just burnout. It’s not depression. It’s not like in my 20s.”
We use the one word for so many feelings. And I’m not even talking about the casual way you hear someone say a book is depressing or the way disappointment can feel when you really wanted something. We use it for those of us for whom the hospital seems like the safest space; people who can’t get out of bed some days; for those of us who can manage some things but not others; for those of us who can act like their old selves at work and then collapse at the end of the day from the effort; for those of us who just feel a little grey around the edges most of the time. These things are not the same things, but the English language can’t face it.
In my early 20s, the world closed around me until all I could see was a slit of misery, no matter which way I turned my head. An inner whisper I thought of as the thorn voice grew like the stem of a virulent rose around my conscious brain, always pricking pricking pricking.
I slept as much as I could. I barely ate.
When I think of that time, I think of a dark bedroom: smooth navy sheets; murky grey light from the dirty window that faced a brick wall; the piss-stink of cat litter left too long; the tremors of the streetcar as they cut across the drumming from the Native Men’s Residence next door. The misery was dank and thick. It seemed to stretch on forever.
I didn’t lie to my Mom. At least, if I did, it was only insofar as I was lying to myself. Or: let’s be generous and say I was hopeful. I had been off work for only 6 weeks, and was feeling a bit better. I would go back to work soon and I would start to remember things soon, too. In December 2021, I have struck the word soon from my vocabulary.
Forever didn’t last as long as I feared. Only a couple of years, really. And until 2020, forever had never come back for very long. I’ve had periods of not-quite-right that felt more like a gossamer film between me and the world. But they would dissipate, melting into the air after a few weeks, or a month, or after I finally did that thing I knew I had to do.
And this, this is not that. It’s maybe why I clung so hard to the word burnout, even after I had suspected that the burnout had not so much burned out, but faded away into something more familiar. Still, when asked if I was depressed, I said no. I didn’t feel closed in, I didn’t feel desperate to go to sleep and not wake up. After years of therapy, the thorn voice has been mostly pruned, so I didn’t have a constant chorus of self-hate filling every space. How could I be depressed if I didn’t actively hate myself and want to die?
We need words for mental health like we have for textiles. If I was drowning in a burlap sack 25 years ago, today I am wrapped in 5 layers of chiffon. Not tight enough to hurt, but enough that every movement is more tiring than it should be. I wish I could say to people, casually, I’m a bit hollowed or Today is a crater and that would make sense; I could conserve the energy of seeming like my old self for a joy that might spark bright enough I could see it through my current caul.