Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Severe Burnout


I've been getting to this point too much this year. Almost catatonic from exhaustion due to unrelenting activity on every front. Possibly still driven forward by momentum, but ultimately losing all will to continue running this sprinter's pace. Lowest priority areas of life begin to suffer, quickly joined by their brethren less-important duties and sense of responsibility, until it piles up into a mountain set to match the magnitude of one's idealized undertaking, suddenly making it so much less appealing an objective to strive for.

Not quite at that latter point yet, where failings match accomplishments, but I can feel myself getting there much earlier this year than ever before.

Arguably it's a great problem to have, or so everyone insists it is and thus it has become my foolish mantra to keep motivated and running, always running. Still stable and steady in the classic 9-to-5 job (although always feeling like I'm failing to fulfill some duty in some way, perhaps because there isn't actually enough work to keep me 100% engaged for what seems an arbitrary 9 hour day). Bread and butter work with contracted real estate ventures are unendingly steady, maybe even easy for the level of effort expected under my contract. Independent work with new clients is booming, with weddings, private real estate work for management firms and investment groups, portrait sessions and band photography and open house events and stage shows... It doesn't stop. Every day I come into the office to work the safe, secure, tried and true 40-hour work week, but someone, somewhere, calls upon my services in an inescapably slim time frame that ultimately interrupts the normal pace of the work week and always leads to exsanguination of time off. My vacation days aren't spent on vacations, they're conveniences that allow me to leave one job early to go work another. A trend that began last year and has only solidified as a new status quo in my working life.

And I'm tired.

I'm editing shoots from the weekend on my evenings during the week after a 9 hour day of office droning, fighting with software and swearing under my breath for lacking support for new tools (seriously, DXO, please get that M. Zuiko 7-14mm f/2.8 lens module out soon). Until midnight each night I edit, reset, edit again, reset again, sifting for "looks" that work for the client until finally slapping together the best I can and shipping the package over some cloud service that takes another hour to complete the upload. Up again at 7:00AM the next day, this time burning through 4 hours of time off for a "quick" shoot in Baltimore or DC, or a dentist appointment, or a vet visit (pet bunnies, you know). I try to make up the hours later in the evening, but the building closes and I'm nowhere near made up for the time I missed, so more time off goes out to make up for it. The weekend comes and my friends are thrilled to have BBQs or go out to the bar or go hiking out west toward the mountains, but I can't join them because I'm running contracted shoots from 10:00AM until 5:00PM the next day, driving from Baltimore to DC to Annapolis in a sloppy route that costs too much in gas and is insufferably hot in my AC-broken-for-6-years car (aptly nicknamed "The Toaster"). Sunday it's the same thing, only there were accidents on all the major highways so I don't get home until 7:00PM that day.

Sometimes I drive out to my Mom's place in Virginia if I end my Sunday tour on the west side of DC (an extra hour drive, but it's the most opportune time to visit her and she calls, missing me, pretty often). I want to talk with her, have conversations about life and where we are and how much I miss her and don't know who she is for sure anymore and am pretty sure she feels the same way, not knowing who I am either. But my brain is fried, I've been running around meeting clients and running shoots in the blistering heat for days and all I can do is sit on her couch and focus on Business Stuff because that's all that's been running through my head for months. I get home around midnight, edit photos from the day's shoots until 1:00AM, decide "This is stupid" and pass out alone in bed because my boyfriend has been stuck sleeping nights with a non-conformist body rhythm, so he'll slip into bed right when I get in the shower and for all intents and purposes I won't see him at all. Not just for that night, but for days.

I'll work Normal Office Work the next day, get home, realize I'm spending the evening alone, and rationalize staying home and drinking too much as the better, the safer option, rather than call up a friend or venture out to the same tired places I've photographed a million times on my own. I'll punch at photos in a drunken nostalgic stupor and suddenly feel like a million bucks, maybe post one or two images edited in this inebriated clarity on Flickr, get pissed off at the glitchy and cumbersome groups system, play a round of Hearthstone, get tragically stomped, then trudge into bed without even brushing my teeth. I'll sleep in late because the alarm is twitchy and doesn't go off reliably, shower and rush out the door for more Normal Office Work, then suddenly feel crushed under the weight of obligation throughout the day as dozens of emails pour in inquiring about my availability to photograph XYZ specifically within the window of Normal Office Work business hours. I'll capitulate, stick a reminder in my schedule, and get ready to hemorrhage more time off to make more money than those hours would otherwise be worth doing this little side job, forgetting to account for the hours I'll spend that evening editing things and losing what little time I have to spend with my boyfriend in the process.

This level of activity happened twice last year, once in the Summer (but not quite as heavily) and once in the Winter (which set a new baseline for the amount of stress my body and mind are able to tolerate). Every year has seen a lull around February and March, but that lull this year was more akin to a return to what I considered "normal" business activity levels. Things picked up in full force by mid-April and have steadily augmented in intensity since. Steadily may be the incorrect word. Exponentially sounds more realistic as it relates to the volume of labor involved. I've taken one actual vacation day for a trip to Pittsburgh a couple weeks ago. I paid for my audacity in taking a vacation by pouring my time into "make-up" photo work during the work week, staying as late as I could upon returning to the office to make up for time lost but still never quite getting to that golden 40-hours. I've gotten sick twice this year, which is supremely abnormal for me, and both times it was bad enough to land me at home for a week after a doctor visit, again a rarity for me. My body is responding in kind to the stress I've applied to my mind.

I write blogs a lot more when I go through these periods of extreme stress. It's an incredibly helpful medium by which to release the pressure, like screaming into an empty room. And right now exactly what I need is a good scream. There is no point to this post other than to reverberate the walls with a cracked and squealing scream that sounds curious like the furious stamping of fingers on keyboard keys. But that's okay, because already I'm feeling a little better having stamped those keys through the plastic and down to the desk, leaving little imprinted letters in their wake.

Might my situation be a scenario from which to learn for you budding workaholic photographers out there. Pace yourselves, and do it both actively and with regular rhythm. You are useless once you've burned up into a sad and stupid pile of ashes, scattered to the wind like you never even existed.