The long road back from burnout

I have to be honest, I feel very nervous writing this article. It's not that I'm afraid of sharing my experiences; it's more that I'm afraid of how it will be received. I'm not a mental health professional, and I don't want to give the impression that I'm offering advice. Instead, I'm sharing my story in the hope that it will resonate with others who have experienced burnout and that it will help them feel less alone.

Burnout: a term so often bandied about, yet seldom understood until you find yourself mired in its depths. I suffered from burnout in 2018, and it's only at the start of 2023 that I started to feel genuinely rejuvenated, both personally and professionally. It's a journey I can talk about now, though the understanding it brings comes with its own set of burdens and reliefs.


Prior to 2018, I was highly active in the tech community, running Belfast Ruby, PyBelfast, and had just started Belfast Elixir. Speaking engagements at several conferences punctuated my calendar. I was also in a very promising position at ShopKeep, a job I was enthusiastic about. However, about a year in from beginning my tenure at ShopKeep, something imperceptibly started to change. I should clarify, it's not ShopKeep's fault; I started off strong in that job, but after a while, I felt stretched.

It wasn't a binary process—there wasn't a single day where everything switched from fine to unmanageable. Instead, it was a gradual erosion. The first signs were subtle; the fervour to update my skills, hard-fought after a few years of stagnation, started to wane. Soon, it became increasingly difficult to contribute meaningfully in meetings and to deliver work.

This was a long slide downwards, and I hit rock bottom in 2018. The mistake I made was not addressing it seriously. Changing jobs seemed like the answer, but it only led to a directionless skid along the bottom for the next three years. I wasn't sure what would pull me out of it, but eventually I did. Whether it was the natural course of healing or the life-altering event like my father's passing in 2022, or possibly a mixture of the two that shocked me into a new state of awareness.

At the beginning of this year, something shifted. A renewed sense of hunger returned, not just on a personal level but professionally as well. It started with launching a new website, embarking on new projects, and making contributions to open-source software. Now, almost ten months later, that momentum shows no signs of slowing.

The aphorisms "it's easy to be a general after a war" and "hindsight is 20:20" resonate powerfully with me now. Looking back, I can pinpoint the moments where I began to decline. I never addressed them; instead, I shifted the blame elsewhere and dragged myself through two or three agonising years. Ultimately, the only person who can pull you out of such a situation is you.

Perhaps it takes a substantial amount of time to climb completely out of the abyss of burnout—there's no definitive manual on this. What's clear is that taking care of yourself is of paramount importance. Mental health, so often relegated to the sidelines, must be a priority. With the lessons painfully learned, the hope is to not just recognise future signs of burnout but to avoid another descent of such magnitude.

So here I am, several years after that low point, finding new peaks to climb. The journey has been a humbling teacher, and the road ahead, though uncertain, looks promising. I don't have all the answers but for the first time in a long time the future is bright.