So I have a reputation of sorts.
Ok. More than one. Of all sorts. But.
One of my reputations
is was for being indefuckingstructible. It’s a relatively recent reputation and has absolutely nothing to do with the appearance of pictures like this over the last few years:
Me? Fictionally obsessed? Surely not… (photos: David Long, Rob Gallop, Sean O’Malley)
Then I got a bit crippled last year, which was awkward, but generally speaking, I would bend but I would not break. I would always give myself too much to do and would try to see it through, and usually mess enough of it up to be annoyed at myself but not enough to cause anyone else catastrophe. And I went to work – which is to say I taught physically expensive fitness classes – sick and injured because…well…
…go hard or go home, baby.
Right…? Because, like, that’s what Bruce Wayne would do.
Ok, if Bruce Wayne dedicated his life to inflicting acts of exercise on people while being a wannabe writer…
…run that by me one more time…?
So, ok. I cannot deny it: I am not Batman. I could not be Batman. If I got hit, I would stay hit, and with a definite lack of heroic stoicism. If I stayed up all night cleaning up London’s criminal element, ran a company during the day and all the while being the world’s greatest detective, then really, not many crimes would be solved, criminals captured only by accident and KirbyCorp would have even worse finances than my own.
Another obvious reason I surely could not be Batman is my inherently sunny disposition. I grin my way through life with almost offensively relentless cheer. Most of the time, this is completely genuine – though I have a dangerously decreasing tolerance for well-intentioned people trying to find the deep inner sadness which I am clearly covering with my usual sunny disposition. I mean seriously, I am too undamaged to even be a ‘proper’ writer, much less a vengeful superhero.
But the real reason I really cannot possibly be Batman is that it took Bane breaking his back to put Bruce out of action…
…whereas three weeks ago I just… burnt out.
Not trying to save the world, not being a mother with a family and full-time job, not staying up all night determinedly writing my novel by any means (it therefore remains, alas, unfinished). Just by trying to keep up with my jobs, to be a good friend to my nearest and a good girlfriend to my dearest, by holding up the development my new business and and getting frustrated over that and failing to work enough on my book and hating myself for that.
Just by trying to cut the margins of sleep and reaping the rewards of crappier recovery and decreasing physical and mental performance, and let’s not even start on what happened to my emotional ‘resilience’. How the hell does Bruce Wayne do it?
It’s the anger, right? He’s one angry man. Maybe I need to get me some of that.
And ok, I know what you’re thinking.
NEWS FLASH ADELE: Bruce Wayne ain’t real.
Neither is Zorro, Buffy has super powers, and Optimus Prime is a goddamn machine.
…but WHAT a machine…
So, yeah, ok, I’m easily influenced. No-one, to my knowledge, has ever looked and me and said ‘Now there’s a girl with a strong grip on reality.’ I mean hell, I spend hours of my life at this very keyboard, creating such inspirational stories of such inspirational people.
Not of super heroes though – of Bruce Waynes, just without the fortune and often still with parents. Of ‘normal’ people who, through (naturally unfortunate) circumstances, are forced to find the strength of will and morality to become exceptional. People who live by the motto of No surrender, no retreat.
They may not live very long, mind… but let me tell you, that’s some hard shit to live up to in the real world.
BUT. Even if I accept that Bruce Wayne isn’t real and I am not and cannot be Batman, the books I read, the films I see, the TV I enjoy, and – somewhat less fictonally – my Facebook feed, inundate me with motivational tales of people pushing themselves to the limit, or worse, living lives apparently without limits. Bastards.
Of people who never give up, and always have a hidden reserve to give. Who will do anything in aide of another. And really, the lesson life seems to be smacking me around the head with these last four months or so is that regardless of my preferred opinion on the matter, I have limits.
And. Then there’s the small matter of my other occupation. You know, the one where it’s my job to take a group of people and motivate them to work out harder than they would on their own.
Not arguing: my job is AWESOME (photo: Agnieszka Zuk)
Inspiration is a large chunk of effective motivation. It’s my job to lead by example (except in bootcamp. I started teaching bootcamp because leading by go hard or go home example for 20+ hours a week was killing me. In bootcamp, it’s my job to be obscenely cheerful to make people feel getting up at 6am to run around the park in the dark three times a week is an awesome idea), and I take that quite seriously.
I don’t have a ‘fitness persona’. In the fitness studio I’m the same crack pot I am anywhere else, just with a swanky madonna mic to make me even louder. My teaching is based an authenticity, as are all things I do.
The Les Mills classes I teach are based on performance and I find it very hard to genuinely coach people to meet their limits and increase their fitness by pushing ‘the wall’ further away – to prove to themselves that they are stronger than they think – if I’m not right there with them. The latter is my email signature line and business slogo, for goodness sake. It’s even the tag line of this website.
I still agree with the general principle, of course…though it’s awkward now.
I’ll wager there’s a very strong argument to say that this struggle to coach without elite performance is a professional if not personal flaw. The most obvious responses are ‘teach less’ or ‘fake it more’ and both are solutions fraught with problems. And frankly that’s another topic altogether.
So the things I read, watch, write and say… they sink in. And I try to pay them forward. This is pretty safe to people who come into contact with me for one, maybe two or four hours a week. But for me, it comes at a hefty price when teaching up to six classes a day.
Now this isn’t a poor me pity party. There are people who work harder than I do and cope, although I’ll bet they are bloody tired doing it.
Even Batman needs a lie down from time to time.
My burn out just became unexpectedly public, so I feel there’s an opening for me to talk about it. Also lot of people chose off their own steam to contact me about it, and their experience of ‘hitting the wall’, and it’s consequences. There are lessons here. Lessons I have been very slow and reluctant to learn.
Every fitness instructor, performer and athlete who reads this will know exactly what I’m talking about. Folk whose job demands pushing to both mental and physical exhaustion, let’s agree here, share a special and physiologically expensive masochistic streak.
But also it’s not just us fitness nutters I’m talking to and about, and comparisons of what one person can cope with vs another are useless and even destructive. Take me – I never look at my friends and think ‘shit Kirby, look at what you do compared to what they do – no wonder you’re dying.’ I look at my friends who do more than me and use that as a stick to beat myself with: ‘shit Kirby, look at what they put themselves though. Come on girl, Batman up!’
‘Look tired! And like you’re about to kill someone!’ says Lorenzo – easiest shot of the shoot… (photo: Lorenzo Guerrieri)
I imagine other people look at my Facebook activity and think the same thing – but you don’t have to be doing extreme hours of exercise a week to burn out or break down.
Mental stress can accumulate to burn out. Emotional stress can accumulate to burn out. Probably the biggest mental stress of my life is trying, daily, to deal with the gap between what I think I should be able to achieve, and what I actually do. That applies to the quality of the classes I teach as equally as the amount of words I write and whether I have time to interact with my friends and see Ras for more than ‘hey you! I have ten things to do before bed, which is in forty minute time – wanna go play with Tigger?’
…which is why so many of these photos turn up on Facebook…
And once I’m exhausted, everything is ten times harder.
So what might a burn out look like? In my case, it looked something like
– requiring significant amounts of obscenity-ridden self-abuse to get out of bed
– leaving leaving for all engagements until adrenalised terror kicks in hard enough to get you going, and deposits you safely wired enough to get through the hours ahead
– dreading work, when you’re usually one of those people who offensively love their job even on Mondays
– having three people ask you over two days if you are depressed and laughing the first time, thinking about it the second and breaking down in tears the third when you realise it’s true
– stripping down to your lacy underwear, reclining suggestively on the bed and falling dead asleep in the time it takes your boyfriend to use the loo and brush his teeth
– being found slumped in studios or changerooms up to thirty minutes after classes, too exhausted to pack and up and get through the showers, much less home
– being able to fall asleep in cafes and gyms all over west London during the day, but lying awake while catastrophically tired at night
– having an alarming number of cyber friends query whether you are ok, based on utterly unconscious changes to your Facebook behaviour
– covering a couple of classes a week, despite the stinging loss of income and face, because god help you, you cannot face teaching them
– sending what you think are intermittent cover requests and having fellow instructors reply with ‘oh are you still ill?’ or ‘babe, you ill again?‘- and realising that other people think you’re in more trouble than you do
– realising that when exchanging casual greetings, you’ve started admitted you don’t feel so good, because you’re too tired to pretend otherwise and feel you need to apologise for lacking your usual sunny disposition
– realising that your classes weekly greet you with a concerned ‘so how are you today?’, and that you’re telling them how you really are
– realising that your friends and class members are actually really worried about you
– realising that no-one wants this version of you. That no-one else wants you exhausted. They want you awesome.
You may have noticed that there’s a lot of realising going on there – because exhaustion is sneaky by nature. It creeps up on you, altering your outlook, your body, your emotions, your behaviour, your very personality, day by day. There are better days and worse days, but the latter become more frequent.
YOU adapt quickly – struggling through each day becomes the status quo – but if you’re really lucky, the people around you will adapt not, and will provide resistance. I began to really ‘see’ what was happening to me by realising other people’s behaviour was changing in response to my decline. And particularly that other people were more concerned about my health than I was. I mean when your bootcampers offer to train themselves so you can catch some clearly necessary Z’s, there’s a bloody big white elephant in the room that only you won’t talk about.
So. I declined. I felt worse and worse, and performed increasingly poorly, and I kept struggling onwards through it. The week before I ended up in tears before an A&E doctor, who told me I was burned out and needed a month off work, so many people – I realised in hindsight – had expressed concern for my wellbeing. I shrugged it all off. I had a weekend off coming up. I bend but I don’t break. I would be ok. I’m goddamn Batman.
Or at least the next best thing… (photo: Sean O’Malley)
Fast forward two weeks – my negotiated minimum time off. I’ve been in bed for up to 12 hours a day. I’ve had unexpected and overwhelming support from all directions. I have dozens of ‘mothers’ wagging strict fingers at me. I’ve cried and slept though layers of physical and mental decompression.
And I’ve started going back to work. A week earlier, I physically shook at the idea of walking into a gym studio. I haven’t wanted to exercise once in the two weeks off and exercise is to me like goddamn cigarettes or alcohol to an addict.
Day one was shakey. My bootcampers were delighted to see me, but my first class disapproved of my return and ordered me back onto R&R.
Day two was amazing.
Day three was joyful.
Day four put me back in bed for hours, but was totally worth it.
Day seven I crashed, and that was two days ago. I got a bit panicked. I had come so far from where I had been, I was mortified at the idea of falling back there again.
Yesterday I really, really need a nap but was doing good.
Because every day of my first week back, people have been genuinely, hugely, humblingly pleased to see me back to my old self. They hadn’t just missed me for two weeks, they’d been missing me for months, while I was still actually present and accounted for. And I loved the fact that when asked concernedly ‘how are you doing today?’ I could once again beam back and with all my heart, say that I was pretty damn awesome actually.
And this is what I’ve spent some 2,000 words trying to say: none of us are Batman. We’re all human, we have limits. I am a big believer in pushing limits in general, but it seems I also need to learn a bit of respect for some of them. It’s not easy to pull back when you need to earn your income and life is full of shiny and you feel like you can never keep up; but no-one wants you burned out.
You don’t have to feel like that. Hitting the wall and smacking your head against it until you feel consistently wretched and run down is a strange but compellingly acceptable way of living, but it is a choice. Feeling awesome is another. Rather: making the necessary steps to enable your own natural awesome to assert itself on the world is a choice. It’s the choice everyone else wants you to make; but more importantly, it feels so damn good for you.
Yesterday I took a voluntary £220 cut in my monthly income to drop enough classes to give me two more solid blocks of writing time per week. I clearly cannot keep up with my teaching, so while standing close enough to graze my nose against the bloody wall, I took a glance to the left. And I saw a door. A door opening to a much needed creative space. It’s been there or years but this time, I did not say ‘actually, I can’t afford that.’ Actually, I really can’t afford to fall apart and exist in the constant shadow of exhaustion.
What I have to learn is that when I’m hitting a wall, I need to turn left or right and look for a side door. That I can’t be all the things I want to be – at least, not at once – and that I can’t do all the things I want to do – at least, not right now. And that I can’t be Bruce Wayne. Or Xena or Wonder Woman or Red Sonja or anyone else I dress up as for kicks. None of them wear enough clothing anyway and it’s freezing at the moment.
But perhaps I can be a different kind awesome, the kind that gets seven hours sleep and therefore wakes up looking forwards to a day of spreading of maniacal cheer, instead of wanting to be dead. The kind of awesome that has to watch the credit card spend more carefully but has bought an extra six hours a week happily writing over a bucket of coffee, living the creative life that somehow got lost along the way.
And you know I’ll be sitting there writing characters who learn to push some limits, while crashing with human frailty up against others. Characters more in the vein of Buffy than Bruce Wayne.
More like me than Batman.