That Time I was So Burned Out I Almost Died In a Cab
Here’s a life/career moment that still haunts me: I was in my mid-20s and during a late night at the office (which was the norm), my co-workers ordered pizza. I didn’t have any (not the norm) as I was actually down 15 pounds from the Atkins diet. Plus, I was distracted by desperation to nab a cover story assignment with a huge star—the biggest to grace CosmoGIRL!’s cover in a while. My new boss suggested a “teen super fan” conduct the interview—though I heard rumblings that she was wary that I was too young/inexperienced to take on such a big story. Mind you, before she came aboard, writing cover stories was becoming “my thing.” So, building my case to nab this potentially career changing interview took precedence over cobbling together a low-carb dinner. Perhaps the first and only time I ever chose anything over food, I finally left the office feeling so ravenous and lightheaded that I saw stars. I grabbed onto a bike rack to steady myself from fainting. Somehow, I mustered the energy to dash into a 24-hour deli and order a POUND of turkey breast. I jumped into a cab and shoveled slice after slice down my throat. I couldn’t get them down fast enough, barely tasting anything, definitely not chewing. I finally tried to swallow—and couldn’t—it was all backed up and stuck down my throat.
I couldn’t talk. Breathing was becoming tough. Swallowing impossible. My pulse, however, was racing as the panic took over.
My eyes screamed for help as my cab driver stared at me—frozen in time—watching me struggle. Was dying in a cab going to be my legacy? The driver’s eyes simply stayed on mine—he didn’t move, not even to open the window or call for help. For years, I’ve tried to remember what happened next. All I know is by some divine (and grotesque) intervention, everything came rushing back up—and all over the backseat.
Gross, I know . . . made crystal clear by the cab driver’s concerned, yet frozen, gaze morphing into disgust . . . followed by gagging (him AND me) and a demand to evacuate his cab. I tumbled out of the cab and promptly burst into tears, feeling lost, traumatized and helpless. I took a long bus ride home and don’t remember anything else about that night.
Now, I’d love to tell you that this story was the catalyst for a HUGE and LIFE-CHANGING “WAKE-UP CALL.” I wish this was a tale of self-control, never eating a carb again, getting to my goal weight and living happily ever after . . . but, this near-death moment—from over 15 years ago, mind you—unnerved me. I’ve tried to make sense of it and figure out why it wasn’t a bigger impetus for more immediate life changes. I always chalked it up as another grim example of my food addiction and the control food had over me—prompting me to act AND feel out of control.
Well, here’s the naked truth: That pivotal event had NOTHING to do with my weight struggles . . .
It had EVERYTHING to do with BURN OUT.
Granted, my relationship with food is the most toxic and volatile one I've ever been in—not to mention, the longest. Food has served as my greatest comfort—while the weight it packed on my greatest protector. Alas, building up to that near-death experience, I went on Atkins because my daily diet included a morning bagel, second breakfast, giant lunch, 800 snacks, regular soda and extra-large pizza dinners (with leftovers for my midnight snack). It was “comfort” to get me through the stress and uncertainty of work—and a quick fix to “push down” fear and loneliness. It created a “force field” of fat that protected me from heart break, heart ache and career lows. No dating life? No distractions. Passed over for a promotion or assignment? Well, I deserve a 5000 calorie meal to take the edge off.
I don’t remember the exact moment my “OMG I’m in my 20s and have my dream job” buzz started to fade. But I do know that it was a slow build. I ignored the feeling of dread as I got ready for work, sometimes hitting snooze so many times that I was hours late. I didn’t realize the resentment building towards everyone who (in my mind) held me back or didn’t appreciate the 24/7, self-imposed work schedule I created for myself. After five years of consistent promotions and added responsibilities, alas, a ton of changes and turnover at the top came about. I believed the changes weren’t working in my favor. Except now I can clearly see that I was the problem, that it was ME working against the change . . turning into my own worst enemy. I was like a self-created tidal wave, dragging myself out to sea without a raft.
I wanted to salvage that love I once deeply felt for my job. I wanted that respect and appreciation back from my colleagues—and new promotions from my bosses. Except, my new direct boss thought I was “too green” for a senior level title, despite the fact that she was in LA and I handled things solo in NYC. Sure, having autonomy and a boss across the country sounds great—but it was a logistical nightmare. It created more work—work that I never got credit for—which made me indignant. I never felt so unclear of my future—which made me bitter. Suddenly I was lashing out on my superiors like a spoiled brat. In a moment that I wish I could erase, a miscommunication escalated into a screaming match with an art director. It got so loud and aggressive that building security checked on us. Still, I thought those “incidents” proved that I was passionate and dedicated—and I tried to remain hopeful that I could once again love my job and get the respect I thought I deserved. Except, I was ignorant—and not in a blissful way—to what everyone else saw that I could not . . .I was burning out.
Correction, I was already BURNED out—and to a crisp.
Some say that millennials are the “burned out” generation but we’re all prone to it . . . and it manifests in surprising and mysterious ways. For me, it arrived as self-sabotage. I thought I was working so hard and doing impeccable work—but praise from my colleagues or the self-fulfillment I was chasing never arrived. I ate because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. I didn’t know how to manage my fears of never being successful—or worse yet, actually achieving that success. I didn’t go to the gym because I was too mentally fried to do anything but sit on my bed and stare at the ceiling. I didn’t see friends because I didn’t feel like using what little energy I had to pull off my pajamas. I was devoting so much energy to a losing situation at work that it felt too daunting to fix things and find a path I felt excited about . . . I was comfortable in my rut. Breaking out of it felt as exhausting as running a marathon I didn’t train for. So, I went on autopilot and almost ate myself to an untimely death in that cab because my brain was too fried to notice.
I got into a vicious cycle for years that went something like this—extreme career highs (writing books, launching a freelance career, successfully rebranding my skill set for radio and then TV) followed by intense ruts caused by taking jobs I knew I wouldn’t love, unexpectedly hating jobs I was SURE I’d love, layoffs, budget cuts, getting fired, you name it. . .
The surprising part of the lows? Once the shock wore off, my next emotion was relief.
My brain could finally rest. I was free from the shackles of deadlines and managers. I actually wanted to take a sabbatical around the time I almost died in the cab—but didn’t have the guts (or drive) to look into it.
Smack between my 30th and 31st birthday, I lost my job and the universe put me on sabbatical. I was already on the verge of declaring bankruptcy, so I looked for a job—but the market was slow, and the opportunities slim. The thought of jumping back into the grind terrified me—so, I took advantage of the summer slowdown. Yes, I went on job interviews and took freelance work to pay the bills—but I was on my own schedule and working from my bed. I also used my time to sit in Starbucks for hours and read a book. I started my mornings with yoga. I cooked nutritious meals and spent time with friends. I networked with people I really admired and wanted to learn from. I followed up with them in meaningful ways that guided me on the career path I wanted to follow. And almost as soon as summer faded and I zipped up my first hoodie of the fall, my phone started ringing with new opportunities—ones made me excited to get out of bed in the morning.
And truthfully, many of those new opportunities eventually started the cycle over and burned me out again. This still goes on today, but each time I try to get a little smarter, a wee bit wiser and learn a lesson from the last. I look for new ways to self-care and strategies for combating self-destruction. I knnow now that “no” is a wonderful word to have in your vocabulary. I’ll mark off “days off” on my calendar once or twice a quarter to spend solo at the mall or spa. Unless Steven Tyler himself summons me to a meeting—I never cancel on myself and spend a guilt-free day off the grid. Those mini breaks do wonders for my focus . . . as do daily mini -breaks to listen to a favorite song, read a passage from a book or sip on a cup of coffee—in silence. Sometimes you can’t stop the burn out from happening, but you watch for the signs and try to push on the brakes before you spiral. . . And while my career is still at the top of my priorities, I also make sure to never ever eat in cabs . . no matter how ravenous I am!