The Woman Who Almost Went to Bed for a Year

So there I am sitting in the cathedral and being mistaken for my sister as we both had the same hair (mine has grown purple since then) and wondering if I’d make it through the ordination. I wasn’t the one being ordained – though several people were apparently wondering if my sister had changed her mind and decided just to watch – so it shouldn’t have been much of an ordeal. But lately everything was an ordeal, even getting out of bed, and today I’d had not only to get out of bed but also drive for an hour along twisty country roads requiring split-second reflexes if a tractor should be coming the other way, find somewhere to park and discover where I was supposed to be sitting. Nothing was required of me for the next hour except to sit still and pay attention, but even that seemed a tall order. I didn’t know it then but I was on the borders of exhaustion, heading straight for Burnout Central.

What does burnout look like? And why was I burnt out? Let me count the reasons: I had problems at home, problems with work, money problems and a father-in-law who took up virtually all of my husband’s time so I couldn’t even talk about how exhausted I was. normally I’d have recharged the batteries with a holiday but the said money problems combined with lockdown meant that I hadn’t had a holiday for three years. I was completely drained, but every morning I heaved myself out of bed because the alternative (I felt) would be to stay there like Sue Townsend’s ‘Woman Who Went to Bed for a Year’ ( and I couldn’t allow myself to do that. I was going to be a successful writer; I must work every day or I’d be dead before I got there. So went the nagging voice in my head, morning after morning until the day came when I was physically incapable of getting out of bed.

I phoned the doctor, running the usual gauntlet of obstacles – finding the line engaged, getting the recorded message and hanging on – and on – until eventually I spoke to a GP. Joy! She was one of the good ones; dedicated, interested and thorough (I wonder where she is now.) I would have a range of blood tests; liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and thyroid function. I had a chest x-ray which was a saga in itself as the first one showed some false positives and I had to go back. ‘It’s your nipples,’ explained the nurse. ‘You’ll have to wear these.’ We both collapsed in giggles as she showed me how to tape curtain rings over the offending nipples: it gave me a laugh at least.

In this way two or three months went by. I was sleeping till ten or eleven in the morning; a dead, drowning sleep, dragging myself out of bed and spending most of the day sitting. I resisted watching TV but barely had the energy to do anything else. Walking to the bottom of the garden seemed a marathon: I felt I was drowning in fatigue. Going upstairs I had to climb two or three steps, then rest. It took me half an hour to eat a simple meal. I was putting on weight through lack of exercise, and one by one like failed lottery tickets my blood tests came back negative. This time the doctor called me:

‘Do you think the problem might be psychological?’

I reeled off my list of problems.

‘I’m surprised you’re still walking around,’ she said. ‘Do you think you’d benefit from some counselling?’

I thought I might, so she put me on the list and on that list I stayed. In the meantime I carried on plodding round the house, picking up books and putting them down and watching mindless TV which fell out of my brain the moment the credits rolled.

Of course I had to stop work. I write full time but now it was as much as I could do to write a couple of lines each day in my diary. I wound up the blog for ever and basically, I lounged. I lounged in the bedroom, I lounged in the sitting room; when it was warm enough I lounged in the garden and lamented all the weeding I had no energy to do. And I waited to reach the top of the list for counselling.

In the end I was able to access some funding and get private counselling, using someone recommended by a friend. My counsellor was brilliant and I made a lot of progress; I’ve made much more since, thanks to the techniques she gave me. I’ve learned to control negative thoughts and believe in myself more, and at the start of this year I felt more positive about being a successful writer than I have ever felt.

I started work again last September after a year off. My pattern of work is very different; I don’t push myself to do anything and I enjoy life more. When I tell people I’ve been off work for a year with burnout, most of them nod and sympathise. They know what that’s about.

So that’s it, that’s me up to date. I’m working on some short stories at the moment; before Christmas I sent off a poetry collection to a publisher and I’m 30,000 words into a novel. And who knows, I might even start writing blog posts again…

Kirk out