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Before the pandemic began, I had already burnt out.


I worked as a pharmacist in the British National Health Service in different sectors and enjoyed the roles I had. But in early 2020, I wanted to run as far away as possible from the profession.


In the UK work culture (and I assume across the globe too), it’s seen as taboo to talk about taking a prolonged break from work. Whenever I mentioned the idea of a career break, it was met with blank expressions or quizzical looks from colleagues. It was as if they couldn’t comprehend the idea that a young pharmacist such as myself would even need a break.


‘You’re just at the beginning of your career, what do you need a break for?’


‘What else are you going to do?’


‘But how are you going to earn money?’


By that point, I was already run into the ground. I’d worked in my fair share of unsupportive and toxic environments and faced challenges in my own health, but it was a period of workplace bullying that sealed the deal. I was done with the profession of pharmacy.


As the months wore on, I began to dread going to work but I didn’t know how to take a break.


I didn’t know that quitting was an option.


 

When the UK went into its first lockdown in the spring of 2020, I was in between jobs. I managed to get some time off between leaving my previous work and starting my new role, which meant I had one month off during the lockdown.


A small part of me felt guilty in leaving my colleagues behind to deal with the uncertainty and increased workload that the pandemic brought in its early days. Apart from that, I secretly enjoyed my time off.


As I watched the news and numbers rapidly increase, I didn’t want to leave my home. But it wasn't because of the fear of contracting the virus. My body and mind had been crying out for a breather for months; now, the world was forced to slow down, too. We were forced to watch as a virus invisible to the human eye took control of all our movements.


I spent my days exploring my creative side once again, but that usually ended in frustration when I couldn’t draw or paint or physically make anything nice with my hands. I realised I had no idea how to switch my mind off. It took me a while to get used to—and enjoy—doing absolutely nothing.


After I began my new job, I knew I couldn’t continue. The effects of burnout and workplace trauma were still present: I found it difficult to concentrate, dreaded going to work, and tried to think of reasons to call in sick. I left this job before the summer ended and enrolled to study an M.A. in Creative Writing.


Pretty random, right?


Writing has always been a love of mine. I never thought of it as a way to be creative because I did it so much; whether it was journaling, essay writing, or creating fictional worlds, writing was something I both leant on and grew with. It’s as comforting to me as a mother holding the hand of her child: the child knows she’s supported and loved and yet is free to roam inside her own imagination.


I had no real reason to do an M.A. other than ‘I want to’. Apart from that, I had no idea what I was going to do moving forwards.


I had no real reason to do an M.A. other than ‘I want to’. Apart from that, I had no idea what I was going to do moving forwards.

My parents encouraged me to take a break because they could see the stress I was under. I left a comfortable job with no plan and no idea on how I would move forward with my life.


And so, I stepped out into the grey landscape of my future.


 

Courtesy of Madeehah Reza; Unsplash/The Xylom Illustration


The eye of the storm is an area of calm weather. It's surrounded by a wall of tumultuous storms and dangerous winds that wreak havoc on the landscape.


This is how I felt during the first few months of quitting my job in a pandemic: calm. I even remember laughing at how I’d handed in my resignation the day an impending recession was announced.


I have always been a conscientious worker but beneath my cool exterior is a mind that races a mile a minute. During burnout, my psyche was held together by the frayed knots of tired nerves. Nerves that were worn down thin from workplace trauma. When I thought about returning to practice as a pharmacist, I would physically recoil. I felt sad that I had trained for so long and was already quitting at such an early stage in my career. But I pushed the thoughts away as much as I could, wait until the new year, wait until February.


And so, in the listless days of another pandemic lockdown, I allowed myself to melt into placid puddles of slow-moving thoughts. I taught myself the bitter work of simply ‘being’. It was a strange state for me to inhabit, especially in a world that had trained me to keep running.


And so, in the listless days of another pandemic lockdown, I allowed myself to melt into placid puddles of slow-moving thoughts. I taught myself the bitter work of simply ‘being’. It was a strange state for me to inhabit, especially in a world that had trained me to keep running.

I leaned into the calm within my home and the calm within my faith. I sat with my darkest, ugliest emotions and accepted them for what they were rather than push them away into denial.


I wrote stories for my degree exploring the blurred world between trauma and fiction, emotions and fantasy. My first few short stories were stunted, dramatic tales; thousands of words of unplugging the cork of this workplace trauma into varied fictional landscapes. It needed to go somewhere, and so it went on the page (and read by my poor tutor!). But once I’d let myself write my existence away, I unlocked another realm of joy and creativity that I hadn’t had access to in a long time. I saw possibilities for stories that I wouldn’t have dreamt about a year earlier.


In that unlocking, something happened that I wouldn’t realise until much later: I was recharged. The world was forced to slow down and suspend itself in a state of reflection, and so did I. In that time, I allowed myself to slow down without shame or fear of stigma. I held on to the small comfort that the pandemic brought, that it was an excuse in and of itself to force myself to take the break that I sorely needed.


‘You’re just at the beginning of your career, what do you need a break for?’


It's a pandemic.


‘What else are you going to do?’


Who knows, it's a pandemic.


‘But how are you going to earn money?’


It's a pandemic, they’ll always need pharmacists.


I could hide behind this excuse and let myself melt.


And then, by the spring of 2021, a switch flicked in my mind. I wanted to be a freelance writer.


 

When I worked as a locum, temporarily filling in the position for another pharmacist, I found my confidence returning when I spoke to patients and dealt with medication queries. I found myself being me again, a person who had previously hidden behind a cloak of fear and uncertainty.


As a locum, I have control over how much I want to work. This was perfect for me to slip back into practice; I didn’t want to divorce myself from pharmacy, a career I’d worked so hard for, but I didn’t want to dive headfirst and commit myself to a role I was still recovering from.


Still, I didn’t really want to keep pursuing pharmacy in the traditional routes.


I came across several online resources on how to become a freelance writer. I’d always toyed with the idea of using my writing skills to earn money, but I never thought I could do it full time. As I read these resources, one thought pulsed louder above the dull hum of frayed nerves: I can do this.


Being a freelance writer didn’t seem impossible. In fact, it seemed well within my reach.


It would take time and patience, but I was willing to try it out. I still had another year left on my M.A., so I knew I wasn’t going to work full-time within that year. Freelancing started to sound more appealing. I built my own website, set myself some goals and targets that I wanted to achieve by certain months, and read up as much as I could about self-employment finances. I wanted to do this properly, not just a half-hearted attempt at pulling some blog posts together and calling it a day.


I am still on the steepest part of the learning curve, but I don’t regret a second of it. I’m finally combining the areas I have a huge interest in: writing, science, and health.


There are days when I wonder if I’ve done the right thing and some days where I think about getting back into the full-time pharmacy game. Full-time work has its perks of job security and a stable paycheck but the chaos it wreaked on me still rears its head from time to time: I don’t like my hours being dictated by someone else, I don’t like ‘calling in sick’ and feeling anxious that I’ve let my colleagues down.


I want to be able to control how and when I work, but more importantly, I want to retain the creativity and sense of exploration that freelancing brings.


I am not a fan of bringing ‘meaning’ to suffering. Sometimes things happen for no rhyme or reason, it just sadly is. Even if there were meaning to it, it doesn’t deny the fact that suffering sucks.


The burnout I experienced from work came from compounded negative experiences that culminated when I experienced bullying from another colleague. I don’t for a second want to believe that I ‘had’ to go through that bullying in order to decide to do something I enjoyed. Like many victims, I wish it never happened.


But I am grateful for the choices that I made, grateful that I decided to turn inwards and reflect. I’m grateful that I decided to spend time with myself at my lowest, darkest points; grateful that I choose to celebrate my sweet wins.


 

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