The treadmill broke. It had the smell of a burnout, like rubber tires on pavement. I had been running on that same treadmill for fifteen years. That’s a long time to be running in one place on the same piece of equipment day in and day out. I never maintained it, not once did I oil it or check the screws or any of that stuff that you’re supposed to do to upkeep a treadmill. What are you even supposed to do to upkeep a treadmill? Clearly I had no idea, because it falling to pieces took me completely by surprise.
The day that the treadmill broke was the day that I realised I’d worked myself too hard. Working hard had become a survival response for me. I wore busy like a badge of honour. Always working on something at my computer or in my head. I kept busy to distract from the fact that I wasn’t taking any time for myself. If you haven’t guessed by now, there was no treadmill. I’ve never owned a treadmill in my life. The treadmill was me, and I had pushed it far past its limits and nose dived straight into burnout at the end of 2022.
It’s hard to explain what burnout feels like, it feels like one of those things you have to experience yourself to truly understand it. For me burnout felt like I was wading waist-deep through slowly drying cement trying to get anything done. Even something as simple as making myself dinner felt like a momentous task. I’d get up and get showered and dressed and by the time all of that was done I didn’t feel like I even had the energy to sit at my desk and check my emails or make a new post or promote my business. I was tired and all I wanted to do was lay under my weighted blanket with my stuffed animals and take naps between scrolling tiktok videos.
The months leading up to this had been intense, we’d just moved to a new province, from a busy city to rural country, and even just that was a shock to my system as I got used to the slower pace of life. We’d just gotten back from a whirlwind trip to Florida with family just a couple months after the move. While it was so much fun it was a lot on my already overloaded nervous system. The real burnout hit when we got back from that trip. It had been a forced break from trying to keep myself busy with work and when I got home I was utterly exhausted.
Stop fighting it
This time, instead of fighting it like I always have before, I leaned into it. Winter was always my slow season when I ran my studio in Regina. So, I leaned into the slowness and took a step back from my business. I temporarily closed my books, and decided to let myself figure out what it was that I really wanted out here. It felt like it could be a fresh start if I wanted it to be. Did I want a fresh start, or did I want to keep doing what I already knew? I’d built a successful and busy boudoir studio in Regina, I could do it again out here. But was that what I really wanted?
I wasn’t sure at first. I knew that I just wasn’t capable of working to the capacity I had been anymore. In 2021 I’d discovered that I am Autistic and have ADHD. I was only just starting to understand what that meant for me. I knew that it meant that I couldn’t keep up with the demands I’d forced upon myself. I’d sometimes shoot up to four sessions a week in my busy season and I hadn’t realised the toll it had taken on me until I stopped taking sessions completely after the move.
Leaning into the burnout and letting what I’d built crumble all around me felt scary at first. As time went on I found things that brought me joy. I realised that I could make whatever I wanted out of the rubble. That loose rattling screw and the squeaky gear could be ignored, I could let it fall to pieces. I was tired from trying to keep that treadmill working as hard as it did, every day. So it let it break.
Let the pieces fall
When the pieces settled I started to pick them up and examine them. To figure out which ones I needed to keep and which ones I could let go. So I closed my online shop and I closed my online community. I decided to take only a very small set number of sessions on 2023. I couldn’t let myself fix the treadmill and get right back on it at full speed because I knew that the next time it broke it might be irreparable.
So I rested. I started to write my book. I took up painting rocks to look like the mountains around me that had always been waiting, inspiring this change. We started growing mushrooms from a kit in our kitchen and baking loaves of sourdough bread. I dove deep into Stardew Valley with my partner and just got back to doing the things that I already knew brought me happiness but I’d never given time or space to before.
The business I had built for myself was no longer aligning with me. I had to give myself the permission to let go of that and change everything I’d been doing up until that point. The only way to success felt like a busy life and a busy studio and lots of money. I got so caught up in what I thought I should be doing as a boudoir photographer. I never asked myself what I wanted to be doing as a creative person, as an artist, as a writer. What I wanted to be doing as a human. What I didn’t want was to work myself into another burnout.
So, the pieces of the treadmill are still all over the floor. Every day I pick up a screw or a bolt, examine it, and decide what to do with it. Change takes time and it needs space to happen, so that’s what I’ve been doing while the pieces settle. Take time to let your pieces settle, too.
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