That’s when I noticed my thick red hair was coming out in clumps.
A “burn out” is usually associated with those who have worked themselves into the ground. Remember the Friends episode, “The One That Could Have Been”, when Phoebe gives herself a heart attack because she worked too hard?
I was told by doctors I was a burnout. I didn’t know how this could happen to me, a twenty-something-year-old who had just started working in the corporate world two years prior. But it did happen. My love for life and my job were gone, stress levels through the roof, exhaustion at an all-time high. That’s what two years of consistent overtime, fueled by coffee and an erratic sleeping pattern will do.
I worked a normal 9-5 job, including nights and weekends. I channeled everything into a series of underfunded and understaffed projects, sleeping little and skipping lunch.
I was ignoring important signs too. My jeans should have been the first warning sign. I’ve never had trouble filling in my clothes before, but my clothes became too big. I also began seeking out an anti-aging Lancome eye serum and it should have been the second sign. I watched worry lines become permanent crows feet.
I also hadn’t spent a night out with friends in weeks, maybe months and my relationships were suffering. Unfortunately, Lancome doesn’t sell products for mending relationships.
While these things worried me briefly, they didn’t deter me from living each day like a to-do list, cutting out socializing in favor of filling forms and researching grant schemes.
The final straw was one I did not expect. In my only quiet space, during my only self-care ritual: a hot shower at the end of the day in a cold office, to warm up and wind down. I noticed my thick red hair was coming out in clumps. I figured I needed a haircut or maybe a new shampoo.
As the days passed, my reflection started to show a thin and tired girl, with even thinner red hair.
It was only one side of my head that was affected, meaning that I was constantly styling to suit that – in what I thought were Lana Del Rey-esque side-swept waves, but actually more like a sad side ponytail on a ragdoll.
More of my hair began to come out and it hit me so hard. My red hair has always been a security blanket of sorts, which I now had to go without. I felt like my red hair hid my stress or distracted from tired eyes, even on bad days. Being a redhead is part of my identity, a signature of my own that was recognized and acknowledged often. While a lot of my personality and interests seemed faded at the time, this was a physical reminder how my identity was being worn away by exhaustion.
Stress and tiredness are easily dismissed. We pride ourselves on professional achievement, success and dedication. Throwing yourself into your job is more than “normal”, it is glorified. “Drink the coffee, then do the things!” as an Instagram post once cheered. No one tells you that running on 90% coffee energy, 90% of the time is a nervous breakdown waiting to happen.
Denying stress, evading sleep and pretending to be on top of everything is fine when you have work/life balance and feel healthy. But, when everyone around you is worried about you, that is what finally shook me.
I needed a change, a new approach to the work-life balance, and most of all, I needed a holiday!
I set a date, I knew I had to leave the job I was in, but allowed a little more time to put savings aside first. I took temporary work at a summer camp, surrounded by positive people. We swam in the sea, ate dinner together each evening and danced ’til all hours every weekend.
I booked flights. First to Mexico, then to New York. I arrived home weeks later excited and refreshed, ready to take on whatever was ahead.
I wish I had a before and after photograph, to see the improvement not just in my hair but in my smile. It took time, but with a bit of TLC, a colorful diet and a good multivitamin, thankfully, my red hair and body are much healthier.
Not everyone can afford to put money aside for vacations, and it’s not easy to leave a permanent job in favor of a temporary summer gig, but the important thing is to take time to take care of yourself. Take your vitamins B and E*, especially if you’re worried about your red hair.
Don’t be afraid to step back when you know the workload is too much. Don’t put your health, or self at risk chasing “success”, when success isn’t worth anything if you’re unhealthy or unhappy.
Apparently, happiness doesn’t just shine from your face like Roald Dahl said. It shines from your hair too. Rock it like a Redhead!
*Consult with your dietitian, doctor or nutritionist before committing to any vitamins.