According to my Storygraph list, I read this book over a year ago.
I've been stewing, slowly letting its words seep into my pores. At the time, this book was the kick I needed to start sorting through my priorities (at the risk of sounding like Ron Weasley – if you know, you know).
I cried as I finished the last few pages, because Yumiko had managed to do what I thought was impossible in my own life: she had shifted perspective and re-framed her ambition. To be successful and hard working, to contribute to society, you shouldn't also be required to experience physical and emotional burnout.
(Just a quick note from your friendly neighbourhood reviewer: the following gets a little intense as I talk about my experience with burnout. Please always reach out for help if you need it – at the end of this article is a list of numbers to call.)
Emotional Female sits on a table in front of a white backdrop and a floral teapot. Image: Madeleine Corbel, 2021.
Burnout is a downer
When I left high school, my goal was to be a musician. I didn't have any other plans, nothing tangible to set my sights on. Music was my identity, my source of pride and my sense of self. I worked incredibly hard, dedicating my life to practice, to performance; I spent every spare minute teaching, working on my craft, searching for new opportunities or contributing to my community through working in local theatre.
I conducted bands and sang on stage myself, I met wonderful people and became incredibly busy. But the busier I became, the less happy I was. My mental and physical health was degenerating, until getting up for work each day was sapping my energy so much that I needed multiple sick days in a row. I would sweat and cry getting ready to leave the house, so wracked with anxiety and depression that I would barely get out the door and – at the risk of becoming a little serious – car drives became dangerous from exhaustion and my own unhappiness.
Nobody except my closest family members knew. I barely knew, not having the energy to track how bad my mental health and burnout had become. This is such a trap, and a dangerous one for many people.
My ambition had degenerated into depression.
'Fixing' the burnout
This is still something I'm working on, and I understand now that it will take a long time before I've learned what my body and brain can withstand.
Music sapped my strength, so I changed careers. I'm studying publishing now and working in the book industry as a sales assistant and distributor at an art and architecture book company. I'm miles ahead of where I was.
I feel happy and whole again: I have a heck-tonne of support from my family and friends, space to read, time to find joy again in my hobbies, and I've done a lot of journalling and reflection. I've learnt a lot about myself and illness in a few years. I'm even on medication now, which has helped to untangle and unravel the threads of anxiety in my brain.
There's no quick fix to burnout – it takes time to re-organise and interrogate the contradictory elements in your life. I had to work out how far I was willing to go for my career, and re-route my thoughts when they told me I wasn't doing enough.
This Ted video discusses the symptoms and treatments of burnout with the help of two experts. Video: Emily Nagoski and Amelia Nagoski: The cure for burnout (hint: it isn't self-care) | TED.
Back to the book
Emotional Female was the slap in the face I needed to start taking care of myself. Yumiko's journey through the medical profession, her own expectations and ambitions, and the brutal traumas of her daily life in the medical industry yanked me into awareness and hit me deeply.
Bravely personal in tone and informative in identifying the problems with the health system, Dr Kadota paints a gruesome picture of the dangerous pitfalls and problems of an industry that is designed to promote health. Ironically, the health system mistreats the staff members needed to promote health and excellence in hospital care.
Yumiko's descriptions of fatigue and mental decline were heart-wrenching to read but she also manages to convey a holistic sense of hope and passion. There's a fire in this book that makes me feel positive that things can change in every industry – that women can feel safe and respected in every workplace, that burnout and depression can become household topics of casual conversation, and that people's value to society will not measured by their ambition.
Our lives don't stop and start with our work. We are complicated beings that need balance and rest. A year later, that's what has stayed with me about this book: the hope that perspectives can shift and passionate drive can become healthy again.
A year ago, I was so lost and sad. Now, I make more time for the people I love; I'm getting better at taking care of myself; I love my job and am excited for the future; I've said no; I've said yes; I've grown plants; I've written songs; and I've made time to put my health first.
Far out, what a difference it can make.
As always, thanks a bunch for reading with me.
A quick note
If you or anyone else you know is struggling at the moment, never be afraid to reach out for help. I felt – for a long time actually – as if my life's trajectory was laid out for me, and that I had no control over my circumstances. I felt very alone, but I wasn't.
Lifeline is a wonderful service that provides instant messaging and calling services for those in need: 13 11 14.
Beyond Blue is doing a lot of work with research and science to start working on getting people the help they need: 1300 22 4636.
In addition to these services, you can also go to your GP for a mental health care plan (which is quite often free of charge).
For introverts – like me! – who might be stressed speaking to someone in person, BetterHelp offers a chat service with official counsellors.