Fall of 1999 I burnt out. For three long years I had worked day and night 24/7 with building an idealistic organization, co-founding a conference series and publishing a book - all at the same time as being a full time student. Then one morning, the first morning after my book tour was over, I couldn't get out of bed. And I stayed there -- for almost two months.
I slept and slept and slept even more. No matter how much I slept I was still tired. For weeks I didn't go out of the house at all, and my days and nights were almost the same. The bed or the sofa -- sleeping both places. It was as if my body just shut down and forced me catch up on three years of sleep.
Two months in I forced myself back to University. Determined to finish a full year of studies in four months not to loose my scholarship, I dived in, and I managed to complete my academic year with top grades. To this day, I'm not sure how it was possible. I'm not a psychologist and only have stories from people in my network as references, but my years of recovery -- because it took years -- were quit different from the stories I have been told. By separating myself fully from what had pushed me to the edge and gradually use other arenas to help myself back in and up again, I came back stronger and tougher a few years later. But it was hard work and lots and lots of pushing my limits to teach me to stand tall again.
The first year
I somehow managed to get through my studies and perform extremely well as long as I didn't interact with the people who had been central in the projects causing my burnout. I didn't even see old friends. If I saw someone from my past, got a call, received a letter or an email from a previous team member or someone "unknown", I would suffer breakdowns. My palms would start sweating, my pulse would rise, I would panic and feel physically sick. A few times I even threw up. I was two people -- the confident and strong person my all-new classmates got to know on the one hand, and the person who would break down in tears or shivers of the smallest little thing on the other. The person who couldn't open letters or bills without assistance, who could not make or receive phone calls anymore and who was hiding behind corners when moving outside. Yes -- that too was me. Very few people, even to this day, know what I went through that year.
As the first year passed my panic attacks happened less often, but I was still unable to do all the things that had been normal for me to do. Before I burned out, I used to love being on stage and in the spotlight. Now I couldn't even make a phone call by myself. I was a shadow of myself, and I knew the only way forward was to face my fears. For the next couple of years I gradually trained myself to get back up.
I forced myself to make phone calls. Before my burnout I had worked both as a journalist and as an activist. Calling unknown people, even well known people known for hanging up on you, was something I did everyday and never thought twice about doing. Now I couldn't event call my doctor to make an appointment. For months I wrote down absolutely everything I would say for the first few minutes of the call so that I could read it and feel comfortable knowing what to say. I would envision how the call would go and have answers prepared. Gradually I came to a point where it was ok again to both pick up and make phone calls. Not my favorite thing in the world, but ok!
I forced myself to open letters. Before my burnout one of my projects had been a campaign inviting young people from all over the world to send personal stories for a book. I opened around 8,000 letters from strangers in just a few months, but now I couldn't even open one letter. To get started I would sit down with my boyfriend, now husband, and open my pile of letters and bills with him present, proving to me that it was OK. There was never anything inside an envelope that we could not handle. What was my fear? After some time I realized that my biggest worry was to face someone asking me for something and me not being able to say no. I had never said no, and needed to teach myself to stop being the "yes" girl.
I forced myself back on the stage again. Since I was only a toddler I had loved being on stage, and I would always find a way to get up. I loved speaking in public, I loved interviewing people, I loved media interviewing me. Now I just wanted to go unrecognized and blend in. As a top student I was asked to take on lecturing smaller groups of new students. I accepted knowing well that this was a huge challenge to me at the time. For the first few weeks I could hardly sleep the night before my classes, but a semester in I felt comfortable with the smaller groups and asked the faculty if I could introduce a new course Introductory course in mathematics for the students. From classes of 15 I now stood in front of over 200 students for four days lecturing maths. I was back up on stage again!
I had given birth to three kids, gotten married and completed my Bachelor in Social Economics at the University of Bergen and my Masters in Strategy and Leadership at the Norwegian School of Economics and Business Administration with top results. During these years I had continuously tested myself in smaller projects or leadership roles at both my colleges and locally, but pulled back fast whenever I felt overwhelmed. It was first seven years after my burnout that I was 100 percent ready to jump back on again. And boy did I jump - with no knowledge of technology and no business experience (except for my textbooks), I founded a technology company with the aim of building the largest personal safety brand in the world.
Reevaluating where you stand and what you want to do -- what your purpose is -- is typical when you fall sick. A year ago I did, and it had probably been brewing for some time. I was diagnosed with Pulmonary Embolisms, note the "s" -- I had 18 blood clots in my lungs -- and when I arrived at the hospital I was told that 24-48 hours later it may well have been too late. A shocking message to get, but even that wasn't enough. A friend had to die of the same condition as me before I realized how far I had pushed myself.
My life as an entrepreneur has been fantastic, but it has also been -- and still is -- a roller coaster ride. All entrepreneurs know what I'm talking about. The ups, the downs, the stress, the 24/7 work... I would never have been without this journey, but the lifestyle that comes with the job is hard. A year ago my body screamed "enough", and now I find myself in a very similar spot to the one I was in back in the early 2000s. I'm still a passionate founder and CEO of my company, but with much less working capacity than I had earlier. I'm not burnt out yet, but I'm close, and I want to make sure I never get to that point again.
To get back up I have started using some of the methods I taught myself some years ago. I'm putting myself back out there, but slowly and in new ways. Writing is part of that. Therapy for me, but I know that many entrepreneurs and others appreciate what I'm sharing as it is helping them too. I'm also focussing more on health than I have ever done before. Still not enough, but gradually getting there. After sitting in front of a computer for hours and hours and hours every day, this body needs to move. It needs to learn how to move.
I feel that my efforts are working! Entrepreneurs and others have asked me to write about the steps I am taking, and over the coming year I will share projects, learnings and initiatives on Facebook and here.
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