Addiction and Burnout: Feather, Brick, and Motherf'cking Dump Truck Moments
The Burnout Series // Deep Fix №2
Deep Fix is a newsletter by Alex Olshonsky exploring mental and spiritual health, addiction, work, and philosophy. Thanks for being here. If you were forwarded this email, get your own:
The link between addiction and burnout is real. In the 1970s, the psychologist Herbert Freudenberger coined the term “burnout” from his work with heroin addicts, where he witnessed their veins “burn out” from needle injections and their cigarettes burn down to stubs.
Despite a recent Gallup survey indicating that some 23% of workers experience burnout, it does not bear an official diagnosis. Still, American psychologists and researchers have studied its effects for decades. In his book, Burnout: the High Cost of High Achievement, Fruedenberger defined it as:
“The extinction of motivation or incentive, especially where one’s devotion to a cause or relationship fails to produce the desired results.”
Burnout offers the incredibly shitty feeling that, due to chronic stress, you’re trying harder while accomplishing less. It’s a state of emotional, physical, and mental exhaustion insidious not just in our work culture, but in Western culture generally. Like addiction, burnout impacts tech employees, medical doctors, scientists—and moms, dads, and teachers.
Neither addiction nor burnout happen overnight. They brew over time like water on a slow simmer—until they reach their boiling points. Before an addict hits their “bottom,” or before an overworked human collapses into exhaustion, there are small signs along the way—markers of what’s to come.
After inspiring conversations with my friends Jonny Miller, who first introduced me to these markers, and Ben Goresky, an expert on addiction, I’ve honed three types of addiction and burnout defining moments.
1. The Feather
The first is a gentle nudge, like a feather grazing the back of your neck. Perhaps after a night of drinking, waking up so hungover that you feel compelled to slam a Gatorade mixed with Emergen-C in order to face the day.
On the burnout front, it could be loads of stress that cause you to uncharacteristically fumble over your words in a work presentation.
Feather moments are often virtually undetectable: you’ll still function in the morning or “nail” the presentation, but you’re far from your best self.
2. The Brick
Next, come the brick moments. After a night of heavy drinking, you’re so hungover that you inexcusably sleep through brunch with family visiting from out of town.
Or, you’re up for a promotion at work. You’ve been grinding non-stop—putting in time beyond what’s expected. No one is more committed than you. You expect to earn your well-deserved promo without a second thought.
Then, when the company announcement comes, your teammate gets it, passing you up. The shock makes you more stressed. Your manager gives you vague feedback about how you’ve been focusing your time on the wrong things.
Brick moments are slaps in the face, harsh wake-up calls.
3. The Dump Truck
Without any intervention after repeated feather and brick moments, you can expect a visit from The Motherfucking Dump Truck. After a marathon night of drinking, you get behind the wheel to drive home. You nod off, swerve across the median and crash into another car injuring the other driver and yourself in the process. You’re nailed with a D.U.I. and civil suit.
At work on a Friday, you’re pulled into a 1x1 with your manager and she gives you the news: we’re moving fast as an organization, and feel you can’t keep up. You’re being let go. (Hitting a breaking point from burnout could be just as severe as addiction, but it’s often more internalized.)
Any of the above scenarios leave you devastated, confused, and broken. You’ve been crushed by force.
All Three Moments Are Relative
The tricky thing about these moments is that they are entirely relative. What might be a dumpster moment for you would have likely been a feather moment for my younger self—a wild and unaware “high-functioning” addict.
When thinking of differences in relativity, I’m constantly reminded of Eric Clapton’s story. Clapton had been a notorious drinker, heroin user, and cocaine guy. There were many times on his journey where his life was in shambles, and he knew he needed to quit. He experienced consequences and tragedies most of us will never have to face. As he recounts in his memoir, his dump truck moment wasn’t until he went fishing with his friends so drunk that he fell over his rod, looking like a babbling buffoon. The only thing he cherished more than playing guitar was the Art of Fishing. He was so brutally embarrassed that he decided then and there to stop drinking. Tripping over a fishing rod was an international rock star’s dump truck moment.
A fishing faux pas wouldn’t have had the same game-changing effect for yours truly. Not even close. Getting called out by friends during a poker game when my hands were shaking so bad I couldn’t shuffle the cards didn’t wake me up. Nor did wrecking my car. Racking up a laundry list of traffic violations. Instigating blowout fights with CEOs at startups. Or waking up so dope sick, I couldn’t get out of bed.
My dump truck moment was a non-linear sequence of events that hit me like a triple gut punch: my family intervening, sleeping on a friend’s couch with my marriage on the brink, and losing a job specifically designed for me at a hot startup. Each event built to a final tipping point.
The events leading to a Burnout Dump Truck exist on a similar spectrum of relativity. The question becomes:
How can you catch the feather moments before they become bricks?
Feeling the Feather Moments
The answer boils down to sensitivity. The more sensitive you are, the more aware you will be of the feather strokes. If you’re living at Frat Palace with four of your college buddies, a Sunday night boozefest and your ensuing hangover at work on Monday won’t feel like a big deal. Or, if you work at a startup where late nights are common, compounding stress might just feel “normal.” It’s difficult to notice feather moments in inhospitable environments.
It's also hard to feel feather moments physically. Your body will register them—that’s for sure. But much like driving a car with a “CHECK ENGINE” light on, humans learn to ignore the warnings if we can still function while they’re blaring.
So, how do we learn to feel the feather moments?
I don’t find it helpful to offer some pop psychology or spiritual shit, like, “get quiet and listen to your body!” Because, duh. The point is, we are not taught how to listen to our bodies.
Process of elimination or removal can be a litmus test for feather moments. Commit to stop drinking for a week, and see how you do. Or take a week off from work, entirely unplugged. If you’re not able to stop drinking for a week, well, there’s a tell-tale sign of where you’re at. Or, if on that vacation in the Maldives, you can’t stop yourself from checking-in on Slack, you’ve got a workaholism problem.
However long or short, these breaks will increase your sensitivity. After a month without drinking, I can guarantee your first hangover will feel far worse. Or, once returning to work after a holiday, your nervous system will undergo a proper stress shock when you open email for the first time.
I know what you’re thinking.
What if I can’t quit my vice of choice for a week, or take a vacation?
Finding Accountability for Feathers
If external circumstances bar you from taking a break, don’t feel discouraged.
Individuals need to be held accountable. Small steps could be: telling a courageous friend that you’re worried about your work-life balance, and you’d like some honest feedback going forward. Or asking your partner for support when you commit to a month without drinking.
Since many friends won’t call you on your shit, a purposeful community is a powerful tool. There are numerous free support groups, meetups, meditation communities, and events to explore. Online groups—both paid and free—have exploded during the pandemic. And if that’s not your thing, therapy and coaching provide accountability in a more intimate setting.
I see feathers moments get caught—and called out—all the time in men’s groups that I participate in and organize (both digitally and in-person). Take my fellow group member “Joe” for example. One week, he says “I don’t want to drink any longer. I’m quitting.” Then the next week, he casually mentions that he had a fun night drinking on a date. Everything is cool in Joe’s mind, until another guy says, “hold up, bro. You drank? WTF?!” Without the call out, Joe wouldn’t have realized he was out of alignment.
The same goes for feather burnout moments. Joe will mention that he’s looking forward to his upcoming vacation—his first in two years—because he’ll have more time to work on his side project. It’s not until he hears: “no, brother, you need to fully disconnect. It’s going to be weird for the first two days, but then you’ll drop into it” that he adjusts his plans.
Our society has a culturally sanctioned lack of sensitivity. We go to work from “9-5,” stressed and “switched on,” only to come home and crack a brew with the vape pen-Netflix combo. Time to “switch off.” It takes a heightened sense of awareness to recognize that your lifestyle is not serving you. An awareness that many of us do not possess on our own.
Dump Truck Moments are Existential Openings
Finally, what does one do if all of the above options fail?
For the blessed souls like me, you might need a dump truck moment for real change to occur. This will most likely be the worst thing that has ever happened to you. When the rug is pulled out from under your feet, and you realize everything that you thought mattered actually doesn’t, the person you thought you were, dissolves. These existential openings are terrible times. Yet, the precious gifts they unearth are there if you’re willing to look for them.
When your world is shattered, there’s space for something new to be born.
Community + Worthwhile Elsewhere
🌎 Community Dialogue: our growing community of sense-makers met this week to celebrate our 1-year anniversary. We also have virtual book clubs, a Slack forum, and more brewing. Reach out with questions if you’re curious or if you’d like to check it out.
🤦♀️ The Rise of Therapy Speak. “The words suggest a sort of woke posturing, a theatrical deference to norms of kindness, and they also show how the language of suffering often finds its way into the mouths of those who suffer least.” A fantastic article.
🎧 Changing Paradigms on Psychedelics and Addiction. “We are displacing certain concepts of the precious structure around managing addiction but we are simultaneously conserving core aspects of the 12 step model.” A forward thinking, worthwhile listen.
🕺 DJ oLo Presents: April 2021. My ongoing playlist that updates monthly. Still lots of Latin American inspiration from my travels.
Photo of the week
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We are two editions into Deep Fix. I spend hours trying to make this one of the most thoughtful emails you receive each week, so I’d welcome any feedback you have for me.
Lastly, no newsletter next week. I’m here in NYC learning the ropes of Uncle-ship, spending time with my baby niece, and celebrating new life.
Until next time …