Who are you?
-My name is Raluca Sabau, I am 32 years old and I am a classical musician.
What can you tell us about yourself?
-During my first year at the conservatory I was facing a lot of pressure trying to keep up with all the requirements. Next to having a very stressful time at school, I was pretty much on my own in a new city. Not having a piano, I had to wake up at 5am to be in school at 6am, when the doors opened, in order to get some practice hours before lessons would start, around 8 or 9am. As a student that didn’t have the luxury to practice at home, the only way you would have a chance to touch a piano in the evening hours was to be the first at the door in the morning and reserving a room for after lessons. So for the first two years I was waking up at 5am on a regular basis, practicing from 6 to 8/9 in the morning and again from 18/19 to 22 in the evening. During the day I had classes I had to attend, and trying to catch up on sleep when possible. My living situation would bring its share of stress, having to move five times only in the first two years because of various reasons, ranging from bad heating, to being stolen from, to being bullied, and even sexually harassed. In my family we’ve been struggling financially for ever since I can remember, so money worries were just something I got used to while growing up. I remember being cold in the winter because of not having proper shoes and clothing. I remember counting coins to make sure I had enough for the day. I remember having to portion a jar of jam in order to have enough food for the whole week. I remember not having enough and being hungry more than just once. It was a dark time, but I had accepted it because it was the only reality I knew and it was my choice and desire to study at the conservatory and become a pianist. So I sucked it up, being brave and completely unaware of all the red flags around me. It took less than two years until I started breaking down.
When did you understand you were going through a burn-out?
-Before the end of my second year, at age 20, my body started reacting, or at least that’s when I couldn’t ignore the signals anymore. Preparing for the exams I realised that my body was in pain and I had this constant cramp that I couldn’t shake off. Funny enough, I was working just as hard as always, but for some reason things wouldn’t stick anymore. I then concluded I had to work even harder, since exams were approaching and I felt like I was behind. I pushed and I pushed, but learning new things was slowly becoming impossible. I couldn’t remember much. What I do remember is not understanding how come I keep putting in the exact same hard work as always, but all of a sudden it failed to deliver. Why were my methods not working anymore? When did my system stop functioning? Why couldn’t I remember anything? Why couldn’t I just shake it all off with a good night of sleep? I was getting slow and I was fully aware of it. I was a spectator at my own show. I felt like I was turning stupid, going dumb. I felt like I had damaged myself, possibly irreversibly. All sorts of dark thoughts went through my head. I felt scared and broken.
Luckily, the cramp on my right arm was there to stay, which lead to a diagnosis, which lead to me having to cancel all playing activity and taking some time off. I say luckily, because looking back to it all, it could have been so much worse. I am convinced that have that hand injury not come at that exact time, the mental damage could have been much more serious. Having no choice but to stop, I took it easy for the summer. I can’t remember exactly what I was doing during those months, but I do remember not playing any piano. It was not easy, as I was cursing the pain that was keeping me away from the thing I loved so much. It was just there, a constant reminder of having done something wrong, but not quite being able to put my finger on it. At the time I didn’t even know what it was, or that it was a real thing, with a name and a diagnosis of its own. I haven’t seen any doctors about it, I believed they would have laughed in my face and tell me to get some sleep. I haven’t spoken about it to anyone, not even family or close friends. I felt ashamed and pretended the only thing that had happened was my tendonitis. I hid behind that diagnosis and hoped that getting the now unavoidable rest would make that other thing I couldn’t name go away. And it did, for the biggest part of it anyway. I felt considerably better at the end of that summer, after taking some distance from what has caused it all.
What helped you go through it?
-Again, luckily, having it happen at the same time with my tendonitis I was conditioned to get back to work very slowly. My hand needed me to be cautious and my recovery required that I didn’t work too hard, or too long. I had accepted my new, slower pace. In about half a year I was able to go back to school and play my exams. I had to downscale as the burnout threw me back on my own timeline. I had to adjust my repertoire to my new, lesser abilities and accept that I was still recovering. I remember feeling how unfair it was having to settle for less after having worked so hard to get to where I was before it happened. I was angry, very angry, I felt my hard work went to waste. It was my right to be better than I was!
What did you learn about yourself thanks to your burn-out?
-Truth is, I never felt the same as before the burnout, but I now believe that’s a good thing. Reflecting on that time, I was too obsessed with work. Being good at what I was doing was at the top of my priority list, and proving myself to others was a constant worry. I realise I was wrong, but not necessarily in my beliefs, as in the way I was approaching them. I still believe it is very important to be good at what you do, that it is your responsibility to yourself and the society you live in to know your s**t and deliver your contribution to this planet. Still to this day I am a perfectionist, but being aware of it makes it easier to keep it under constant watch. I am still an achievement driven person and my field hasn’t stopped being tough. Competition is just as high, or maybe even higher, but my take on it is different. I decided I wasn’t interested in being a race horse anymore. From then on I would be my own competitor. I have previously raced myself into sickness and that was a tough lesson to learn, one I wasn’t willing to repeat again. I realised I could only contribute if I am healthy and that has become my number one priority.
Don’t get me wrong, I still go too far sometimes. I still work myself into exhaustion, as if I haven’t learned anything. It’s tricky keeping track when you really love what you do, so that’s my new challenge. (note to self) Love your work, but love yourself more! I’ve already failed a couple of times, in fact I’m pretty close to pushing a bit too far as I write these words, but now I know what burnout looks and feels like, so I know to stop before it gets to a place of no return. It’s challenging to accept that I can’t handle as much as I did in the past. But then again, I am also older, and they say that happens anyways with aging.
Do you have tips?
-I strongly believe perfectionism should be the main diagnose. Please, please, please listen to your own body! I cannot emphasize this enough. Eat properly, drink plenty of water (I personally get foggy when dehydrated) Feeling tired? Go to sleep. Don’t smoke, drink in moderation. Take breaks that preferably involve going outside. MOVE! Not a sportive type? Start with a long walk three times a week. Get a buddy to join. Get in contact with people. I don’t recommend being alone while going through a burnout. I personally realised that by ignoring or trying to hide it you are not doing yourself any favors. It will not make it go away, on the contrary. It’s like pretending you didn’t spill coffee on your blouse when everyone can see the stain…
Acceptance brings closure. Now, 12 years after my burnout, I have a new 100%, slightly lower than when I was 20 years old, and that’s fine. Now, I start every day with a blank page, fully aware that everything I do is a choice and it’s up to me which direction I go to. My note to self has become my new motto: Love your work, but love yourself more. Someday I still feel like I should tattoo this on my skin 🙂