HOLLY WAINWRIGHT: 'I'm a writer. One day I opened a book and I could no longer read.'

One day I opened a book and I could no longer read.

The words weren't working. I could do a sentence, maybe, before they slid off the page. A few lines before I realised they were not going in. Battle through a page, perhaps, before the pictures the paragraphs were painting pooled into murky puddles, blurring together, not making sense.

It wasn't the books. The writing. The plots. The style. There have, perhaps, never been so many books that I would like to read. There's the one everyone's reading that you're sheepish about not being "across". There are the new ones by my favourite writers — women, almost all — juicy and elegant treats waiting to be unwrapped. There are all the smart ones I wish I'd already read, just to have them sitting in my brain, available for quick access. There are the funny, fresh, fast ones teetering in my TBR bedside pile. There are the ones that will open doors to other worlds for me, other experiences, the ones that welcome me inside brains so different from my own, let me slip my feet into unfamiliar shoes. There are the ones that are solace, entertainment, learning, nourishment. There are All. The. Books.

Books have always been a constant. I read, I write, I talk. Those are my interests, those are my skills, that is what I do for a living.

And then, I couldn't.

Awkward. Really, really awkward.

The first time the readers' block happened, I was afraid. Was my brain broken? Had something happened inside it to close this door? Because that's how it felt, like a wall that couldn’t be penetrated by words. That's how writers' block feels, too, by the way, and why its name is so perfect. It's like a hard, calcified barrier between what I can imagine and what I can express. Pushing against it feels like marathon physical effort. And so it was with words on a page.


Yes, I checked that all the medical things that might have happened hadn't happened. At one point I even went for a brain scan, panicked that this, coupled with some other (doubtless perimenopausal) symptoms, signalled something sinister.

They didn't. But also they did. My broken focus, the almost physical impossibility of it, was in fact "just" a symptom of burnout.

Watch: If you're struggling to cope, here are some things you can do. Post continues after video.

Video via Mamamia.

'Just' that thing that we call the modern disease. Fragmented brains and exhausted bodies freaking out, shutting down, throwing their toys down and insisting on going home. 

'Just' that thing enabled by our common frenemy the smartphone, with its constant pinging and poking and tempting and trolling.

There were things I could do. About the burnout and the reading and the phone. But they all required more effort, more energy, more attention, and those were the things that I definitely did not have. I didn't have them, and I couldn't find the space to get them. There too many other, seemingly immovable forces in my life to make any space. Family. Work. Responsibilities.


When the world tells you to slow down, but it won't slow down with you, you can begin to feel unhinged.

These experiences are incredibly common. Burnout has all kinds of symptoms, all kinds of warning signs, all kinds of manifestations. Exhaustion, obviously. The inability to sleep (also a fun one of mine) or the inability not to. The inability to eat or the inability to stop. Colds that arrive and never leave. That weird little rash. That eye-twitch. That short temper. The unrelenting reality of being Tired All The Time.

Katherine May knows about this. She wrote a book about rest and retreat and reset called Wintering that found wings during the pandemic. I read it — actually, I listened to it, which became a burnout work-around for me — when I was struggling with both pandemic exhaustion and the sudden shock of a major life change. We had moved out of the city we'd lived in for more than 20 years, to a place we knew next to no one, we weren't allowed out to meet anyone anyway, and everything was strange.

It helped me immeasurably, that book. I won't be able to do it justice here, so please read it — it's especially useful for someone having a period of 'rest' forced upon them by a diagnosis or illness, say, or grief, or caring, or… trying to recover from burnout. It's about embracing a season of retreat, rather than raging against it. And it's beautiful.

Broadly, what May writes about both in Wintering and in Enchantment, her more recent book, is how to find ways to nourish and reset that actually work alongside those immoveable features of life we can't escape. Acknowledging that we are not all male meditation masters with endless peaceful hours available to us. But also identifying the features of life that we can escape, if we are brave enough to do so.


Shaking off the guilt of Rest. The cult of busyness. The relentlessness driving drumbeat of achievement, of productivity, of more and more output. The search for hacks instead of cures.

Burnout, she told me, when I interviewed her for our MID podcast, is what happens when you repeatedly ignore your own needs.

And one of those needs is to be cared for, as well as to care. It's profound. It's important. It's hard.

Listen to Holly's interview with Katherine May on MID here:

I'm not going to pretend that I implemented three easy things and everything changed. That my eyes focused, my sleep returned, and I started leaping out of bed every morning brimming with vim. My life is short on epiphanies like that. Katherine May is right about hacks — they don’t work. But what did happen to me was that slowly, slowly, I realised it had been a while since I felt so completely flattened and overwhelmed. That I was sleeping.

It was a mixture of stuff. I sought out hormone treatment for my peri/menopause symptoms. I started embracing clear weekends, pushing through the guilt of saying no and drawing a clear border around family time for just a few hours a week, a non-negotiable cup-filler. I started gardening (you might have heard about that), which I have realised is a form of active rest for me. It connects me to the thing that May and many others say is genuinely a salve for overwhelm —awe. It is genuinely awe-inspiring for me to see a seed turn into a frond and into a plant, and then maybe into an edible thing. It's repeated, regular, quiet work, outside, alone. It helps.


I need to make it clear that I only have the ability to do that, to do anything that is for me and me alone, because my children are older. They still need me, of course, but not for the constant entertainment and vigilance that they once did. It's important to state that because there were years there, entire years, where it was impossible. The battle for the most precious resource of all — time — is real, and can tear families and relationships and your health apart. We have been lucky enough to wait that out.

And now the words are coming back into focus. At first, I would set a timer — just 10 minutes before I fell asleep each night — and pick up one of my longed-for books. No broken focus allowed. I was allowed only to read, and keep reading until that timer was up. If I couldn't, I couldn't, but I tried to get to the bell. Soon, I would hit that alarm and turn a page. The words had done their work and hooked me back in.

But still, sometimes, the swimming sentences return. And it's a warning for me, a canary down my own coal mine, to pay attention, to consider what's on my plate that could be taken off it. At home, at work, in life.

And maybe, at that moment, it's too difficult to push anything away. So I will pop my headphones on and listen to an audiobook.

It's not cheating. 

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Feature image: Instagram @wainwrightholly.