"We are living through the burnout decade"
Katherine May talked to The Shift about meaning-making, her midlife autism diagnosis and why she believes we’re suffering from a deficit of wonder
Katherine by Alexa Loy Dent
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A couple of weeks ago I invited the author of Wintering and Enchantment, Katherine May to come on The Shift podcast for a full and frank chat about her midlife experience. Little did I know how popular that conversation was going to be! So here it is, for those of you who are not yet in the podcast zone, or just want to be able to linger a little longer over her words of wisdom. (This is a transcript of our conversation, slightly edited to remove ums and ahs!)
Sam: How was your retreat?
Katherine: It was really nice, I’m really glad I did it, but I could have done without having had the flu directly before. And then the week before that I’d had covid, so I just rolled from one thing to another.
S: Somatic illness are the ones that really take you out, aren't they?
K: That's the thing, it’s profoundly linked to our sense of exhaustion and the way that we’re worn down by our lives at the moment, and that must lead to illness, it can’t not. Otherwise it doesn’t make any sense, I don’t think. If you could just carry on piling into life and not get sick that would be the solution to everything! But it’s just not how we work.
S: So is that where Enchantment came from? Did it come from lockdown, did it come from your own health, did it come out of Wintering? What was the process?
K: It was a really hard birth actually. Wintering kind of downloaded itself into my head in one go and made sense immediately. Whereas with Enchantment I had to really work to get there. I knew I was circling what life feels like now, this very particular quality that our lives have post-pandemic, but also post-that much bigger swathe of history we’ve all lived through. We’re so disoriented. It’s like we’ve emerged blinking into this new world and we can’t make sense of it. So I knew I wanted to write in that space but it took me the longest time to work out what I wanted to say. I was thinking about these bigger values like awe, humility, that sense of feeling small in a grand universe, because that’s the negative side of what we feel but I feel like it could be the positive side of what we feel as well. I literally had to keep going in and making attempts at it until it slotted together. I had to keep chipping away. There was a point about two thirds through the process where I had this revelation that it was about burnout and that burnout was the driving factor behind everything I wanted to talk about. And burnout was why it was so hard to write. And that burnout was coming from a really profound place that was more than just the last couple of years. This real sense that home had been taken away from us and all the certainties had gone and how exhausting it was to be in that landscape.
S: It seems to me that the phrase “burnout” is somehow the property of millennials, a slightly younger demographic, millennials “own” burnout! Obviously that’s not true, but…
K: We were being burnt out long before they were being burnt out!
S: Yeah, we were burnt out first! And I’m sure that my mum’s generation think, hang on! We were burnt out first! I suppose it’s the talking about it, giving it a name. In the past, we would have called it a breakdown and that had such negative connotations. It was like a personal failure, like breaking under the pressure, and if you were good enough and strong enough and tough enough you wouldn’t. Whereas burnout doesn’t feel the same.
K: It’s kinder isn’t it? My deeper understanding of burnout came from learning I was autistic, and the autistic community talk about burnout a lot because it’s a really live issue for us. And that helped me to see patterns of burnout across my life, it’s just something that’s unavoidable if you’re trying to fit in with a society that isn’t made for you. But what I’ve really noticed is how that’s spread to the much broader community and it’s not a rare event any more. It’s a constant experience. It’s how we experience life. And we’ve got so far to go to unravel all the threads that have produced that. We’re living in an environment that’s hostile to our good health – mental and physical. It’s going to be hugely complex to unravel that and I’m not even seeing the will to unravel it yet. It’s enormous. And I think it’s going to carry on being enormous for a decade to come. I think this is the burnout decade.
S: There isn’t a will, is there? I did hope, during lockdown, that when we emerged we might keep some of the unlearnings, if you like. That we could take some good things from lockdown. But it seems to me that we aren’t. That there’s a race backwards. Why do you think we’re clinging to that? Is it better the devil you know?
K: I do think a conversation has continued that maybe wasn’t there before. The fight has centred on home working really, hasn’t it, and quiet quitting, which sounds like the way I’ve always worked!
S: Wouldn’t that have been “working to rule” back in the day?
K: Outside of the US and the UK it would just be working your normal hours, taking a lunch break, god forbid! Telling, isn’t it? I think the problem is that we need a much more radical conversation about boring things like the structure of society before we can really tackle it, because otherwise it’s untacklable. We’ve got to stop saying that we can do this by little “life hacks” or by managing our diaries better or being better motivated, it’s mythological. We’ve got ourselves into a situation where work is intruding into every aspect of our lives, where we are never allowed to switch off, where our level of responsibility to be conscious about everything all the time has become bigger than our brains are capable of holding. And at the same time we’re profoundly disconnected from all the solaces that can help us and we don’t feel like we have time to do anything about it. It's a conversation about capitalism, ultimately, and the way it’s set up and the way we are complicit in that system. We only know how to derive our self esteem from the system that there is now and we really struggle to imagine anything else. That’s why your conversation about ageing is so important, because one of the things we’ve been denied, particularly as women, is to be allowed to derive any self esteem from an ageing body. That is forbidden to us. Because pretty is what’s demanded of us, and pert and firm.
S: And pretty is synonymous with… under 30. Not even under 40.
K: Totally. There are changes that happen to your face after that that just aren’t pretty in the way we’ve been fed all our lives. It’s a big confrontation that all of us have to make and it’s painful.
S: It’s so engrained and so internalised that it’s possible just to move your critical gaze from one part of your body to another. When I was young I started off by hating my thighs and then you find a different bit of your body that you hate more as you get older, like maybe your stomach or your upper arms… My new thing is my jowls! Where did that even come from? I remember reading Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck and thinking, I REFUSE to feel bad about my neck, BUT I do feel bad about my chin.
K: Maybe the neck just hasn’t really set in yet! It’s about… oh God, I dunno!
"One of the things we’ve been denied, particularly as women, is to be allowed to derive any self esteem from an ageing body, that is forbidden to us. Because pretty is what’s demanded of us, and pert and firm"
S: Where does being in midlife play into your writing... I hate to use the phrase your spiritual journal because it’s so much more and different than that… your search to reconnect with stuff!
K: I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently. We’re talking about menopause a lot in our society at the moment and one of the things I’ve noticed about that conversation is that anything that is a discomfort or complaint now becomes ‘oh that must be menopause’. And I’ve got a little bit of a problem with that, honestly. Because I think we’re talking about structural issues and those structural issues impact our experience of menopause. That’s not to deny the massive biological revolution our bodies go through and how difficult that is, but they’re heightened by how women are living at this stage in their life. And every middle-aged woman I know is carrying such a complex burden of care, work, general responsibility to hold every single thing in your mind and be in control of it… they’re making sure their neighbours are OK, they’re checking in on relatives, they are holding down hugely valued and responsible working roles, they may or may not be parenting at different stages and they’re also dealing with a responsibility to stay pretty somehow and thin, in a way that their husbands do not have to (assuming they’re married) or their male partners or their male colleagues. I just think that we need to start talking about menopause as part of a bigger structural pattern, because my body started going through perimenopause when I was 29 and I can tell you for sure that the anger still landed in my mid-40s! The rage! The biological disruption was the same, but it was the structural differences that brought the rage ultimately. It’s almost like we’ve found this new easy thing to blame our difficulties on, which means we don’t have to take that much much deeper look into how we’re running things. It’s much easier to say, this is a hormonal disruption and it will pass and we can medicate it effectively, than it is to say, this is a massive hormonal disruption and it lands at a time when we are under unbearable and unsustainable pressure and the two of those acting together is an absolute nightmare!
S: It’s so interesting you say that. When I was reading Enchantment, I scribbled down some notes about the symptoms you described when you were coming out of lockdown, that combination of losing your ability to read, particularly fiction, feeling like a battery that had run out of charge, brain fog, the bone-deep tiredness… they’re the symptoms of burnout, they’re the psychological symptoms of perimenopause, the symptoms of coming out of lockdown, they are symptomatic of a lot of things that people are experiencing right now.
K: If you’re neurodivergent they’re pretty much consistent throughout your life as well. Those are symptoms I’ve had since I was a teenager.
S: Do you think being neurodivergent, with that constant cycle of burnout, trying to fit into a world that isn’t built for you, do you think there’s an element of that that many women entering middle-age start to experience, that the world is no longer built for them. If it ever was.
K: I think you’re right. The reason you start to experience that stuff is the world being hostile to your neurology, basically. So if what is being demanded of you on a day to day basis is greater than your brain’s processing power – whatever that is – and if you are constantly in an act of very conscious labour in order to fit in to that world, then you’re going to experience this brain crash. Brain fog. Burnout. They’re all the same thing. So if you’re neurodivergent, you’re going to experience that a lot earlier in life because that fit becomes more difficult sooner rather than later but it has the same effect and it is every bit as painful whatever stage in you’re life you’re going through it. One thing I would say, is that there’s increasing anecdotal evidence for neurodivergent women that menopause is particularly problematic; that those changes accelerate the stuff that we’ve been feeling all along. But I do think that we can talk about this as a commonality. It might not be coming from the same source but it can lead to the same issues. When we talk about people being in meltdown or shutting down, we see those responses in neurotypical people too under extreme stress, the difference is that most of the time neurotypical people aren’t under the extreme stress that neurodivergent people experience. But actually when you level that horrible playing field you see the same responses and it feels like extreme confusion and being unable to think straight.
S: How old were you when you received your autism diagnosis?
K: I was 39.
S: How did that come about?
K: It was really quite random. I got to the point where I knew I needed to make a change. Life got incredibly difficult for me after I had my son. I’d carried this sense with my throughout my life that I was different to everybody else and that was unshakeable. Not just, like, I feel a bit weird sometimes, but, I’m a different species of human. That’s how I felt when I was a child and it’s how I carried on feeling. So I decided that I needed to undertake a long walk and I started to walk the South West Coast Path. And the reason I’m telling you that is because if I hadn’t gone out and walked I don’t think I’d have come to the realisation that I was autistic. It opened up this reflective space. As I walked, my brain was putting things together. It kept throwing up events in my life or responses that I’d made or feelings that I’d had. At first I thought my brain was being really cruel to me, dredging up every dark moment of my life while I was walking, but it also felt like a reordering, a restorying. And then, I was driving in my car one day and I heard a woman [on the radio] talk about what it was like to be autistic. And it was the first time I’d ever heard that story told from the inside rather than from the outside. Part of my degree was in psychology, I’d worked in education most of my career, I’d worked with autistic kids, but every bit of training or education I’d ever had was always about how autism looks rather than how autism feels. And those two things do not go together. There’s a profound mismatch in the way we talk about autism and the way autism feels if you’re autistic. The minute I heard someone talk about what it felt like, I was like, that’s it, that’s me. But the walk was necessary to “crack me open”, I think. It connects really strongly to Enchantment as well, which is all about immersing yourself in landscape and how having that almost bodily conversation with the ground beneath your feet and the air around you is transformative, mentally and emotionally. It takes you into a different mindset and makes change possible.
Every middle aged woman I know is carrying such a complex burden of care, work, general responsibility to hold every single thing in your mind and be in control of it…
S: One of the things that interests me is the sense that Enchantment is something we have the capacity for in childhood and then maybe lose… I wonder whether we lose it in the midst of all the 'I’m so busy and important and indispensable' and all of those things that go together to make up the overload we’ve been talking about, the have-it-allness, and whether there’s something about this time of life that makes reopening up to it possible in a way that doesn’t feel possible in those twenty or thirty years in between.
K: I think so. This phase of my life is definitely my favourite phase so far. I feel much more certain of myself and my needs and much less shame about wanting and needing things. You got embarrassed when you said it was a spiritual journey, but screw it, let’s talk about wanting and needing a spiritual dimension to my life, which I would have found an excruciatingly embarrassing idea in my twenties and probably most of my thirties. I would have run a mile to reject it. But there’s something about getting a bit older that makes me think, I don’t really care about looking cool in front of Richard Dawkins any more! He doesn’t care what I think anyway. You realise that the quest to be cool that you have when you’re younger, that sense of caping up with the world and being socially appropriate, begins to fade a little. I’ve let go of some of the balloons. And beneath all that effort to fit in are these desires, and one of the big desires for me was a more fluid relationship with the landscape and my human experience of putting my feet on the ground and sensing everything that’s going on around me and immersing myself in the grandeur and the timelessness of that, and how minute I am in that on all sorts of different scales, physical scales, time scales, human scales, geological scales… And there’s a conversation I wanted to have with all of that stuff that becomes scenery if we’re not careful. And I think part of that is my increasing sense of stewardship of that world as I get older and how much it needs us to, not take care of it in a paternalistic way, but tune in to its needs which we have not been doing. I couldn’t have got there when I was younger. I would have been too sensible!
S: And like you say, too caught up in how things looked from outside. Looking back now I lived and worked in London for years and I never once looked up. I was resolutely urban, I didn’t want to be in the country, I didn’t care about the country, it was just a place you went through to get where you were going and it’s been a complete shock to me to love living somewhere where from the end of the street you can see a mountain in one direction and the sea in the other. That sense that it’s all bigger than you has become really important and it ties into you talking in Enchantment about meaning-making. It feels like a bit of a cliche that now I’m 50 (plus!) I’m starting to worry about the footprint I leave behind and to want something bigger to believe in, but we don’t have that any more. You can’t just blame the internet for everything but at the same time scrolling has been my god for a long time! A lot of people’s god...
K: The god of scrolling!
S: How depressing is that?!
K: I’m just the same though. I could list a million ways that I’ve avoided making that kind of reckoning, not just with mortality (although I do think that’s an important part of it) but with that sense of continuity of life and the parts of my experience that pull on me and take me beyond what I can rationalise and what I can show other people. I’ve come to realise that that doesn’t matter, and I’m pulled towards this feeling of flow and fluidity and connection, I guess, with other people, which seems incredibly present to me but that I can’t make any sense of whatsoever. I wasn’t brought up a christian, but I went to christian schools and I never felt comfortable in that tradition. I now understand why, because the rules were always so external and they were given, stated, certainly in the way I learnt it, but it never made any sense to me to take on someone else’s experience, I needed to base it on my own, and I’m quite resistant to anything that over-explains. I’m much more of a daoist than I am a christian. I think we’re all talking about the same sense of luminosity that we can feel sometimes and I think we can understand that in very individual ways and still be in conversation with each other about it, because we’re all talking about the same source. It’s hard to talk about it, even now, it’s a bit embarrassing! I know for sure that my husband will roll his eyes if he listens to this interview! He just doesn’t feel the same calling. It makes no sense to him, but it does make sense to me. So I could carry on denying it or I could live the fullness of the life that’s being offered.
S: Does he relate to the nature bit of it and just doesn’t take it to the next level?
K: To an extent. I think he’d say he finds it in music, that’s the place he goes to enter into that flow and feel transcendence. We’re talking about the same thing in lots of ways, but we’re talking different languages. Equally I’ll have conversations with other people that I can’t get a foothold in. I wanted to make an invitation, I suppose, for people who are like me, who are a bit embarrassed by the whole thing and didn’t grow up in families where you’d have a conversation like that, to dig into our own instincts and gut feelings, and build an experience from the ground up and build an experience based on what they perceive rather than what’s handed down from other people. I’m definitely not founding my own cult yet though!
S: There are obviously are a lot of people who feel the way you do though because Wintering wouldn’t have taken off in the way it has if there weren’t. To go back to your poor husband for a moment, there’s a bit that really made me laugh that talks about spiritual development being designed for men. And I wondered if there’s something in that, too, that men get to go and sit in a hut up a mountain for six months while someone else gets the kids to school and keeps everything going; that society prizes masculine knowledge and historically men got to do the things that are “big and important” and women didn’t? I wonder if we reach this point in life and go, hang on, I want a bit of that?!
K: In Enchantment I tell a story about learning to meditate. The guy who taught me, he was great, but he made this big thing about learning to be a meditation teacher by going off and meditating in a cave in India…
S: My eyes have rolled into the back of my head!
K: I know, I know. At the time I remember being frightfully intimidated by that and thinking, oh, he must know so much more than I do about it. But there was one brilliantly bolshy older woman in the group who put her hand up and said, “where were your kids at this point?" And he was like, “oh, my wife was looking after them.”
S: Of course!
K: I think we need to ask that question over and over again, because we’re still being presented with these white male gurus who tell us the answer and give us these spiritual systems that we are destined to fail at. I can’t meditate for thirty minutes twice a day. No matter how much rearranging I do of my life there is not space for that and there certainly wasn’t space for it when I had a young child. But that’s not a failure, that’s me practising life in a different way. And I think we should learn to ask these men how they would respond if they had their sleep constantly disrupted and had to give gentle, kind care even when they were desperate to return to their own work and thinking, and the wisdom that gets built from being disrupted all the time rather than doing the thing many of us want to do, which is surrender to our thoughts. The luxury of that! And the financial privilege that’s behind it. I could go on. There are different routes into a spiritual relationship with the world and it’s our job to start asking the question: how were you able to drop all those ties to do that? Because many of us can’t. And that’s not because we’ve failed. And it’s not because any of us are doing anything that’s vaguely unusual actually. We are knitting the fabric of society together through care and that’s a very important and wise thing to do.
S: When you were walking the South Coast Path many weekends and you had a small child, did you feel that you somehow shouldn’t be doing that?
K: Oh god, all the time! I had a two year old and I went back once a month and walked a whole weekend. Sometimes my husband and son came with me and other times I went off on my own. For me it was really important to put that in the book, to externalise it and to manifest the work that it takes when one parent goes off to pursue their life goals. I always made sure it was really clear who was doing the care and how that was being arranged because we read such a lot of books where men go off and undertake amazing adventures and they’ve left their wife at home. And it’s never once mentioned. Maybe in the acknowledgements, what a rock she is! Woah! Did she have any choice about being a rock?! It was hard and I felt guilty a lot of the time, but I also felt very driven towards it. In lots of ways, I wanted my son to experience me doing that. To know that there are these things that are very important to us at times. And I hope it will give him permission to do that in the future. But also, he saw his father looking after him while I did it, so I hope that will mean he’s willing to do that for a partner in future. I mean, let us remind ourselves that the same number of men and women have children!
S: Lastly, I want to talk a little bit about swimming. I know open water swimming is really important to you, but I found it interesting that, despite having swum most of your life, you took swimming lessons in your forties.
K: Yes, I’d always swum but I’d never had a lesson. That was fine. I had a decent breast stroke. But I got to a point – especially as I swim in the sea regularly – where my confidence was dropping. I saw other people taking more risks and I felt less and less certain that I had that extra kick in my stroke to get myself out of trouble. Because trouble does come when you’re swimming. You do get taken by rip tides sometimes or by currents, and I found myself getting more and more worried about it. And I decided that what I really needed was front crawl, which does seem to be the stroke that has that power in it. So I went to adult swimming lessons, which you may or may not be surprised to know are always full. There are many many people learning for many reasons. Some in my group had never swum and others were like me, they were self-taught and had very inefficient strokes. It was an extraordinary process, to relearn something that your body is very sure it knows how to do is SO hard. You have to unlearn everything before you can relearn it. After a couple of weeks, I felt like I couldn’t swim at all. Everything had been completely unravelled; the new stroke wasn’t there and the old stroke had gone. I thought it was never going to happen again. And then, one day, the rhythm hit, it just landed, and suddenly I could swim in a completely different way. I’m really glad I did it. It was an enormous pleasure to discover my body could relearn something like that, you think you can only do it when you’re a kid. Just like enchantment, apparently you can do it in your 40s and 50s.
S: I was really interested in the dual importance to you of swimming and walking.
K: Both are things I’ve always done, but they’ve grown in importance as I’ve got older. I’ve always soothed myself by getting into water. I’ve always wanted to swim in the sea, but I didn’t always live by the sea. I’ve always got myself in a hot bath when the world jangled me too much. And, because I hate driving, I’ve always walked wherever I can, and I’ve always chosen places to live that are walking distance to wherever I want to go. But the need to walk much further and be alone for long periods of time, or the need to swim in a way that’s less spontaneous and more of a regular presence in my life, and to get into water regardless of the conditions, is something that’s come as I’ve got older and been able to assert that need. And to explore it and want to push it to its limits. I think I’ve become more curious as I’ve approached middle age. And at the same time I really despise some of the culture that has arisen around cold water swimming that has instantly become about measuring: like, how many minutes you stay in, what temperature, how far you swim… it makes my little heart sink, because we are so unable to just BE. Swimming and walking for me are about being and immersing myself in being. And we can’t do it. We just add numbers to everything and then wonder why it’s unpleasant. And connect it to thinness every damn time. The number of people who’ve said to me, oh the cold water will make you burn fat… I don’t give a flying toss about that, and I hope I never do, because that would rob me of the amazing experience I get from it.
The Questions I Always Ask:
What’s your emotional age?
45. I’m really happy right here. If anything I’m older, 67 or so. And always have been.
Give us a book recommendation.
Jenny Diski’s Skating To Antarctica. (Opens in a new window) It’s the memoir that made me want to write memoir. She was such an astute writer. She’s got such a critical, wry, earthy voice. I just think she’s one of our most underrated writers.
What advice would you give younger women?
To not care as early as you can. I think about the 'hunt for love', and how much people change themselves in the pursuit of that, and I just want to tell people that you don’t want to find the person who loves you because of all the work you’ve done that can’t possibly be kept up. Find someone who loves you in comfortable shoes and will look after you when you’re sick, because that’s what love actually is in the long term, it’s got nothing to do with big romantic gestures.
Who’s your old bird role model?
I am such a bolshy person that I’m really bad at having role models. I’m 100% resistant to it.
What’s your superpower?
Mixing cocktails is my weird superpower. I love the fact that you’re playing with pure flavours, you can have a little think about it, mix a few things together and create a new thing. I do it nearly every night. I mix a killer martini.
How many fucks do you give?
I’d love to say zero, but I think there’s a couple left. Diminishing numbers.
•Wintering and Enchantment are both available now from The Shift bookshop (Opens in a new window) on bookshop.org.
• If you'd rather listen, you can hear this conversation wherever you get your podcasts. (Opens in a new window) And if you'd like to catch up with our The Shift Bookclub Live conversation with Katherine from last December, you'll find it on The Shift Bookclub Youtube channel. (Opens in a new window)
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