4 Dreams and a Burnout: Learning to dream smart

January 2017 / Painful life lessons & writing / reading time: 8 minutes (2000 words)

I blame La La Land.

Okay I love it. It is joyous and moving and wonderful and I’d recommend it to anyone. But I came out of it wanting to chase my dreams and never give up on them and…I don’t know if that’s a good thing.

You see I chased my dreams and it’s not always gone the way I hoped. It’s not always worked out the La La Land way (and, no, that’s not a spoiler – go see it yourself ya bum!)

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I’ve been the fool who dreams but over the course of these four dreams and a burnout I was forced to learn how to dream smart.

The first dream was when I was 22 years old…

Dream 1: A feature film by the age of 26!

I wanted one of my screenplays made into a bonafide movie. Why by 26? Well I had heard that was Tarantino’s age when he made Reservoir Dogs so that was good enough for me. I was sure that if I succeeded in achieving it then I’d feel a joy and sense of order in the universe. All pain would cease in my life. It would be like achieving nirvana while still getting to enjoy materialism.

I chased that goal hard. Wrote one screenplay in four days (and didn’t worry too much if it was any good). Wrote and wrote and wrote. But it didn’t take long for the problems to start.

From about 23 years old on, I became tired all the time. My GP couldn’t explain it. I drank loads of energy drinks, but I was working with writers as a script editor and the energy drinks made me gassy. I’d belch a lot. Ugh.

At 24 years old, in stressful situations, I sometimes felt sick. I had to leave some meetings because of fears that I was going to vomit. I thought it was illness and ignored the nagging worries that it was more than that more than that.

And there was another problem, the writing wasn’t going the way I wanted.  It didn’t look like I was going to make that deadline. And my script editing hit a brick wall. Plus I found out that Tarantino was actually 29 when Reservoir Dogs was released so I pivoted and my new dream was…

Dream 2 – School twinning between Ireland and East Timor

I was 25 years old when I ended up in East Timor in South East Asia. I witnessed the suffering of the Timorese when they bravely voted for Independence. (Read Out of my depth: Observing East Timor’s Independence Vote for the full story).

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Engaged and energised by what I’d witnessed and desperate to help Timor, my dream changed.  I started setting up links between Irish and Timorese schools and scouts for solidarity and fundraising.

It wasn’t long before the same fatigue started to hit again. At 26, during one trip I got diagnosed as having Dengue Fever. Somehow I managed to complete my work. Once I was recovered, I went back to pursuing my East Timor dreams with a renewed fervor.

The burnout

During a trip to East Timor in the summer of 2002 things started to fall apart. I was 28. Ireland was playing in the world cup without Roy Keane.  I wrote Timor Update emails to Irish students, teacher and scouts that gave glimpses of what was going on.

June 3rd – 13th June:

‘Dear friends, I ended up not making it to Remexio school until Wednesday after waking up on Tuesday and realising that there was no way that I had the energy to go anywhere. It does take a lot out of you to visit these schools, especially as the foreign guest you get a lot of attention from the moment you get up to the moment you go to sleep. This always fun for a while, but it can get tiring.’

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I’m the one in the middle in the blue t-shirt.

‘After the Remexio visit and the other work, I was pretty tired and Monday and Tuesday were my honorary weekend. Monday was spent mostly lazing about in bed or buying chocolate and fizzy drinks in the kiosk (small shop) next door and veging in bed.’

I thought I was over it, but it got worse.

June 13th – July 3rd:

‘Despite feeling tired I was initially intent on soldiering on and kept with the schedule. I visited Aileu. It was a long day, about five and a half hours of driving, plus the different meetings, but things were back on track. Or so I thought.

‘Sunday was spent mostly asleep as was Monday. On Monday afternoon I was working, but finished the day drained. I decided to take Wednesday off and sleep and planned to go to Maubisse school on Wednesday as fit as a fiddle. I joke to myself that this might have gone to plan if it hadn’t been for the trauma of the Irish – Spain match on Monday, but really I was too far gone.’

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Sadly no hammering by the Irish that night.

‘On Tuesday night I realised that there was no way I was going anywhere on Wednesday or for the rest of the week. I needed some real rest. Wednesday was spent in bed. On Thursday I went up to Maubisse to apologise for the delay and explain the situation. I then returned to Dili and my bed. Friday, Saturday and Sunday were all spent sleeping and recovering. And then Monday and Tuesday. It got to be a running joke in the house with the Timorese family that all I did was sleep.’

Yes, it was a running joke to the family I lived with, but I wasn’t laughing. In those emails I made light of it. I didn’t mention the hours and hours of lying in a small bed under a mosquito net in a tiny, hot room while all the world seemed to go on without me. I had enough energy to get out of bed to go to the toilet or meals, but not to do anything else. I had nothing to do but fester in guilt at failing the children in Timor and shame that others were doing much harder jobs than me and seemed to manage fine. It was one of the loneliest and lowest times of my life.

I couldn’t fool myself that I was sick and just needed to get well and then restart the work. I had been ignoring signals – the fatigue, the illness, etc.. – for years. I had to give up on the dream. I decided that I’d finish the project soon, but in the short term something had to change:

‘There isn’t enough time and the schools are too far apart. It breaks my heart, but one of the schools needs to be dropped from the project. It will have to be Sallele Junior High School. They were the last students to join the project and their school is 7 hours away from Dili. I’ll be disappointed to let them down, but in the long term it’s the right decision because otherwise all the schools would suffer.’

Dream 3 – An actual dream

I was so worn out that I couldn’t manage the journey to Sallele in one day. Myself and my driver Paulino stopped off in a tiny, rundown B&B half way there. That night I had a dream.

In the dream I am walking along a wall by the sea. There are rocks a few feet below. It’s windy and gray. I see a piece of paper fluttering between the rocks. I climb down and pick it up. There’s something written on it. It says:

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During the three hour journey to Sallele, I told Paulino the dream. I was so burnt out that the dream seemed like prophecy to me. We tried to work out what it meant together, but were baffled. Still Paulino drove extra carefully and tied all our luggage down carefully in the back of the pickup. He worried it could be predicting a travel accident or some disaster.

We arrived at Sallele school. I delivered the school materials bought with the Irish fundraising. I greeted the excited children. They received their letters from students in Ireland with joy. I put off saying anything to anyone about my decision. It felt like I was betraying these kids.

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Myself and Paulino stayed with the school principal. That night, I told him that the link between their school and Ireland was finishing. He was very disappointed. He told me how important it was to the students and his school. He almost begged me to keep the link going. I started to imagine doing just that. One more school wouldn’t make a great difference…

Just as I was about to back-track on my decision, I understood the dream. I wasn’t even thinking about it, the meaning just came to me. I realised ‘If it is still on then tomorrow will be a bad day’ meant ‘If the link with Sallele continues then it will be very bad for my physical and mental health in the future.’

All wavering ended. I told the principal that I was disappointed too, but that there wasn’t any choice. The link was ending.

I couldn’t cut and run. It took me a year and a half to finish off the East Timor project honourably. It took me another year to recover fully from the burn out. I hadn’t learnt my lesson, of course. I went off chasing a new dream and didn’t listen to the signals again and got myself burnt out again.  I’m only just recovering now.

So have I learnt my lesson? Have I given up on dreams? Well not exactly –

Dream 4 – Getting a novel published

Yep, I’m still dreaming. And I’m dreaming big. I want a book published. I want a career writing children’s fiction and other fiction. But on bad days chasing this dream takes over and bosses me around. Gets me worried I’m not good enough, who’d want to read my books, etc.. But mostly the difference between this dream and previous dreams is my approach to it. I no longer fool myself that success in writing or any other achievement will bring happiness or freedom from pain other than momentarily.

Also  I no longer rush off headlong after my dream. I approach it slowly and steadily. I write while my kids are at school. I do 10 minutes of meditation before I start each morning. At 11:15am an alarm goes off on my phone and I stop for a fifteen minute snack break. At 1pm, the alarm goes off again and I have a half an hour lunch. At 2:10pm I finish work and go pick up my children from school. Five days a week I keep to this routine. It’s a marathon not a sprint now.

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Nothing glamorous at all.

There’s nothing glamorous about this. Sometimes I feels so routined that it’s painful. I want to stay up all night, drink whiskey (even though I don’t like it) and write the great Irish novel. I want to scribble out my thoughts and nail them to the doors of churches or shopping centres. But I know that wouldn’t lead anywhere good so mostly I keep to the routine or go back to it when it slips (as it does regularly), because it keeps my writing in balance with being a husband, friend, parent, son, etc..

Right now I’ve got one more draft on my novel and then I send it out to agents. I’m writing the 1st draft of my second book. I’m more productive and focused in my writing than ever before. This approach seems to be working. But the fact is, I don’t know what’s around the corner.  All I can do is listen for the signals and try to respond to them, but I never know – that burnout fecker has surprised me before.

So this blog post is a call to arms for all of us for whom chasing dreams rashly can sets us off track and disrupts our lives. We all need dreams and we need to dream big, but we don’t need to be a fool who dreams like the beautiful people in La La Land.

Here’s to the smart dreamers- we can still dance!

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La La Land 2: Smart dreamers – starring me and my 5 year old daughter!

Lie down on my couch. Bitte schon. Tell me about your dreams. How have they worked out for you?

20 thoughts on “4 Dreams and a Burnout: Learning to dream smart

  1. Nice read. I can well imagine how horrible you felt when sick in East Timor. Chasing the dream is the fun bit anyway, so we should probably remind ourselves that taking our time over it is no bad thing. One of the lowest periods of my life was the week after Everton won the FA Cup in 1995 and I realised the excitement, agony and anticipation was all behind me. My 12-year-old self would have been beside himself at the prospect of editing Ceefax but it didn’t quite carry the same kudos by the time I actually did it.

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  2. Thanks Andy. Totally true. Chasing the dream is the fun bit or, in posh language, it’s all about the process, innit? Writing this was fun as it starting off as a kinda depressing piece and then changed tone quite nicely.

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  3. Great read Oran!
    I can relate to the film-maker dream. I had the very same one.
    And also the novel. I’m in the process of finishing my own first novel. That dream has been 14 years in the making 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your wonderful writing. Please keep up the blog!

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    • Thanks a lot Marc for your kind words. Great to hear about your novel. I didn’t know you were writing one. They say 97% of people who start novels never complete them so good work you and me! ( they also say 37 percent of all statistics are made up on the spot 🙂 )

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  4. I have been so impressed by your commitment and motivation since you have revisited your writing dream….and your work life balance is something we all should be aspiring too! Another wonderfully honest and inspirational piece…

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  5. Well done Oranibus!!TATT syndrome – well known to us family docs often has its origin in stress
    I love your routine/ you have oodles of talent and a really caring nature/ for people like you the highs are brilliant and stupendous but the lows are awful!!- so an attempt at routine is really positive- a little more meditation might balance things better Proud to know you!! Xx

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    • Thanks Rita. I think you’re spot on. Routine does work well for me plus meditation is so useful. I’ve been meditating since 2007 and often do it in evening too, but find the ten mins an achievable daily practice.
      BTW thank you for all the support and encouragement for this blog. It’s much appreciated. Xx

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    • Thanks a lot. Really glad you connected with it. I reckon there’s a lot of us out there who have to learn to work together with our bodies rather than fight them. It’s hard, but it’s worth it.

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  9. My comment is so long after you wrote this post, I am sorry I missed it earlier! I really enjoy reading your blog, always filled with so much personality and down to earth honesty. I can relate to so much of what you say about dreaming to write while struggling with fears/doubts as well as real life hurt-filled issues. All I want to do is cheer you on and tell you that if your books are like you blog – which they will be because they have the same author 🙂 – they will be lovely.

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      • A friend of mine was very good on being optimistic about doing work that didn’t often see immediate if any benefits. He used to talk about focusing on small successes rather than looking for something big. It’s something you and I would be wise to implement in writing, wouldn’t it? The days with the good work count. The days we’re disciplined. Finishing a draft, etc.. Focusing on the small successes we’re in charge of rather than always thinking about the big successes that we aspire towards that are out of our control. Well it’s easier said than done isn’t it?

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      • Funny you mention that, I had a day like that yesterday when I said ‘well done me’ as I had written 57 pages of my first draft of my first novel and that’s the most I have ever written. I also asked for some advice from more experienced writers and got some helpful tips. I took stock and was a little bit pleased. I also read some Roald Dahl for inspiration! It is good to focus on those positives and to remember the mountain can be moved one spadeful at a time!

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