first person

A Month in a Tuscan Villa Didn’t Fix My Burnout

It’s easy to have perspective at the birthplace of the Renaissance. But what about when rent’s due?

Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty, Alanna Bennett
Three women standing a few feet apart from each other lean over a balustrade. The skyline of Florence, Italy stretches out in front of them.
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty, Alanna Bennett
Three women standing a few feet apart from each other lean over a balustrade. The skyline of Florence, Italy stretches out in front of them.
Photo-Illustration: The Cut; Photos: Getty, Alanna Bennett

“You’re living a Sally Rooney novel,” one friend said when I told her I planned to escape to Italy for the month of August. When I mentioned my trip to a producer in a meeting, they echoed the Rooney reference. Under the Tuscan Sun also made appearances in conversation, as did the general aesthetic of Nancy Meyers, though as far as my research goes, nothing in her oeuvre involves a Black woman fleeing to the Chianti hills.

In these stories, well-to-do white women spring for international plane fare to work out the knots in their souls. Our situations weren’t quite the same. I was finally at a point in my life where I could afford a getaway, though. I hadn’t grown up traveling. I’d spent childhood in and out of homelessness, and seeing more of the world was a gift to myself. But the work that made it possible for me to afford a month in Italy was the kind that made me burned out enough to need it.

I earned the coin to undo my own knots over three years of nonstop work. After making the jump from journalist to screenwriter in 2019, I bounced between writers’ rooms, sold a movie to a major studio, and optioned two pilots, one of which attached my favorite director. If I kept on this trajectory, there was hope that someday I’d be able to provide for my loved ones who were still below the poverty line, afford a Nancy Meyers kitchen of my very own, and have a prolific career even half as memorable as the movies that house those kitchens.

But after every milestone, joy was followed quickly by a new pit of fear in my stomach. I’d sold my first movie, grasped a dream I’d had since I was 10 years old — but I could still fuck it up. If this career didn’t pan out, I didn’t exactly have a safety net to fall back on. Failure wasn’t an option, so I worked myself into the ground. Nerves bled into long nights while my depression and anxiety morphed into new monsters. I joked to friends that “Every major Hollywood contract should come with a free Ativan prescription.”

Upward mobility is a rocky path for a Black, queer woman working in Hollywood. A 2010 study found that Black women are “7.5 years biologically ‘older’ than white women” due to the stress levels they face. “If I succeed and push myself harder,” Tiana Clark has written about Black burnout, “I will increase my chances of fraying at the seams on a cellular level.”

I frayed slowly but surely. By March 2022, I was pitching two television shows and revising another, as well as my feature, while working full time in a new writers room. I cried most nights, overwhelmed by the workload. I woke up one day that month and the very act of becoming conscious triggered a panic attack. I briefly calmed down, then had another attack. And another. I told myself the tears were irrational, but they kept raking down my face, rudely determined to ruin my freshly applied morning skin-care products. Still, I opened my laptop to log on to Zoom, ready to fake it till I made it. I couldn’t let my bosses see me cry, but I couldn’t have a string of absences either. It’s easy for Black women at work to be written off as too emotional, too weak, or otherwise too uppity. I could survive this day as long as I could turn my camera off. At least that’s the lie I told myself.

The panic attacks ramped up. One morning in April I woke with a groan, and my boyfriend tossed out an observation: “You haven’t gone to bed happy or woken up happy in a really, really long time.” Anxiety and depression had been mainstays in my life since my teen years, but this was different. With burnout, the feelings metastasized to the point where I no longer recognized my own mental illness. There were never enough hours in the day. I felt, always, that I was letting someone down. Not being able to keep up was humiliating; I’m not one to take a job I can’t commit to. The stakes are too high, the odds already statistically stacked against me. There was family I hadn’t seen in months or years, friends who could tell I wasn’t all the way there. I missed them. I missed myself.

I grew desperate. I got to emailing new therapists and landed with a Black woman who specializes in medical stress. “I want you to have a long career you can actually enjoy,” she intoned. That wasn’t going to happen unless I cut back on the number of hours a day I spent “activated,” or the hours my brain would whirr nonstop, either while I was working or while I fixated on an endless to-do list when I wasn’t supposed to be working. My new therapist told me I needed to reframe my fear of failing myself and others. I knew the consequences if I didn’t heed her warnings. Every night I wanted to die. I’d experienced suicidal ideation before, in my darkest moments, and I knew to treat it as the canary in the coal mine.

My stomach twisted with worry about the bridges I might burn, but I couldn’t go on as I was. I quit my job in the writers’ room. Even afterward, I was still on contract for other projects, with three more months of work to do before I could really rest. Leaving one job was about survival, but I needed a grander gesture, something tangible that could mark an end to this era of overworking myself and give me a fresh start.

So I booked a trip to Italy. A best friend, Matt, who I’d been neglecting for months, made the jump with me. We found a villa with five beds that we could fill with friends to cut the cost and up the joy. It was in a town of 400 people atop a hill in Tuscany. I’d worked hard for these paychecks. It felt fitting to use one or two to stitch myself back together. And sure, it could be our modern reboot of Under the Tuscan Sun — just more Black, brown, and queer and with much less of an ability to hop off the bus and spontaneously purchase property.

I filed the last of my work and flew into Milan. Matt and I wandered the city, sweat rolling in the European heat wave. On day four we took a southbound train to a town 40 minutes outside Florence. The air was different in Marcialla, the sky crisp and bright, every inch of space filled with fields of grapes, olives, and sunflowers. Practically every hill had some sort of castle jutting from its peak.

Those first days in Tuscany I went to bed anxious and woke up grumpy. A symptom of my burnout had been damage to my sleep cycle. Anxious thoughts nagged for hours before I gave in to the black nothing of sleep. But I was working on quieting my brain, on being present enough to register all the sights and smells and sounds of the unfamiliar countryside.

Early in our stay I walked into the local botteguccia, Italy’s version of a bodega, where the owner, a man named Hugo, greeted me. He was graying, spindly, and all smiles, even as I fumbled with Google Translate. I could only get a few words out in Italian, so in English I asked to borrow a spoon. Hugo threw his hands up at the word. His bafflement drove away all thoughts of work; there was no to-do list here except this.

Soon my friends and I found a new routine, alternating trips to ancient cities with days laid up in our backyard. Sometimes I wrote, but mostly I didn’t. I pet local cats, took walks, watched the nonnas and zios who spent hours daily talking in the town square, and sometimes worked up the courage to talk to them. Slowly, my sleep did change. My thoughts had more room to breathe, so when my head hit the pillow I was gone. I started to wake up ready for the day.

One week we went to the Badia di Passignano, a Benedictine abbey built sometime before 1049. We wound up a narrow one-lane road, and as we climbed its hill clusters of cyprus trees and towering turrets of very old brick greeted us. The air up there was the clearest I’d ever breathed, settled around rolling green hills and neat rows of Sangiovese grapes. Our tour guide, a monk who had come to the abbey from India, relayed a story about how the monks who lived there had lost the place twice. The first time was to Napoleon. They got it back, but then the building was sold to a Polish count. Both times, the monks fought to reunite with their home and won — even when it took a century to do so. I experienced a different kind of reunion at the abbey: On that hill, breathing that air, I felt closer to myself than I had in almost two years.

The month in Italy was the longest I’d ever been away from home. On our penultimate day in Tuscany, we wound through the hills of Florence to the Piazzale Michelangelo. My friends and I poured out of our rental car onto a sprawling terrace set against a cliff. Beyond a replica of the David and a cluster of vendors lay panoramic views of a city that glowed around the edges. My chatty group fell silent. I leaned against a balustrade and gave in to the sinking sensation in my gut.

It would be so easy to succumb to burnout once again when I got home. Fleeing Los Angeles had been a brain-saving Hail Mary, but returning would be a test of how quickly I would fall back into habits that had hurt me. It’s easy to have perspective when you’re not on deadline, staring at the birthplace of the Renaissance. What about when rent’s due? A side effect of quitting for your mental health: Making yourself less broken might mean becoming more broke. I had lost a month of hustle, of opportunity to scrounge up new jobs. As I tried to imprint the Florence skyline on the insides of my eyelids, I wondered if my grand gesture of self-care would make any lasting difference.

We drove back to Marcialla, and I struggled to say good-bye to Hugo and his wife. In a short time they had become mainstays of our days. So had this place, these views. I knew I needed to bring some piece of those days home with me.

Coming home was a daze. Jet lag knocked me sideways. When it cleared, I was in my beautiful apartment, in a beautiful life, and deeply unemployed. I had to fight my instinct to throw myself into a dozen new projects that might get me paid at some point down the line. An inconvenience of my glamorous job is that it requires a lot of free work before anyone gives you money. I had to be strategic, both to get the ball rolling and to ensure I didn’t turn myself right back into Sisyphus.

My brain was functioning again at a basic level that felt revelatory. I got excited about work. My creativity flowed, and I pumped out 35,000 new words of a novel. I FaceTimed a friend I’d been rescheduling for six months, one I’d cried over missing in my stretch of three-job days. I finally got to see my family. Yet I also felt new pangs of worry. Had I fucked myself, thinking I could go on some cinematic journey across the world and not come back destitute? I wasn’t Diane Lane. I held back tears one night after checking my bank account. I was so scared that if I cried, it would mean my trip hadn’t made a difference — that I was stuck in the same cycle of going to bed anxious and waking up distraught. I was petrified I’d feel like that forever.

“What if I made a mistake?” I whispered to my partner in bed that night. “What if going to Italy was stupid, and I just made things worse?” He pulled me to him, speaking soft but firm in my ear: “We’re not doing that. You needed that trip. It was worth it.” He repeated it as often as I needed to hear it. Some days, I still need to hear it.

This year forced me to transform my value system. I now know that by quitting my job, I wasn’t running away from work. Instead, I sacrificed pieces of my comfort for a short while in order to ensure I’d have a career that I’d get to enjoy — because while I’m ambitious and love what I do, I refuse to die for it. Some studies suggest recovery from burnout can take several years. Others doubt whether full recovery is even a possibility. My return has not been a cut-and-dry success. After the initial burst of creativity, I found myself glued to my computer for 60-hour workweeks, churning out pitches, essays, novel chapters. My brain sputters to a stop at the end of weeks like that, and I have to remind myself: Make some space. Take a goddamn walk. Go talk to a friend. Spend some time doing absolutely nothing.

The exhaustion of the past two years hasn’t entirely left my body. I’m still depressed. I haven’t had a panic attack in a while, though. That’s a big win. Now when I feel the wear around my edges, I can conjure up that view from the Piazzale Michelangelo. The jut of the duomo against dark blue hills, cerulean skies, and clouds that may as well have been painted by Botticelli. The glowing hills around the Badia di Passignano, Hugo’s playful smile, the nonnas and zios talking in Marcialla’s center square — they are my meditations. I remember, whenever I need to, that I am capable of righting the ship.

A Month in a Tuscan Villa Didn’t Fix My Burnout