Hello, and welcome back to The Autistic Writer.
I’m pleased to say that, despite some ups and down, I’ve had a better week. On the downside, I had one episode of anxiety that was bad enough for me to rely on prescription meds to get through it. On the upside, I’ve made progress on my novel Aberrations, and got a little exercise, including a walk in the park and a couple of visits to the gym. The bathroom has more or less been finished – the only remaining issue being a snag with the new extractor fan. The electrician our bathroom fitter subcontracts to has fitted the wrong type of extractor fan, and he has now gone dark, apparently. I await developments with interest! But with the main part of the work over, the house has been quieter. I’ve actually been able to have some peace, quiet, and mental space. I really need this. If I’m going to recover, peace and quiet is essential. I am emotionally exhausted – burned out, you could say. I’ll be talking about autistic burnout in the Aut Files section of this week’s blog.
I’ve done some good work on the novel this week, even if the actual word count, 2973, is lower than I would have liked (productivity is important to me). I finished off chapter 31, wrote chapter 32, and have made a start on chapter 33. The plot is really speeding up now, as various strands come together. My protagonists are being pushed to their limits, and I guess we’ll see what they’re made of! I’m enjoying writing this story, I have to say.
The Aut Life
I finished reading What If: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe, on Kindle. This was a fun read, with a couple of laugh out loud moments in it, but it was also very informative, and I’m sure some of the nuggets of knowledge I’ve picked up will come in useful when I’m shouting answers at the TV while watching University Challenge! The light-hearted nature of the book made it a good counterpoint to my ongoing Audible listen, Neurotribes, which has several upsetting passages describing how badly autistic people have been treated by various institutions.
I give What If a rating of five stars.
I’ve also started The Demon in the Machine by Paul Davies on Kindle, which is an attempt to scientifically explain the biological nature of life in terms of information flow. Fascinating so far.
As regards reading generally, I’ll make the point again: for me, it is one of the great pleasures in life, and definitely helps my recovery from episodes of mental health problems.
The Aut Files
Last week, I talked about masking, the method used by many autistic people to try and fit in with neurotypical society. I had this particular observation to make about my own experience of masking:
In truth, I felt like I simply didn’t fit anywhere. I was working hard to cover it up and to appear normal, but it was exhausting me and something had to give. Eventually it did, of course. No one can live like that indefinitely.
This sense of exhaustion from masking was not something unique to my experience. The term autistic burnout is now being used to describe the debilitating effect of trying to fit in, or suppress one’s autism, or simply from struggling to cope with the world we (autistic people) find ourselves in.
Burnout, of course, is not something experienced by autistic people only. Prolonged or extreme fatigue will lead to burnout for any person who doesn’t get time and space to recover. Fatigue and burnout can apply to many things; we sometimes see athletes and sportspeople who have pushed themselves too far, or have not been allowed rest time, burn out and lose form or suffer niggling injuries. As a writer, I know how creative people can burn out and lose the ability to produce. Anyone who has done a challenging job for a length of time will have experienced stress and fatigue which can lead to burnout. It’s a little different for autistic people, but before I go on to explain that, let’s talk about what burnout feels like.
One of the main effects of burnout is exhaustion – either one or both of physical and mental exhaustion. Let me be clear, we are not talking about tiredness here, or being a bit run down. We are talking actual exhaustion. Physical exhaustion can result in pain, headaches, lack of mobility, and so on. Mental exhaustion can result in loss of ability to concentrate, a lack of desire to speak or communicate in any way, loss of sex drive, anger, aggression, anxiety, depression, emotional outbursts, nausea, digestive or bowel problems, and so on.
Whereas neurotypical people may suffer burnout as a result of challenges in their life, such as long-term stress, unrelenting fatigue from a demanding job, bereavement, accidents, etc, autistic people can find themselves suffering burnout simply from the colossal effort of trying to function in the neurotypical world. Just going to work or school, or trying to socialise, or trying to maintain a romantic relationship, or a friendship. Exactly why this is so stressful depends on the exact type of autism experienced by each autistic individual; as I stated in a previous blog, each autistic person has an autism as unique to them as their fingerprint. Some might suffer from suppressing autistic behaviours in an attempt to not stand out from the crowd – something that can be a big deal in schools and workplaces. Some might suffer from sensory overload. Some might become exhausted just trying to navigate the complex interpersonal interactions of daily life that come naturally to neurotypicals. The circumstances vary by individual, but the effects are invariably debilitating. And remember, this is just from existing in a world that most people consider normal. In addition, autistic people also have to deal with the same stresses and problems that neurotypical people experience, too. You can see how things can quickly become unbearable.
Burnout tends to be an effect of relatively extended situations; long-term exhaustion, in other words. (Some people have started using the term burnout to refer to more immediate situations such as, for example, an autistic child having a meltdown in a supermarket due to over-stimulation. Terminology is a thorny subject in the field of autism, so I’m not going to say that definition of burnout is wrong; I’m just saying it is not the type of burnout I am discussing here; it is a different usage of the term.)
I have experienced burnout, but I didn’t know what it was I was going through until I started to learn about autism. Before my autism diagnosis, I had been repeatedly diagnosed with depression and anxiety. This started in childhood, and continued sporadically through my life. As a young man, I usually seemed to bounce back okay after these episodes. But that wasn’t quite the whole story. Looking back I can see a steady decline in my overall mental health, and that decline accelerated in my forties. The spells of depression, triggered by anxiety, came closer together, and were more severe. And I stopped bouncing back. I started to feel that the episodes of depression were leaving permanent damage. I remember describing it to my wife, using the analogy that I felt like bits were being chipped off me and lost forever. I was becoming less of me with each instance of depression. I felt weak, like a loser. I felt I should man up, but I no longer had the fortitude to do so. It wasn’t that I was stuck in second gear; it was that third, fourth and fifth had vanished. My physical fitness declined because I didn’t have the willpower or desire to exercise any more. I lost my desire to write. I couldn’t even attempt socialising most of the time. I was quick to anger, and just as quick to give up on anything. If I looked into the mirror, I hated what I saw.
I didn’t know I was suffering from autistic burnout, because I didn’t know I was autistic, and I didn’t know what autistic burnout was. One of the benefits of my diagnosis is that I have started to learn about the condition, to contextualise the difficulties I’ve struggled with, and have begun to anticipate upcoming problems. I don’t always get it right, and sometimes situations occur that are completely unpredictable and beyond my control, which trigger anxiety followed by depressive post-anxiety hangover. This is what happened to me a few weeks ago. But I am learning. Friday of this week, there was a voice in my head trying to guilt trip me into going to the gym. But I was mentally wiped out, and highly strung, with too many tabs open in my head. Going to the gym is always stressful and anxiety-inducing, so I told that voice to pipe down. I wanted some peace and quiet and rest. I snatched a few hours, and it was beneficial. I need to do this more often. In the past, as I described in last week’s blog, I had garnered a reputation for having a driven, relentless personality. I understand now that this relentless drive – which sprang from my masking attempts to function in a neurotypical world – was a contributor to my autistic burnout. Now that I know I am autistic, I can hopefully spot the times when something is a step too far. I want to try to future proof myself, as much as is possible, against further burnout.
Sometimes burnout has left me very aggressive, sometimes tearful, sometimes suicidal. I would ask anyone reading this blog to remember that there are unknown numbers of undiagnosed autistic people out there. When you see someone’s behaviour become erratic, or see that someone is inexplicably distressed, or melting down, you don’t know what might be behind it. Be patient, be kind.
Have a great week.