Burnout

[Trigger Warning: Suicidal Ideation]

(Original Publication: April 27, 2012 on tumblr)

I burn out on things in a very, very obviously autistic way.

And, to be honest, this has been probably the dominant feature in my life for almost the past two years.

As background, I pass for allistic very well. It’s not obvious, and I’ve gotten by without formal accommodation and, in the past, preferred that people I knew professionally (from class or work) not know that about me. I am, or was, one of those autistics people might claim can’t really be autistic.

Two years ago, I was an undergraduate, on track (ish) for a double major in the physical science discipline that I just dropped out of graduate school for with a “second” language degree (depending on how you count, it’s anywhere from second to fifth. But I’ve forgotten everything I learned about all the in-between ones, and two of them I didn’t get very far in ever). People who know me will have a good guess as to which language.

Sometime, I think over the summer, I burned out, at least on studying that language. I don’t actually know. I pulled energy from elsewhere and forced myself to work through everything, passed my classes, started up fall classes right when I got back to the states, and pressed on. I don’t think anyone around me noticed. In retrospect, this kinda foreshadowed some later stuff.

A month later, in mid-September, my burnout caught up to me, or maybe I finished burning out. I hit a homework assignment in my language class, and hated it to the point of refusing to do it. So I cut class rather than have to make excuses for not having it. And I started building a class-cutting habit. Only for that one class, though.

I’ve always been good at keeping up the facade. Even when I have nothing else, I have the facade, where I at least can look normal, even if on the inside nothing is working and I’m not accomplishing anything and just spinning my wheels in place.

So I dropped out of the program and withdrew from my class.

It wasn’t for another month that I started to figure out that I was trans. In retrospect, this was entirely obvious. I think it was more realizing that the stuff I’d read about trans people on the internet actually applied to me, and actually applied in more places than the internet. And, with that burnout fresh in my memory, my dominant thought was that, if I was trans, I would have to deal with it. Burning out on being a non-transitioned trans woman, on having people think me male and encouraging them to do so, would probably kill me. So I read, and I read, and I read. And the trans stuff I read resonated with me. And it also kept me safe, gave me an outlet. And, eventually, once I was (for a time) out of my parents’ financial reach, I began to physically transition.

Now, again, I burn out. I want to say this happened a month ago. It started a little longer.

This time it’s more dramatic. I’m in graduate school. My grades are crap, and my research progress is too. I pull energy from everywhere else in my life, first to remain productive at my research and my classes, and then finally to keep up my facade of looking like I am. I date my burnout to an ordinary day when I noticed I needed to do laundry. A week later, I take a mental health day off work and actually manage to do it that night.

Then my facade cracks. I don’t want to go in to how, but I publicly show that I haven’t been nearly as hard at work as I should have been. Then I notice that I’ve been burned out for a month. Or, well, I spend the rest of class stimming with my flash drive, walk out, wander around campus for a while looking for somewhere quiet to cry, find one, cry for a bit, and go to the counseling center, and somewhere during this whole breakdown I realize that I’ve been burned out for a month.

Transitioning may have saved my life here, to be quite honest. Through this breakdown, I had thoughts of wanting to die, which I could reject easily. I didn’t want to die, I just wanted my pain to be seen, to drop the facade that I’m ok. I’m not, no matter how many times since I burned out I said I was. But through all of this, I am proud of my decision to transition, proud of being honest with myself about what I need. And, well, being a girl is actually pretty awesome. So even though I fully had a plan to put myself in the hospital after an attempt (so that I would have an excuse to cut class), I never took any steps to carrying it out. I’m safe now (no suicide risk).

This was my first time being seriously suicidal. It was pretty terrifying.

Then I talk with my advisor. It’s clear that I’m going to need time off, or on light responsibility, because being self-directed with my responsibilities is what burned me out the hardest. It’s not that I’m not passionate about the things that I burned out on, I just burned out on the little things that have to go around it that hold me up so that the work is possible. Things like executive function to put my computer away and get to work. I come in wanting leave, and come out with us both in agreement that it would be better for me to not return to the group. And now I’m no longer adrift. Now I have to make decisions about which direction I want my life to go, and I can’t just do things others set up for me.

The weekend after, though, I came out to my parents, which was a thing I scheduled long before, and now I’m out everywhere. I even have a picture of myself as my profile pic on out!facebook and a coming-out post on closet!facebook. I’m done keeping up the boy facade, even though it was the allistic facade that burned me out.

In as many years (on a calendar that starts in August), I have had two burnouts. This is the cost of hiding my autisticness.

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6 Responses to Burnout

  1. It’s really frustrating to me that all of the information about autistic burnout I can find is written by autistic people. I’ve been through a few myself, and what you wrote about keeping up a facade to look like you’re working when you really aren’t (and aren’t able to) really resonates with me – as that’s exactly what happened during one of my burnouts. I was trying to manage contractual work (writing/editing and involved hiring other writers to do work for me) and was having a horrible time getting a particular book put together, but I assumed I could at some point pull through and kept telling the guy who hired me that everything was on track until of course the last minute when it all fell apart.

    I also had a burnout while in college, and one of the things I remember is that the work I was doing ceased to make sense to me. I couldn’t untangle what I was reading and turn it into information that I could apply to assignments, and that was definitely a decrease in functioning for me. Of course, the reason I actually left college at that point was due to also developing panic disorder at the same time.

    • TAL9000 says:

      My more recent burnout had me, when I could force myself to work on the thing I had to present (because deadlines make everything easier), I couldn’t even think straight to research the correct topic. So I threw a bunch of off-topic stuff together and presented that and it was humiliating.

      This was while I wasn’t working much no matter how much I tried to push myself to, while I was wearing dirty clothes and clothes I hated for a week because I didn’t have the energy to do laundry, and stuff like that.

      Absolutely YES to this bit “and was having a horrible time getting a particular book put together, but I assumed I could at some point pull through and kept telling the guy who hired me that everything was on track until of course the last minute when it all fell apart.” This is exactly what I did. I had been telling my advisor that I was making what progress I could, researching things to try to understand my work, and so on (and I was) right up until the point where I broke and everything fell apart. I even believed I could do it (“the only disability is a bad attitude” is a crock). So, yes, yes, yes, your experience echoes mine exactly.

      • Want to clarify on the burnout comment that what bothers me is that professionals seem unaware of it. I love that other autistic adults talk about it, I just wish there were more “professional” acknowledgement.

        And yes – I’ve managed on similar covering mechanisms in the past. Often, I could finish what I was doing by the time I was supposed to, but it was not always easy to start until the deadline loomed. It’s just that pushing that level of performance where “everything gets done” eventually means running out of energy. Amanda Baggs describes it as autistic people spending emergency reserves to function at levels that neurotypicals can do just on their normal energy levels (all else being equal) and I think that’s a good description.

        At the time I did not know I was disabled. I thought everyone’s brains worked like mine and just knew better ways to function. Which is why I pushed myself, because I thought everyone did.

      • TAL9000 says:

        Yes, really. My first exposure to the idea that autistic people burn out frequently, or that we burn out in our own very brittle way where one day we think we’re fine and the next, nope, nothing, no motivation, and by the way look what you did to your life, was from other autistic people (and it wasn’t until I actually experienced it that I knew how bad it could really be). I saw professionals about my being autistic all through childhood. I never heard anything about burnout.

        It goes a bit beyond spending emergency reserves to maintain the facade of being normal and do what everyone else expects. It’s doing that and not noticing when it’s happening. The part where we’re unaware of when we cross from normal energy to reserves is the worst part.

      • Yeah, totally unaware. I think if I were aware at the time, I would have stopped sooner.

      • TAL9000 says:

        Totally. That’s also what’s scary about it. That I just found myself burned out one day.

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