Reporting from beneath the surface: an effort to explain burnout while experiencing it

You know the feeling you get when you duck under the water during a bath? Nose held, eyes closed, every noise outside the water feels exaggerated, you’re acutely aware of how the water feels on your skin. That’s how I feel right now. My thoughts are narrowed down to immediate sensations and I can’t spare energy for anything outside the steam surrounding me. Burnout.

Last week my mom was in town and my internship required triple the effort it usually does. It was wonderful at the time. I love spending time with my mom and I host a podcast for my internship, which I enjoy doing. But I borrowed a lot of spoons to get through that. Like, a ton of spoons, a month of spoons. I kept running out.

I didn’t sleep well, I had a shutdown, and then a meltdown, plans changed constantly, I did several new things and navigating it all took enormous effort. A week like that would be difficult for anyone and would require a few days of rest afterword. But I could be dealing with the effects for weeks. We could be dealing with the effects for weeks. I have to keep remembering that.

Burnout is hard to describe, especially when looking at it head on. I didn’t use to be able to recognize it. I still can’t sometimes. Identifying how I feel isn’t exactly easy at the best of times. Jesse warns me and reminds me. She started preparing before my mom even got here. I think she sees it as an impending storm but for me it’s like a fog creeping in slowly, masking everything and turning the landscape into a dull, dense gray.  You hardly notice until it’s all settled in.

Once I’m in full-on burnout mode my social translation skills deteriorate and I start losing track of time. I stare at people when they’re talking instead of smiling and nodding. I just forget to do it. I forget about eating. The only thing I’ve had to eat in the last 12 hours is chex mix. I’m not very sweet because that is, in fact, something I learned to do and not something I am naturally. I’m more sensitive to sound, smells, sensations. Breaks in routine that I am usually able to roll with are showstoppers. I cried because Jesse got the wrong kind of soup at the grocery store yesterday. (I’m still a little upset about it tbh.)

 I don’t want to talk very much, I don’t want to be touched at all, I zone out a lot. I want to stim constantly. I don’t think too deeply about things. I don’t feel unhappy. Actually, I feel pretty good about life in general, it’s just a dulled kind of feeling.

I do hate that burnout adversely affects Jesse and I hate that I don’t even notice until she tells me. I have a script for reassuring her when she wants attention during burnout. It has taken a long time for me to consistently remember it and recognize her prompting me for it. I think I’m getting better at it, though.

I don’t know how everyone else experiences burnout but to be honest, it feels like a relief sometimes. Some parts of it are hard, some parts of being autistic are always hard, some parts of being a human are always hard. But in general, not being able to muster up the give-a-shit to pass as neurotypical is a relief.

I don’t know how long this will last. I’ve never paid attention to the time frame. I used to push through it, before I had words to describe it and a community who understood. I used to feel broken, wrong and dysfunctional. Now I know that this is just a natural part of my life and that’s okay.

I get through it. I use my crash closet often; a soft, dark, quiet place to land when the world is overwhelming. I rest without guilt. I say no to interaction and socialization regardless of consequences. I do what feels natural. I take lots of baths, slipping below the surface and keeping the world at bay, outside the steam, outside the room, outside the building, until I feel like coming up for air.

Read about Jesse’s process of dealing with burnout here.

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