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.

The Earth orbits the Sun, water is wet and on Tuesdays we go to the movies.

Spoiler alert: I’m a big fan of routine. Our life just isn’t set up for strict daily schedules but any opportunity for regularity is welcomed on my part, if not my wife’s. Jesse is a spontaneous, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants kind of person. This wreaked havoc on me when we first started dating. Our first few months were riddled with anxiety as she suggested we “wing it” on dates and asked, “You don’t mind if my 14 closest friends tag along, do you?” right before we went somewhere. Yes, I did, I minded very much. I didn’t know how to say that with tact, though. I just said, “I hate your friends.” It’s a good thing I was so cute at 19.

I like routine for a number of reasons but mostly because I like knowing what to expect. I have to think about the way I respond to things a lot because how I would naturally respond to a situation is rarely how someone else expects me to and that will inevitably lead to confusion for one or both of us. Knowing what I’m going to be doing limits the number of possible scenarios and appropriate responses I have to think about beforehand. The less I have to think about that, the more I’m able to enjoy whatever it is I’m doing. Unknown situations with seemingly infinite possible outcomes make me very, very anxious. Also, familiarity just feels good. I think this is true for most people regardless of neurotype.

Our Tuesday night movie date was the first in a string of attempts to create a more stable routine in our life and it’s the only one that seemed to stick. I’m not going to lie, it’s probably because of the vats of buttered popcorn that accompany it. I don’t just go to the movies, though, I prepare to go to the movies. There are approximately 24 movie theaters in the Twin Cities. I have broken these down preferentially and each week I check the movie listings for my six favorite theaters and make a list of potential movies and times. I rarely have to check the remaining 18 but I like that the option exists. This list is occasionally sent to Jesse so that it can sit in her email inbox, complete with trailers and details about the theater she might find important, untouched as she has probably forgotten about Movie Tuesday. Because Jesse does not check the list, does not particularly care where we go or what we see, I check her schedule to pick the best times and then narrow it down to just the titles. Once I have that list, if it is my week, I choose whichever movie I would like to see most. (This past Tuesday it was Mr. Holmes, because if there’s anything better than bees, it’s bees + Sherlock.) If it is Jesse’s turn, I try to predict which movie she would most like to see because I won’t get an answer out of her other than “whatever you want to see is fine.” I’ve never been apathetic about…anything, so this is hard for me to understand.

Now that I have chosen a theater, a movie and a time, I wait for the day of and attempt to predict the events that may lead to plan b or plan c, for there are always back-up plans. On Tuesday, I remind Jesse that it is Movie Tuesday a few dozen times in case she forgets. I then proceed to lie to Jesse about when the movie starts. I didn’t always do this. I’m uncomfortable with lying, especially to Jesse, and I’m very bad at it. However, I am even more uncomfortable parking the car as the previews start. I have little control over how fast Jesse does something because she is never, ever rushed. So, lying it is. I always tell her that I have lied later. She doesn’t mind but it makes me feel better.

Getting to the theater is its own issue. I don’t drive anymore but I still like to dictate which route we take, which lane we stay in and where we park. Jesse ignores this, as she should. I stopped driving almost completely about a year ago and I’m learning to let her drive both in practice and theory. Instead I sit in the passenger seat and stim and worry about being late.

When we get to the theater on time and we have our tickets and I’ve confessed to lying, I go find our seats while Jesse buys popcorn. There are a lot of choices and I prefer not to deal with it. I could, have, and would but Jesse maintains that she doesn’t mind so I don’t. Inside the theater I like to sit near the back, in the middle, in rows without other people. The sounds other people make, shifting and eating, are distracting. If I’m feeling anxious, I forget that not everyone feels the way I do and I think they’re being rude but they’re actually not. If Jesse finds me glaring at an unsuspecting family a few seats away, she’ll gently remind me that they’re not actively trying to ruin my movie. Sometimes I let it go and sometimes my aggravation distracts me from my anxiety and I let it.

During the movie is my favorite part, not because of whatever is on screen, but because Jesse is affectionate during movies without being demanding of my attention. We’ll hold hands or put our arms around each other and I can enjoy physical contact without being bored or worrying about what I’m supposed to say or do next. It is wonderful. Afterwards, I like to leave as quickly as possible because I don’t see the point in staying. Jesse likes to meander and look at people, I’ve never understood why.

It seems odd when I lay it out like this, like explaining the precise steps involved in walking across a room. It seems obvious, simple and to do it any other way would make things unnecessarily difficult. However, when I explain the way I make decisions to others I’m often met with incredulity. I’m not fun or spontaneous and when I balk at last minute changes to plans I look like a spoiled child who wants to get their way. In fact, I would guess that a lot of people see me in this light, as someone who is inflexible and selfish. Jesse used to think that, too and I didn’t have the words or understanding to correct her.

The choices I make are not an effort to do exactly what I want but an effort to do things in the way that makes the most sense to me. For a long time I just knew that a lot of things upset me to the point of panic that didn’t seem to bother other people. Jesse and I understand each other better these days and we both make a continuous effort to remember how different we are. I recognize that this is not at all how Jesse would plan a weekly date night. She wouldn’t plan it to begin with, we’d just walk out the door and see what happens. I appreciate that she fits with me in this way, that she doesn’t concern herself with my planning because it doesn’t come naturally to her, that she doesn’t rush herself because I’m going to worry about being late no matter what she does, that she hums songs to my verbal stims in the car, that she always buys the tickets and the popcorn, that she lets me manhandle her into awkward cuddling during the movie and that she takes her time leaving while I wait by the car, already planning next Tuesday.

Or, to hear Jesse tell it: Our Regularly Scheduled, Impromptu Date Night