Tag Archives: overload

Burnout

I crashed out of secondary school twice during the course of my five years there. I dropped out of college by the end of my second year. I bailed on my first ever ‘proper’ job at a fast food restaurant after less than two months and about ten shifts, half of which I didn’t go to. I had to give up on my volunteering position in a cafe after a few months and several missed days.

For a long time I was able to recognise this pattern, but I couldn’t understand it. I was never able to explain it to other people, because it just sounded like I was being irrationally negative: “I just have mental breakdowns every few years, so it’s bound to happen again soon.” People would just try to reassure me that I was exaggerating or making assumptions. But… I usually turned out to be right.

Eventually I came across the phrase “autistic burnout”. It’s an experience that lots of people have described, where a period of long-term gradual overload becomes intolerable. That sounds understandable enough: non-autistic people experience burnout sometimes too, maybe when they have major life events happening. But my burnout hasn’t been at times of particularly major life events – nothing more major than others around my age were going through. The explanation for that is deceptively simple, but difficult to fully explain: I have a much lower than average threshold for stimulation.

Stimulation

I’m not just talking about sensory stimulation here – that’s a part of it, but only a small part. I’m talking about the really general meaning of stimulation. For me, that includes things like:

  • Spending time around people (moreso if they are strangers).
  • Being told what to do.
  • Doing time-dependent and time-limited tasks.
  • Travelling away from home.
  • Anything which involves commitment to a task or a time or anything else.
  • Dealing with a rigid social hierarchy of any kind.
  • Sensory input – a lot (e.g. crowded places), bad (e.g. smells), or both.

There are other things, too – I only wrote down the main ones. Some of them are so subtle that it’s difficult to even define them. It’s probably easier to define what stimulation isn’t. It isn’t “me being at home by myself doing whatever I want”. Anything which deviates from that will be stimulation of some kind or another.

Threshold

I think the concept of stimulation applies to everyone – autistic and otherwise. Everyone is probably familiar with the feeling of needing a break, or being desperate for a holiday, or just wanting everything to STOP. Everyone has a certain amount of energy (or spoons, if you prefer) per day, per week, per hour – and it costs that energy to deal with stimulation.

The difference is that not everyone has the same amount of energy. The average able-bodied NT person has plenty of energy to spare, so that they rarely ‘run out’. Most of the time they are perfectly able to have a full-time job, socialise, look after themself and their home, and pursue their interests and hobbies. The idea of a limited energy level that doesn’t simply result in sleepiness after a long day is difficult to understand if you’ve never experienced it.

But some people – autistic people for example, or people with chronic illness, or mental health problems, or many other things – have a much smaller amount of energy to spend. That means they run their energy down to zero much more quickly when doing the same things. People with reduced energy thresholds can still exert themselves once they’ve run out – just like spending money with an overdraft. But overloading that energy debt can have extreme negative consequences (just like how you pay back more in interest than the amount you actually borrowed).

Depending on the reason for a person’s reduced energy threshold, the result of an energy debt may vary. For a person with chronic pain, getting into energy debt might result in a flare-up. For me, the energy limit is not so much physical as neurological. So the result of me getting into debt is a mental inability to cope: which results in severe anxiety, panic attacks, and depression.

Burnout – meltdown

My description of an inability to cope with overload might sound familiar if you read my post about meltdowns. That’s because it is similar. In fact, I’d say that burnout is a type of meltdown – one that occurs over a much longer timescale. It fits the same niche: it’s my brain’s last resort, an extreme emotional release as a result of overload. But it’s a response to a chronic energy debt, instead of an acute one.

Burnout eventually does have the intended effect – it stops the overload. Because it stops my ability to function at all, which handily includes my ability to go to school or work or do the things that were draining my energy faster than I could replenish it. Just like a meltdown forces me to get out of whatever situation was acutely overloading me.

Aftermath

After I’ve hit burnout, there is an unavoidable period of rest as I pay back that energy debt (which could take weeks or years, depending on how large the debt is). And then, if I haven’t learned my lesson, I go back to the overloading things and start racking the debt back up again.

So, I think I will try to learn my lesson. The trouble is, that’s not easy. I’ve spent my life so far having full-time occupations and catastrophically failing to cope with them. I don’t actually know what it’s like to have a level of stimulation that I can cope with. I don’t know what level of stimulation that will be, and I don’t know how to find out without testing myself until I crash again.

For now, my plan is to increase my level of stimulation very slowly. It’s been two years since I dropped out of college after my latest period of burnout. I spent the first year with no real occupation, which was needed in order to repay the massive debt I’d accumulated over the years previously. For the last year I’ve been studying at home full-time, which entails only minimally more than zero stimulation.

This next year I’m planning to carry on studying full-time, and incrementally add more things into my life. I’m about to become an assistant presenter for courses about autism, which will probably only happen a few times a year but is very high-concentration in terms of stimulation (talking to groups of strangers – eek!). I’m tentatively starting to work on a book and looking into publishers. I’m hoping to take more direct action on my mental health. I want to try to see my distantly-located friends and brother more frequently.

Those are mostly good things, but they’re also very hard. I am extremely wary about pushing myself too much. Burnout is not fun.

Disabled

It’s difficult to explain the concept of limited energy to people who haven’t experienced it. It’s even more difficult to explain when I actually have functioned with a full-time occupation before. If I now say I’m unable to do that, it either seems like I’m flat-out lying, or like I’m deliberately ‘disabling’ myself by limiting what I can do. But neither of those is the case. I never knew that most people don’t feel overwhelmed and overloaded all the time. I did know that most people don’t have mental health breakdowns like clockwork every few years – but I didn’t know why that happened to me and not others. Maybe most significantly, I didn’t know that energy limits existed, let alone that the idea could explain my experiences.

Now that I do know those things, I’m not lying about my past or trying to make myself worse off than I am. I’m finally being honest, to myself, about my own abilities. If that looks like I’m limited myself, it’s only because I’ve pushed myself way too hard for my whole life until now. It might look like I now have the life of a ‘more’ disabled person than I have before. But it’s actually the opposite. I am just as disabled as I always have been, but now I am taking some control over how my life works. I’m looking forward to finding out what happens.

Edges

I think that the edges of myself are not very well-defined. It doesn’t take much for me to lose track of where those edges are.

Other people’s edges are much bolder, so they overwrite mine when they’re too close. Socialising is when I can’t be sure which edges are mine and which are other people’s. Sometimes it’s nice, more often it’s scary.

Strong sensory input is dazzling and makes the edges too dim to be seen. Sensory overload is when the edges become completely invisible and all I can do is hope that they are in the last place I saw them.

Anxiety is when the edges seem to be shrinking in and cutting off the important bits of me, so that I can’t defend myself or block anything bad from getting in.

Meltdown is when the edges are gone completely. They shrink so much that they disappear, and everything becomes a part of me and I can’t escape.

Contentment is when I find something that perfectly fits the shape of my edges, and I can hold it against myself and it becomes – not a shield, not armour – but perfectly fitting clothing. Something that does the job of reminding me where the edges are, so I don’t have to keep focusing on them.

Joy is when my edges swell and grow and envelop everything I care about and it all becomes a part of me and everything is right.

Overload and shutdown

I had a busy weekend. In the course of about twenty-four hours, it involved:

  • Two long car journeys (including one which was almost double the expected length due to traffic)
  • Near-constant social situations except for sleep
  • Eating unfamiliar things in unfamiliar places, repeatedly
  • Sleeping in an unfamiliar place
  • Several busy social situations with lots of new people
  • Unstructured time in inescapable social situations

…and that’s just the highlights. Overall, it wasn’t completely un-enjoyable – it was just extremely tiring.

I thought it would be a good occasion to write about how I deal with overload when it doesn’t turn into full meltdown. The busyness was spread fairly evenly over the time, and I managed to get enough breaks to keep myself together until we got home – for which I’m quite proud of myself!

Noticing Overload

This is something I am really not very good at. When I’m in a social situation, I automatically switch to ‘NT-passing mode’. Stimming gets shut down, speech gets ramped up, and I start to drain all of my excess resources to keep it going. It requires an unsustainable amount of energy – that is, it takes more energy in a given time than I am able to renew.

But its only fairly recently that I even realised I had an NT-passing mode. I used to just think that I became inexplicably more sociable and energetic when I was forced into a social situation, even if I had been dreading it. In fact, that’s something that had me confused about depression for a long while, too. I used to doubt that I could be depressed, because I always seemed to be so happy when I socialised. But really, that ‘happy’ act had nothing to do with depression, it was just my automatic NT-passing kicking in.

So, I’ve learnt that I do have an NT-passing mode. But I still have great trouble identifying it. I can talk about it in a detached way like this, but it’s very hard for me to recognise it when it’s actually happening. And that can be troublesome, because it means I can’t always tell when I’m being overloaded (until it’s too late and I’m melting down).

My best solution is simply to learn what kinds of situation overload me, and then assume I’m being overloaded, even if I don’t actually feel it. I’m getting better at doing that – and this weekend is a good example. I knew in advance that it was going to be difficult, so I made sure to look after myself during the time – even if I didn’t think I felt overloaded.

Recovery

Being in NT-passing mode or in an overloading situation uses more energy than I can replace in the same time. That means that after the situation is over, I’ll be left with an energy debt. The longer-lasting or more difficult the situation, the greater the debt. In order to ‘repay’ that debt, I have to find a way to renew as much energy as possible, and spend as little as possible.

This is what I think of as a ‘shutdown’. I know that definitions of shutdown vary even more than meltdowns. Some people say a shutdown is a type of meltdown, or that it’s what happens before a meltdown, or after a meltdown, or it’s a meltdown in a specific situation… But for me, a shutdown is the opposite of overload – it’s the way I recharge my energy in the most efficient way possible.

There are different degrees of shutdown, just like there are different degrees of overload. If I’ve been socialising with my parents for a couple of hours, I will want to go to my room alone for a while afterwards. That’s the same type of response as when I sleep for ten hours solid following a huge party.

Defining shutdown

Shutting down involves two main things: 1. reducing the energy I’m spending, and 2. maximising the energy I’m gaining.

Reducing energy expenditure

  • I’ll always avoid further socialising after an overloading situation. Ideally, I would be completely alone until I felt fully recovered. Otherwise I’ll hide in my room away from anyone who might be in the house, or spend my time on independent activities and avoid unnecessary interaction.
  • I avoid physical activity. Although physical tiredness is different to overload tiredness, they feel similar. And physically exerting myself will drain overload energy as well as physical energy. I generally want to stay in the house and spend most of my time sitting or lying down. I often sleep a lot more than usual following an overload. Generally I need a pretty small amount of sleep, and I never nap during the day. But the day after my busy 24 hours this weekend, I slept in until almost midday and then dozed on and off throughout the afternoon. It’s disconcerting to feel so sleepy, but I’m getting better at accepting it as part of overload.
  • I avoid anything which may provoke anxiety. Anxiety contributes to a lot of overload for me, so I do everything I can to reduce it. This generally means avoiding any situation which is remotely threatening, difficult, new, or unpredictable.
  • I avoid thinking about anything too difficult. I’m in no state to make important decisions or solve problems – everything gets put on hold until I’ve recovered my energy.

Maximing energy gain

  • Stimming. Lots and lots of stimming. I find that I’m much more interested in large-scale movements when I’m recovering from overload. Lots of rocking, swaying, waving my arms, pacing. These movements help me figure out where my body is, which is important after overload – because NT-passing mode involves being very distracted from my internal state.
  • Physical rest. This is partly a way of reducing energy loss (like above), but it also recharges energy in itself. I sleep a lot, and when I’m not sleeping I’m flopping around or dozing or lying down.
  • Doing my favourite things. After overload I’m usually too tired to properly concentrate on learning about my special interests, or actively engaging with them. But doing things which are tangentially related makes me feel happier and calmer. So I’m likely to do easy special-interest-related things like watching my favourite TV shows, or even just thinking about my special interests.
  • Waiting. In the end, there’s nothing I can do to skip over a shutdown. Once I’ve been overloaded, I will have to spend time regaining energy. I can help that process along and make it more pleasant by doing all these things, but it’s still going to happen whether I like it or not.

Acceptance

My busy twenty-four hours was from Friday afternoon to Saturday afternoon. It’s now Monday afternoon, and I’m almost feeling back to normal. I’m still a bit more sleepy than usual (and I slept for longer than usual last night). I’m still feeling a bit more averse to going out. But I’m able to do some light socialising today, and my cognitive power is pretty much back to normal. I’m getting better at knowing my limits, and knowing what I need to recover.