You’ve heard of burn out, right? Like, when people work too much and then they end up super exhausted until they take an intentional break, right?
Well, not quite.
See, I burnt-out last year, and I’m still recovering.
I am Autistic, and I have a hard time with emotions. Always have, probably always will. So going through something like cancer, where you need to deal with a whole array of emotions about a whole bunch of different things (hair loss at 13, poisonous chemotherapy, strong steroids, fighting for your life, etc…) was understandably difficult for me. But to add a cherry to the top of that sundae, I was also attempting to stay caught up with all my school work. So, my brain decided that it couldn’t deal with the physical symptoms, And the emotional issues, AND the mental strain of trying to will myself to fight to live, AND to think about homework; so it decided to shut a few things off and exist on autopilot for a while.
I spent the better part of the two years going through chemotherapy, and for a few years after, with no emotions, and with a safeguard installed in my brain to help me get by. I got through, probably almost 8 years, just by existing, just by surviving, just going through the motions; but not really living.
Only essential systems remained on, and the rest were shut off, and were just not available to me.
Do you know how lonely it is when you can’t feel anything? When you can’t emotionally connect with anything, at all? (Besides the fact that I was an un-diagnosed Aspie who would have had a hard time connecting emotionally anyways.)
But, I thought I was doing ok. I was pulling my grades back up, and I was doing alright with the whole “re-entering society” thing.
So I went on with graduating highschool, and working on my plans for post-secondary. I put in just enough effort into my schoolwork that I was getting high B’s-low A’s. I am smart after all, so I could afford to do the whole start-to-finish-the-night-before-the-assignment-is-due type of thing. And I got away with it. My memory was amazing. I could remember every thought I had, plus a bunch of random information for other people (like where they put something down, or if they had an event coming up, or their schedules), plus an entire crammed chapter’s worth of information for a test the next day. I spent my nights in bed running through prospected budgets and life plans and lists, so many lists. I needed to move on with my life, and figure out what to do with my future. And I needed to do it right then.
I learned to read my body for when I was pushing myself too hard. I could only go for so long before I worked myself too hard, and my immune system gave out. I would work myself into getting sick! But I would take a day to be sick, and stay home and sleep and rest. And then the next day I was ready to get back into the swing of things.
I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, and depression. And when I started taking meds, I realized that I had actually been EXHAUSTED. I hadn’t realized that my brain was working overtime to fight against an onslaught of intrusive thoughts of possible sicknesses, injuries or accidents. My fight-or-flight response was hooked up to a hairpin-trigger, and my whole body was so tense so much of the time; just anticipating, waiting for something, anything, to happen.
So I started taking meds, and I felt a shift in my energy levels. I had more energy to draw on than I had had for a while. I understood now that while I was better, I was still running on less energy than most people; because even with meds, I still fought against PTSD and intrusive thoughts. But I suddenly had more access to my brain, more space to crunch more numbers, to memorize future expense costs, to extrapolate and analyze and plan and theorize and calculate.
I had pushed myself getting back into “normal life”. I had to build up the energy to get back to going to school 5 full days a week. I got my grades back up, I had graduated highschool on time, with honours. So I figured I needed a break. I took the 6 months after graduating off, and did a whole lot of nothing. But I ended up spending the too much time on my phone or iPad, and I was falling into a funk. So my parents pushed me to get a job.
I worked at a grocery store for a while. Then I worked at a new business for an aunt, where I helped train new employees, opened and closed the store, and towards the end, I was responsible for the front counter AND the kitchen all by myself 2 evenings a week. I has also stated taking college classes, so in all I was working and schooling about 50-60 hours per week. Can you believe, that became too strenuous.
Right then I was offered a new receptionist job. So I went back to working part-time at the grocery store and part-time receptionist-ing.
The receptionist job was amazing! After a few weeks of part-time training and proving myself, I was brought on full time. I was tasked with scanning all the paper files onto their computer, and with writing the training manual. The whole thing was computers and systems and spreadsheets and reports!
But once we rolled around to the one year mark, the whole job changed. They now had a job description and a completed training manual, so they didn’t need me to be hyper-administrative, hyper-analytical anymore. Now they needed me to paste a smile on my face, add a spring to my step, and play the part of the peppy, extrovert receptionist!
Suffice it to say, that did not go over well. I did try for a bit, I really did. For a whole year that job had been the perfect fit for me. But to be the person they now needed, I had to put all of my energy, and I mean, ALL OF MY ENERGY into acting. None of what they wanted came easily to me. I had to change my attitude, my expressions, the way I held myself, the way I talked, the energy with which I did everything. It was actually because of all of this that I discovered that I was autistic. And the energy that I had to put into this job now was leaving me so depleted that I was becoming very depressed. The only problem was that I was actually doing a really good job at acting, and my boss had no idea how much I was actually struggling.
I didn’t quit that job by saying that it was killing me, but I did quit that job. Instead I said that I was leaving with enough time for them to train someone else over the summer, in enough time before the office manager left for a while; and so that I could go back to school.
It was learning that I was autistic, and talking to our family’s autism behaviour consultant that I came to BI work in the summer of 2016. My natural mannerisms and temperament work very well with autistic kids, it turns out. I’ve gone through a handful of families before landing on the main 2 or 3 that I work for now still.
I did go back to school that fall, but only for one semester. I didn’t continue because I still didn’t know what I wanted to do for a career, and I didn’t want to just mindlessly spend money if I didn’t have a plan.
I spent the next 2 years hopping around, working for a few different families.
It was now almost 8 years since the whole journey began. I was diagnosed in June 2010, and it was coming up to June 2018. I had dabbled with counselling and therapy a bit in the time in between, but I was now feeling ready to really work on stuff. I felt like everything around me was settling down quite nicely, and it would be nice to be able to feel things again. Turns out my brain had a similar idea.
The best way for me to describe it, would be: like a box. Like there was a box in my mind where I could put everything. Like, EVERYHTING. Remember back towards the beginning when I said I could even remember stuff for other people? This was the mechanism my brain put in place to help me survive returning to civilization. This was my fallback when I was tired, or exhausted, or cramming for an exam for the next day. I got by, by remembering everything. I could put everything in this box and it would keep it available for me to call upon whenever I needed it. But, at the bottom of this box, were all of the original thoughts, emotions and traumas from going through cancer and treatment. So I was actually just cramming more and more stuff into this box; relying on it to get me through life. For 8 years I had been stuffing this box full. And my brain gave me one good day; one day to organize and plan and meal prep… before quitting on me. Honestly.
It was a Sunday. I had gotten up that morning, and went to church. After church I felt like I had a ton of energy, and I wanted to use it. So I stopped by Staples and grabbed some flash cards and file folders and a couple other things. Probably bought some new pens, because, why not. (I’ve inherited my mom’s pen addiction… Thanks mom) I went home and spent the afternoon writing out recipes, planning meals, scheduling, invoicing, planning my summer, budgeting…
And then right about 4 or 5 o’clock, my brain broke. The box broke, and my brain short-circuited. I was suddenly, violently, done. Just done. I had no thoughts, no emotions, no energy, no motivation. Nothing.
I couldn’t even remain sitting. I sank to the floor. I closed my eyes.
I was burnt out.
I had been doing so good. I had been going to counselling and dealing with the trauma. I had moved out into my own place. I was doing the whole adult thing. I had thought I was living. I thought I was past just existing. But suddenly, everything I had been relying on to get through the day, all my fallback systems and safety nets and my brain box, all of it was just gone. The box had shattered, and what remained of the box was suspended like dust in the vast emptiness that now was my mind.
I couldn’t remember anything. I couldn’t hold onto my thoughts. I couldn’t remember words. I couldn’t pay attention to any one thing for more than a few minutes.
And I had no energy. None. I had maybe 5 spoons per day.
But the world keeps turning, doesn’t it. I had to keep working. I could get up and get ready for and go to work. But in return, I could not cook meals, or clean the dishes, or shower, or do the laundry, or go shopping, or talk to people…
It’s tough when burn-out is so close to depression. When your mother and sister have intimate knowledge of depression and depressive slumps. When they push you to exercise and go for walks and just push out of it.
But you can’t. Because it’s not just depression. It’s different. It’s not just a chemical imbalance. I’ve been depressed. I’ve had depressive slumps. And this was not that. Using your last spoon to go for a walk will not raise your mood and give you spoons in return; you’ll just end up more tired and out of spoons, but ultimately in the same place.
I’ve spent this past year dealing with more trauma and shit, than I had in all the years prior. I’ve worked on so much, and I’ve had so many breakthroughs, simply because my brain can’t hold onto them anymore. I’ve re-balanced my work-life balance. I started focusing on becoming creative again. I’ve had highs and lows. I’ve had spurts of time where I feel like I’m almost whole again; not the same me that I used to be, but maybe even a better me. And I’ve had lengths of time where I’m back to not having enough spoons again. But all in all, I believe I’m slowly climbing back to the top. I’m figuring life out, AGAIN.
But last year, I burnt out. And I’m still recovering.