#TakeTheMaskOff Week 4 Masking and Autistic Burnout.
Burnout is the failure to mask and so much more
Burnouts: big and not so big they share the same basic modality
The precipitating factors of each burnout determines the severity and duration. Over my lifetime I had burnouts that were a result of many different and separate things as well as the combinations of smaller things that added up. The most basic and common burnouts were because my mask had slipped and started a cascade of demoralizing social failures; usually revolving around losing a friend or having my confidences betrayed by false friends. Some came as the result of a particularly challenging social demand; a public performance, a pivotal social event, a new social situation. Some of the most sudden ones came as the result of overwhelming assault on all sensory systems of my physical body; combinations of paradoxical reactions to medications for serious illness, dental surgery, or surgical procedures. Some came in the aftermath of a major life trauma.
Whichever kind of burnout they were, whether ones that ended in serious life alterations or ones that just meant a lengthy withdrawal from the world , they had many features in common.
- Directly connected to the failure to fit in (the failure of masking or camouflaging). The failure to avoid rejection as defined by lack of acceptance. Rejection came in the form of criticism, dismissal, anger at behavior I did not see as offensive or wrong, and frustration with being falsely characterized
False characterizations that were levied upon me include but are not limited to: Being told I was too much to handle ( I was a pill and hard to take). I was too sensitive, too moody, too negative (“you are unhappy”), too intense, too enthusiastic, too involved ,too interested, too attached, too difficult to please. I could not say what I liked; “you don’t like anything”. I cared too much; I did not care enough. I tried too hard; I was not trying at all. I was lazy: I always did everything the wrong way.
- Inability to maintain functionality. It was not only exhaustion, but fear of any effort not working to achieve the desired outcome. Monumental effort and no return on investment. Running on limited resources and the remaining ones being necessarily allocated to basic survival.
- Failure to meet expectations; self-imposed and external. Failure to meet the demands of compliance both internal and societal. Falling short of the minimum standard ante for the benefit of being included and protected in the societal group. No one stood up for me, no one defended me. The failure to meet the demands of my own integrity and values; both internalized and genuine. Failure to live up to what I established as being integral to who I am. Failure to meet my very strong need to be of use and service and help others. We have more difficulty saying no and yet we can not comply. We have difficulty not meeting the needs of people we care about and yet we can not. The inability to maintain this minimum service fee creates a failure loop. I do not just want to be what people I care about need, I need to be what people I care about need. For me that is a basic tenet of my connection. I need to be needed and useful. without that I feel completely disconnected.
- Fear of getting it wrong- getting everything wrong. Not just inertia, essentially petrifaction. Lack of trust in one’s own perception of what would be “right”. Confusion about what is the way to do anything. Inertia is the only safe choice. Going through the motions does not to work as the inability to hide the underlying emotions disrupt the ability to act convincingly; pasted on smiles appear as smirks or grimaces. Failure to use social skills or inability to hide contempt for the necessity. Everything is so much bigger than the petty empty motions of “doing the pretty”. With such limited energy it is hard to see the value of putting effort into things that we never thought made sense. ( “it’s just the way it is done”??? wtf? I need a good reason.)
- Futility. Endless effort has proved that it is never enough and who we are without all the effort is never enough. No motivation. Difficulty with self-care; why bother? Inability to fake enthusiasm or interest for things we do not have any interest in. The inability to put on a different act. Without motivation we are pathetically bad actors and hate being fake, burnout makes even a bad act impossible as we don’t even know where to begin.
- Inability to regulate emotions. So easily affected and altered by any stray thought , situation, words from others, expectations unmet, as to feel utterly at the mercy of the wind. Meltdowns come on quickly and often. Shutdown causes loss of ability to communicate.
- Inability to tolerate any sensory input or being in a state of constant shutdown where sensory input does not seem to register. Extreme sensory dysregulation
Over the past 10 months I have unearthed many mentions of what the symptoms of autistic burnout are and what makes them different from depression or personal crisis. [see links at bottom] My own personal experiences and discoveries seem to parallel the various lists. It can not be expressed how profound it is for people who lived a vast majority of their lives in isolation; feeling like the odd one out or the alien, to see our experiences written out in the words of others.
The difference between burnout and depression for me is hope. In burnout, I always have hope on the horizon. With burnout I still care , and very much, thank you. When I am depressed, and I have been chronically depressed. I don’t care that I don’t care.
Burnout Means I Can’t Fake Being OK
Burnout is reciprocally intertwined to masking. It is both the fallout from masking and the inability to mask that is at the core of the issues with burnout not just being a natural and well deserved break from the rat race.
We can not get away with living in the world unmasked. There is nowhere that we can just exist and be enough. There is nowhere safe. Minimal masking is absolutely imperative.
We keep looking for a way out of the cycle of striving; of crash and burn and pick it all back up again.
Despite feeling exquisitely vulnerable. hanging on by a thread, and utterly exhausted, the drive to keep at it gets us up and out there. We stick ourselves together with chewing gum and duct tape and go back at the fight. If we are lucky the cracks and holes in our masks are strategically placed or we have some few kind souls who pretend they don’t see. We amaze ourselves when we find something more at the dry bottom of the well of resourcefulness; perhaps borrowing on the collateral of our youth and physical health to create something from the dregs.
All my loans came due in the summer of 2016.
A quadruple stress event whirled into existence like the birth of an F5 tornado. It began with a literal natural disaster and cascaded into loss of cohesion of every facet of my life. When the path of destruction was examined for survivors not one of my carefully crafted identities remained. My physical body betrayed me, my sensory system went haywire and caused constant episodes of fight or flight. My career was gone, my marriage was not working, empty nest came early and the reality of my isolation as being deadly hit home ; hard.
I always felt that I’ve had to work for basic tolerance of who I was; even masked. When bad meltdowns hit, when my autism was showing , self rejection was part and parcel of that always. Those times that I did not even like me and wouldn’t even want to be with me seemed to always be the times I needed most to reach out. I wish I could not remember the times I took a risk and reached out from burnout for a hand up. It added insult to injury always ending in ultimate failure. It had never worked until I first met my husband when I was 18.
Unconditional acceptance goes a really long way. I credit it with giving me the strength to come back from so many more burnouts. My husband valuing my existence was a beacon in the utter darkness. His belief in my worth acted as a kind of shield to hide my raw, nearly transparently thin skin behind while I healed.
I realize that I had always run short of my stores created of small acceptances gathered as payment on my performances. If I do not have acceptance, from somewhere, anywhere, I have no defense. I do not remember a time that I did not feel the need to generate acceptance. It always felt that no one really cared about me that much but that I had to earn that regard. The times I could mask I needed to make sure to do the work and put the pay into that account. It was just part of the larger imperative of fitting in to also do my dance of having value to others. I could not bank on credit.
My husband offered me credit. We are opposites in many ways but our relationship worked because in essence we are symbiotic. It was a delicate balance that sometimes bowed from strain. The delicate balance was disrupted and it just so happened that by that summer of 2016 I no longer could put trust in his security. I will not share what went wrong except to say it was medical and it since has been resolved. It was never that he was unwilling to be my ally, it was a failure on both sides.
So the furious F5, the perfect alignment of events, the cataclysm, was like an explosion. It sent the shards of what remained of my mask, the scaffolding of my coping schemes , my duct tape and glue, all scattering and careening toward the edges of the universe.
It tore away at every last molecule of my energy and I could not generate more. It was a struggle just to survive; leaving nothing left over to re-create my life, much less my mask.
This time there was nothing to shield me. People saw the raw me, and they looked away.
It was driven home and the message was clear. I was not enough; I can never be enough.
Through the logical way my mind works I am not one to pursue futility. As things were I was not going to put the pieces back together again. I did not even have the faintest idea where to start. Burnout is a function of futility.
Never Be Enough
Some day I might document the series of events that dragged me out of the stinking river silt-like detritus I sat struggling in like quicksand after the flood waters subsided. The pivotal factors in my resilience were my determination and my gift of self-discovery that guided my path to an official diagnosis of autism.
It was the way that the world is for autistics that got me where I was and it was my sheer determination that is a trait of my autism that got me on my way out.
I am not back from this last burnout but it is because I am determined to build a better foundation than I ever had.
I will not mask to fit in. I will not dance to earn regard. I do not need the pay of acceptance if I am rich in self-acceptance.
My cornerstone of this foundation, my rock, is my autism itself. I have a lot more discarding to do, a lot more picking over the remnants of the destruction of my old self for building materials that still have use. I will not settle for duct tape and promises.
I liken my intense inner work to the transformation of the caterpillar safe inside of its chrysalis. My structures take a lot of energy to shape shift.
It is only through the light shining from the official Autism diagnosis allowing me to shine the light on my search for all the pieces and parts to rebuild. I have a new imperative now.
The world and my own demons try to hold me back from becoming whole.
While I am ultimately forging my own path ; this time I walk beside others of my kind. This time I am not only doing this for myself but that no one should have to do it at all.
Links to other resources on autistic burnout.