So I went and gave myself a burnout, because I don’t learn.
I’ve sent the next Why Odin Drinks story to my editor and decided to tackle the genre that I’ve always found the most difficult: romance. I’ve done a lot of reading first, both of craft books and various sorts of other authors’ romances, noting what I did or didn’t like. I settled on sweet (nothing sexual happens on the page) m/m (it didn’t work, gay men have too many cocks to spend the night cuddling without at least one’s interest getting aroused, so it’s sweet-with-heat now). I started writing the first draft and here’s where I made the same mistake I always make: I stopped watching what I was doing.
I can, as in I am able to, work approximately three hours a day. Unfortunately, tasks that for most people are either unnoticeable or, at worst, irritating chores constitute work for me. Folding the laundry; cleaning the bathroom; cooking something more complicated than an egg; taking a shower; often simply reading. Therapy, obviously. Unfortunately writing is also on that list.
It’s escapism, I love doing it, and it exhausts my energy without me noticing, because I don’t want to notice. If you love your work, it isn’t work anymore, we all know that. So I’ve spent two weeks drafting my romance, navigating the complications and changing the plot as I went, and accidentally completing NaNoWriMo (fifty thousand words – an average romance novel clocks at 60-80 thousand) within two weeks. I wrote every day, of course – “you’re only a real writer if you write every day!” Then, to nobody’s surprise but mine, I crashed. Badly.
Disability is disabling
I have been declared 100% disabled in 2018. Being disabled means that I am not able work and, often, function on any level but the most basic. This is literally what it means. I should probably tattoo that on the inside of my eyelids.
I can’t do deadlines. There are tasks I can’t perform at all (such as picking up the phone, or leaving the house on my own). There are times when my brain twists and mangles the actual words and events, turning them into something imaginary and strange, which is great for creativity and not so great for communication. I don’t know when, though, because if I did, I’d stop it from happening. Sometimes I can’t do much at all. I’ll take my morning shower at 11pm because that’s how long it takes me to gather energy to do it. There are always frozen meals in the freezer in case I can’t, say, boil pasta. None of this is negotiable and very little predictable – except the fact that I will manage to make it worse once I decide I got better.
Only two months ago or so I (briefly) regained the ability to deal with rapidly changing visual and auditory stimuli, i.e. watch YouTube with sound on. A few weeks later I lost it again. Tomorrow I might wake up energetic or take an hour to crawl out of bed, I might be able to read a new book I’ve been looking forward to for months or spend the day playing Toon Blast on my phone. On the logical level I am aware of all that, but my brain is not logical. Also, “disabled” is a word that comes with lots of baggage and I have a bad back.
I refuse to make disability my identity (“what do you do for living?” – “I collect disability benefits”) even though often I do get reduced to it, then, mortified, apologise to everyone I have failed by assuring them I could do things I can’t do. If I accepted that, I would be doing better. Accepting it would make it real, though, so instead I do worse, but in denial. It took six years to figure out the right med cocktail to keep my bipolar mostly at bay. I’ve been undergoing PTSD therapy for nearly two years now, because apparently my memoirs will also be very interesting. I might get rediagnosed once we’re finished with the PTSD, but there’s still a long way to go. Apart from that, though, I’m almost completely fine and the next time I try to do everything it’s really going to be different. I have this feeling it will be. 396 attempts is the magic number.
I’m going to be a success, make a miracle recovery, be the sort of person who gets invited to events to speak about how I overcame all obstacles, and who can actually stand there (or Zoom there) and speak. Instead, I have an actual team of specialists dealing with my brain, because it’s that interesting a place. A part of its geography is my firm refusal to replace my own ableist thoughts with the realisation that all disabled people want to stop being disabled. It’s just that, you see, those are some other people.
Weirdly enough, demanding more of yourself than of others is a sign of arrogance. It means I see myself as a special iron snowflake. They say hope dies last. I don’t do hope, I simply know that none of the above applies to me, even while it does.
What happened this time?
The usual, just more – I have never worked on a burnout so meticulously.
There were warning signs. I refused to pay attention to them. True, I crashed the previous 394 times I felt this way. I could tell it’s different this time, though (just like the previous 394 times, but this time it was different different). I would to continue doing the same thing, but more, and that’s how I will prove I can do more than ever before. You can’t deny that this is exactly how logic works.
I actually started making plans for gradual return to paid work. I prepared a marketing plan for the rest of 2021 and first part of 2022. None of that planning involved the possibility that I might get unwell again. I gave myself deadlines. I announced them. My personal life was in turmoil; the PTSD therapy so brutal I had to ask to shorten the sessions; I was coming off my pain medication and anti-anxiety medication at once; Covid numbers went through the roof and towards the skies, flown by KLM’s incredibly professional staff, making it impossible for me to see my family for the first time in over two years. I dealt with all those things by ignoring them, Nemo-fish style – shutting them out and distracting myself by doing nice things, such as writing. When the unpleasantness kept existing, the logical solution was to write more and more.
When SUDDENLY!!! A COMPLETE SURPRISE!!! Pssssssszzzzt. Not a bang. A bang requires energy.
But, but… how was I supposed to guess that it might happen again when it only happened 394 times before – in exactly the same way and for the exact same reasons?
Scrivener’s writing history shows me that on November 21 I did my usual five thousand words. On November 22 I decided to rest for one day, because I am a responsible person who understands the importance of taking breaks. On the 23rd I started writing again… only I didn’t. I couldn’t. It turned out that one day of rest (which, by the way, meant reading a memoir of addiction, followed by starting on a book on delayed grief, because this is how I rest) wasn’t enough. It’s almost like I can’t schedule my exhaustion.
Seventeen days and counting.
In 2011 I had to quit working as a graphic designer, because I hit the wall. I’d look at the Photoshop loading screen and feel like I was about to throw up. I haven’t returned to graphic design since, apart from my book covers. I have never really recovered from that burnout.
Autistic burnout is just like that, but with everything. I’ve been going through it since 2018 and every time it lightens a bit I decide it’s over.
(This is unrelated, but I have control issues.)
It’s still not over.
In the first 10-12 days (time becomes a bit blurry when things get this bad) I couldn’t read – sentences and paragraphs kept turning into some sort of repulsive soup. I briefly became non-verbal. I couldn’t cook, read, get dressed… long story short, I couldn’t do anything. I played games on my phone and waited for the day to be over. I ate meals my husband made, then returned to my spot on the sofa. I also kept working on this post about my burnout, because somehow it hadn’t occurred to me that writing about my burnout is writing. I kept starting and stopping, unable to focus or structure the post. I tried to maintain marginal social media presence, so The Mighty Algorithms wouldn’t decide I no longer exist. I avoided other people, because I had no energy to pretend I was doing well. (I really, really appreciate those who noticed and didn’t back off when I admitted I wasn’t.)
I tried to read a book about resting, but I couldn’t, because it was too much work. (How To Do Nothing by Jenny Odell)
Last week I felt the reading block lift – which felt wonderful, because after ten days with Sims and Pinball Deluxe I got really sick of both. I read four books in a day (short ones, but still) – very old ones I was catching up with, like I would with old friends. The day after I couldn’t read again. Obviously, this couldn’t have been predicted.
I got (get) irregular shutdowns, sometimes more than once per day – my brain ceases to function. My body may look awake, but my brain isn’t. When this happens, I must take a break from everything. Ideally go to bed, close the light-blocking curtains, put in earplugs, and stay like that for an hour or so until brain relents and permits me to continue with the Sims. Since this burnout started I just lie down on the sofa, to spare myself the work of walking up the stairs.
The shutdowns are not optional and can’t be postponed until more convenient moment. Caffeine doesn’t help. I can’t wait them out. I have to take that break, the ultimate burnout. If you keep pushing, eventually your subconscious will enforce the break you don’t permit yourself. With my old job I was too tired to try to change anything. The economy was at its rock bottom and I had a mortgage to pay. So I told myself it would eventually fix itself by some sort of magic, pushed and pushed, until I found out I couldn’t get out of bed. So far, the break from being a graphic designer has lasted ten years.
I get alarmed with I feel other people are working too hard, but since I am not other people, rules don’t apply to me.
Whyyyyy? It was meant to be different!
It was going so well for so long. So, just like 394 times before, I decided this time would be different, actually it already was different, yes yes.
IT’S NEVER FUCKING DIFFERENT.
I don’t want to be disabled, autistic, bipolar, weak. I haven’t seen any battlefield, except on TV, so I have no right to have PTSD. I want to be exactly like neurotypicals, even though I’m not. It irks me when I get the “you don’t look autistic” treatment (this is supposed to be a compliment – I told Husby to say to me “Bjørn, please perform An Autism for the lady” the next time it happens.) At the same time it means I succeeded. I have not inconvenienced anybody. I passed.
I want to be proudly neurodivergent. In the last year or two, though, #neurodivergent became a hashtag. You’re (I’m) not supposed to actually behave differently. I internalised that very well, together with the ableist bullshit: I have to pretend to be someone else to be accepted just as I am.
The amount of energy I use daily to battle my invisible problems is invisible to others. If I work on my denial hard enough, I can make myself stop noticing, too (this requires extra energy). Everyone has their problems, after all. Mine are probably just excuses that I might be making up for attention, I most probably do, actually I definitely do. (Depression is really good at telling you that you don’t have depression and you’re a worthless, lazy POS making all that up for attention.) I am privileged AF (true). I don’t look autistic. This is what I mean when I say “I’m doing so well.” I’m just like normal people, yes? I’m only #neurodivergent because it looks good on a t-shirt.
I’ve read stories of British semi-celebrities “coming out” as autistic, happy that the stigma surrounding autism is going away. Not really. The stigma surrounding the word “autism” is going away. As long as we don’t look autistic we are totally accepted. Obviously I am not projecting, because I spend half of my waking time subconsciously searching for ableist bullshit, so that I can internalise it and use it against myself.
Acceptance? I don’t know her
I hate having to ask for accommodations. I also hate the fact that there are things I can’t do, even though others can. The worst and the most common thing is that often I have to cancel appointments last moment because I have to and I have no better explanation. Obviously, it inconveniences people who made time especially for me, so I shouldn’t do it, by which I mean I mustn’t do it, so I don’t set those appointments in the first place. I feel both envious towards people who can appear on panels or podcasts, and disgusted with myself for not doing it. I’m making excuses to avoid doing something I desperately want to do.
This feels like a good moment to remind you all of the above is logical.
I only accept that I am disabled when I am absolutely forced to, like now. Actually, scratch this. I don’t accept that I am disabled. I angrily force myself to stop fighting it for a bit until I gather enough energy to kept running head first into the same wall. OK, fine, I couldn’t do Thing an hour ago, how about now? And now? At some point I discover I can do something, therefore I proceed to doing everything as Husby begs me to stop, then I crash again. Sometimes in the middle of doing Thing. I’ll be preparing lunch, put the plates on the table, but fail to continue with the cutlery. Which is infuriating. Haven’t I decided I recovered?! What’s wrong with me?! (I should know exactly what’s wrong with me, I got it on paper. Nine pages, if I recall correctly. I didn’t read any of it.)
I don’t do compromise. I was raised to give either my 0% or 100% (or, as my brother pointed out recently, 120%). I haven’t been raised to be disabled or do 40%. In the constant battle between “should” and “can” I never feel like I’m winning enough, because even if somehow I can pull that 100%, I have so much to catch up with that nothing below 120% will do, and if I can do 120% why don’t I do 130%?
I should exercise. Exercise is good for me. Half an hour of light exercise, I’ve been told. My idea of light exercise is not the same as my therapist’s, though, so after twenty minutes of lifting weights I crash. Even though it was meant to be good for me. See? Therapists know nothing.
There are things to do. Exercise. Cleaning up. Cooking. Folding the bloody towels (why? why are there always towels needing folding? do they come from the same place where socks go?) Oh yes, and the socks and underwear. I mean, it’s not SO DIFFICULT IS IT EVERYONE DOES THAT. Also, TikTok, and Instagram, and Not Harming My Brand On Twitter. I have to update my website, plan the future releases, promote current and older ones, respond to emails, write reviews, and most importantly I have to NOT OVERDO IT, but more.
I have to finish this post. It’s not good enough, though. Maybe I should save it as draft and come back to it, like I’ve been doing for two weeks now.