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Concepts

On Burnout

When you go to reach for that energy you rely on to keep going and suddenly there's nothing there.
We all talk about burnout as a thing that happens when someone works long hours in a thankless job and doesn’t take enough time away. But what a lot of Neurodivergent people discover in their 30s — especially Autistic people — is that existing in a neurotypical world carries the same emotional and physical toll as working a thankless job from which you can’t ever take a vacation.
If you google “Autistic Burnout” you’ll discover horror stories: people who lost their ability to communicate, to apply effort, to make themselves understood or function in the ways they’d been functioning.
It happened to me: I’d spent several years working hard at a startup that ultimately failed, then my engagement broke off and I spent some time traveling, I got my life back together and got married and settled down and within six months had what I consider my capital-B Autistic Burnout.
It was a rough adjustment period. I lost my ability to mask entirely— suddenly I was speaking in a loud, abrasive voice. I couldn’t really use words to capture my intentions very well, so my expressions became kind of abstract and hard to understand. I was emotionally completely dysregulated with no tools for managing the emotions that were coming out and no strength left to repress them. This was an incredibly painful experience, and I lost friends and almost lost my marriage over it.
It took time, patience and understanding to even begin to understand what was happening, and then I needed serious rest. Recovery took about 3 years, and I’m still not the person I was — I can no longer push myself as hard as I used to, I cannot work at all under pressure without freaking out. I’m diminished in ways I don’t fully understand, but have learned to respect.
All of this happened one day in one instant I’ll never forget: I went to reach for my special hidden reserve of energy and there was nothing there. In a moment I realized I’d used the last of the fuel in a tank I’m still not entirely sure how to refill.
All of this is shared as a cautionary tale: learn and respect your own limits, because if you’re living beyond them for too long you will eventually do irreparable harm to yourself.
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Marla
I'm 20 months into recovery from capital B burnout. I don't know how I could have been closer to dead. I will write an essay about the experience.
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