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An Autistic Burnout

I want to try to summarise what happened to me, so that *you* have a chance of making sure that it *doesn’t* happen to you.

1: In case you don’t think you’re autistic, but are

I’ve had a successful career as an engineer, analyst, all-round clever person, and champion of change in the UK aerospace industry. I’ve worked in the same place for nearly three decades, and moved job roles several times in pursuit of something more interesting. It’s dangerous to assume that you can’t be autistic because you’ve had a good career so far.

There is a degree of debate about where the boundary between “normal” and “autistic” lies, and of whether there should be boundaries between different types of autism. But what is clear is that many people struggle through, and by external appearances “do well at” life, but do so by hiding, even from themselves, the significant and dangerous effort required to do so.

As these people forge careers, raise families or whatever else they do with their lives, they (like everyone) learn how to act socially in order to achieve particular outcomes. But the acting can be exhausting, and the effects of this exhaustion can look like depression, anxiety and fatigue; small wonder that the widespread nature of these problems leads to a diagnosis of one or more of these things and this puts a stop to anyone thinking that something else might be the root cause of the distress.

In my own case, depression and anxiety tag teamed to beat the life out of me over three decades. When I managed to fend off depression, anxiety came along, and when I beat the anxiety, depression came back, and so it went on.

I rationalised this in as many ways as I could think of over the decades:

  • I’ve been through divorce; of course I’m worn out & depressed
  • I’ve got Seasonal Affective Disorder; of course I’m depressed in winter
  • I’m an engineer; of course I’m alert to risks and thinking things through (anxiety)
  • I don’t buy in to traditional macho masculinity; of course I can’t bare to face working in a competitive, male-dominated environment every day
  • I’m shy; of course I hide when I see that lovely person I know well in the supermarket!
  • I’m a very logical person; of course I hate parties and loath being sung to on my birthday and would rather watch paint dry than spend time trapped in someone else’s house with extended family
  • I’ve just hit 50; of course I’m lost in this world

2: The immediate lead up to Burnout

In October 2017, after doing a beginner’s running course the Christmas before (I hated sport at school and was bullied for it but that’s another story), I found myself actually enjoying taking part in the Great South Run.

It had been a particularly busy time at work over the summer, and I’d been equating busyness with success and patting myself on the back for being proactive and managerial and not getting bogged down in detail, instead flitting from meeting to meeting and “socialising messages and vision”. I rated my stress levels at about 9/10, which I thought simply meant that I was fully engaged.

About 100m from the Great South finish line, I started my customary finishing sprint. All thoughts disappeared from my mind; no internal chatter, no inner voice, no “to do list”, just tunnel vision with the line at the end of it. It was literally bliss; a peak experience.

The Great South was on the Sunday, and I had already planned a day’s leave on the Monday.

But something happened over that weekend. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but the comparison of the feeling of the freedom of the finishing sprint to the endless, endless, problem solving and pressure-to-be-right-and-be-the-best at work tripped a circuit breaker in my mind and I no longer cared about *anything*. I metaphorically threw myself to the mercy of “the system” (whatever that may be) and said to myself “I’m done; someone else can look after me and everything around me now.” I didn’t care if we lost the house, my job, or anything material.

3: The Immediate Aftermath

I had already been in therapy for about a year at this point, and I ended up taking three months of sick leave. I started picking up the pieces – by which I do not mean recovering, but picking up bloodied pieces of porcelain from the floor, looking at them through bleary and exhausted eyes, and asking myself what the fuck had just happened.

After a few more months I started trying to write about it, but could literally manage no more than a sentence at a time followed by a 15 minute rest. It doesn’t sound real, but that’s how exhausted my brain was.

As the mist cleared, I started considering that I might be autistic, and as everything fell into place I realised that I had been emulating the behaviours of those around me (a laudable effort if it’s actually the related healthy strategy known as modelling) by expending huge amounts of mental resources to process the world. It seemed to me that those mental resources relied on a set of connections in my brain that had been constructed over my adult life, and worked well, but had the resilience of candy floss compared to the oak tree of the “real me” supporting the entire structure.

At this point, I realised that the candy floss was now gone, incinerated in the burnout, and only the oak tree remained.

Rebuilding was needed; but never the same again.

It took six months to get properly back to work, maybe a year to become almost as productive as I was used to, and nearly three years to feel almost comfortable again. That perhaps counts as recovery, but if recovery means returning to the same role and capabilities I had before burnout, I now know that that is impossible.


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