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Burnout: The Lighting of the Fire

There is often a noticeable tipping point of some kind when things change course towards trouble; an almost imperceptible slurring of words heralding mental decline, an odd knock in an engine a thousand miles before it seizes, a vague limp on a racehorse.

I can remember the event that equivalently indicated the moment of lighting the fire that would burn along the neural circuits in my brain that had been responsible for autistic masking, following those circuits and burning them away like kindling whilst the more ancient and hardy circuits in the rest of my brain remained untouched.

It was in the summer of 2017. I’m pretty certain of the season because we were outside and it was a warm evening. The year is harder to place but I know that I was leading a small team (for “small team” read “team of three, one of whom was me”) at work and my “Life timeline” Google Sheets workbook tells me that this fact means that it must have been 2017!

The place was one of a couple of dozen hotels that I’ve stayed at in the UK for work off-site meetings that combine team-building with celebrations and “kick-off events”. I wish I could narrow it down more than that (and I wish I could remember all of these places because some were quite awesome) but all I know is that it was somewhere midway between Hertfordshire and Hampshire.

The Crystal Maze

I remember the event perhaps because at least part of the “team-building” games were being MC’d by -if I remember correctly- the daughter of the star and/or creator of the UK TV Game Show “The Crystal Maze”.

A weird crackling noise

One of the challenges that we had to complete during that event was the famous “Tower of Hanoi” puzzle. We had to complete the challenge as a team, and the puzzle pieces were large vinyl-covered square cushions that we had to viscerally move around in the outside setting.

As we started, I had an unfamiliar experience; I didn’t know instantly how to solve this puzzle. Bear in mind that at this point I was 49 or 50 years old and “Mid Career”. I had been used to being intellectually sharp and used to the fact that this usually meant that I would be the one in the team to say “I’ve got it, here’s what we do!”. Not this time.

But that wasn’t the only unsettling thing, and by no means the most significant. The next thing that went through my brain was this:


That was a very new feeling. Almost all of my sense of self worth at this point in my life rested on the fact of my intellectual success and insightfulness at work, and I was letting it go. Even more unsettling, I was letting it go because I couldn’t hold on anymore and I was letting it go without knowing what, if anything, would replace it.

But the Masking?

How has any of that got anything to do with autistic burnout and autistic masking? I don’t know for sure. All I know is that it was the beginning of letting go, the beginning of realising that keeping up appearances was becoming too hard and was ultimately unsustainable.

Later that evening, we ate outside at tables arranged around a barbeque. I remember now that I had quit alcohol at the time and was a few months into a 6 month period of not drinking (which, by the way, confirms this as being in the last 6 months of 2017). So I didn’t have that crutch to sustain me through the social side of dinner. Thankfully, randomly leaving the table to get more drinks or food was part of the evening’s unwritten rules and we weren’t sitting in pre-set table groups. But I struggled to maintain interest in conversation. I especially couldn’t feign interest in a set of long stories being told by one of the table’s older and more senior members.

I hatched a plan to exit quietly. As I left the table to get another drink (of Fanta, probably) I decided to wander inside the hotel and after a minute or two pretending to enjoy the ambience, I went to my room and stayed there until bedtime. I hadn’t said “Please excuse me” or “Goodnight” to anybody. How rebellious!

Two months to Burn a Mask

As I look through my “Life Timeline” workbook, I can find more clues that narrow this teambuilding event down to probably August 2017. My full on crash happened on Monday 23rd October 2017 – the Monday after the Sunday’s Great South Run.

So from those first signs, it took about two to two and a half months for my brain to erase the neural circuits that had been put in place over a lifetime to allow me to blend in, pretend to be non-autistic, and survive in the corporate world.

Now, five years on from there, I can say with a fair amount of certainty that those neural circuits are gone for good.


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