Fighting the void: What is autistic burnout?

In the online autistic community, it is not uncommon to hear about something called “burnout”. This phenomenon is, sadly, quite common, and probably a result of trying to exist in a world that for so many of us is quite frankly hostile.

But what is burnout? What follows is an account of my most recent tangle with this beast.

Firstly, my experience of burnout may be different from that of another autistic. I have a number of complex mental health issues that compound the experience. Burnout also involves more than psychological phenomenon, physical pain and illness can become an issue when one is in burnout.

The first sign that I was entering burnout was small. I started to wake up later and later into the day. I’m not the earliest riser, but i soon found myself waking up at 3pm or later. I stopped being able to perform simple self care tasks, suddenly showering was impossible and I was lucky to be able to get into the shower once every three days.

Housework seemed to be piling up. The basic requirements of running a house were now an insurmountable task. Washing the dishes would leave me unable to do anymore than sit and stare into space for hours.

My mental health took a nose dive. Where once I was an upbeat and excitable individual, I was now utterly anhedonic, unable to find joy in even the simplest of things. At this point I started to experience very intense suicidal thoughts.

The actual feeling is harder to describe, but I will do my best. When asked to picture my feelings, I realised that all I could picture was a void. This void loomed over me, threatening to swallow me. I felt as if I was on the brink of being lost to oblivion. I could barely make the walk from my bedroom to the living room, it felt as though there was nothing left inside of me.

Had I not been so exhausted, I would have been terrified. It felt as though the real me was slipping away.

When you are in burnout, it can feel as though it will never end. It was like being in the centre of the earth, with all the weight of the world pushing down on me.

There were two things that helped pull me through my burnout. People around me picked up the jobs I simply didn’t have the spoons for. I had to take time for myself. I also had to tackle the mental health issues, and for me, this looked like having my medication reviewed by my psychiatrist. A minor change to my medication dramatically improved my depressive symptoms and low mood, allowing me space to do things that i enjoyed, replenishing spoons in the process.

Burnout is an overwhelming and scary experience. However, with the right support, it is possible to come out the other side. When we experience Burnout, it is vital that we look at what was happening in the lead up, and identify the things that led to it.

If you are experiencing burnout now, hang in there. Be kind to yourself, and take steps to protect your mental health. Burnout is not a permanent state, but it is not something you can think yourself out of. It is the state we enter when we simply have no more energy to expend on anything.

Things can and do get better.

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