Some of these blog posts are difficult to write. Some are emotionally draining and massively triggering – I’m working on one at the moment that I’m going to have to do paragraph by paragraph because it’s so tough, but I’ll get there in the end, and it’s a post that needs to be written, so I shall persist. Some are about things I want to say and the thoughts are all in my head in concept form but my words aren’t always in a great place so it takes a lot of effort to translate them into readable format.
Some, like this one, are difficult because I’m working at the very limits of my knowledge about a subject that I only started studying a few months ago and I’m still trying to work out what everything means and to construct my own verbal definitions of concepts that I instantly recognised from internal experience as soon as I knew what they actually were. I’m also still reading other people’s blogs and working out which ones I’ll want to share and so on – even blogging is something of a new world to me as my last efforts, years ago, were random and short-lived and I never really got into it in a big way.
I said in the post “Time Stood Still” that I initially called what happened to me at the end of the summer “some sort of mental breakdown” because that was the language I had available to me. That language, familiar to me from years of mental health struggles, diagnosed as anxiety, depression, and eventually bipolar disorder (I still believe these were not misdiagnoses, but they were only part of the full picture, and they are common comorbids with autism), is only partially accurate in my new changed world. I am now learning new terms, terms to describe things that have happened to me throughout my life, which I have only discovered since investigating autism.
What actually happened to me during late summer 2016 was that I entered a spell of autistic burnout. This is, apparently, not recognised by the medical profession, but is seemingly well-known among the adult autistic community in general, and those who are undiagnosed or hiding their condition in particular. I’ll try to write about it more fully when I have the ability to do so, but, for now, the best way I can explain it is that burnout occurs when an autistic person’s energy is exhausted, they can no longer hide their condition, and they go into some sort of extended shutdown and their autistic characteristics become very pronounced.
I believe that this is the second time in my life that I have been in autistic burnout. The first was in 2001, when I was 30. However, this burnout is different from the last, because during the last one I was additionally in a state of nervous breakdown and severe depression as a result of bipolar disorder, so that will have hidden the autistic traits somewhat. I also lived alone at that time so there was nobody around to observe much of my behaviour. And, of course, nobody knew about autism, still less burnout, and at that stage I wasn’t even diagnosed with bipolar disorder – I was just given a packet of citalopram and signed off work for a while, as had happened during a previous breakdown a few years earlier. I eventually saw a psychiatrist who sent me for group CBT for anxiety, and I gradually learnt how to live in the world again, though that was the point at which the high-achieving, high-powered me disappeared from the world. I got back to work, but never to the level I had before, and I never lasted very long in any job – it’s now obvious why.
Looking back, I can now very obviously see the similarities and differences between burnout and breakdown, and can even separate out the parts of the two that occurred simultaneously in 2001, when whichever state was the stronger at the time took over. In both states: I find life very difficult and struggle to function; there is a desire to hide away from the world; I have to cancel things, put my life on hold, and need lots of support. In both, there is strong suicidal ideation (and there have been attempts), and I struggle with basic self care such as keeping up with admin and maintaining a reasonable living environment. I also have dysfunctional relationships with both food and alcohol and any semblance of normal sleep pattern usually goes completely haywire. There are probably more things, but this gives an indication of what I experience during both breakdown and burnout.
However, there are also differences. In breakdown I am still and I oversleep massively. In burnout I hardly sleep at all and I move almost constantly. In breakdown it helps to get out into the world and to be around people. In burnout I need to be alone for most of the time. In breakdown light can elevate my mood. In burnout I’m so hypersensitive to light I sit in the dark wearing sunglasses. In breakdown I generally overeat and crave sweet foods and chocolate. In burnout I struggle to eat at all and want plain white savoury foods above all. In breakdown I can cope with ordinary levels of background noise as well as usual. In burnout I’m really sensitive to sounds and crave silence – even having to watch the TV with the sound turned off and reading the subtitles. In breakdown I have a consistently low mood and am chronically depressed without let up. In burnout my mood fluctuates wildly and periods of depression alternate with much more positive phases.
I’m sure there are more differences too, but those are the ones that I have thus far observed, along with the fact that most of my breakdowns have followed a period of hypomania (my bipolar disorder is classified as Bipolar II), and the two episodes of burnout have followed an extended spell out in the world building a life involving lots of social contact and lots of sensory stimulation. Whether there will be future episodes of either breakdown or burnout I don’t know. The knowledge that I am autistic will now enable me to change my life and possibly to avoid, or at least soften, any future burnout, just as all the work I’ve done over the years has helped me to recognise early signs of both mania and depression and to act on them early enough to reduce the severity of more recent breakdowns.
Everything is starting to make so much more sense now that I’m reviewing my life with the added knowledge of autism. Things that have puzzled me for years are finally becoming clear. Some of the snippets of memories I have from the 2001 breakdown that have never quite made sense with my other breakdowns – my reactions to sound and light, my desire to bang my head repeatedly against something, my lack of sleep, my inability to eat – now make sense when regarded as autistic burnout, and when I compare that time to the present day, it’s very easy to see.
This is one of the reasons that an autism discovery later in life is so big. It’s not just about the present and the future and a change in life from the point of discovery onwards, it’s also about redefining many many past experiences and, to an extent, rewriting the history of my life from a different perspective. It’s a life-changing discovery that changes all of life, from birth to death. The facts of the history don’t change, obviously, since this isn’t time travel, but the perception of past events and the sense now made of previously puzzling experiences by having a whole new language to work with is like a constant stream of new discoveries and realisations that really are mind-blowing!