Burnout and Self-Denial: Accepting Aspiehood

I think I’m burning out.

It’s really hard for me to type that. Accomplishment is my self esteem. Staying busy is my form of sanity. Functioning through anything is my identity. It’s a family legacy. It runs in the women of my family: through an alcoholic husband and small children. Through law school and working and activism and creation. Through depression and keeping a family afloat. Through wars. When I think of my mother and aunts and grandmothers, I see women of steel.

I’ve always felt that pressure, and I have always lived it out by doing. I was the getting straight As, doing every extracurricular, working nights and weekends, writing in my spare time, graduating from college in 3 years type. I was the kind of person who’d go to the gym for 4 hours just to see if I could. I survived an eating disorder, major depression, self harming, anxiety, and just kept getting up and putting one foot in front of the other. I have always felt a sick kind of pride that no matter how exhausted I was, no matter how bad the depression was, I still made it to class, I was never fired from a job, I kept up my grades, I went to the gym, I got my shit done.

Yesterday, I left work early and slept for four hours. Over the weekend I took an eight hour nap. I haven’t been to the gym regularly in weeks. My blog posts are sporadic and infrequent. I know that I’ve dropped the ball on volunteer positions, and as a friend, and as an employee. I’m working less than I ever have, and I am more tired than I have ever felt before. It feels awful, but the more I fight it, the more tired I get. I have gotten blood tests and sleep studies and everything comes back fine. I am perfectly healthy.

Last year I was diagnosed with autism (Asperger’s for those who still use those terms). It felt weird. I haven’t done anything about it. I wasn’t sure what to do about it. I was busy. I had other things to keep track of and fix and plan for. I’ve been reading about it, wondering if I can implement any of the coping strategies I see, but not quite getting how they apply to me. I have some sensory sensitivities, but not the kind that I can accommodate very well: I am light sensitive and tough sensitive and taste sensitive. I’ve made all the accommodations a person can, by not touching people and keeping my shades drawn constantly and eating a limited diet. I have social anxiety, but I don’t script, and I don’t find it helpful to play out scenarios with other people (this causes me more anxiety). I want to incorporate more proprioceptive feedback into my life, but I can’t just install a swing in my room and I don’t know what else to do. I don’t feel at home in the autism community, and I don’t feel understood and helped by their suggestions.

But more than that, I never notice that I’m being worn down or stressed out by things like sensory input or social outings. I don’t like big groups of people I don’t know, but I avoid that. I don’t notice myself consciously trying to figure out social rules, or puzzling out who I should emulate or how I should behave. I wonder over and over if I really am autistic. I wonder why the label matters, if it matters. Why did I even pursue a diagnosis?

Ok I promise these two things are related.

It hit me really hard last week when my therapist asked “what if the fatigue is sensory?”

There’s this thing called autistic burnout that happens when you spend all day every day coping with a world that doesn’t entirely make sense and is fairly unpredictable, with your brain running full speed making all kinds of connections and trying to consciously puzzle out social rules, and all the while your senses are overloaded and overwhelmed. Basically you get exhausted and you start to shut down. It might seem like you’re getting tired from nothing, or that you’re just not capable of doing a whole lot, but really it’s that your brain and body are working constantly to stay regulated. You need more sleep. You don’t have the energy to do things you used to do. You can lose coping skills or functions that you used to have. You might feel foggy or have a hard time concentrating, or feel like your memory has gotten worse.

It feels like depression but not, because when you’re depressed your body isn’t actually fatigued, you just can’t bring yourself to move and it feels full and empty at the same time. The flavor of depression is one of listlessness and heavy air and rot. Nothing is worth it.

With burnout, things are very much worth it. I want so desperately to keep going, but my body and mind just give out. I fall asleep when I don’t mean to. I make inattentive mistakes. I find that my muscles are going.

So here is where I’m at: I think I’m burning out. I didn’t notice things like lights and noises and smells until I did, and now they are overwhelming. I didn’t notice overthinking and questioning and worrying about everything I was doing until I stopped being able to do it and I started messing up. I didn’t notice all these autistic characteristics until I couldn’t mask anymore. It’s amazing how internalized and unnoticed my coping skills were. And over the last few years they’ve been dropping away as I both become more forgiving towards myself and depleted my reserves. I know there are others out there like me who have a hard time seeing all the characteristics in themselves, even as they suspect strongly that they have an Aspie brain. It seems like falling apart is the only way to properly see the pieces.

I’m in this space where I still want to be the person I’ve always been, the organized and accomplished young woman who does everyone proud. But I’m slowly becoming aware that it is damaging to want that. I am a flawed, exhausted, broken being, just like every other person. I can see that others don’t need to earn their self worth. I just can’t see it for myself. I don’t know how to expect less of myself. I don’t know how to accommodate my sensory needs and my social needs and my overworked brain. I’ve always wanted to know how to turn it off, but no one will tell me what to do.

I’ve got these conflicting identities of “autistic” and “woman of steel,” except that I like to pretend that the autistic part doesn’t affect me. I haven’t really incorporated it into my self understanding. But I think I might have to if I want to deal with this burnout. This may be the point where I finally find concrete actions to take. Maybe it’s the self denial that’s been so exhausting.

I hate personal posts because I always feel as if I need to find a way to make it relevant to everyone else out there. But I suspect it already is relevant to more than one of you. It might not be autism, but there are approximately a billion different reasons that we each have different limits when it comes to our energy levels. Sometimes it’s staring us in the face that we need to deny less of the reality about ourselves. I think it goes back to the post I wrote earlier this week: being strong isn’t the same thing as requiring no rest and no care. I know I am stronger when I listen to my own needs, and understand how I’m built. I am not steel. No one is. There is no pride in pretending I am. Maybe that’s the self-acceptance I’ve been looking for.

Feminism Does Not Mean Strength, Success, or Power

Last night I decided to watch The Mask We Live In as it had just arrived on Netflix, and after finishing it I couldn’t help but go back and rewatch Miss Representation. It’s still a pretty good movie, that introduces a lot of basic concepts about feminism and media in a really accessible way. But I found that as I was watching it I started to get really anxious.

It was a kind of anxiety that I hadn’t felt so acutely in quite some time. “You’re missing your window of opportunity,” is what it said. “What will you become?” it asked. “Why doesn’t anyone look up to you?” it taunted. It was very talkative anxiety. I remembered the feeling that I used to have as a kid that my life could be the kind of thing that someone would talk about with a tone of awe. In Miss Representation, Condoleeza Rice talks about her friend Sally Ride and says that if Sally had waited to see a female astronaut before she decided to become one, Ride never would have gone to space. I wanted to be that story for someone. THAT was what a feminist looked like in my young eyes.

In a lot of the talk about feminism, I heard often about accomplishments. I heard about the wage gap. I heard about women not being in positions of power. I heard about the ways that women are held back by bias or harassment or lack of representation. I heard that women needed to be more active and powerful in politics and large corporations, that we needed more women like Marie Curie or Sheryl Sandberg or Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Women who fought for their right to a space at the table in the field that they loved. I heard about the importance of highly visible role models, and the way that feminism will never advance if we don’t have women in positions of power. I rarely heard about average people, my mom or her friends. I more often heard stories of individual, exceptional women.

And so I learned that feminism meant being successful. Successful enough that your name is still known today. Successful enough that you have power over other people, often power in a traditionally capitalistic sense of the word if not in the governmental sense. Successful enough that other people could see you and want to be you. So successful that you are in fact exceptional.

This belief has been incredibly damaging in my life, and so I want to identify it, identify what’s wrong with it and try to understand how we can do better.

Definitionally, not everyone can be exceptional. I firmly believe that everyone can be a feminist. The actions, thoughts, and attitudes of feminism are difficult, but they are things that everyone can strive for. But more than that, it takes away the societal responsibility for improving circumstances and says that some super women have to fix things.

More than that, it creates a nice, impossible standard for young women. It might be a very different kind of impossible standard than traditional beauty standards or expectations of submissiveness and passivity, but it is just as difficult to attain. I have found throughout my life that I hold myself to expectations of perfection in a conviction that that is the only way to make a difference and give my life meaning and purpose. Now partially that’s my own issue, but I see some direct parallels with a feminism that doesn’t allow for nuance. If the way to be a feminist is to somehow, through sheer will or awesomeness, break through barriers that no one else has ever been able to break, you’re going to have some high expectations for yourself. It’s easy to assume that individual effort and ability are what counts when it comes to being successful, but let’s not forget that there are so many other factors at play (family support, random chance or luck, connections, timing, all the wide variety of axes of privilege and oppression, etc.).

When we hold up individual women as responsible for the great strides of the past, we imply that individual women should become great enough, all on their own, to make great strides into the future. Of course the truth is that making the world a more just and equitable place takes all kinds, and changing the world requires lots of people working together and supporting each other. It takes luck and privilege and a lot of circumstances aligning in the right ways, just as much as it does the hard work and talent of the people involved. It’s damaging to any individual who wants to make a difference if they assume they have to do it on their own, or that they should ignore their own needs, circumstances, and preferences in order to live up to some idealized vision of the Feminist Woman.

I want to think about other kinds of feminist inspiration we can have for each other. Inspiration that doesn’t create a damaging picture of how much any individual should be capable of by themselves. Let’s try this on for size:

I have a friend who has serious social anxiety and agoraphobia. The other day she contacted me out of the blue and asked if I wanted to go to coffee over Facebook. This is bravery. This is creating connections that sustain us. This is using the technology available to make the world work for us.

Every time I have an open, honest conversation with my partner about consent, preferences, and sexuality, I am prioritizing my own needs and sexual health. That is feminism. I’m an inspiring bitch.

When I see a female friend get honestly angry with someone else and express their boundaries in a clear fashion, I am seeing feminism at work.

When my friends demand their proper pronouns, or someone politely asks about pronouns, I am witnessing change.

These are not grand narratives. They are everyday moments that are often uncomfortable and don’t have huge payouts. But every time you question your sexist relative, speak honestly of your own experience, engage in self care, or ask for what you want, you are being inspiring to me. Sure, we also need the big changemakers, the people who bulldoze barriers in a powerful way. But we need all the rest of us doing a thousand small things every day to make those changes stick. That’s just as inspiring to me.