My Work Is My Mental Health

A couple of weeks ago I started to realize that thanks to a large pile of external stressors, my mental health has been suffering this winter. Pretty normal. Even someone who didn’t have some vulnerabilities would probably be struggling right now. But as someone who does have vulnerabilities it became quite clear to me that for the next month or until things start to feel better, my job needs to be caring for my mental health.

I’ve heard people use that phrase before, but I don’t know that it’s always clear what it means. Particularly when you have an actual, literal job, and responsibilities, what does it mean to make your mental health a priority? Why do people choose the “job” or “work” metaphor when they’re talking about mental health? For people who haven’t been through the process of managing depression or anxiety before, the whole idea can be overwhelming, so I wanted to break down my process a little bit to show others how it can be manageable.

One of the main reasons I like the job metaphor is because it gives me a clear picture of how I can successfully approach being more mentally healthy. It’s easy to just say “I want to take care of myself” or “I want to deal with my depression”, but when you approach it like a job you recognize that you have to set concrete goals, that you have to work with other people to achieve those goals, that you break your goals down into steps, and that you might have to try a variety of different techniques to achieve the results you want.

For me, it helps to have something like a “workplan” so that I can know what concrete actions I’m taking and what I hope to get from those actions. For example I’m currently trying to decrease my stress and anxiety. To break that down, I have brainstormed with my therapist things that have helped in the past (being more social, working less, doing mindfulness exercises, being more physically active) and set goals for each of them (see friends 3x a week, do 10 minutes of mindfulness a day, go climbing 3x a week etc.). In a few weeks I can see how I’m doing at those tasks and if each task is helping.

I also find that when I think of it as a job, it becomes a priority. I write it on my to do list each day (and then I have to do it), which helps me to reprioritize, as well as remember to check in regularly and see what’s working and what isn’t. For me personally, including things on my written to do lists keeps it at the forefront of my mind because I am seeing it regularly. That to me is what it means when my mental health is my job: no matter what else I’m doing, my well being is always in my brain. I’m at work? Cool, I’m also doing deep breathing regularly. Out with friends? Great! Make sure you’re also eating enough and venting when you need to. No matter what else is happening, self care is taking priority. If something isn’t serving your long term well being, stop doing it.

Of course there are times where it becomes difficult to know if it’s helping or not. For example I am stressed due to a bunch of big expenses coming up. I’m worried about money. In order to deal with that stress I have been taking on more freelance work to build up a better savings account. Of course taking on more freelance work means that I have less down time and less time with friends, more work to do, and less flexibility in my life and schedule, leaving me with higher levels of stress. Which is more important right now…the money stress or the immediate scheduling stress? For me it’s easier to think of it as a business trade off: which will earn company Olivia more Joy in the long run? Can we outsource any of this work? In this case, it helped me realize I needed to talk to my fiance and family and see if there were alternatives to Olivia just dealing with it, which it turns out there are.

The metaphor might not work for everyone, and this might not be what everyone thinks of when they say “my mental health is my job right now.” But I find that it’s an appropriate metaphor because it restructures the way I approach things, and it makes me more serious about the real amounts of work it takes to take care of myself.

Do you have a different metaphor that works when you need to prioritize mental health? What helps you kick self care into high gear?

 

You Can’t Always See Anxiety

I want to give you all a glimpse behind the curtain of anxiety for a brief minute. Maybe this is stupid and you all already know it, but I feel as if the outside face that I present to people makes me look way more together than I am.
 
So you all know that I’m getting married, and you all know that I’m a pretty hyper organized person. Basically everyone I have spoken to about my wedding has been nothing but compliments on how far ahead I am in terms of planning and organization. People have told me over and over that they are impressed with the way I’m working ahead and doing so much DIY far in advance, how good I’m being at keeping everyone up to date and making lovely spreadsheets and lists and staying right on schedule in terms of what needs to get done.
 
And I smile and say thank you and “Oh I really hope so”. Because what I can’t say in the moment is “this is all just a coping mechanism.” Underneath the very competent exterior, I am regularly feeling so anxious and overwhelmed that I’m giving myself headaches and nausea. I am having trouble being social because I’m so nervous that I’m behind. I regularly will just start crying at Jacob that everything is wrong and I don’t know how to fix it because there’s no way I’m going to finish everything on time and the wedding will be a disaster.
 
If you knew me in college you knew I was typically a week ahead on any work. Everyone always acted as if this must mean I didn’t feel any stress over deadlines. This could not be further from the truth. I was SO terrified of deadlines that i had to work that far in advance. I felt all the stress of pulling all nighters and working straight up to the deadline, but weeks in advance, because if I wasn’t ahead I was behind. That is how I feel about my wedding. Every day I wake up and feel short of breath and tight in my chest, and I look over my to do lists again and again and see that I’m doing perfectly fine and wonder what am I missing? What haven’t I done? What is slipping through the cracks? And then I find something that needs to get done and I panic and wonder how it’s ever going to get finished on time and do it all right this instant, but the feeling of “this is too much I will never finish it” lingers and lingers, and every time I find another to do it builds on every other lingering certainty that I will never finish in time.
 
No amount of rationality dispels the continued anxiety from every project that has to be done and even the ones that are already finished (am I sure they’re complete? Are they ALL THE WAY complete or do they still have things to be done? What if they need to be changed?). In my mind I am carrying every single task that it takes to put on a wedding ALL THE TIME.
 
THAT is why I’m so far ahead on everything. If I let a single ball drop, the panic comes crashing in. Maybe, just maybe, if I’m weeks ahead on my to do list, I can put it all down for a minute and relax. I can accept that it will all get done on time. Maybe if I finish it all a week or two weeks before the actual wedding I’ll have time to calm the fuck down and actually enjoy my time.
 
But when you look at me and think that I’m really competent and have everything under control, what you miss is that the reason I hold so tightly to everything is because it feels like a mass of chaos that I’m barely grasping at all. THAT is what anxiety is.
Note: this was cross posted from my Facebook because it seemed like it needed to be a blog post.

Engagement is a Liminal Period

I’ve been struggling to write lately. Normally I write about my own experiences primarily, as that’s what speaks to me and what I feel familiar with. But for some reason I haven’t felt any particular drive to write about mental illness or autism or any of the other personal topics I tend towards.

I don’t know why it took me this long to realize it, but it’s now super obvious to met hat it’s because all of my emotional thought is going in to my engagement right now. I’ve been trying to limit the amount that I talk about it, because it’s easy to fall into the myth that no one wants to keep hearing about your wedding and it’s obnoxious to only talk about it, blah blah blah. But there’s a reason we have this in between stage, and it’s not just for planning the physical event. It’s so that we can examine ourselves and become more familiar with what the idea of marriage means to us, address our anxieties and fears, find out how this “marriage” business fits into our self identities. It’s to work out some of the kinks before we’ve already said “yes” and signed the document.

In most rituals and rites there is something called a liminal period, a period of separation from what you were before and waiting to become what you will be. It’s the between place. Often it’s represented by a physical separation from the place or people you were with before, or it might be a journey or task to complete. It’s the in between stage, when you are no longer who and what you were before the ritual started, but you have no longer reached the final stage of completion that will be after the ritual takes place. It’s the place where we actually transform. If rituals were butterflies, this would be the cocoon.

Engagement is a liminal period. It’s a long one, granted, but it’s a time of change. I’ve been thinking a lot about those changes recently, and what it means to decide “yes, I’m going to turn into a married person” and “no, I will not be exactly the same person I used to be”. What does it mean to have this ritual?

I’ve been thinking a lot about why I want to get married. For a long time I was stridently against it and I still have a variety of friends who are uninterested in marriage. I feel defensive about the choice in some ways, but I also have a lot of anxiety that I’m only choosing to do it because a lot of other people do it. I have a lot of fear about marriage, not because I’m uncertain of my relationship, but because I’m uncertain of the institution. I find myself asking a lot of questions.

I say that I’m getting married because I care about it. Why do I care about it? I have never felt any need to proclaim my love publicly before. Do I really care about that? Or do I care about appearances?

I’ve tried to focus on the ways in which I can make marriage something that works for my relationship and drop some of the baggage. Is it ever possible to dismantle the master’s house using the master’s tools? Who am I fooling?

Am I being selfish and ignoring all the people that marriage hurts by getting married?

What does the public ceremony mean and do? What is it meant to symbolize? What do I want to focus on moving forward in my relationship and how does this ritual play a part in that?

Is there a way to take all of the tiny, internal feelings that create the relationship I have with my fiance and turn them into ritual and ceremony, make them public so that everyone understands why him?

And even deeper down, what will change in our relationship?

I’ve already noticed people giving our relationship more legitimacy, calling us part of each other’s families, making more assumptions about what we mean to each other and who we are as a couple based on their understanding of marriage. I’m glad that I have time before it’s “official” to get used to that, and start preparing responses to assumptions.

For me, this liminal state is less about imagining the future of my relationship than it is reckoning with myself as a privileged, straight, cis individual. It’s about taking the time to think through the ways that I let assumptions live in my relationship, in my gender, in my every day choices, and then trying actively to combat them. It’s why I am so focused on ensuring that my ceremony has elements that make it clear I suppose marriage equality, that show that my fiance and I are equals, that show that I may happen to be cis, but that I fully support my queer friends. Marriage is the most visible I will ever be in relation to sex and gender, and I cannot help but feel that I have a responsibility to use it as a platform. This liminal time is for me a chance to purge myself of unwanted remnants of the patriarchy.

And even more than that, it’s a time where I’m thinking excessively about my identity. Not that this is anything new, but it’s so easy for people to throw out the truism “You want your wedding to reflect YOU!” It’s a lovely thought, but much more challenging when it’s always been difficult to know who “you” are. Do I care more about indulging myself with a gorgeous, over the top dress, or do I care more about ensuring everyone has delicious food and free flowing drink? Do I care if other people think my choices are weird or unorthodox? When my partner and I disagree, how do we prioritize and compromise? The liminal state is made clear by the fact that a ritual has symbols, and I must decide for myself what I want those symbols to be. It’s a rare opportunity that one gets to stand in front of all their family and friends and speak about how you want to behave towards others. Those words and symbols become very important. Perhaps that’s why my mind keeps retreading questions of readings and songs and rituals: I have grown up so much in the past few years and now I get to say “this is who I am. This is what I want.”

How would you answer?

The Depression/Creativity Link

I’m having a hard time writing lately. My brain feels sucked dry, as if I just don’t care about the things that I used to care about. I’m not sure if it’s burn out on the topics or burn out on writing, but getting words out is a serious challenge right now. I think there are some deeper issues here about putting forth a lot of time and effort without seeing a whole lot of pay off, but there’s also something a bit more personal.

In a twist of epic proportions, I have spent most of this month not being anxious.

I forget the last time that happened. It seems this therapy thing is starting to get at the very deep seated issues and perhaps it’s convinced my brain to run a little more slowly. Everything seems a little more balanced: I’m happy with my work, with my relationship, with my friends. I haven’t had any serious depression signs in a while. Cool.

Here’s my worry: I feel less passionate. One of the benefits of anxiety was the heightened awareness that came with it. I noticed things that were a problem and I made connections between things. My brain was always racing, always on. I couldn’t move on from an issue without dealing with it somehow, and that included social justice things that didn’t even affect me. It was how the wheels of my brain and my work kept going. My emotions just don’t hit as hard and as fast anymore, which is really great for being a functional human being who can go through a day without feeling like the world is ending, but not great for someone who wants to have Serious Inspiration.

I feel so tired and dull and numb. My brain is quieter now. I am fairly certain that I’m not as smart as I used to be. I wonder if I’m finally feeling all the stuff that I was pretending didn’t exist for a long time, all the tiredness that comes from pushing too hard for years, the deep hurts that come from using food and work as your only coping skills. I wonder if I’ll swing back towards the middle some day when I’ve recuperated from the long illness that is depression.

I know that it is a myth that mental illness is the way to be creative. I have seen for myself that I think more clearly when I’m not starving or suicidal. But what I wonder is if balance makes passion difficult. When my brain is in the midst of depression and anxiety, writing often feels like the only escape. It’s a necessity. I’ll prioritize it over cleaning or calling my insurance or doing other unpleasant, adult tasks. Without that driving, painful, intensity of mental illness feelings, it’s easier to do all the functional things that one should do. I make more time for my friends, I make time to improve my house, I do stupid adult things like cleaning regularly and researching the best vacuum cleaner. I just don’t have as much time to write because it isn’t a screaming priority. I still care about writing, and I try to make time for it, but when it’s coming after a full day of work and therapy and freelancing and taking care of my cat and managing insurance, I just have less left in me.

There’s a selfishness to being sick that comes of necessity. It’s the selfishness that says I have no choice but to pay attention to me because I cannot function otherwise. I miss that selfishness. Even as I’m learning a different kind of selfishness that comes from saying no and setting boundaries and listening to my wants, I’m still not sure how to balance the things that I’m passionate about with the mundane tasks of existing. Maybe this is why so few adults can keep up their hobbies and passions. Intentional self care is far less exciting than the self care that comes out of desperation.

Without some need or want, my writing doesn’t have the drive that it used to. It comes out slowly when I make myself sit down and create a topic out of thin air. Questions and concerns aren’t whirling around in my brain, ripe for a blog post, the way they used to be.

In many ways this parallels a larger difficulty I’m feeling: a loss of identity. There was so much happening inside my head for so long that I felt as if there was too much of me. These days, I feel as if I’ve shrunk. It feels more manageable, but I’m sad about it too. There isn’t as much chaos, but I’m not sure what’s left. Writing has often served as a stand in for who I am. I’ve stripped away so much of the sickness. Now I suppose it’s time to build up again.

I’ve never heard people mention that recovery might take away some of the abilities that seemed normal for my whole life. Even if overall the changes in my life are positive, any change is hard, and this change has side effects that affect my fundamental self. It’s not as simple as “there’s no relationship between mental illness and creativity.” I don’t think I’ve lost all my creativity, but I do need to relearn how to be creative. I don’t want to ignore it for the sake of presenting a good face on recovery.

So here it is: recovery is making it harder for me to do some of the things that I love. I don’t need them in the way that I used to. I trust that eventually I will figure out how to make this version of my brain work for me, but that doesn’t change that it’s harder now.

 

Getting to the Heart of Things: Am I Just Making It Up?

My therapist and I have recently been embarking on a long and poopy journey deep into the recesses of my brain to try to tease out some of the reasons my particular set of neuroses decided to express themselves through my body. Unsurprisingly, I find this a frustrating and unpleasant experience, as thinking at great length about the relationship between my emotions and my body makes me want to stick my tongue out and go “phooey. I just don’t like my body and that’s it.” But I am curious about what made it all circulate around my body. How did I go from needing control and perfection to needing control over food in particular and perfection in the form of an abnormally skinny body?

So we’ve been talking about blurry, early childhood memories, or tenuous connections between what I know I feel and how those feelings express themselves in behaviors, or my early family relationships and lessons. A lot of it feels like looking through darkly tinted glasses: I can make out shapes, but I’m not entirely certain what I’m looking at. I’ll be sure there’s a connection between my feelings of uncertainty early in childhood and my eventual eating disorder, but teasing out that relationship and the catalysts later in life seems impossible. Any given issue, like my need for control, has about 15 different large elements that could have been an important “cause”. We’ll spend an hour delving into a particular relationship or incident, and by the end of the time there will be something like a narrative that offers an explanation.

It’s helpful in that knowing where something comes from helps me tailor my self care and my coping mechanisms. I’m a control freak because I grew up around some volatile people? I’ve surrounded myself with very stable folks who will listen when I tell them I’m scared they’ll get angry with me if I do x action. I seek reassurance that their feelings are stable. Understanding what needs are going unfulfilled helps me to meet those needs.

But on the other hand, I feel like I’m making things up. With so many possible explanations, all of which can be turned into neat narratives, how do I know which one is right? Even more worrisome is the fact that memory is so very fallible. There are many examples of people suddenly remembering things that never happened during therapy sessions, and even if it’s nothing quite that sinister, it’s easy to reinterpret or misremember the past (especially early life) to match your current interpretations. Is it really helpful to try to delve back so far? How much accuracy can I have when I’m partially relying on secondhand information from my parents about my early life, supplemented with fuzzy, emotional memories.

Here’s something that a very literal, black and white, absolute thinker like myself has trouble with: there is no correct answer to the how of my personality. A life cannot be reduced to a couple of simple equations that can be solved if you plug in the correct self care. There is no correct narrative about my life. I do not make sense and I never will. These are not judgmental statements. Ambiguity and randomness are facts of life. We just don’t like to admit that they apply to ourselves, especially when they end up creating pain in our lives.

So is there really any point in trying to make sense of all the billions of small factors that combined to give the world my current self?

I think there is. Each narrative contains some elements of the truth. This week I may focus on some of the difficulties my parents had when I was a child and the ways that it impacted my sense of stability. Next week I may focus on my natural tendency towards order and how it expressed itself as far back as I can remember. The week after I might think about the difficult relationship I had with my brother as a kid. Each of these things contributed something to the way I am right now. When I find answers, I like to hold on tight to them. This is how it is. I don’t get to do that with these kinds of answers. Each one is just a partial, flawed answer. I have to be gentle with them, or they will fall apart. Each time I try to grab onto one too hard and say “this is who I am, this is why I am,” it stops making sense.

The multitude of narratives also helps protect against all the bits that I don’t remember quite correctly. I have to fit competing narratives together, which means parts that don’t make sense get challenged. Any time I become completely convinced that one thing explains all of me, I have to remember how easy it is to tweak my memories to fit.

Of course trusting myself to figure it out in a reasonable manner is even harder as someone with anxiety and depression: I don’t trust my abilities and my brain. This is a hard task to begin with, but for those of us in therapy who really need to undertake it, it’s even harder. It’s easy to imagine that we’re lying to ourselves to make life easier or explain our behaviors away. I once again appreciate the importance of having a therapist I trust. I once again appreciate that this long term work of building a life that balances out my difficulties is impossible when I’m in crisis. I once again appreciate that nuance is necessary even if I hate it.

Posts like this leave me unsettled because there’s no conclusion. I do think that speaking openly about what therapy is like and how it can be difficult is important. I also want to recognize that therapy changes over time. I have been in therapy for almost 5 years straight now, and while ideally therapy is not unending, I have been working on distinct and distinctly important things throughout that time. This feels like it’s close to the end, and that’s exciting, even as I realize that there’s a strong possibility I’ll never be done with the work of accepting that I will never make sense of myself. So no, I’m not just making up stories to make myself feel better. There is some element of self creation in the narratives I choose to talk about, but the overlapping narratives give me some insight into the truth, as far as it exists. That may be the best I can do.

The Pitfalls of the “Gifted” Label

Note: Sorry I’ve been away for so long. I was putting on a conference and gala at work, then moving! We should be back to our regularly scheduled programming now.

Lately I’ve been feeling a lot of pressure to do something awesome. Maybe it’s the season, or the fact that I’ve been feeling more like an adult than ever (with my real, big kid job, and an apartment that’s just me and my boyfriend), or maybe it’s seeing friends around me graduating from law school or getting books published or starting their own blog networks. Whatever it is, I’m wondering what I’ve been doing with my life

It happens periodically. I grew up with a lot of messages that I was pretty smart and would do pretty cool things. So every now and then I’ll remember when I was 11 and wrote my first draft of a novel. I remember hearing about Christopher Paolini and scoffing, knowing that when I wrote MY novel, no one would be able to tell it had been penned by a teenager. I imagined my name being on everyone’s tongue by the time I was 20, as That Girl who had shattered all expectations, been a prodigy.

I don’t talk about it very often, because it’s embarrassing to tell people that when you were a child you thought you would be a famous writer. But it’s not so ridiculous. My parents and teachers were all supportive in the way that makes you think you’re one of a kind special. I was gifted, I was capable of anything, I needed special work and special challenges to match my brain. At the time, this kind of encouragement was pretty par for the course. It was early in our understanding of gifted kids. I’m glad I got support and I’m glad I had people who pushed me to do more.

But I’ve begun to suspect that labeling a kid gifted is setting them up for disappointment later in life. Last week I was at a conference for work, and saw Rebecca Banks Cull and Diane Kennedy discussing autism and giftedness. They said something that really stuck with me. “In our society, giftedness is synonymous with achievement.” Until that changes, when we tell our kids that they are gifted, we are telling them that we have certain expectations for their achievements. Those expectations are almost always financial success, academic success, or other markers of societal status. More than that, many gifted kids get the message that their giftedness is only real when there is an external way to measure it: IQ, a book deal, a position as a college professor, prestigious awards, or success in their chosen field.

For me, giftedness often presented itself as speed. I picked up on things quickly, I completed my work before anyone else, I always finished tests early, and my work was still typically high quality. I assumed that everything else in life would come quickly too. I was told from a young age that I was working beyond the typical abilities of people my age. I was told I developed empathy early, that my abstract thinking appeared sooner than other kids, and that I had a maturity beyond my years.

So here I am wondering why I feel so behind in life.

I don’t think it’s because I’m actually doing anything wrong. I’m at a pretty average point in life for a 25 year old. But after a childhood being told that not only would I accomplish beyond my peers, but that I would do it quickly and easily, it’s easy to assume that I’ve done something wrong when my life just looks average. It’s easy to think that it was all a lie when people said that I was gifted, or that I have been lazy, or that I have squandered my talent. It’s easy to assume that the problem must be with me instead of with the fact that getting things done sooner isn’t necessarily better, or that working and living as an adult is drastically different from school, or that perhaps my talents are not easily measured by achievements.

The biggest problem with that gifted label as I see it is that it gave me the message that I didn’t really need to persevere. Things always came easily to me, and that was praised. So now that things are taking longer, and requiring more commitment, I begin to think that I’m incapable of doing them at all. I’m certainly not going to stop. I’m going to get a book published. I’m going to make a difference in the world somehow. But it feeds my imposter syndrome in a serious way to look back at the expectations people had for me when they labeled me gifted and compare those expectations with the achievements I have today.

I think that it’s always dangerous to give a child a label that implies they will be successful. The world is too random and out of our control to ever guarantee that. Giving a kid the idea that they can make themselves be successful is a dangerous idea, and a set up for disappointment and self hatred. I must have done something wrong, or I would have changed the world by now.

Or maybe, just maybe, those expectations are too high, unnecessary, and irrational. Maybe I’m doing just fine, and patience is the lesson I needed when I was told I was special. Perhaps it’s still the lesson I need. Average is ok. Average people do outstanding things all the time. There is no essence of myself that is gifted, and is just waiting to escape given the right circumstances. Mostly, doing amazing things is a lot of boring work. That’s what giftedness doesn’t get at. The mundanity of accomplishment, and the way that amazing moments of understanding don’t do a whole lot to pay the bills and get you through the everyday. Instead of focusing on what I haven’t accomplished yet, I want to remind myself that I still bring insight and curiosity and creativity to the world. I am still valuable, even if I haven’t translated Linear A yet.

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.