My sister says that I “snapped” in high school.
My high school friends said that I went from relatively calm and happy to “jumpy and overwhelmed.”
Five years after graduation, my parents still caution me not to get “too overwhelmed”.
The problem with that, though, is that I can’t not live my life.
Burnout happens when the demands placed on an autistic, internal and external, exceed their capacity to deal with those demands.
My demands increased considerably in high school.
I got good grades in middle and elementary school — mostly A’s with a few B’s — but I wasn’t actively and deliberately trying to be “college ready.” In high school, I made straight A’s, and I was terrified of making anything else lest it affect my chances of getting into a good college and getting the best scholarships. I took as many Honors and AP classes as I could to boost my GPA (at my school, Honors and AP classes were awarded an extra “point”; the base highest GPA in a class is a 4.0, but an A in an Honors/AP classes is a 5.0) and to earn the opportunity to “skip” classes.
I was also actively involved in several clubs — the Poetry Club, the National Honors Society, the Spanish Club, Choir — to have extracurriculars to add to my college and scholarship applications. Which I researched and applied for myself.
There was also the ACT, the SAT, the GEE (Graduate Exit Exams), and the EOCs (End Of Course Exams). Even when I got a 32 on the ACT my senior year (a perfect score is a 36, which I managed to get on the English subsection along with a 35 in Reading), I was encouraged to “do better.” And I felt someone disappointed in myself for not doing “better.” But, by that point, I had too many other tests to worry about to take the ACT a third time or to attempt the SAT again.
Socialization became a lot more complicated in high school. My main friend group from middle school split off into two subgroups, and I didn’t quite fit into either one. There was also dating thrown into the mix, as well as the expectation that one is more “grown up” than one was in middle school but not so much so as to be “boring.”
My high school also had nearly 2000 students.
Throw that in with puberty (my menstrual cramps range from unpleasant to I’m literally screaming in pain and can’t stand or sit) and I, well, snapped.
I’m not sure if it is due to puberty or the burnout or both, but my sensory profile changed; I went from relatively unaffected by noise to very sensitive to it, often covering my ears in the hallways in the mornings or during the mandatory pep rallies. I also became more sensitive to touch.
I cried a lot, more than once during class. Sometimes, I even scratched my arms or hit myself during class.
I started to have suicidal thoughts often.
I tried to mask this, to be the “grown up”, the potential college valedictorian, that I was excepted to be. But the thing about burnout is that you lose your ability to mask, or at least to mask convincingly.
This should have been a warning sign, and it seems that it was for everyone but me.
It’s not that I didn’t notice that I had “snapped.” I noticed it very deeply, and I felt terrible, inadequate, like a burden and a failure of a person because of it.
But I wanted to be okay. I wanted to be “enough.” I wanted to prove that I could do it.
I also made straight A’s in college, though perhaps it was easier for me, specifically, than in high school because I had gotten most of the core first-year classes out of the way in high school thanks to high AP and ACT scores, so I was mainly taking classes in areas that interested me and that I was inclined towards. But I’d often wake up in the middle of the night in trembles and sweats, worrying about an essay or a project or how I did on a test.
I was also in the Honor’s College, which was on the whole amazing and meant that I went to school tuition-free and that I had a built-in leer group, but it also meant that I had to take on extra projects to earn that Honors College designation on my diploma.
I also decided to double-major (English and Psychology). By my second year, I was regularly taking over 18, if not over 20, credit hours.
I maintained my involvement in several clubs, but this time, I had leadership roles in many of them. I had a lot of help from the other officers, but I was the one “in charge” of meetings and memberships and deciding on events.
Socialization was a bit easier, but then I also didn’t try as much. In fact, my parents had wanted me to move back home after my freshman year because I hadn’t yet made a single close friend. I did wind up making closer friends later on. I’ve done a terrible job at keeping up with them since. There were about 8,000 students when I went to McNeese State University, but not all of them were on campus at any given time, and the campus was a lot larger than a high school building. And the pep rallies were optional. I didn’t attend a single one my entire time there. But I also had roommates after my freshman year (I was supposed to have a roommate then, but she never showed up), which meant that the mask, what was left of it after high school, went back on.
I was very fortunate in that due to both a scholarship and my parents’ generosity, I didn’t need to work during college. In fact, my father actively told me not to. And I didn’t because I was too up to my neck with everything else. But I did have an unpaid writing internship for an online magazine for a few months, and I applied for online writing jobs.
Come to think of it, I had fewer demands than did most college students, maybe even a lot fewer.
But I was an autistic student who had never recovered from a psychological implosion from having too many demands in high school.
I was still suicidal in college; I even attempted to attempt to hang myself once, but backed out when I was very dizzy but not yet breathless because I didn’t want my roommates to be the one to find me dead.
I went to counseling my first two semesters. I then thought that maybe things were okay enough to not need them after. I was very, terribly, considerably wrong — it was after freshman year that I really took on an extensive course load and leadership positions and when I had roommates to deal with — but by that point, I wasn’t sure how to fit them into my schedule. That and I had grown a bit weary of the attempts to restructure my thoughts to be more positive not really working, or at least not enough to stop the burn.
I cried myself to sleep often, and I’d sometimes crash and take naps or go near-catatonic in the middle of the day. The self-injury continues to increase behind my closed dorm room door.
But I graduated with a 4.0 GPA (the Honors mark in a class where an Honors project was undertaken did not give that 5.0 GPA) with two majors and many clubs in 3.5 years.
And then it was off to work.
It took me three months out of college to find a job. The job was a year-long contract position that didn’t pay a living wage, so there was pressure to find another job. But I was too worn out from that job, and very worn out from the job hunting and applying process, not to mention having been worn out for years now, to really put effort into applying for work while at that work.
After that contract ended, it took me two months to find more employment.
As of today, I work two part-time jobs, which averages to about 38 hours a week between them. I have a blog. I’ve very active on social media and am a mod/admin of several groups. I still live with my parents, and I frequently visit my fiancé.
And I’m still burned out.
I’m not sure what the “right” thing to have done after high school or college would have been. I don’t think that I’d qualify for SSDI. And even if I did, I’m not sure how I’d do with not working or being in school. During those gaps in employment, I felt restless and absolutely awful about myself for not being “productive.”
Maybe I should have stuck with writing, with not only putting more effort into this blog but with putting out short stories and poetry and, if I could ever get around to finishing one, a novel. It would take time, maybe years, to ever making a dime off of it. But writing is one of the few things that doesn’t drain me so terribly much.
I don’t know. There are no easy answers for an autistic person trying to make their way through the world. Do you mask your way through the burnout, trying your best not to admit that you’re overwhelmed from work and from balancing family and romantic relationships with your own need for peace and space (not to mention that some autistic people don’t live with their parents and are in fact parents themselves and have to take care of AND others)? Do you reduce your stressors to the point of being “unproductive” and deal with the shame and disappointment that society and maybe even family places on one because of that (not that one should be ashamed if they are not working or in school, not at all — but it can be hard not to be when you live in a society that bases how well you are doing as a person on how busy you are with things that earn an income)?
Ideally, we came come to find a middle ground. In a more ideal world, there would be safety nets in place for those who need breaks in between periods of employment or whose chosen path of employment is a creative pursuit that may take time to launch. In a more ideal world, employment wouldn’t be the only measure of contributing; the arts, writing, volunteering, helping the family unit would all be seen as “doing enough.” In a more ideal world, people would be able to go to counseling or take meds or completely unmask and stim and adjust their sensory environment at will without fear of repercussions or judgment.
I’m not sure what the middle ground is for me, and I certainly don’t know what it is for any other autistic person. I’m not sure how much any one of us would still be burned out if we weren’t strongly encouraged to mask and exceed or limits, how much of it is the masking and how much of it is the natural cycle of the autistic brain and body.
But I do know this: if we could be at leisure to unmask, if we weren’t punished for being autistic, we wouldn’t burn out so hard. And maybe we would actually be able to contribute more — if not in work than in being involved in the world around us — if we didn’t have to sink energy into masking.