I can feel a burn out coming on. It’s autumn and as the days get colder and the night get longer my health always suffers. During my last year or so of teaching I would find my body fighting against itself every six weeks or so. I would be in immense pain; every limb would ache as if I had run a marathon; being out in the cold would be physically painful; I would be exhausted and unable to think, or plan, or do anything. At the time I didn’t know what it was. I thought it was something physical and related to the many surgeries and complications that I had experienced over the previous five years, and that I thought was finally over. Then the anxiety took hold. I was physically unable to get into work. The anxiety was more debilitating than the pain. It was this that finally made me leave teaching.
Now I understand more about what was happening to me. It was autistic burnout. My whole self was unable to continue to live in the noisy, unpredictable, unkind, neurotypical world. I was unable to hold the mask up any longer.
It’s happened before of course. When I was 19 I had several months, maybe a year, of unexplained pain. At that time I was mostly seen by gynaecological doctors who screened me for STDs, and cysts and endometriosis. These tests included scans and surgical procedures. All of these things came back clear. I was seen by a gastroenterologist who said “You don’t look like someone who is in daily pain”. I did not sleep well at this time due to the pain, but was also constantly tired in my mind and body. I would spend most of my time in my room, attempting crosswords and other word problems that I wasn’t very good at, feeling guilty because I knew this was not the life I had planned for myself, or what was expected of me, but at the same time unable to change it.
It’s happened before of course.
This period of time followed a very busy time in my life. All through school I had sought to be the best I could at whatever I did. I had already formed my social role as the helper, the listener, the fixer, as auntie to my small group of friends. In school I masked my anxieties by being compliant and fitting in and hiding in the role of ‘good girl’, ‘musician’, ‘dependable’. I literally blended in to the background. I recently met my history teacher again after 25 years. She is now the head teacher at my daughters school. She was a favourite teacher of mine. Not because she was fun, but because she was consistent. She still is. You know where you stand with her. She is firm and fair. I liked being in her lessons because of this. I loved history too; learning about the past, the facts and events and stories. I got my best grade at GCSE, an A, from history. She didn’t remember me. She taught me for 3 years in total I think – definitely two, but she didn’t remember me. In her class I worked hard, as I did in most others to be the best I could be. It was easier once I had chosen my options because I was doing more subject I liked. That was the role I had carved for myself, but it was forgettable.
Due to the difficulties she is going through I have had more meetings with her now as my daughter’s head teacher. I’m not even sure if she now remembers me or not. I want to tell her that when I was at school my anxieties looked like this – like the child who excels and puts everything into conforming. That for my daughter she is unable to do that, and her anxieties look like defiance. But I haven’t. It wouldn’t benefit my daughter to do this. So I have kept it unsaid. It has become another unsaid conversation rattling around in my mind.
Anyway, I did OK at GCSE. My grades were one of the best in my school, but just average really when compared nationally, or even locally. I started A levels at 6th form and things started to be a real struggle for me. I had already become distracted by my relationship. I would choose to be with him instead of studying. I became lazy (so I thought) and was less motivated. I wasn’t able to choose the subjects I wanted and so settled for others. The learning was difficult. in secondary school maths had always been enjoyable for me, but now i was finding the new concepts difficult to grasp. I needed the concreteness of applied maths to help me understand the pure maths. The abstractness of the pure maths meant I was falling behind.
After a year of studying three A levels at 6th form I failed the math. I went to the local college and enrolled to to maths and art. Including the music and English I was still studying at 6th form I was now studying four A levels. The timetables worked well, but it meant travel between three different sites to get to each lesson. I did this for a year. It was exhausting, but I felt as if I was achieving something because I was so busy. I made no friends at the college and lost proper contact with friends at 6th form because of the travelling between sites. I realise now that having to rush off after lectures was a crutch for me also, an excuse not to have to make friends.
It was actually a really lonely time. I depended more and more on my boyfriend for social interaction, but our relationship was turbulent. My mum said we were like an English summer, three nice day and then a thunder storm. She wasn’t wrong. I tried to leave him countless times, but he would beg me to come back and my low self esteem and loneliness kept us together. On top of working part time in a shop at the west end and everything else I started to burn out.
It was actually a really lonely time.
I had counselling at this time. It was a strange experience which I will go into further at another time. It did not help me. I’m not sure exactly what it was that stopped the pain and made me finally decide to change things. My relationship ended and that helped me to look closer at myself and some of my choices. Eventually I was ready to go back to work. I worked part time at the local supermarket. Slowly I built up my self esteem and got back on track with my life. I soon added two other part time jobs to my schedule.
This was the first burnout.
And when I think about the times I have left jobs etc, it has often been in November when the weather is colder and the nights longer. Those are the times I feel less able to cope. I wonder if I have seasonal affected disorder SAD?
Before, over the past 16 years I’ve had physical health issues to blame.
Now I am out of full time work for the first time since my teens. This enables me to better deal with my health needs. i still have guilt and exhaustion. I still let people down and have to cancel plans. I still questions whether I can actually do this. But its definitely easier having a husband to support me.
This blog post has literally taken me weeks to finish. I’m actually coming out of the burnout. This week has been the first time in several weeks that I haven’t felt completely mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted by 6pm each day.
Thanks for reading.
#burnout #Autism #Autisticburnout #mentalhealth #chronicpain #chronicillness #SAD