The concept of burnout, as it applies to the autism spectrum, seems to be a hottish topic among the Asperger’s/autistic community right now. And for good reason–it happens.
For reasons that I can only chock up to alexithymia, I’m not entirely sure if I’ve actually experienced burnout, but I think I have. At least, that’s what my gut instinct tells me, and when the gut starts hinting at things like that, it’s probably not playing games. It’s probably for real.
The lovely Karletta Abianac recently wrote a book on this topic (and several others!), (which I highly recommend, and not just because I was one of the people interviewed for the book–it’s really and truly a wonderful book!), and it seems to have struck a Discussion Chord within the community.
This isn’t going to be one of those posts where I talk about what I have seen or witnessed or heard in passing from the rest of the Asperger’s/autism spectrum community; this is strictly my own story. I don’t know quite enough about the stories of others to aggregate them here or provide much of a competent synopsis, nor do I have enough academic/general information about this topic to sum it up here, so I’ll refrain from doing that. I’m not trying to be narcissistic when I say: This is all me.
I’ve had three separate occasions where I think I could say that I either burned out entirely or I was at least on the verge of doing so.
The first of these situations involved my career as a waitress. I waited tables at both restaurants and bars for over six years, from age 19 until almost 26. This might have been the peak of my acting/masking capabilities, which would have made sense; it would have been the only time during which I would’ve had the energy to pull off the act of pretending to be the extrovert that I had always wanted to be, but could never hope to actually be.
Waiting tables was…interesting. My livelihood depended on being able to approach people who were usually completely unknown to me, introduce myself, initiate conversation, make small talk, and multitask–all of which fly directly in the face of my Asperger’s/autistic profile.
I’m surprised I was able to keep up the charade as long as I did.
But I could feel myself starting to burn out, and this feeling set in long before I actually bowed out of that career. It had been fun for a while, or so I thought, but eventually I started to feel a strain, a sense of “this isn’t right for me” that eventually crescendoed into “this is totally wrong for me”.
I didn’t have the luxury of making a full exit from the field just yet, though. We were barely making it financially as it was, with our combined household income, and we certainly weren’t going to make it on less. My academic credentials were practically nil, having graduated high school but having gone no further, and my skill set was limited; I wasn’t really good at anything that could bring in a decent income. Waitressing is a far cry from the gold mine that so many believe it to be, but there were few other job positions I could take that would pay as well for the time spent at the job.
So I stuck it out, for probably much longer than I should have. I began to dread every shift. I knew it would be entirely too long, I didn’t feel so much like acting like an extrovert anymore, and I was disconnecting from the general environment and the people who occupy such an environment.
I finally devised a realistic exit plan: I would become a massage therapist. The idea looked good on paper: go to school for six months, obtain a license, set up shop immediately in a spare room of our house, invest in some equipment and supplies, throw a website up online, and poof!–I could make $60 USD per hour. Even if I only did the average of three or four massage sessions per day a few days a week, it would bring in a lot more than waitressing ever did.
There was one catch: August was giving way to September, and I would have to keep waitressing until I started massage therapy school, and the next massage school class didn’t start until January. The good news was, I had a timetable, a light at the end of the tunnel. I would only have to wait tables for four more months.
Plot-twist: I was fired from the waitressing job, in September of that year. Apparently, I couldn’t keep my feelings of burnout under wraps as well as I had thought/hoped. I wasn’t the only one who noticed the disconnect, which had started to feel like a growing chasm. I simply didn’t fit in anymore. The environment and its people and I had simply diverged too much, and we were no longer compatible.
Fast forward a few years: I had finished massage therapy school, gotten my license, and started practice in a very nice (and professional) little massage therapy studio in our house.
I had built a nice little practice on a shoestring budget, shelling out absolutely nothing for advertising. My partner and I built my website on our own, which was hosted on a friend’s computer. Life was relatively grand.
Except that I was growing tired of various nuances of that field. I was fielding phone calls from creeps who were looking for something much different than the legitimate services I provided. I was getting tired of those who called up once or twice a year, wanting to get in right away, and getting pissy with me when I didn’t have an opening right away (and of course, as an Aspie/autistic person, I needed to be able to plan and prepare mentally, well in advance; abrupt schedule changes don’t sit well with me, despite my efforts to the contrary).
And then there were the no-shows, the expectations that since I’m biologically female, that I would also be nurturing and over-accommodating, the boredom, and much more.
I acted, masked, and pretended here, too. I want to make it clear that my regard and care for my clients was real and genuine. I really did like the people I worked on. I was blessed with really great people, the best ones of which became monthly or twice-monthly regulars. It’s just that there were some others–the newer clients and some of the occasional ones–who really got to me sometimes. Some played head games, others didn’t respect my time or training, and many were unrealistic. Some were downright flaky. It all added up eventually.
Luckily, by the time I burned out, my partner and I were already graduating from med school, about to move to another town 300 miles away, which provided a good cover story for a clean exit. On top of that, I had also developed repetitive strain injuries in a few joints, which made providing massage therapy difficult, not to mention semi-painful afterward. The getaway was clean. Score!
One year and 300 miles later, in a wildly different field, it happened again–or at least, it threatened to. The old familiar pattern began to emerge.
There were many instances of being taken advantage of, being generous or giving the benefit of the doubt only to be met with entitlement (if you give an inch, they’ll take a mile), being disrespected, being dumped on, fielding objections and protests, hearing nothing but whining, getting side-swiped and blind-sided, and so much more. People often didn’t know what they really wanted, but they wanted it yesterday and for free; this became annoyingly evident when they told me what they thought they wanted, and I gave it to them, only to be met with dissatisfaction/disapproval. I have numerous horror stories about taking abuse from people who were totally off, entitled, self-absorbed, or children/adolescents living in chronologically adult bodies. I was providing services that were light years ahead of most of my colleagues for a price that was much lower than most, and yet, nothing seemed to be good enough and it always cost “too much”. “Exasperation” doesn’t begin to express it.
Here I was, anywhere from 4 months to a year and a half in practice, already burning out, unsure how much longer I could take it. (This probably explains my low thresholds for unaddressed emotional/mental instability, drama, and/or head games; they caused me too much pain, physical health problems, and time and money in therapy.)
This time, though, the stakes were too high for me to be able to pull off a good ol’ bridge-burner described by some Aspie/autistic people. I also wasn’t going to let anyone else win. Bluntly put, why should I have to suffer or go away when it’s a select few who suck?
So this time, I pushed back and took control. This was my life–my practice, my rules, based on my “special interest”, dammit. I had to give myself a place in the equation and I had to give myself permission, a say in the matter. Because as a human being, I have my needs and limitations, too–and if I didn’t acknowledge and accommodate them, I was going to burn out completely, and then I wouldn’t be able to take care of anyone.
I wasn’t going to let one single group of irrational doorknobs win out over the mature, down-to-earth adults who genuinely needed my help and were ready to accept it. That wouldn’t have been fair.
My push-back efforts included being more careful about who I agreed to work with. I demand that they be ready, that they have support of some kind, etc.
I also decided that I wasn’t going to hold meetings on Mondays (still task-switching from Weekend Mode to Workweek Mode, and falling asleep on Sunday nights is challenging enough already), nor was I going to hold any meetings on Fridays either, except maybe the least complicated and most pleasant people. That way, a stressful encounter with a negative person doesn’t screw up my weekend.
By realizing the importance of self-care and implementing these and more proactive/defense strategies, I’ve been able to stay in the game for another several years so far.
I’m not sure how many, if any, of these situations count as true burnout as mentioned and discussed by some people on the Asperger’s/autism spectrum. Maybe my story fits totally in line. Maybe it’s not even close. Or maybe it lies somewhere in between.
I’m still figuring some things out. 😉
(Image Credit: Cyril Rolando)