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How to recover from autistic burnout
Also, I'm moving back to Portland! 🥳
Big news: I’m moving from Salem, where I’ve been for 10 years, back to Portland. I am taking a break this morning from my manic packing-and-craigslisting to write up some of my thoughts about this transition.
First, some realizations about my burnout journey
So, I didn’t realize I had autistic burnout when I was going through it (I thought it was “normal burnout”), but now I realize that my marriage was utterly overstimulating and dysregulating. In fact, I have a habit of getting into codependent, emotionally volatile relationships that then cause me to have massive burnout. I just called it “depression” in the past. It involves long periods of being unable to do anything but play computer games and watch TV or Youtube videos.
I realize now that even though I grew up in a volatile household, and am not really averse to conflict, I actually can’t handle it on a nervous system level for very long. I need peace and calm or I will stop functioning. I can’t afford to have bad relationships. Which I know is a weird way of putting it, but given my penchant for them, I need all the internal barriers I can get. 😂
So for the last two years, I just said no to everything. And I needed that. I needed to heal my nervous system from constant stress, and the only way to do that was to avoid ALL stress. So outside of a few online friends, I avoided all human contact.
But over the last few months, I’ve been feeling better. I started writing. I have been having all these impulses to start things - new businesses, new projects.
But I still felt overwhelmed and exhausted a lot, and “normal” things seemed overwhelmingly hard. Which was very confusing to me. Am I better or not?
I realize now that I had the wrong idea about how burnout ends.
You don’t just wake up one morning and feel recovered, and then go do everything you used to do. It doesn’t work like that.
It’s more like if your arm is broken and gets put in a cast. Your arm has to be immobilized for your body to heal. It has to experience no stress whatsoever, so it can do its healing thing. And it really does that on its own, as long as you give it the right environment to do that.
But then, when the cast comes off, your arm muscles are atrophied. Your bone is healed, but you aren’t completely functional yet. You have to gradually rebuild your strength.
In terms of your nervous system, that’s called your “window of tolerance”. It is how much stress you can handle before you either go into fight/flight, or shut down. (In autistic people, those show up as meltdowns or shutdowns).
And your window of tolerance can be a bit of a “use it or lose it” type of situation. (On top of it just being, in general, a smaller window for autistic people, anyone with unhealed trauma, neurological conditions, etc).
By not doing anything stressful (even “good” stressful) for years, I had reduced my window of tolerance.
So that meant that “normal” things like going to the grocery store were quite overwhelming. And I felt confused about that, because I thought, I should be recovered by now, how long is this going to take?? Am I just permanently broken?? All I do is rest, how much more rest could I possibly need?!?
I had a mini-meltdown last week about this, trying to figure this out. But I finally realized I wasn’t suffering the stress of doing too much, I was suffering the stress of doing too little, and not having enough challenge in my life for my ADHD motivational system to get excited about overcoming.
The challenge of moving, and the prospect of being in a much better environment for me soon, has skyrocketed my motivation and energy levels.
With ADHD, I need that. I need meaningful short-term goals, and hard (but do-able) tasks to sink my teeth into. Without that, I’m robbing myself of the ADHD “superpower” of going all-out at something. Which is so much fun! Fun is important. 😁
So no, I’m not broken. I have recovered, but my nervous system still needs to build up its tolerance again. And I need to do that while incorporating knowledge of what exact things stress me out too much, so I can maintain homeostatic equilibrium, while expanding my window of tolerance. So, that is my new plan!
I’m thinking of this as moving from the “Deep Rest” phase to the “Active Recovery” phase of my burnout journey.
What this means in practical terms is that I challenge myself to do “good” stressful things (like moving!), but track myself very closely for signs of too much stress now, and when I feel that creeping up, I crawl into bed and curl up under the covers and rest until I feel better.
As soon as the stress is getting too high, I immediately stop all stress, until my nervous system calms down again.
It’s a lot like strength conditioning: you grow muscles during the recovery period in between workouts. You can’t just constantly work out, or you will injure yourself. You have to stress your muscle, and then let your body adjust to that stress. Your body is a wonderful thing and will do all this on its own: you just have to support it to do it.1
And this is how I am going to treat myself the rest of my life, because I never want to be burned out again. But I also don’t want to hide from life and avoid everything. I want to give my autistic nervous system the best chance possible to live a good, full, healthy life. And I can do that by very careful self-tracking and self-management of stress levels.2
That also means just choosing a low-stress lifestyle in general, and continually weighing the benefits of a stressful thing against the cost. Because of my neurology, I “pay” more for stress than other people, and I need to constantly take that into account with my lifestyle choices.
What is next: discovering who I really am without the mask
I want to let go of all neurotypical expectations for who I should be, and discover who I really am. Which means letting go of masked aspirations.
Portland has a lot more opportunities that I am excited about. But I still plan to spend a lot of time alone, and this time without any sense of failure. I will pick and choose what events to do very carefully, and track whether or not I actually enjoy them, rather than whether or not they make me appear normal.
I want to simplify my life. In the process of moving, I’m letting go of a lot of things that I was never really into, but I felt I should be into. For example, I’m accepting that while I like having a few houseplants, I’m never going to be into gardening. It’s just not my thing. And those houseplants better be hardy or they are not going to make it. 😂
I also don’t need complicated cooking equipment that I’m never going to use.
I am letting go of versions of me that I wanted to achieve, but are not actually accessible or authentic to me.
I am accepting that I buy things on impulse and that doesn't mean I have to keep them, it's just the ADHD tax. Continuing to hang onto them is just paying the tax twice. 😆
And while I could rent out this house rather than sell it, being a landlord complicates my life (even with a property management company), and I would rather not have that stress. Just because I could make money doing a thing, doesn’t mean it’s a good choice for my nervous system and executive functioning.
I am accepting that I need to make choices that prioritize simplicity, so I can reserve my stress-tolerance capacity for things I actually enjoy.
So my plan for the next chapter of my life is to explore and design a low-stress, burnout-proof, ADHD-friendly, simple, happy life for myself.
I want to try reading some of these books I keep lugging around. I want to see if I really am interested in learning sewing and drawing, or if I can let go of those supplies. I want to stop holding onto things for “maybe later”, and see if they are really something I’m into or not.
Because possessions are complications. And I want to only have the complications that truly support me and make me happy. 😊
I have tried to want to declutter before, but it was always based on trying to meet some kind of minimalist ideal. I never had an authentic “why” to simplify my life. But now I do.
In my last newsletter, I wrote about how overwhelmed I was with all these new unanswered questions. My plan now is to just focus on supporting my nervous system with lifestyle changes, and let those questions answer themselves over time. Because my capacity to process and make choices directly relies on my environment supporting my nervous system.
OK, that’s it for now—back to packing! 💚
There is also a whole level of support that involves supplements, which I’m still learning about. If you want to go down that rabbit hole, google autism + “oxidative stress” and “mitochondrial dysfunction”. The supplements I am looking at are: CoQ10, L-carnitine, Alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), N-acetyl cysteine (NAC), magnesium, and various anti-oxidants.
If you want to learn more about self-tracking, google “building interoception awareness”.