It was a bad sign. Immediately upon leaving my apartment to go host visiting hours at The Belmont Goats, the brightness and heat of the afternoon sun of the ongoing heatwave was like suddenly being slapped across the face. I’d already announced we would be open. There was no turning back.
By the time I’d finished setting up for the two-hour shift, I felt like I was running on fumes. That sensation usually precedes a breakdown.
I took a beat, took a breath, and walked in the brightness and the heat the two blocks to the nearest market to get ice. They were out. I took a beat, took a breath, and walked in the brightness and the heat even further to the next-nearest market, and then walked in the brightness and the heat back to the goats. I opened ten minutes late. I was not in good shape.
Soaking a bandana in cold water and wrapping it around my head, I sat down in the shade on the deck at the front of the barn, with our shop fan aimed squarely at me. I was still pretty shaky.
I managed the two-hour shift. I managed to get through the closing procedure feeling mostly okay.
And then on the walk home in the brightness and the heat, I had a breakdown. It was brief (I won’t say “minor”), and I was able to keep going rather than stop in the brightness and the heat. Once home, things started the slow process of calming, the tension its slow movement of ratcheting down.
One thing I’ve been pondering lately is the idea that society has a sort of background radiation of conformity. So, even if you don’t know you’re autistic, you conform unconsciously because you’ve been “irradiated”, unless you have the sheer self-awareness and strength of will to resist. That’s how you go four decades camouflaging, masking, passing without knowing — and then hit midlife and wonder why the hell all of these routine things about the world suddenly hurt so much.
There is no question at this point. For the decades before my diagnosis, I had been ignoring or rationalizing or not even recognizing what the brightness and heat do to me, have probably always done to me. Although it’s probably true that the “psychic plaque” of a lifetime of unknowingly masking that increases the risk of a midlife autistic burnout comes into play here, as well. To wit: burnout made me more sensitive to some stressors that I might have managed or mitigated more easily in the past.
Autistic burnout, let alone its concomittant increased sensitivities, is tough to explain to some people. Especially for the late-diagnosed, it can sound to other people like you’re simply taking advantage of your midlife diagnoses to do less, to shirk responsiblities.
In my case, the problem literally ends up being the opposite. I took my diagnosis to Vocational Rehabilitation precisely to use it to attempt a return to gainful employment. Then the increase in stressors due to those changes in my circumstances — going from no paid work to twenty hours a week of paid work plus an hour commute both ways — landed atop the “psychic plaque” of those four decades not even knowing I was masking, and I broke.
Now I can’t tell from one week to the next what thing is going to turn out to be a stressor that puts me on the edge.
This heatwave has been murder on me. It’s finally breaking, a bit, but who knows for how long. Some days my brain is filled with foam and I can’t even move a thought around. Some days I want to get things done, but there’s nothing in the tank. I can’t sleep well. Dreams feel like threats.
I write this up because I’m going to need anyone who deals with me in any official capacity from here on out to understand these things, be they psychotherapist, vocational rehabilitation caseworker, primary care physician, job coach, or social service provider.
Autistic burnout is real. I’m being knocked around by it. Yes, you really can go decades, your entire life up until now, not knowing there was a real reason for problems you experienced. Not seeing the signs, or ignoring the signs, because the background radiation of conformity tends to win.
Conformity is like inertia. The typical way of being continues to be, in a straight line, until acted upon by an outside force.
In this case, the outside force is diagnosis, and if it gets the opporunity to exert itself, everything can come barreling down at you at once, even if “at once” is a slow-motion weight descending on you for months on end.
I am very tired. I am learning a lot, but I am very tired, and I don’t yet know what to do with what I’m learning, or what any of it means for the help I need, or what it says about what kind of help I need, or for the challenge of convincing people of the help I need.
I’m not lazy. I’m not taking advantage of my diagnosis. I’m not lying when I say that for four decades I had no idea.
This is who I am now, whatever I was, or thought I was, before.
I’m left with the same question I seem to be running into all the time these days.