In a previous incarnation of this blog, I took issue with Anne Helen Petersen’s well-circulated “millennial burnout” article for BuzzFeed News. Well, more like umbrage. To be completely fair, I was a snot about it.
While I stand my by critique of its framing of burnout almost as a lifestyle issue (Petersen called some tasks she had to accomplish “boring”, which rankled me given my own very real neurodevelopmental difficulties with executive function), it’s a stance less reflected in Petersen’s later writings on the topic. In the end, I regret at least somewhat not modulating my tone.
That piece’s greatest contribution, perhaps, was helping to open up the conversation about burnout. Whatever “exaggerations” might have come since, there’s a clear through-line from Petersen to Eve Ettinger in Bustle, in which they concern themselves with the possibility that burnout actually might be better called by another name: trauma——and, yes, I understand that this term also has been getting something of a workout lately.
Here’s the thing that seems always to escape the discourse around burnout: despite the official definitions, burnout is not about work. It’s about our society’s implicit and innate peer pressure to conform and to be (seen as) productive. Naturally, this pressure can exert itself pretty forcibly in the realm of work, but it’s hardly limited to work.
My therapist has been a strong believer in the idea that my experience of unknowingly living as an autistic until midlife amounted to a very real kind of trauma. We’ve talked a lot about PTSD, but I’ve been resistant mostly because of its element of recurrence. Due to my aphantasia and severely-deficient autobiographical memory, I simply don’t relive past experiences.
Without the recurrence element, considering PTSD would leave me feeling like I was intruding upon a domain to which I have no claim. The lack of recurrence, however, doesn’t mean that what we legitimately can call, at least, the chronic stress of living unknowingly as an autistic wasn’t somehow nonetheless laid down in my brain.
When my vocational rehabilitation job placement shortly after diagnosis regularly sent me scurrying to the men’s room for fifteen minute sobbing fits, that wasn’t “occupational burnout” (the typical framing) per se. It was autistic burnout—but the underlying dynamics echo each other: the stresses to conform and perform were beyond my neurodevelopmental capacities. That is about the autism but it’s also about that innate peer pressure which affects everyone.
Whatever the pathways and mechanisms, in the months after quitting that job placement, for example, any trip I took on public transit which involved the same routes would spark my anxiety response. Recurrence? No. Some form of impressed trauma? I’d think so.
Just today I saw one list of burnout symptoms that read: being easily frustrated; sadness, depression, or apathy; blaming others; irritability; poor hygiene; feeling tired, exhausted, or overwhelmed; lacking feelings, or being indifferent; feeling a failure; feeling there is nothing you can do that will help; feeling a need for alcohol or drugs to cope; and feeling the inability to do their job well.
This literally describes my entire adult experience of unknowingly being autistic (for values of “job” equaling both “job” and “life”), as well as the experience of what you might think would be a post-diagnosis period of recovery. The damage done by four decades of that implicit peer pressure to conform and be productive was so profound that even a part-time job at an accommodating place with the resources of vocational rehabilitation at my disposal was not enough to prevent a near-total breakdown of capacity.
Recently on a subreddit for autistic adults, someone posted a meme. The first panel of a school bus driving along is labelled, “Me doing well in school thinking it would translate to career success.” The second panel shows the bus being totaled by an oncoming freight train. The label: “Lack of people skills.”
My response suggested that the second also could just as easily be “neoliberal capitalism”. It’s true that people with neurodevelopmental conditions face a unique set of challenges in this regard, but my point, really, was that maybe more things about our society contribute to chronic stress than we are permitted to recognize in polite company.
Jonathan Malesic isn’t wrong that use of the word “burnout” in some quarters has descended into a sort of mad, exaggerated trendiness (although that itself could be a kind of gallows humor, as we impotently and plaintively gesture at everything), but at our own peril do we let that obscure that something very real is happening—and that it’s happening across populations and extends well beyond the realm of work.
Whether we want to call it burnout or C-PTSD or “just” chronic stress, what needs to win out in the burnout discourse is the idea not just that it’s real but that it’s pervasive, and that it’s built into the fabric of the society in which we live, rendering it beyond the capacity of any individual to solve for themselves.