Over the course of the last three weeks, I’ve been fighting to overcome severe depression and burnout. What is burnout you ask? Burnout is the result of prolonged over-stimulation which snowballs into overwhelming stress. It factors in my environment, my social interactions, my job, my personal life, sensory processing… among others.
I’m almost ashamed to admit to you that I’m in this situation. It’s not because I’m ashamed of my truth, but rather that I’m embarrassed to admit that I’m not as strong and withstanding as I would like myself to be.
Sometimes it’s as if there are two versions of myself that are constantly at war with each other. My first self is one of strength. She overcomes, overachieves and doesn’t give up despite the valley before her that she has to climb. The first self is kind, and forgiving.
“You can do this. You can handle the lights. You can handle the sound. Yes, you absolutely can contribute to this conversation. You are valuable at work. Your husband loves you, and thinks you’re the most beautiful person. I know you’re tired, but you only have to endure a little longer. There’s no reason to be anxious with your friends, they totally accept you, and when you’re ready to speak, they’ll listen.”
My second self is one of hopelessness. She is constantly reminding me that I’m weak, and that I’m a freak. When the lights are too bright, or the anxiety is too high, she’s there goading me deeper into myself. She’s the permanent manifestation of my childhood bully that I can’t shake. It’s her mission to bring me down. Currently, she is the self that is winning. My second self is a jerk.
“You’re such a baby. Everyone else can handle the noise. Nobody else is struggling with the brightness of those lights. If you don’t contribute, you’re worthless. Your husband resents you. He’s sure to be embarrassed by you. You couldn’t even buy a carton of milk? What good are you? You’ll never be able to contribute to your marriage, he does all the work. Everyone thinks you’re annoying. You’ll never be good enough.”
My thought process is always hard at work helping me to appear and function like a Neurotypical. Even though my version of normal isn’t your normal, I have a strong desire to blend in. I want to be present enough to fade into the background and go about my life without hindrance or drawing too much attention to myself. But as soon as I started to burnout, I couldn’t do it anymore. When I’m in burnout mode, I can’t complete the equations necessary to function in the capacity that Neurotypicals do.
I don’t consider my desire to “blend in” as an act of social conformity, but rather like traffic. To be safe, you have to go with the flow. Think of it this way: if my brain were a computer, then someone (or something) overclocked my system, and changed the code into pig-Latin. Now, the programming doesn’t work. I have to introduce changes and new stimuli to cool it down. I have to force myself to embrace the enormity of it all, in order to properly deal with it, and get better. Much like prolonged exposure therapy.
It’s exhausting, devoting my entire cognitive process to appearing normal in the midst of a mental breakdown. As a result, I’ve had to take mental health days from work, and give myself the space to get straight. Which means extra therapy, and extra quiet time. My husband and I don’t talk nearly as much as we did previously. I’m barely leaving the house outside of going to work. When I come home, I immediately go to my bedroom and turn off the lights, close the door, put on my noise-cancelling headphones and allow myself the space and time I need for my mind to shut itself down. I call it safely disassociating. You could probably relate it to updating your computer software, and then completing the mandatory reboot. Only now, the system is my brain and the process takes longer.
During this shut down, and restart, I allow all of my errors, frustrations, over-stimulation and emotional turmoil to disappear into a place where I won’t be able to remember any of it. I will then hard delete it. I have to, because if I happen to cycle back at any point in time during this burnout period, I could get caught up in a trauma loop. If I get stuck in that loop, I’m going to get much worse. If I get worse, I could end up needing to be hospitalized. That’s not acceptable to me.
You may be wondering… how do you identify burnout before it happens? Here are some signs you can look for, as well as things I am working hard to overcome on a daily basis:
- Chronic Fatigue
- Mental Fatigue
- Emotional Imbalance
- Severe Anxiety
- Physical Discomfort (Headaches, heart palpitations, stomach cramps, dizziness)
- Feeling Detached
- Severe Sensory Sensitivity
I’d like to report that I’m slowly starting to come out of this, or so I hope. My mood has picked up a little bit, and my safe environments are becoming less hostile. My emotional responses are less intense, and more controllable. I’m still on a loop, but I’m not lashing out. Sensory and emotional triggers are no longer overwhelming me. I’ve finally come out of a three week long sensory high. There is still the nasty headache that is lingering, but the pain is now dull, instead of heavy and sharp. A day ago, I was able to finally shake someones hand.
Here are some of the ways I help myself to cope, and manage during my period of burnout:
- Surround myself with positive people who love and support me
- Communicate as best as I can when I’m struggling
- Take mental health time off as needed
- Have patience with myself
- Exercise and get fresh air
- Immerse myself in activities that bring me joy and a sense of accomplishment
- Turn on comforting white noise
- Keep the lights dim and the temperature down when I can
- Work with my therapist and doctor to keep a check on the status of my mental health and wellbeing
I’m not telling you this because I want your pity, nor do I wish to put you off. Please refrain from telling me all of the ways I could mentally adjust and check myself to prevent this in the future, because your advice would be futile. I’m telling you this because I want you to understand the reality of the people you label as “High Functioning.” This appearance is not the reality of my life. It’s the result of masking, and complicated mental equations.
This mask and all of the equations take a toll, a very heavy one at that. For weeks I haven’t been able to tolerate a number of things: simple handshakes with executives at work, conversations that last more than 4 minutes, going into the grocery store to buy food, or to even participate in superficial small talk. I couldn’t cook, clean, or leave the house without massive effort and concentrated focus. I made grilled cheese, burnt the bread and cried my heart out for hours. Then there are the emotional triggers that bring back to life certain trauma that I had once recovered from, and now the scars are ripped open and bleeding once again.
Besides the decompressing patterns I have ritualized at home over the last few weeks, there’s still the need to be open about my struggles with close family and friends. I’m so thankful to work in an environment that has taken time to understand me without preconceived stereotypes, and offers help when I ask for it. It certainly is very difficult to talk about, mostly because in the middle of it I have no words to describe it, nor strength to deal with people while in I’m that low level of rawness.
The important thing for the world to know is that for someone like myself, I’m not depressed. The depression is a result of the burnout. The burnout is a result of prolonged over-stimulation that snowballed into overwhelming stress and emotional turmoil. I’m not depressed, nor am I high functioning. I’m neurologically challenged.
And I’m always fighting the fight to be “better”.
Written by: Jessica Cox
Edited by: Sarina Scott