Leaning in or burning out?

Peaches in her comfort zone.

“Hold that thought,” I said to my spouse.

He was in the middle of a sentence, and I felt bad about cutting him off. But it would only be for a few seconds. And we were chatting rather than talking about something emotionally urgent. If this had been a serious discussion, I would have quite literally gritted my teeth, clenched my fists (behind my back so I wouldn’t look scary), and readied myself as best I could for the discomfort I was about to endure.

I’ve spent years opting to brace for impact in the face of a discomfort most people are puzzled by. Sitting there trying to look “normal” and usually failing miserably in every sense of the word.

I didn’t know I was “masking” because I didn’t know I was autistic. I just thought I had sensitive hearing.

Which was strange, since I was also the one who always needed to have the subtitles turned on while watching TV or I wouldn’t be able to follow what was going on.

Turns out that my hearing is normal-to-good if you’re going by what a simple doctor’s office test would tell you. How I perceive all those sounds coming in is where things get complicated.

The car coming down the alley next to our apartment wasn’t particularly loud. It was just overwhelming. To me, anyway.

Those of us who can hear know the misery of a sound that’s too big for comfort. It just plain hurts. That pain is a warning that we shouldn’t be okay with a certain level of noise, because it can damage our hearing. Simple.

The car in question wasn’t hurting my ears or threatening my hearing. How and why it was making me uncomfortable is a little more difficult to explain.

Something can be very uncomfortable without being painful. When a car drives down our alley, especially when it’s going very quickly, I don’t feel pain. I feel overwhelmed.

Imagine you’re sitting quietly at your table at home, reading and enjoying a cup or glass of your favorite beverage.

Someone you trust and care about suddenly comes running into the room. Without slowing down, they barrel right up to where you’re sitting, stopping just before they run into you.

Would you say, “Well, what’s wrong with that? I mean, they didn’t hurt you or even touch you.”

Or, if a friend were describing this as something their spouse does multiple times a day, would you be recommending a divorce lawyer?

That’s the closest I can come to explaining how it feels when yet another truck or car or moving van rumbles its way down the alley our apartment overlooks. It feels as if someone’s about to knock me over, even though I know they won’t really do it.

I know that what I’ve described sounds like I live right next door to an airport, and that’s not the case. Objectively speaking, the noise we live with isn’t particularly loud. My neurotypical spouse lives in this same apartment and he has no trouble tuning out the sound of the vehicles. My kiddo, who may be autistic, lived here until last year and would get upset at how I was “overreacting” to the alley activity until we had some constructive conversations.

I have two next-door neighbors whose apartment is situated exactly the same as ours is. One of them has worked at home for years; both of them spent most of their time in their apartment even before the pandemic. Neither of them is the least bit troubled by the sounds from the alley. They don’t seem to notice them even when they’re standing in the alley. I once spoke to one of these neighbors as I was taking down some trash and they were getting something from their garage. A car drove right by as we were speaking. My neighbor went on talking as if nothing were happening. No change of expression. No involuntary movement away from the source of the sound. He didn’t even raise his voice.

Why should he? The car wasn’t all that loud or dangerously close. It was just – large. If you’re me.

I’m struggling for words here. Sometimes I feel less like a born-and-bred citizen of my own place and time, and more like forest dweller from five hundred years ago and a thousand miles away. Living in this strange new world wasn’t my idea and isn’t always easy, but I don’t have a choice so I do the best I can.

But ever since I self-diagnosed, I’ve decided to stop pretending that living here isn’t work.

I know I just spent a long time explaining that it’s not the noise per se that bothers me. But the fact is, being able to shut out some of the sound helps me cope. Being able to shut out any kind of sensory perception helps.

So if a car goes by and I’ve had spent the day coping with too much so-called normal human activity, I will go ahead and cover my ears, close my eyes, and take a deep meditation breath. I will remove myself as much as possible from the situation.

It’s such a relief.

I am so tired of having to pretend that everything’s fine and great and hey look at me I’m one of the cool neurotypical kids.

I started “muffling” like this at home and I noticed that I wasn’t feeling nearly as stressed the rest of the time. I was a calmer spouse, parent, and building manager when I wasn’t squandering my resources on unnecessary masking.

I explained what I was doing to my spouse and he was fine with it. He’s a rational human being. He benefits if I’m calmer and happier, too. And if that means having to remember where he was in the conversation – or reminding me where I was – when I needed to hit “pause” for a few seconds, well, fair enough.

We don’t go out a lot (thank you, Delta variant), but we do go for walks. Or to the occasional movie when literally no one else will be there. (Hooray for being able to buy tickets online and see who else decided to buy tickets for the same showing.) Times are strange and stressful. I’ve decided that I really don’t care anymore if people look at me funny when I suddenly feel the need to clap my hands over my ears.

I’m a fifty-three-year-old woman who barely understands how her own phone works. I’ve given up on the idea of being a certain kind of impressive.

I was feeling really good about the decision to cut down on masking. And then I read a post in one of my autism groups.

I’ve paraphrased to protect the privacy of the individuals in question, but the message is one I think needs to be shared.

“I’ve noticed that my tolerance for stressful stimuli has gone way down,” they said. “I just can’t mask the way I used to. I don’t want to. Has the world gotten louder and brighter, or have I just stopped being willing to put up with discomfort?”

The second one, I thought, happily. Me, too. And good for you! Good for both of us.

Then I read the first reply.

“You might be dealing with autistic burnout,” they cautioned.

Wait – what, now?

“After years of trying to pass for ‘normal,’ we can get exhausted and start to shut down,” the commenter went on. “Try to take extra-good care of yourself.”

I’d heard of autistic burnout. It’s one of the first things that comes up as a suggestion when you’re on Twitter and you type #Autistic.

I gripe about that in my pinned tweet. Why is the number-one prompt “burnout” and not “pride” or some other positive message?

I did some more griping and then I did some more reading. And now I’m starting to wonder myself.

I’m not going to go back to masking, of course. No matter what, I’m doing what’s best for myself.

But am I leaning in to losing shame?

Or am I burning out?

–Or is it both and yes I would like a side of fries with that?

More thoughts next week.

In the meantime, your thoughts – be they neurodiverse or neurotypical – would be very much appreciated.

5 thoughts on “Leaning in or burning out?

  1. Noise, inside or outside can determine how your whole day goes. Hypersensitivity to certain noises causes all sorts of problems in our household. Noise which I can tolerate, but my child will have a meltdown as he is overwhelmed.
    Great Post 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  2. I agree that masking costs more than it’s worth! Since I began working from home, I have learned to tell the difference between my body telling me “all the lights and noise at the shop are exhausting” and “Going to the shop now will be devastating to me”. I rest up in between excursions, and do much of my shopping online – and I’m feeling pretty good about taking care of myself in that way. 🙂 Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

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