What happens if you’re masking and you don’t realise?

TW/CW: Autistic burnout, depression, self harm, suicide

Most Autistic people who have been through this don’t like talking about it. Anyone who has ever been through it can’t really explain what it is at the time. I wasn’t diagnosed. I didn’t know I had Autism. I didn’t know what this was, I didn’t have an explanation. It’s been pretty vital for helping me understand what happened to me last year.

What is Autistic Burnout?

Autistic burnout is a state of physical and mental fatigue, heightened stress, and diminished capacity to manage life skills, sensory input, and/or social interactions, which comes from years of being severely overtaxed by the strain of trying to live up to demands that are out of sync with our needs.

Autistic Burnout: “My Physical Body and Mind Started Shutting Down”

It’s also known sometimes as “Autistic regression” – this is hated by most of the Autistic community. It’s a recently discovered phenomenon that has emerged since Autistic people started self-advocating. It’s been discussed on social media a lot. All of us who have gone through it know how utterly life altering it can be.

The most terrifying time in my life for my mental health

Thinking about this is hard. Talking about it is hard. I need people to know what the costs of masking autistic behaviour can be, and how not being diagnosed and constantly masking/conforming to a society not fit for you can feel. It’s not an exaggeration to say this nearly killed me.

The beginning

Things were not right with me. I was tuning out of conversations a lot more, I was dissociating a lot more. I was growing distant from my family. I had started cycles of rumination. My hyper empathy (I feel other’s discomfort on a level that causes me physical pain) which is sometimes controllable, or at least manageable was not.

COVID-19 started…

I had to drop out of university due to it. I had to fight university to do this again. The cracks in my mental health started tearing open.

Something I am almost never like emerged – aggression

Can I be aggressive? Yes. If backed into an absolute corner, I will lash out but it’s an absolute last resort for me – usually with words. NEVER with physical violence.

I started hating myself on a core level. I just didn’t understand why I was so bad at life – I had ADHD but that couldn’t explain all the social difficulties I constantly have, or my inability to deal with change, or my meltdowns when I fail at schedules I have kept for weeks – I was broken. Tiny routine changes would cause full on self destruction and anxiety.

This manifested in aggression toward myself. (I’d never harm my wife, or anyone else intentionally and I only really hurt her by my need to hurt myself – never physically, never with words if I can avoid it – our relationship is built on mutual kindness, empathy and trust).

I was harming myself here. I started punching myself in the head a lot. I started cutting myself on my arms with whatever I could find. I would spiral and then need to release through physical pain.

I’d have meltdowns frequently, like nearly every day. Not finding something would cause a panic attack if not found in two minutes. After a meltdown I would often not talk. Sometimes just stand somewhere staring at a wall. My mind constantly racing.

The violence toward myself kept escalating. I couldn’t control the rage I felt so I punched a wall and broke a bone in my hand. I lied about this in shame. Which doing makes me hate myself more, but I was in defense mode.

Suicide ideation and attempt

I thought I was losing my mind – the ableist terms insane or crazy seemed to apply to me. I was like “holy shit I am going to be broken for the rest of my life”. I had ruminating thoughts that I would say out loud “you are piece of shit”.

The other part is that this seemed to amplify all my Autistic traits. My sensory sensitivity and hyperacusis were so much more sensitive. I was constantly thinking of how to end things on a level I was not able to deal with.

My hyper empathy was always turned on and unignorable – I am still trying to dampen this effect as it’s slightly defective for me right now and I am bordering on having the disorder due to it.

One of the ways this really affected me during this time was when Chadwick Boseman died during the BLM protests in the United States. I didn’t talk about this at the time because it was not a white persons place to grieve publicly. But I saw all of my followers start talking about the intersectionality of the issues surrounding his death – he was the first Black superhero that gave Black people a role model (he’s my favourite character in the MCU), the BLM protests were on, white supremacy’s insidious manifestations apparent in the White House, thousands dying each day due to COVID-19, disability and working through illness – it overwhelmed me on an empathy level, I was in serious pain personally due to this.

On top of this injustices in my life not related to me specifically had kept being brought to light. People who I cared about were suffering the effects of mental health problems due to this.

I unravelled from this point onward pretty fast. I had lost any sense I had of personal safety. I didn’t give a shit about me because this world wasn’t made for me. I started seeing the effects of neurotypical society that is so incongruent with who I am as a person, and I felt like I would never fit in this world.

I snapped. I can’t talk about this (can’t discuss why either), but I ended up creating a whole lot more issues for myself.

Then complications to this justice sensitivity emerged. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I attempted suicide. I got discharged from hospital that day and tried again that night. I was gone at this point. There was nothing left but anger, sadness, and the overwhelming loneliness of my soul.

I told my wife I needed to be committed. [This luckily didn’t happen as the ward was full – I know now that this wouldn’t have made me better]. Everyone in my family agreed. I was so ashamed also of myself. I thought I’d never belong again. I thought I was never worthy of love – I kept hurting the people around me by hurting myself. I needed to not exist.

It took me a long time to get out of this state, in that time I was given a cocktail array of different medications to try and treat symptoms, and I think a few made me worse.

What got me out of it?

I am still not sure if it’s gone completely… I just know what it is now. I can deal with it.

I am not sure what got me out of the crisis part of this. It wasn’t the therapy I was in (that actually made it worse – I kept getting massive anxiety from thinking I was bad or failing at therapy – and the way it was delivered wasn’t suitable to my needs).

I think discovering this has helped me a lot. Having a name for the reason why you do things is so important. My diagnosis was so important to understanding myself. I have developed so many coping techniques for the negative symptoms of Autism. Reading up on Autism by Autistic people has made me validated.

I can never truly convey the horror of this time.

I don’t think there’s an easy way to actually let you know how bad this is. Most people I know who’ve gone through it don’t want to talk about it. This is fairly unique among Autistic people – as we usually are quite comfortable sharing everything – trauma is something we’ve usually all gone through and so talking with each other about it helps. But talking about this reminds us of it. I… I can’t let anyone else have this happen if I can help stop it.

I keep coming back to this statistic in my mind – 90-97% of adults with Autism don’t have the correct diagnosis. Hyper empathy. This. No. Please fuck no.

I’m going to go and cry for a while now. It nearly cost me everything, and I mean everything, my goals, my life, my wife, my family, my sanity, my finances, my housing, my ability to connect with anything…

This is a poem I wrote at the time. I wrote it the dawn of my first day in hospital under suicide watch.

The March

Black dogs at the door
Have begun howling like wolves
We’re not safe here anymore
Fang and sinew marches in

The sanctum is breached
Everything’s all falling down
They leave nowhere unreached
Fate so cruelly marches in

Now we’re all out of quiet
Only screams in this place
All we did was deny it
Forever darkness marches in

Dawn breaks oh so silent
Muted light seeping through
It somehow seems violent
There’s nothing left to march in.

Published by roryreckons

I am an ADHD/Autism/OCD advocate and independent ADHD/Autism researcher. I am training in 2021 to become an ICF Accredited ADHD coach. I write mainly about ADHD/Autism/OCD/Mental health issues, but will also discuss morality, abolition, and current affairs occasionally.

4 thoughts on “What happens if you’re masking and you don’t realise?

  1. Thank you so much for speaking your truth. My fiance is recovering from autistic burnout and is in a very similar situation to yours. Reading your story will help me be a better partner to him as we work through this.

    Like

  2. I also burned out this year… starting to realize a lot of it had to do with undiagnosed issues. I’m glad the fog is starting to clear for you Rory. Hearing your story made me see myself through a different lens. Thank you.

    Like

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