It feels like there should be some trepidation around the start of this new year, after the global shitshow of the last two. But there’s something about the first day of a new year that always fills me with anticipation and excitement. I love new beginnings; the sense of turning over a fresh leaf and waiting to see what a new year will bring.
I remember feeling this way even back in January 2015, when I was still off work, in the middle of what would turn out to be a career-ending burnout. A sense of hope and stepping out into the light, tentatively trusting that better things were ahead of me than were behind.
Back then I didn’t know that autistic burnout was a thing; I had no idea what was wrong with me, and assumed I was depressed. That’s what my GP diagnosed me with at the time. And it’s entirely possible that I was depressed; certainly a lot of the symptoms of autistic burnout do mirror those of depression. It’s all very blurred, but looking back now, since my autism diagnosis, I do wonder if each of my previous depressive episodes were actually autistic burnouts.
It took me months (actually, though I thought I was ‘better’ at the time, with hindsight it was actually years) to claw my way back to some sort of normal functioning, and I’ve never functioned again the way I did before my 2014 burnout.
I look back on the life I had pre-2014 with wonder: how did I manage to do all that? Where did I get the energy? These days, I find that it’s not that I don’t have the will to do things (that classic sign of depression) – I have plenty of will, but so little emotional or mental energy that I need to manage my spoons very carefully. It feels like that 2014 burnout broke my brain, and I will never be the same again. My life has had to narrow and simplify in order to accommodate the things I absolutely need to do (make a living, take care of our home) and the things I want to achieve (continue to learn new things, grow my business, produce my podcast).
Finding the positives
If this sounds a bit like I’m feeling sorry for myself, please bear with me! This is going somewhere positive, I promise. But these are the truths that I have shied away from for a long time: that I never recovered fully from my 2014 burnout, and that I’ve probably been hovering on the brink of another burnout ever since.
Fast forward to the present and I’ve been in survival mode since around October; each year I find my SAD getting more weighty, relentlessly crushing the remaining energy out of me until the days finally start lengthening again. But producing my podcast has helped massively; even though it uses up a lot of time and energy, it gives me a sense of purpose, a sense of connection to the world, and a reason to keep going that is beyond just working for a living. And it’s simply great fun, too, getting to talk to so many amazing autistic people about their lives and experiences. I enjoy the editing and love choosing the clips for the audiograms, sharing the episodes on social media, and reading the many messages and emails I receive from listeners.
And even in the midst of winter fatigue, when life feels a bit like wading through treacle, I am full of hope for the future. Past experience tells me that this is not forever; that there are better times ahead.
When I’m feeling a bit useless and everything seems like a gigantic struggle, I remind myself that these things come in cycles. I remember to do my gratitude practice (even if it’s the last thing I feel like doing!); to find something, however small, to be thankful for, and to focus on the good things in life, alongside acknowledging the negatives – no toxic positivity here.
Creating the life we want
I refuse to believe that to be autistic means that we must accept less than we want out of life, or that if we want to make a difference in the world, we must do it either in poverty or in perpetual burnout. I don’t have a magic solution to this one – it’s an ongoing conundrum for me, too – but if I’ve learned anything in the last six years, it’s that at least some of the answer lies in looking at things differently, starting with how you want your daily experience to look, and then finding new and innovative ways to work and live. Ways that mean we can be fulfilled personally and professionally, make enough money to live comfortably (whatever that means to you), while satisfying our innate autistic drive and desire to help others.
There is also huge power in setting intentions. Before I left my teaching career, I did a ‘perfect day’ exercise (it was part of an online coaching course I was taking). We had to write a sort of diary of us at some future point, detailing every aspect of a perfect day, if we could have and do anything we wanted. No holes barred. I came across mine a few years later, doing some tidying, and realised that I now had all of it: everything I had written down had come true. No magic wands of course – it was the result of a truly terrifying leap of faith, a LOT of hard work, and the kindness of family, friends and colleagues – but I had succeeded in rebuilding my life into the image I’d conjured in that simple writing exercise.
I’ve been thinking a lot about money and autism recently. All things are relative, and though I earn a decent living, I’m still living pretty much from month to month. It often feels precarious, though I’ve taught myself to trust in the Universe and I’ve been proved right time and again. But I know I am doing better than many, and I also know that I have a huge amount of privilege; I’ve worked bloody hard to get where I am, but I acknowledge the many social factors that have contributed to my success.
I know that the number of autistic people in employment is strikingly low, and that those of us who are employed are likely to be underemployed; either unable to work full time, or working in roles (and for salaries) well below what we might be capable of, were we properly supported, and if employment generally was more conducive to those of us whose productivity trends to come in waves, needing long periods of downtime in between.
It’s why I believe that those of us who can should strive to do as well for ourselves as we are able to, and then do everything we can to raise others up, too, and do something to support our neurokin. Whether that’s just to be open about our experiences as autistic people, normalising neurodivergence and its many different faces; or doing the kind of incredible advocacy I see every day on Instagram and Twitter; or by supporting the autistic advocates and creators by ‘buying them a coffee’ or becoming a patron of their creative work.
One of my favourite quotes is this one, from Jen Sincero:
“We need people with huge hearts and creative minds to manifest all the wealth, resources, and support they need to make their difference in the world. We need people to feel happy and fulfilled and loved so they don’t take their shit out on themselves and other people and the planet and our animal friends. We need to be surrounded by people who radiate self-love and abundance so we don’t program future generations with gnarly beliefs like ‘money is bad’ and ‘I’m not good enough’ and ‘I can’t live the way I want to live’.
We need kickass people to be out of struggle and living large and on purpose, so they can be an inspiration to others who want to rise up, too.”
That’s what I want for all of us in 2022. I want to find ways for us as autistic women and nonbinary people to rise together; to get clear on what we want for our lives and to empower each other to get out there (or, more plausibly for many of us, sit in front of our computer screens!) and get it.
It’s a challenge to be autistic in a capitalist society – a society that values us based only on our productivity (tricky when due to your neurotype, your productivity is likely to be sporadic at best, and the things you care about are often not the sorts of things that are typically considered to be worth a lot in monetary terms). The catch-22 of whether you’re going to choose to sacrifice your mental and/or physical health or your financial security (or, in reality, your financial security plus your heath).
I don’t claim to have the answers; I’m still searching for them myself. What I do want is to find a way to continue to rise and overcome my difficulties, and to bring others with me. To continue to work towards and achieve my goals and dreams (because they are always evolving; my new ‘perfect day’ looks quite a bit different to what I wrote eight years ago, in 2014!), and see others with similar struggles achieve theirs.
If you’ve got to the end of this, I applaud you! Thanks for sticking with me. This started out as some copy for an Insta post, and has ended up as a crazy long (and rambly) blog post.
Anyway, Happy New Year!
I truly hope 2022 brings you amazing things.
And if you’d be interested in coming with me on a journey of self discovery around work, fulfilment and figuring out what you want and how to get it, you can let me know here.