Reading the waves of burnout; or, What does it mean to be supported by those who might not understand my unmasked self?

I saw this tweet today:

And it struck a nerve. Because unlike my last period of intense burnout in 2015/2016, this time I have quite an established support network around me. I have my girlfriend, a good relationship with my family, TPRS colleagues, Esperantists, podcast listeners, even people I met at kink events last year.

At the time of my last burnout and in the years directly following it, my soul would often cry out with loneliness, and I found myself terrified at the idea of bearing my wounds only to be ignored. Now, however, upon writing candidly about my collapse online, I have found myself hailed with affirmations and offers of support. It’s taken a while for those offers to actually sink in, to chip through the chitin of trauma. I can ask for help and actually get it.

So I suppose that means that I spent the last few years effectively preparing for this burnout, although I wasn’t aware of it at the time. I am now recognising a cycle, in the way that we all relentlessly narrativise our lives: my first big burnout was in 2011, when I dropped out of university, then in 2016, in my final year of university the second time around, and then 2021, the just-passed year. My next major burnout should therefore happen in 2026, if predictions remain accurate.

Of course, I intend for it to never happen again. A futile wish, perhaps. I seek to annihilate a standing wave, to carve a refuge out of unyielding diamond. To understand the nature of autistic burnout is to stare into the abyss and reckon with the potential of a life already written in blood, a puzzle piece pre-ordained to bloodily thrash against a hole in which it will never fit.

Dramatics aside, I’m doing pretty well. When I look back at this blog, it seems to veer from depressively morbid to cringe-inducingly maudlin, but in reality I find the writing process quite invigorating. I’ve always been obsessed with skeletons (not to mention the cathedrals made of out them), and this fascination with death seeps into my writing, pushing me to sip the poison of self-deprecation…

OK, dramatics really aside this time, I want to circle back to my original thought. The surprise that, this time, I have the support network built up pre-burnout to make it through OK.

The thing is, the version of myself that that support network knows, the Ariel who they formed a bond with deep enough to wish to support me now, is a very different person to the real me. They know the mask. And yet, they know me, because we are all a myriad of shards glued into a facsimile of a coherent whole.

Still, I wonder, if they met me now for the first time – wrapped in silence, jerky, shuttered, teeming with tics and stims – would they have formed the same bond? Almost certainly not.

But I know these people care for me. In the past five years, I have learned a great deal of humility, as well a willingness to accept conflicting ideas in my life.

The energy to write this post came, of all places, from this:

The relentless dialectics of which the author speaks is what drives me now. So I can accept, in my heart of hearts, that the people who support me now might have shied away, mocked me, shunned me if they had met me in my unmasked state before.

Naturally, this is not a comforting realisation to come to. But to ruthlessly cut people out, to refuse help when it is offered, is the coward’s option.

And so I bear my heart on the page, in the hope that blood in the present may erase the future’s.

(You know I couldn’t keep the dramatics away forever).

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