Ambition, Burnout and Frustration

The writing of this is related to its subject. As can be seen on this blog, nothing has been published since April 25th. Also, so far this is the most prolific I have ever managed to be up to this point. I have attempted to create a site or keep a blog going since 2000 – when you could set up a site on Yahoo GeoCities for free. These were just static pages, and now you can sign up for a free blog somewhere in five minutes, assuming you aren’t bothered by the ads.

In my case I’ve owned domains for years, and paid for web hosting for various sites that only a few online friends might have seen. Every time the intention was there to make something of it, but overall I have spent more time setting up sites than writing for them, so it feels like hundreds of pounds have been slowly leaked over the last several years for an intermittent hobby. I keep wondering about giving up and saving the money which only gets me and ad-free blog that people rarely see.

However I’m back again for another go after a few months, because I’m literally fed up of knowing this site exists with nothing appearing on it.

Autistic Burnout is an idea I came across from other autistic writers, and just dipping into social media when I can cope with it. A particularly good overview was written by the Autistic Advocate (An Autistic Burnout) a couple of years ago, and I’m referring to that because I don’t want to offer another basic description – this is a personal expression of it. One of the most important points from that article is that Burnout is distinct from depression, which can be a powerful mental tool in avoiding depression.

My experience is of a chronic, low level burnout, rather than regular and potentially explosive meltdowns. I don’t have very long lived manic phases because the creeping feeling of weariness kicks in before I can have a serious crash. This may mean that I have learned a better cycle of regulation where I don’t push myself past the point of no return. My life now enables me to drop certain pressures that I have had in the past, such as those from a relationship, or internalised feelings that I “need” to be organised or tidy, or have houses like other people with rooms used in the traditional ways.

Burnout is usually related to having to work full time as a single parent, and this is kept going by giving myself a break from expectations that I “should” keep things clean and tidy all the time. I have seen a number of times when I’ve had longer breaks from work, that after several days motivation comes back to tackle some of the basic jobs that have been left for months.

Before knowing about burnout, I was usually burned out and depressed and highly anxious from feeling inadequate all at the same time. When you can realise that burnout isn’t your fault and comes from a cumulation of mental demands (including chronic sensory overload), you can gradually move away from blaming yourself for not doing more. It took me a lot of introspection time over a few years but I can avoid serious depressive phases reliably now. It’s just a shame that I am not sure I could show anyone how it works.

The application of self-kindness is essential to managing times when you can’t do much of anything and you need to not attack yourself for something you can’t just get past by “pulling yourself together” or some other trite piece of advice that is no use.

It is invaluable to be able to avoid serious depression, but it can’t necessarily remove feelings of frustration, disappointment and even hopelessness about being able to do more than merely survive, often at a lower quality of life to the general population. This is compounded by having an ambition – where one of those intense interests we are known for leads to wanting to make more of it. This will happen with any human I assume, but autistic people are usually working with a large additional handicap from struggling from the basic demands of life to a greater degree.

The last post here was about conflicts of hobbies and interests, but here I’m focusing more on my interest in music, which has ambition attached to it. Secondary interests are like interruptions to this one. The ambition means that I would like to be releasing music that gets finished, and maybe derive a small additional income from it. It isn’t something ridiculous like wanting to become a multi-platinum selling artist, giving myself something most likely unattainable so I can get really disappointed about not achieving it.

It won’t be uncommon that people will have dabbled in something for 20 years and not have a great deal to show for it. Sometimes a hobby is fine and the process of doing something creative for a bit is enough. When you throw in the intense longing to actually be finishing works this will hover around at the back of your mind.

When you deal with burnout cycles there is often a very big barrier to engaging with the interest that has an ambition attached to it. It seems that I often have ideas of planning to engage in music after work, say, and after taking care of children, but by the time there is an opportunity I’ll be struggling against a fog of Resistance that is more than procrastination or typical levels of tiredness.

I’m using Resistance in the sense that author Stephen Pressfield describes in The War of Art, which will probably come up a lot when people talk about creative blocks. Usually the problem is failing to take any time for your interest because you “don’t feel like it” or you think you’ll do it another day when you feel better, or getting distracted by watching a video about your interest instead of doing anything. This is all general procrastination that affects all people.

So an Autistic person is likely to have typical levels of Resistance, plus a large helping of burnout if other demands are sapping a great deal of energy. I haven’t even covered the difficulties presented by ADD traits or Inertia – which autistic people can report as a complete barrier to doing anything, even if you can visualise what you need to do. I’ve often wished I could telepathically make things happen because I’m sitting unable, apparently, to take a small action to do the first thing. There is also the perception that because the organisation and focus problems affect life in general, the drain from having a job and everything else becomes more than it should be.

Although I can keep depression from developing, all of this creates a chronic feeling of frustration and disappointment, and when I have to give up and crash in front of something passive, I feel like I’m letting myself off too much – even if I am concerned that pushing too much will result in dropping to even lower motivation – the state of feeling there is no way beyond trying to get through the next day.

Nothing I’ve written so far is going to be unfamiliar to an Autistic person with a strong creative ambition that never seems to go anywhere. Incidentally if you’re reading this and you’re an Autistic person who is successful at their creative ambition you can tell me how you managed it…

At the point I am now, I have only got as far as recognising that self-kindness has to be balanced with some harder internal “get on with it” exhortations. There is a kindness where you treat yourself too much like a small child and remove all demands. Where I’ve done that too much and taken it easy every day in the hope of recovering energy, I have ended up with that guilty feeling of disappointment and frustration with myself.

Over time I have also realised that I won’t likely achieve some goal of “feeling great” every day where everything is totally clear and I feel completely unimpeded. There is an element of consistent stubbornness involved, which is in fact an autistic trait at the same time – often misdirected at the wrong goals – stubbornly trying to get approval from the wrong people for example – when that stubbornness could be applied to a genuine ambition. An analogy I’ve heard is with the athlete continuing despite experiencing pain – something I came across years ago from Pressfield again in Playing Hurt. Annoyingly I notice that it’s from nine years ago.

The act of creation, particularly self-creation, is messy. It hurts. It’s terrifying.

But panic, self-doubt, claustrophobia, morbid dread, and all the classic “all is lost” symptoms are good, even if they scare the bejesus out of us while we’re experiencing them. They’re good because they are the product of being in over our heads—and being in over our heads makes us stretch and grow.

That phrase “in over our heads” – for Autistic people this can be a permanent state before even getting to creativity. I can be struggling with remembering to eat, or wash, or thinking about what to eat for dinner or having to call someone to fix a problem with my utility bill because the website that is supposed to work doesn’t.

But the overall idea holds – and it means that when an Autistic person has got over all the additional challenges and drains of the world, the achievement is arguably greater even if the results on any particular day are disappointing.

Perhaps the trick is to remember through the burnout fog that there is greater satisfaction on the other side of engaging in that creative interest, even if I can’t say I’m excited to get on with it or overflowing with inspiration. It may be emotional confusion (Alexithymia) meaning I can’t detect that I am enthusiastic because it’s masked by unusually high anxiety.

There isn’t an easy answer. I still don’t know how to keep a sustainable routine of activity. What these ideas do up to this point is allow me to consider the low level challenges to be important – not the details of technique and how to create, but finding a way to do something without pressuring myself into burnout or letting myself off entirely because neither of these options will work for me.