Minds are not like music boxes. You can’t pop them open and watch the thoughts and feelings contained within dance round and round. There is no way to know what someone else is thinking or how they feel.
Last week I had a bad day. Nothing terrible happened but it was already a bad week (one of our cats was in a fight and needed to be treated at the vet’s) and then the cubs decided to be less than co-operative that morning when I was trying to get them ready for school.
Tyger was clearly overloaded to the point I didn’t think I could trust him around Bear whilst I showered so I spent some time doing exercises with him to calm him down. This resulted in us being a little pressed for time, which is not exactly a rare occurrence in the mornings (I’m sure many parents can relate!) and wasn’t too much of an issue…until Bear had a complete meltdown over me trying to get him dressed.
It was also bin day and our rubbish was strewn across the pavement from a fox.
All things that would be a minor annoyance in isolation.
But nothing happens in isolation. There is a term that’s been coined by other autistic bloggers called ‘Aspie Burnout’. It seems common among us Aspies to get to a point – after years of masking – where we…well, burnout. When we are constantly overloaded and struggle with any and all day to day tasks. When everything catches up with us and we just…struggle. Really, really struggle.
I think I have reached my burnout. If you are familiar with spoon theory it’s a pretty good way of explaining it. I give all my spoons away just caring for the cubs and there aren’t any left for me.
The planning and organisation needed as a parent is intense for someone like me who has problems with executive functioning. The constant noise of the cubs wreaks havoc with my sensory difficulties. The worry of being responsible for them and the challenges that come with them both being on the spectrum, too, bring me to the point of being overloaded every day. Often before I’ve even had breakfast. Anything on top of that – an unexpected phone call, needing to clean out the fridge, a knock at the door, a neighbour cutting their grass – is too much.
I’m constantly unravelling. Normally I manage to hold on to the loose ends and maybe even try to ravel them again…wait, is that right? Stitch them up? Wind them back? (Maybe I should have picked a better metaphor.) Anyway, I can hold on to the loose ends throughout my usual day but anything that needs extra effort or attention means I have to let go in order to deal with the other stuff…and more and more of me unravels.
(I have problems with literal unravelling, too, but that’s a whole other issue.)
Back to the other day: I was not in a great place. I was unravelling a lot but it was the day Bear has a group at the children’s centre. He loves it and it’s only once a week so I made myself go even though I’d have much preferred to curl up in a little ball and keep a tight hold of all the loose ends of myself: to stop them from catching on anything.
Feeling so fragile and at my limit, how did I act at the group? Did I keep to myself and stay quiet? Did I get grumpy? Nope. I did what I always do in these situations and spoke far too much, far too loudly and in far too much detail. And I smiled. A lot.
A woman who works at the children’s centre came round all the parents to tell us about the events they’re holding over half term. She asked about older siblings so I ended up talking about Tyger, his autism, Bear’s probable autism, my own autism. I just kept talking and talking because if you talk enough and smile enough you don’t feel so vulnerable. People don’t notice the loose threads.
The woman finished giving me information and as she tried to back away from the frenzied woman who wouldn’t stop talking at her she said, ‘Well, you’re obviously very happy.’
Happy? Happy? I was falling apart. I was coming undone at the seams. I was anything but happy.
It made me think of the worst bout of depression I’ve been through. Back then – unlike now when I broadcast my mental health history to anyone who will listen – I didn’t like to talk about my depression. Wolf knew, my best friend knew and my parents knew. That was it and at least some of those were from practical necessity.
Once I was coming out the other side, though, I let a couple of people I worked with know. They were confounded. They said, out of everyone they knew, I would literally have been the last person they would have suspected had depression. They very much thought of me as the happiest person they knew.
When I was little I had a Wizard of Oz themed jewelry box. It had pictures of Dorothy and other characters on the outside and played Somewhere Over the Rainbow when opened…but the little spinning figure was still a normal music box ballerina. It always felt a little discordant to my ordered, Aspie sensibilities. Surely, to fit the theme, the dancer should have been a little girl with ruby slippers or a witch on a broomstick or a scarecrow or any of the other myriad of characters?
The inside did not match up to the outside; I guess in that way minds are like music boxes.
I don’t think you should walk around assuming everyone you come across is in the deepest depths of depression. I just don’t think you should ever assume someone else is blissfully happy, whether they seem it or not. Be compassionate. You never know whether that smiling person is unravelling at the seams.