What happens when an autistic entrepreneur hits burnout during what appears to be the apocalypse? A personal, raw story of darkness and recovery.
Did you notice the painfully echoing silence? I posted my last blog post, newsletter and social media post over two months ago and have been selectively mute ever since.
Why the muteness?
Because burnout happened.
Those who know me best know that I never do things half ways. If I do something, I am all in.
It’s one of the hidden superpowers of being autistic (or having Aspergers in the old language). When I do something, it’s done with every skerrick of intense focus and with passion dripping from my pores.
Apparently, I do burnout the same way.
You see, with every superpower comes kryptonite. One of my pieces of kryptonite is my extreme emotional empathy.
I am a raging empath and can feel the tiniest twinge of emotional pain in my clients or their customers.
People who say that autistics don’t feel empathy are talking out of their hats.
Autistic people generally “catch” your feelings when you are feeling them – only with the dial tuned to maximum volume.
We suck at cognitive empathy, where we misunderstand the impact we are having on you. We just know that we somehow tick you off or make you uncomfortable, but we are often baffled as to why.
My empath nature is honed like a heat-seeking missile – I know when someone is in distress within a thousand-mile radius. This is brilliant when getting into the buying mind of my client’s customers, but is exquisitely horrible when 2020 happens.
For me, the bushfires of December and January (remember them) were like bathing daily in rubbing alcohol when your skin is raw. So much pain, sorrow and destruction in our local communities and native wildlife – and I felt it with each breath.
To try to help, I turned my focus to creating low-cost online courses to support businesses embrace their online presence. I went all-in on creating superbly supportive content – and made enough in sales to just about cover a Macca’s lunch for the two other people who live in my house.
My negative self-talk cranked into overdrive.
For a moment, picture the most negative Queen Bitch of your favourite soap opera. In comparison to my self-talk after that experience, they sound like you were having an audience with the Dalai Lama.
Then another one of my autistic superpowers kicked in and temporarily muted the negative self-talk.
Autistics are brilliant at spotting patterns. I can sense trends, emerging issues and then tie together a Hydra’s head of loose threads way before the threads are apparent to others.
Again, superb for businesses wanting to be ahead of a trend. Unspeakably horrendous for 2020.
In January, I picked up that COVID was a “thing” and did my standard deep dive into research strategy to double-check my inklings.
I am a Google virtuoso. What I can find in an hour, takes dedicated researchers days to track down.
I read through every emerging medical study, followed hundreds of virologists around the world and sat in on scientific discussions.
My deadly combination of intuition coupled by research (and a very handy skill in speed reading) appears prophetic to many. So much so that one of my old HR teams bought me a glorious crystal ball as they were stunned at how I always knew where hidden issues were in our 7000 strong organisation.
I vividly remember chatting in the last week of January with some of my medical family members about COVID. I think the term used towards me was “Chicken Little.”
To them then, COVID was nothing more than a cold and would have zero impact on anyone. Sometimes I hate being more aligned to Cassandra from the Greek mythology pantheon than Chicken Little.
I started to sound out my warnings to people on my blog and newsletter list. I felt the call to combine all that I had learned from my decades with psychology, to help give language and mental models to my readers.
I am someone who loves an excellent model to help me understand why my brain does the things that it does. I thought if I shared this knowledge, with a bit of light-hearted humour from my hat collections, it might help ease some of the stress people were going through.
I loved putting the videos and posts together, and felt like I was making a difference – until a mile-high dumper wave of negativity crashed over me.
In one ghastly week, there were multiple snide comments from colleagues and in-my-face evidence of my minimally perceived worth to the community.
I spent hours giving advice for free to a highly distressed person whose business was closed by COVID – to help them to find a way through and to teach them the skills to move online. They were intensely grateful and as a result, turned their business around and now speak at events on how other businesses can transition online. They were so grateful they wanted to thank me, with mention of sending me a $15 gift voucher (still not received).
Ouch! Turning a business around was worth $15.
Camel: Meet Straw
Then I had the final straw hit.
It came from a throwaway comment from a colleague who, in regular times, I would simply brush aside as “she is just being her Negative Nelly self”.
It was just a little snarky comment about how “batshit crazy” I looked with the hats – but it was enough. I collapsed under the weight of all of the straws.
I made my last video in the series while putting on a brave face and trying to find the positives … but I had died a little bit inside.
I felt as if I no longer had anything worthwhile or useful to say, and that even if I did speak, it would be ignored or was of no perceived value anyway. Autism is known for all or nothing thinking and when we spiral, we spiral hard!
Autistic burnout is something I have faced only a couple of times in my life, but I know the drill with dealing with it.
In my case, it triggers deep depression and anxiety, a whole lot of “why bothers”, sleep issues and heralds a time where no carb is safe.
It is also a time when I need to withdraw inwards to heal.
The only way out is through listening to my inner self, allowing emotions to play out, removing things and people who trigger further spirals, extreme self-care and the support of health professionals.
I simply stopped everything and chose to become mute online.
I still looked after my existing clients as if nothing was amiss.
I still answered the phone and responded with quotes where appropriate.
I still turned up at my desk to work most days and finally sorted all the code snippets I had been collecting for years.
I went back to daily meditation practice and found a new online source of guided meditations that have been a lifesaver.
I changed the focus of my time to spend more time on my other business, unsubscribed from 4 billion email lists and Facebook pages, turned off the TV and went on an extreme social media diet. I stopped reading and commenting, limiting myself to a thumbs up or heart – but no words.
I spent many days pottering in the sunshine in my garden.
When I say “pottered” most people imagine a genteel lady quietly snipping the odd frond here or there with secateurs.
My concept of pottering involved razor-sharp mattocks attacking decade-old clumps of tangled roots on the side of a hill with a 75-degree slope. There were days when even my eye-lashes hurt from the physical exertion I put myself through.
Unfortunately, my left shin appears to have a mattock magnet installed and attracted the said mattock on two notable occasions. Luckily my girls and I know enough first aid to know how to apply steri-strips and thick bandages to the resulting damage, and I have some new interesting scars to show for my skills.
I also shaved my head (as you do – aka Britney) and decided to embrace the silver as part of removing unauthentic bits of myself. (As an aside, can anyone recommend a superb Photoshop person? I need to recolour my photos from last year to match the fabulous silver shining through the stubbly regrowth.)
A huge shout-out to the three people who checked in on me after about a month as they had noticed my silence.
One was my mental health therapist – the wonderful Linda Conyard who is truly exceptional at what she does.
One was a long-term reader of the blog who runs her own small business and has a heart bigger than the sun. (Huge hugs and thanks, Judy!)
And one was a friend who openly admitted she only contacted me as she wanted to pick my brains, and only asked how I was as she was making small talk before she hit me with her question. (Didn’t she get a shock when I answered truthfully how I was).
And this is the part where I shakily drag myself onto my soapbox and get a bit raw.
To be honest, I am still processing the profound silence of friends and colleagues in response to my selective muteness. Disappearing for months didn’t raise a ripple.
I don’t have answers as yet, but my brain has attached meaning to it that may or may not be a valid interpretation.
All I can say is that right now, many people are in a very dark place. If you see someone doing something out of the ordinary, please … please … reach out and check in with them.
Thinking good thoughts about someone is not enough. You have to say your words out loud as well as think them.
I know I am incredibly fortunate in that I have two superb kids who love and support me. They gave me a reason to keep going when the reasons were very thin on the ground, and when the silence from friends and colleagues was deafening.
Other people may not be as lucky.
But what about my business? Surely silence for months coupled with burnout would have killed it?
Oddly enough my traffic has boomed. My online rankings and visibility now outperform people I have been chasing for years, and I am booked through till the end of July with website work.
However, remember back when I said that I could sometimes sense the future?
That last straw did kill something in how I used to approach my business. For a few weeks I thought it was time to pull up stumps and retire (or get a job at Bunnings – my happy place. Other people in meditations think of coral rimmed islands or tropical waterfalls. I think of the Bunnings plant section.)
But I also can feel the first hints of something new coming into this business. I have no idea what it is, or what it will look like, but the first delicate puffs of the winds of change are now starting to caress my business.
I know that when the change comes through, it will feel like an old friend who sidles up next to me before saying “Hi”. I know I will startle slightly before a smile of recognition lands and I swoop in for a hug before stepping into the next adventure.
Until then, I shall continue using my super-powers for the highest good of my clients, and when the words I have pent up inside need to spill out into a blog, then they shall make their way here. I can’t promise weekly, but they will be there every now and again.
But more importantly, to answer “Where the hell have I been?” I HAVE been to hell, but I am still here. I am still breathing. I am just more openly and transparently me (autism, grey hair and all).