Constrained writing, as conventionally defined, uses somewhat arbitrary chosen rules to restrict how language is used, usually in service of art and playful craftsmanship.
It’s a fun challenge, a game, to tell yourself, for instance, that all words in a written or spoken piece conveying real meaning must conform to the length of consecutive digits of Pi.
It can be a way to force some ideas to come to the foreground by boxing off others, like squeezing toothpaste from a tube or putting on a corset. I’ve done similar things with visual art (restricted palette, limited materials, boxed area on a canvas) but rarely with words.
And yet words are my medium of choice most of the time.
All language is constrained.
In a broad sense, almost all language is constrained: by social conventions, by personal preference, by what and how one wants to communicate. And yet we exist in this world of rules largely without examining those constraints.
For most people, the rules of communication are kind of intuitive. Again, broadly speaking, neurotypical folks are only forced to look at communication constraints when they use language in a sphere that is unfamiliar to them, like in an unfamiliar culture or outside their social cohort or when entering a very specialized domain of meaning. In their ordinary daily lives, most people (at least most of the people I’ve encountered) don’t need to know why they choose the words and phrases they do. It all just works.
And yet the cultural spasm we’re currently experiencing in the English-speaking world – a struggle over the ideas and “rules” of political correctness, inclusive terminology, and what the right calls “cancel culture” – could be eased (perhaps) with a more explicit acknowledgement that communication restraints already exist. We pronoun people (I’m she/they) and people of color and the rest of the bleeding left (of which I am a proud member) are not asking the world to constrain a heretofore unlimited world of expression. We’re asking everyone to consider adjusting the rules they already adhere to, to reduce the harm that unexamined language does.
Autistic language in a neurotypical world is doubly constrained.
Though I’m only recently coming to understand that I’m autistic, my lifelong relationship with words has been heavily colored by autism.
Most of my life in connection with other humans has been me grappling with mastering the rules of engagement, chafing against conventions that didn’t feel natural, wondering at advice I didn’t understand. It’s a lot.
Most of the words I write or say are in service of corporate communication. Lots of “rules” there. (Lots of masking.) Lots of “don’t be weird” and “don’t alienate” and “use this vocabulary” and “talk like they talk”.
I’m quite successful at it for someone like me. Yet I struggle every moment I’m doing it.
If all writing is constrained writing, then all my writing as an autistic human is doubly constrained:
layer 1: ordinary rules of engagement for communication and social interaction in my communities, which are often not intuitive for me
layer 2: my flawed interpretations of well-meaning but confounding feedback I have received when others believe I’ve failed to communicate properly… which I have typically internalized as rules, whether or not I’ve understood them
This is true whether or not I also choose to make all the words in a paragraph start with consecutive letters of the English alphabet.
(Before you waste all your time trying to figure out if this blog post is an acrostic or a lipogram or an elaborate series of interwoven haiku, I’m not that smart. And I have a headache. But do know that I DID consider it.)
I have carried the weight of constrained communication all my life, and I only recently am coming to understand how much of my cognitive effort is spent on a minute to minute shifting and management of that weight.
(I believe that my periodic struggles with situational mutism originate here: words themselves are easy, but communication is hard.)
Part of grappling with my autism is figuring out how to lessen that weight, or distribute it better, or however that metaphor plays out. I want to lessen the constant effort I put into communicating “correctly” and move into a more masterful space where I acknowledge and take control of the rules I choose to engage with.
I see you, rules. Let’s play.
In pursuit of mastery of the constraints.
An ordinary person’s response to constrained writing? “Cute game, but why?”
As an outsider to conventional rules of talk, I know that all our communication is constrained. It’s just that mostly people don’t know that because it’s all intuitive. Most people don’t question the rules, or even acknowledge their existence, and why would they?
This isn’t a dunk on neurotypical people; we don’t acknowledge the oxygen we breathe unless we have trouble getting enough.
Exploring the arch party trick of constrained writing as an autistic helps me explore the ways that sometimes-arbitrary but often necessary rules limit my own use of language, in service of being understood.
Mastery gives me more power.
Instead of being haplessly at the mercy of rules imposed on me without my consent by people who don’t understand me yet have considerable power over my success, I can decide which rules matter for my purposes.
That matters for my confidence and effectiveness, even if the shape of my communication doesn’t change much.
It’s about gaining control. Mastery. Flex.
I can choose when to foreground your comfort, and when to assert my own. What to emphasize. What to give you as a takeaway. What to weave in as gifts to myself (thank you, Hannah Gadsby, for that idea).
I can’t imagine what unconstrained communication would even sound like, but I can imagine how my own communication could bloom as I improve my facility with manipulating the constraints that surround me.
Shout out to one of my oldest friends @BeerSonnetteer, whose lifelong hobby of fucking with poetry forms like sonnets and double dactyls is a spectrum-y triumph of constrained writing. Big love.
And shoutout to the special interest that led me to find the concept of constrained writing: Hannah Gadsby (who is not just the object of my interest but also a genuine live human.)
The way she approaches storytelling structurally, with extraordinary mastery, is inspiring. One excerpt from her structure-perfect and process-transparent special Douglas is embedded below (but watch the whole thing on Netflix to see what I mean by “structure-perfect and process-transparent”).*
*Wow, that’s a lot of end-of-sentence punctuation. Let’s add an asterisk.
I have five chapsticks, one for each room where I spend focused time, and one in my bag. Minimalism tempered by practicality, aimed at improving how well I function day to day.
It’s part of the bargain I’m negotiating between my autism and my ADHD.
MY ADHD: More in case we lose them! MY AUTISM: OK but only five. Seriously. And there are rules.
This post comes in response to @mightbeautistic on Twitter. They’ve got me thinking about the eternal battle between minimalism and maximalism (let’s pretend that’s a word) at our house.
Because stuff be like that.
My husband and I have been organizing our house room by room lately and it’s an exercise in accommodation for 2 ADHDers, one of whom is autistic.
We are trying to balance several principals… or what I’m gonna pompously call principles because I can’t think of something less pompous to call them.
1) things with like things
All lightbulbs together… Jars Candles and holders Cat supplies Glassware Cookware Medicine Tools Art supplies Beauty supplies Etc.
2) keep things near where they’re used
Candles where we can find them in the dark Cat supplies near the cat feeding station Chapsticks, scissors, pens, hair ties, power cords, etc. at every desk Floss and a back scratcher in every room*
*because I’m autistic and these are frequently among my last defenses against a meltdown
Backstock/less frequently used stuff lives nearby but out of sight.
3) point of performance stations (thanks @HowtoADHD!)
All supplies for frequent tasks where we perform the task
Pet Care Station: Cat brush, nail clippers, and treats in a box next to the couch in my office
Morning Station: Toaster, butter dish, Kind bars, and coffee supplies next to the espresso machine near the sink (this idea came directly from Jessica McCabe at @HowtoADHD)
Food Prep Station: Knives and cutting boards and paper towels
Repair Station: Table I can clear with good lighting and a nearby box of common tools
The Nerdery: Miniature-painting and kit-bashing supplies in a desk cabinet near where finished miniatures are displayed in glass-front cabinets (Because the desk closes to become an attractive wooden furniture-of-unknown-purpose, we can paint minis in the living room and the fiddly bits associated with the hobby are easily protected from cats that collect small objects (we have 2) and from the focus of guests.)
(I’m kind of weirdly proud of how 1 and 2 above come together in our way to deal with small appliances, which we divided into 3 groups in 3 locations: the three we use every day live on the kitchen counter, the four or so we use more than once a year live in the well-lit front row of the cabinet below, and the ones we almost never use but can’t part with cowering in the cavernous darkness of the back of that cabinet. I look forward to never having to move the juicer to get to the deep fryer or the ice cream maker ever again. Because priorities.)
4) corral things in vessels
Spatulas in a canister
Cat toys in a small bin
Each desk has a basket for little things
Bowl for keys and glasses by the door
Coffee supplies in a basket
Soap and sponges in a bowl
Shelves, drawers of stuff in boxes of like things
5) if you can’t see it, you’ll forget it exists
More reason to store things in small boxes without lids in drawers and on shelves
6) minimize “thing blindness” by reducing clutter via empty surfaces
Both of us ignore visual distraction in order to be able to function. This leads to drifts of objects on surfaces that we eventually stop seeing. We do better if we don’t ALLOW things to accumulate on surfaces, at least not without something to corral them.
Hence “task stations” on countertops and objects corralled in vessels.
7) “We don’t need two roasting pans!”
Sometimes the carrying cost of objects is more than the value of the object. Keep the best one and maybe a backup, donate or recycle extras. (This is as close as we get to the Kondo method at our house.)
Electric pianos, copies of Gray’s Anatomy (the book), realistic dildos, punch bowls. You get the picture.
8) if it’s out, it should be useful or beautiful
Hence my vast collection of plain or beautiful boxes for storing ugly things that need to be at hand.
9) And finally, to please the autistic (me) with a materials fetish… fuck plastic.
Privilege helps here, because wood, metal, glass, stone, and rattan are expensive. For us, with a small amount of disposable income available to solve persistent problems, me not melting down from overwhelm over too many unwanted objects with irritating textures/colors is worth expense. We do our best to save money via a lot of thrifting and we happily take advantage of the availability of awesome objects our friends want to get rid of when those objects fit my autistic specifications.
(Also, my autism is pleased that this list ends on 9, one of my top three favorite numbers.)
All of this comes together as part of our larger Grail quest of meltdown-reduction, healthy stimming encouragement, and executive function support.
And it can happen for us now thanks to appropriate medication support for #adhd. #Adderall
Of course, in addition to the executive function boost from meds, all of this is happening now because of our ADHD dependence on the urgency of deadlines. In our case it’s not because we’re about to have guests, but something larger: age and advancing disability. We are getting to the age when we don’t have excess energy or tolerance for pain, and the drains on energy and the pains we experience are more profound. At our age (both of us are 56), we just can’t afford to miss too many doses of a medication, break something tripping on a rug, spend preventable time in the hospital, or lose time and energy trying to locate something important.
We will fail, and that’s important to acknowledge. We will fail to maintain a system. We will still lose shit. We will suddenly notice drifts of visual chaos that we’ve allowed to accumulate. We will fail to balance all those competing principles above all the time.
And so we move forward knowing that failure will happen… or perhaps we can manage to reframe it as a perpetual work in progress, an agile build, an adaptive phased approach. I do that kind of shit all the time at work.
CW: Brief mention of suicidal ideation, job-related stress, aging
About a week ago I wrote about recognizing that I’m burned out*, autism-style. Emotionally drained, physically weak, unable to manage simple things like task initiation or even activities of daily life like showering or eating, without significant risk of being overwhelmed, emotionally dysregulated (meltdowns galore!), or prevented from doing whatever the next thing is. I was a ball of snot and fear and sharp sharp knives and I felt like I was drowning in a sea of vindictive and untrustworthy spiders.
*Burnt out? I dunno – I’m sure there must be a rule about which one is correct. I just don’t know what it is. I tend to use burnt out and burned out interchangeably.
I don’t know what neurotypical burnout is like – I’ve never been neurotypical. But I can tell you that my experience of autistic burnout is on par with the most severe cases of burnout or chronic mental illness that I’ve seen among my neurotypical friends. Not just tired; exhausted. Not just discouraged; distraught. Beyond cynical, I lose hope and can’t stop crying. Not just unable to get out of bed; unable to move my eyes.
One major feature for me as an autistic: the tools I’ve learned from the rest of the world for recovering from burnout are either difficult to access, difficult to use consistently, or just plain ineffective for my neurodivergent brain. I’m required to remember how to take care of myself while I’m emotionally dysregulated, which is a non-starter even on a good day. My autism means that I can get so profoundly burned out and dysregulated that I get emotional tunnel vision. I just can’t see the remedies that are there around me begging to be chosen… even if I know they will help.
Additionally, I’ve learned burnout can happen quite a lot in an autistic person’s life with cumulative ill effects. For me, certainly, I can count five major times in my thirty year career when I’ve been so burned out that I needed a completely new job and months away from work to recover. There are loads of other times when I got burned out badly enough that, although I didn’t have to leave work, my work performance or relationships suffered and I had to do a catastrophic amount of reputation repair and damage control.
As I get older, burnout happens more quickly for me, with less warning, and it is harder and harder to recover from. It’s like the feeling is cumulative: every episode of burnout brings with it the burden of past burnouts. Given that my tools for actively recovering are pretty limited by a lifetime of poor training and poor examples (my autism is only recently diagnosed and as yet poorly explored) and I’m burning out faster and more profoundly than I used to when I was younger, burnout is becoming a significant threat to my life and lifestyle. Again. Still.
In other words, the older I get, the less I can afford to get burned out at all.
When I realized a couple of weeks ago that I was profoundly burned out – enough to take leave from work if I’d had the option – I knew I had to make my recovery count, quickly.
If I didn’t I risked:
Blowing the newly-boosted but still-limping confidence I’ve accumulated since recognizing that I’m neurodivergent and not just a weirdo who fails a lot
Failing (or even just breaking down) at work during a very high traffic, high pressure time
Losing my performance bonus (I count on that money – it’s not “extra”, it’s a sizeable chunk of my compensation)
Losing my job and having to find a new one right away
Losing my health insurance at 56 with a growing stack of major healthcare needs for myself and my partner
Losing many of the things that form a barrier between me and suicide
Worrying my already chronically worried cats
As an acquaintance in the online autism community said about their own currently-emerging burnout, “…[M]y life as I know it will end. Not suicidally or anything, just, I can’t rebuild from scratch again.” Yeah. Me, too. The stakes are high, our margins are thin, and taking a break to recover from burnout can be very, very disruptive to the stability many of us on the autism spectrum crave. Not to mention expensive as fuck, and I haven’t recovered financially yet from the last time I burned out 3 years ago.
So. I’m burned out but not free to drop everything for repeated screenings of Heartstopper and the Harry Potter movies. I need to stay mostly sober and responsible, maintain a decent attendance record at work, and keep doing the health work I’m already doing* so doctors don’t yell at me.
* I have Type 2 diabetes and scoliosis, and I’m finally making real progress in keeping those two conditions out of crisis-mode. (My a1c is almost normal!) Losing ground on my health would be expensive and painful and also really fucking humiliating for me.
So. How do I recover from my current state – leaning out over the edge of a potentially bottomless burnout chasm and highly likely to fall in?
It’s clear, now that I know I’m neurodivergent, that for me the best remedy for burnout is to drop as many balls as I can and do as much nothing as I can possibly manage.
Nothing is my friend. Things are my enemies.
Every social event, conversation, decision, outing, phone call, meeting, project, clothing change, document read or written, or even walk around the block deepens that burned out feeling and weakens my ability to recover.
So what am I trying instead of taking time off work? And how is it working? I want to take some time to write down some of this, both for others who may be going through the same thing (YMMV of course) and also for myself, to keep a record of what seems to be working so far.
What am I trying?
Here’s a quick list of what’s been working for me over the last two weeks.
Turn Down Every Invitation
I’ve declined* all social invitations for the next several weeks (possibly months), even with the partner who shares my house, in favor of hanging about in my shorts with my hair uncombed, only vaguely paying attention to anything. (Yes, I’m bored. No, that isn’t a terrible problem to have.)
*Because sometimes I won’t say no if I don’t have a “good” excuse, I’ve pre-written one that I’m using everywhere I can: “I’m so glad you invited me. I miss you! I have to say no because I’m giving myself permission to prioritize quiet alone time this summer. Please keep asking, though, because I am excited to say yes when I’m in a social space again.” It’s not perfect but it’s a good starter that I can customize to the person/occasion.
Pay Attention to As Little As Possible
Since I lead a team at work and have to pay attention to their needs most of the time, I’ve cut way back on things I’m attending to outside of work. I am reading headlines, not articles (my partner will summarize anything I need). I avoid clicking in on social media trending topics. I’m watching things I’ve seen before many times. (Thank you Christopher Nolan for Interstellar and Alice Oseman for Heartstopper.) I’m letting some political stories and Twitter dramas proceed without my knowledge or input. This is a big change for me, as my general nature is to get up in the business of everything around me; it’s a part of my self-concept that I am aware, observant, and informed at all times about as many things as possible. Right now, I’m just not going to be that person and I’m going to let that be OK.
Stop Trying to Optimize Everything
This started before I was burned out, months ago, because I realized I was irritating my partner with increasingly detailed instructions on not only what to do but how to do it. Looking back I recognize that I tend to want to control things so that there are no surprises, no rework, and everything is smooth for everyone, believing it’s my role to prevent things from going wrong everywhere. So if I have learned the “best” method for grilling a zucchini or breading a chicken wing I’ll include that in my instructions. I end up writing and reciting a LOT of instructions – even for someone who does instructional design for a living.
While it’s admirable (if unsustainable) to try to optimize outcomes, when I’m burning out I lose my sense of proportion about that need for control. I want to control everything or nothing. And since trying to control my partner, an actual human who makes his own decisions with his own grownup brain, was stressful for both of us, I temporarily gave myself permission to give that up. If something is so important that it a) MUST BE DONE, and b) MUST BE DONE RIGHT, I do it myself. If I can let it be “good enough”, I let someone else do it. If I can’t tolerate having it done poorly and I can’t do it myself, I skip it. Period.
Perfection can wait.
My partner and I tend to make decisions about food, entertainment, money, etc., together. At work I have a reputation for wanting to weigh in on decisions that affect me and my team. But for the duration of burnout recovery, I’m walking away from any decision I can delegate. I’m saying “I’ll back your play if you make the call,” far more than I ever have before and I’m finding it’s not uncomfortable. I trust my teammates and partners, and if that trust fails I’m learning again to trust my own ability to adjust to imperfection.
So wherever I can I let them lead. Where I can’t delegate, I choose the simplest option. Not the option optimized to please the most people (my usual mode) but whatever option can be done in a click, handled with an email, brought in from the porch, or consumed with my hands in front of an open fridge.
(As I was writing this my partner, who is arranging a few things before he goes out with friends, came in with a tray of supper and asked me where I wanted it. That moment became an opportunity for me to decline the decision, and for him to make a once-and-forever decision about supper trays: they go on the coffee table next to the couch where Jane works. Done. QED. No more supper tray decisions, probably forever. Enormous relief! Plus yummy cheese and fruit and tuna salad for me to graze on while I watch… well, you’ll see in the next section what I’m watching.)
Samefoods, Sameclothes, and Samecontent
Even before I was autistic, I’ve always had the stereotypically autistic tendency to settle on one way of doing things and do it consistently.
Like “samefoods”, for instance. Though I have a wiiiiiide variety of things I enjoy eating, I really like always having a fried egg and sausage for breakfast, or the same latte order, or the same “cheese and cherries” snack tray next to me all day. I like knowing I’ll have a consistently acceptable experience of these things without much emotional or physical effort.
For burnout recovery I’ve extended that idea to just about everything I can think of: clothing (I’m writing this in the same sports-bra-and-boxer-briefs outfit I exercise and sleep in, and I only throw on a grownup shirt for virtual meetings, pants/shoes only for leaving the house), hairstyles (messy topknot all day and all night), television and books (re–watching and re-reading is soooo soothing), document templates and tasks at work, and anything else I can think to same-ize.
I’m finding that if I don’t put any effort into or add any risk related to these small same-things, I have more margin for dealing with other, bigger things and I can keep myself clear and emotionally organized.
(And at least one restaurant is getting used to making the same sandwich order for me 3 times a week; I’m thrilled to give the tuna melt from Vessel in Seattle my repeated patronage.)
When I’m recovered I’ll go back to adventure foods and new storylines and compelling news and documentaries and daring outfits. I’m still that same curious and driven brain. I just need to rest all of that for a while, and that’s OK. In fact, it feels pretty good.
Set a Very Low Bar
I’m ambitious, as a rule. I will choose overachieving in every situation when I’m allowed, even when I know that it’s destructive for me in the longterm.
But not right now. On purpose, I’m setting the bar for every hour, every day, super super low. Did I sleep at least a small amount in 24 hours? Win. Have I taken my meds? Win. Am I marginally hydrated? Win. Do I smell mostly OK? Win. Have I had a little bit of pleasure or quiet? Have I successfully navigated not hurting myself today? WIN.
That’s it – that’s about as much as I want to promise for any given moment, hour, or day.
When a day ends, am I at yes for basic human functions? Then that’s the whole ballgame. Because when I’m in burnout, basic human functions are hard enough. Period. End of story.
Soothe My Senses First
(Honestly, this one seemed small to me at first, but it’s not. Really really not small.)
Now that I know I’m autistic, I feel freer to acknowledge that there are some sensations that set my teeth on edge; I have sensory sensitivities*, not just shit I’m picky or snobby about. In burnout recovery, I’m finally acknowledging that my sensory needs are foundational to my ability to cope.
*At least one beloved partner would like to have known this earlier, having suffered my shocking and immediate response when, during an intimate encounter, he tried to put his fingers in my mouth.
Way more than I’ve let myself admit in the past, my failure to attend to sensory things has led to meltdowns even when sensory things are not the things I think I’m melting down about. Sure, I’m mad because someone parked in front of my driveway or won’t answer my simple question, but I melt down because that happens on top of hours of ignoring an annoying noise or hip pain or an itch, or because I’ve been a little too hot or cold for a while, or I put off peeing, or (like right now) I have the hiccups and they’re not going away*.
*No, I don’t know why I get the hiccups at least twice a week, and I don’t know how to reliably stop them… though sometimes a particularly perverse way of breathing deeply can interrupt the diaphragm spasm and give me relief.
So right now I’m giving myself permission to aggressively file the edges off my environment. I have the quiet fan running in my office. My partner and his noisy podcasts have been gently nudged towards his upstairs office. My office window is cracked for fresh air all the time. The air conditioning is made to work harder at night so I can sleep without hot flashes. (We’ll find a way to adjust to the added cost later. This is temporary.) My clothing is soft soft soft. The blankets on my sofa and my bed are the super plush deep red ones that please my skin and my eyes (and therefore my brain) more than their grey or brown cousins. I do not answer the phone.
And I stim every time I get the urge.
Treat Every Near-Meltdown as if it’s a Meltdown
True to the autistic stereotype, I melt down when I’m overwhelmed – with tasks, emotions, or sensory input. And also true to the stereotype, I’m quite bad at recognizing I’m melting down until it’s too late. Typically about halfway through forming the thought I need to stop or I’m going to melt down, I melt down.
The speed of meltdown events is the biggest factor in my inability to prevent them. If I’m about to melt down, it’s almost always already too late to stop it.
And to be absolutely clear, stopping meltdowns when I can is critical to recovering from burnout for me. That’s because every meltdown takes me backwards, removing progress I’ve made and forcing me to start from way farther back along the path than I was.
Since I am bad at recognizing meltdowns as meltdowns when they’re about to happen, I’ve turned to identifying potential very early precursors and blasting them with self-care. I’m learning to recognize when I have the urge to be sarcastic, for instance, or when I start to fantasize about saying no to something. Or the urge to cry. Or thinking I need a break after this.
I’ve learned that these are the signals I have to take seriously or do real damage to myself.
I wouldn’t have taken them seriously in the past, even in the recent past. Most of my life I’ve thought of myself as neurotypical, beholden to neurotypical standards. Neurotypical people can get a little pissed off or impatient or itchy and it isn’t a catastrophe. I thought I should be able to do the same… which has led to me consistently underestimating how far I am down the path to a giant cataclysm of emotion and will.
I’m trying not to make that mistake anymore. I’m autistic. I’m alexithymic. An early warning system is critical to my survival in an autism-unfriendly world.
So now I give myself permission to treat even tiny, laughable warning signs as if I were actually melting down. I don’t mean that I scream and throw a shoe at the closet door (my partner’s customary first sign that I’m melting down). I mean that I treat it like I can see a tornado in the sky and I have five minutes or less to get somewhere safe… even if it’s just a funny-shaped cloud.
At the first sign of impatience, irritation, anger, or tears, I clear the room as quickly as possible and I stim. Depending on the situation, that might mean faking a small urgent matter to bug out of a meeting, going to the bathroom to be alone, giving my partner the code word (“goodnight”) that means I need him to gently clear out… whatever buys me a little space and time. Then I grab the nearest, most acceptable stim I can get: anything from a small soft piece of red chenille fabric I keep in my bag if I’m amongst people to a full bodied session of chaotically slamming my body back and forth to my stim playlist if I am alone.
If it’s not really a nascent meltdown, I know pretty close to immediately: stimming is satisfying and happymaking but not physically necessary.
If I’m averting a real meltdown, stim activity focuses me and centers me in my body, and it gives me just enough relief and room in my head to think. And feel. And release.
Since I’ve been treating near-meltdowns as meltdowns (about two weeks), my meltdown frequency has drastically reduced. I went from a meltdown at least every other day that could last as long as 24 hours to something like one full meltdown a week that I can release and move forward from after only an hour or two.
That’s MASSIVE, and it’s helping me gain confidence that I am not always going to be a slave to my tendency to react poorly to overwhelm. I’m starting to feel in my bones that there is a whole universe of autistic-friendly cope that I can master and use to feel better, consistently and reliably.
I’m beginning to realize that I could possibly, maybe, in the far future, feel okay.
All of that – that whole list of things above that I’m doing to help myself recover from burnout – has one central thread: the more nothing I can fill my days with, the faster I will feel better.
And it’s showing results.
It’s been almost 2 weeks since I came back to work from vacation fully burned out, weeping and melting down near-daily, absolutely terrified that my biggest project of the year is starting now and I really can’t fail at it. In that two weeks I expected to just barely be able to do the minimum at work and in my relationships, hoping that no one notices I’m failing or deferring tasks until I feel better.
But in that two weeks I’ve clocked only two absolutely awful days (where I did end the day in tears without the ability to use language) and three or four days when I was practically happy – confident about my work, adequately connected with my partners and the world, and able to sleep well without drugs or nightmares.
I’m not okay, but given how awful I felt every minute the week before I realized I was burned out, just the simple progression of marginally good days is a bounty beyond my ability to fathom.
There’s a chewy metaphor for burnout that uses a tabletop roleplaying game mechanic, but it’s 7pm and time for me to stim for a bit and let go of the day. I’ll save that metaphor for another post.
Wish me luck for the next however-long, as I craft a real and sustainable burnout recovery.
What do you do to prevent or recover from burnout? Is it working? That’s what the comments section below is for. Go nuts – I want to hear about you!
I was writing the last post and saw my current Twitter name (Agitated Spiders for Human Rights), which reminded me that I wrote a song once about my autism. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was absolutely about the surprising and often confounding ways I show up in relationships with my social quirks and finicky approach to tenderness and wild emotional rollercoaster.
So I’m posting it here. It’s called Spiders.
(Pretend I said something charming about how bad my production values are. It is what it is. It’s a cheap ukulele and amateur Garage Band stylings. Enjoy only if your own sensory sensitivities don’t ring you like a bell when you hear it.)
I wrote it in the early months of a tumultuous relationship that ultimately ended badly – mostly because neither of us had any clue about our individual neurodivergence, so we just kept failing at the neurotypical things we thought we were supposed to do, like planning dates and managing logistics and communicating about our feelings. He was a good guy, still is. We just hurt each other a lot.
I find it applies to my current relationships as well, and everything in my past – friends and partners and lovers as well as coworkers and doctors and fucking everyone else.
The central metaphor – “I’m a bag of agitated spiders” – comes from a conversation with a friend I miss with a deep and painful longing. The friendship was a casualty of my undiagnosed-autism-trauma. One day I just couldn’t talk to her. I may never be able to explain it to her in a way that makes sense, but I’m hoping for the strength to try some day.
Yeah, so that’s one of my old songs. I’m writing more now, and I have a song I hope to finish this calendar year about what being in love is like with ADHD, about the endless now of hyperfocused desire. Wish me luck on that one – finding the right words has been difficult but it’s getting easier.
Have you made music about neurodivergence? Made art? Built a thing? Links in the comments, please!
This is not what I expected, your warm eyes taking in what looks like beauty to you, still, your hand cups my chin like a bird, like a simple little word you whisper softly, like it doesn’t hurt at all
But don’t you see the storm? But don’t you see the storm?
I’m a raging nightmare of a person A gallery of curtains hiding unforgiving knives I’m a churning ocean full of wreckage I know I can’t protect you from my cyclone of my life
I am not what you expected, Someone sweet taking time to learn the language of your body Someone easy, somene cool to the touch, like the back side of the pillow On your wrist, like a glass of lemonade
Can’t you feel the fire? Can’t you feel the fire?
You’re a man of consequence and honor, You pride yourself on kindness but I think that you’re naive. I’m a bag of agitated spiders. I’m kerosene and lighters and signs that you should leave.
I don’t know what to do with patience. When you lie there tracing fingers on the landscape of my fear Waiting quietly until I catch my breath, kissing soft behind my ears Until my skin reveals a roll of old barbed wire
Unfolding in your arms Unfolding in your arms
I’m a raging nightmare of a person A gallery of curtains hiding murderers and thieves I’m a bag of agitated spiders. I’m kerosene and lighters and I think that you should leave.
If you’re following me on Twitter, you’ve probably seen me post about stimming.
This is how you can tell I’m a baby autistic: I’m 56 years old and I just discovered stimming. Like, stimming as a source of pleasure, as an emotional regulation tool, as a place to put the overwhelming weirdness of me that flows from me in gouts.
I’m learning that I don’t have to suppress my physical weirdness. I can use it, feel it, enjoy it, live in it, savor it, nurture it, and let it fly. (And I can choose to let it be visible or not, depending on who I’m with and how much ambient weirdness tolerance there is in a room.)
I have, and will have, loads and loads of ideas about stimming as I explore it, but to start I just need to let it happen.
Primarily right now, stimming wants to happen when I’m alone at home. And it wants to happen to music.
I’ve consulted with my bones and they tell me they want deep bass, twangy guitar strums, deep or passionate voices, and lots and lots of drums. Is it a handjive or a Prima-style bass-drum drive? Even better. If a drummer or a bassist is working up a sweat somewhere, I want to stim to it.
What kind of stimming? Big, deep, full torso rocking. Back and forth or diagonal if I’m distressed. Side to side or up and down if I’m happy. Shoulders/arms optional. If I’m super happy and the music is the B-52s, it’s the Peanuts dance. (Huh – maybe I should add Linus and Lucy to my stimming routine?)
I’ve learned that if I’m melting down, or about to melt down, this kind of stimming (rocking and bouncing) makes a huge difference in how quickly I recover and how much damage I do. Heavy stimming can break my focus on the distress and it definitely acts as a valve to release the pressure of intense emotion. I get so into it I forget to be angry.
If I think to turn on music, the effectiveness of stimming as distress-reduction gets even better.
And if I stim/rock/bounce when I’m happy… man that’s just fucking delicious.
Because I know that distress makes my memory fail (which is why I can’t think of distress-reduction techniques when I’m upset) and my tolerance for complex steps evaporates, I made myself a stimming playlist. With a playlist I can pull it up from my phone, laptop, or TV with just a few steps.
(If you’re an Amazon Music customer I’m told you will be able to see and play this playlist*. My apologies if that doesn’t work. I’ve included the songs below.)
There’s some refining to do. I had a shit morning today and I used the playlist to great effect, but I skipped a few songs (not sure if Ballroom Blitz will have the longevity I thought it would). I also found that I needed to start big (heavy drums and base, driving beat) and end small (slower beats, more emotional resonance, more personal), so I rearranged the songs into the current configuration (below) to get something like a workout arc that grabs my energy and helps it settle after a while.
So yeah, that’s a thing. A stimming playlist. I’m especially happy that I thought of this because these kinds of repeatable, accessible-anywhere, modular tools are what I need so that the natural chaos of my ADHD doesn’t defeat my efforts to care for my more sensitive and brittle autism.
Do you have stims you use? Do you use music or other media to enhance/inspire stims? Or emotional regulation? Do you use a playlist for this? Am I even using the terms right? I dunno. I am just starting to figure all this out.
Jane’s Stim Playlist (Wind Me Up)
Wind You Up
Norwegian R&B – honest to god technomage
I Like to Move It
Ukranian – accordion, marching bass drum, and other embarrassing instrumentation
Danny’s All-Star Joint
Rickie Lee Jones
Rats & Raccoons
WHAT APOCALYPSE NERD DOESN’T LOVE THIS SONG?
16 Shells from a 30.6
I cannot have a playlist without Tom Waits in it. It is ordained.
Peaches (1996 Remaster)
That bass line is pure sex.
The Mountain Goats
Since 2020, this is America’s theme song.
Lift Me Up ‘Till the Morning Comes
Oh My God Yeah Fuck It
Mike Doughty [feat Moon Hooch and Miss Eaves]
Are You Gonna Be My Girl
Come On Eileen
Dexys Midnight Runners
Arrow Through Me
Paul McCartney and Wings
The perfectly crafted pop song.
We Have a Dream
Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds
She’s a Genius
I Wanna Be Sedated (2002 Remaster)
Valerie (Version Revisited)
Mark Ronson [feat Amy Winehouse]
The James Gang
Joe Walsh is an oldschool guitar mage.
If you don’t know The Blow, change that now.
Big Rude Jake
My best friend and I used this as the theme song for our stage and cable access shows. Jake was a Toronto punk-influenced jazz dude who sold us the rights for $1 American. He died this year of cancer. RIP, my friend.
This song lives in my root chakra, if root chakras exist. (Yeah, they really don’t. But it feels like they do. You know?)
Cold Steel Hammer
Big Rude Jake
Sister Needs a Settle
This song marks a transition from (mostly) more driving beats to softer, more emotional, more focused songs. This is my cool-down, if I need it.
Singing harmony with Natalie is a stim.
Seven Day Mile
This song’s lyrics kind of don’t make sense and also kind of exactly make sense. It’s an encouragement to keep going. It taps a vein for me.
OLD PUNK BOYFRIEND MEMORIES. And that descending chord progression in the chorus is so smart and sly.
Far from any Road
The Handsome Family
Have you seen the first season of True Detective?
Cool in a bottle.
Somebody That I Used to Know
I like songs that play with measure or phrase lengths, and this one does it masterfully. Good strum, too. I feel it in my chest.
Walk Off the Earth
The acoustic mix on this cover, combined with ethereal and fluffy guitar strumming
Best cover of this song, even better than Sting’s original.
Ben Folds Five
A SONG ABOUT ME BEING ME. This one will get featured in a blog post soon I’m sure.
Go Into the Night
More play with measure and phrase lengths.
Paper Mache World
If you’ve watched Heartstopper, you recognize this one.
Why Am I Like This?
Same as above. Also… I swear to god it’s about neurodivergence.
If the World Should End in Fire
The Handsome Family
It’s weirdly reassuring.
*I’m not a fan of Amazon Music – or of Amazon – but it isn’t Spotify so it has that going for it. I used to work for Amazon, so most of my stuff is just up there in Amazon’s cloud and it will take me more executive function than I currently have to collect and migrate everything… which is how companies like this make their money. It is what it is.