What it feels like to mentally crash

Here's what I told my friends & family.

What it feels like to mentally crash
Photo by Lance Anderson / Unsplash

Hello my loves,

This month had a rough start. It's getting a bit easier now—I'm well enough to send this—but it kicked off with a stark reminder of my vulnerabilities. I'm still in self-protective mode, and I suspect I'll continue to be in some form of this for the rest of the month.

Below is a letter that I initially only shared privately to friends & family. You can have it too. Please keep it safe.

Sending blankets and kittens to anyone who's relating. (Tip: if you're too sensitive for descriptions right now and just want the tips, jump to "How I'm Taking Care of it" near the end of the letter.)


What I Shared with Friends & Family

I wanna share an update... not to vent, or to ask for anything in particular, but just because I'd like you to know:

I'm not doing well right now.
But I'm taking care of myself and it will get better.

Here's what led to this:

I was in a minor car accident a few weeks ago. No injuries, but plenty of damage to my car. Very clearly not my fault and nothing I could have done to avoid it, but sorting out the paths to resolution were uncomfortably complicated. And just being viscerally reminded that we drive around in little death boxes all the time shook me up pretty hard.

A few days after the accident, I left for a phenomenal 11-day trip to celebrate my partner's 40th birthday. It had two pretty intense destinations—Disneyland and Las Vegas—with a total of 15 people involved, and a bunch of party-style evenings. It was absolutely amazing and fun and phenonemal. It was also a *lot*.

I was really proud of how I took care of myself after the accident and throughout the trip. I let a lot of people help with the trip organizing, and I took a lot of alone time throughout it. (I now have absolutely no shame in spending an entire day solo on a group trip, and just meeting up for dinner or a show. It's actually a *really* good experience for me to wander fascinating places by myself, and the people I travel with understand and support this.) I also took a few nights completely solo in the middle of the trip, in between the two destinations.

When I got home, I was eager to jump into the things i've been planning, but I took a restrained approach to that with extra rest. I was aware that even though my brain said "Let's do stuff!", I definitely needed to reset from All The Things.

I thought I was doing "recovery" correctly.

It turned out my recovery needs were WAY bigger than I realized. The cost of holding it together for that long was a LOT. After about 4 days of being back home, when my mental math said "ok, that was the appropriate amount of recovery, you can do normal things now..." that's when I crashed hard.

It was like being back in the Extreme Burnout mode. I was waking up crying, my body hurt, my brain felt like it was silently screaming, my hands were clenched, Everything was suddenly Terrible and Everyone's Fault, all noises felt like being punched, and my teeth hurt from clenching them.

That started 8 days ago. I've cleared my schedule as best I could. I still tried to go to a special day-long workshop on Sunday, which I had signed up for awhile back. I communicated my sensitivities to the organizer and did my best. And while it was absolutely amazing, I could only last a few hours before needing to tap out. And even though it was an inspiring and supportive experience, I still scream-cried the whole drive home.

This super tense state gets followed by a shutdown: an eerily-quiet brain, slack facial expression, confusion, fog, slowness. It's like all of the Autopilot that helps me move and form words every day turns Off, and I have to operate this meatsuit control panel in fully manual mode. And wow is that difficult.

I've spent the past few days doing as close to nothing as possible. Gentle games. Low-drama tv. Letting my brain rest.

The best word I have is "overstimulated." But that feels like such an understatement. This state runs deep. And it's how I spent a lot of last year.

I've made so many improvements—and have felt so much better, for so many months—that this was shocking to go back into. But it's not backsliding. It's autism. It's a state that's going to keep showing up for the rest of my life, and all I can do is try to create circumstances for it to happen less often, and to care for it more effectively.

How I'm Taking Care of it

What I've learned is that the most important things I can do are...

a) Stop making it worse.

Shut down the stressors. Clear the schedule. Back away from the hard projects. Sit the fuck down.

b) Give it space to run its course.

Games and TV actually have a really helpful role here. A lot of it feels like waiting out the flu. There's not a lot I can do to improve my situation when I'm shut down. Just sleep, eat, and try to move occasionally.

And whenever I start to feel better... I need to...

c) Use any energy I gain toward supporting more energy.

The biggest payoff seems to be exercise that gets my heart rate up, but that only works (and is only possible) after I've improved a bit more. Exploring interests, connecting gently with people who get it, getting into nature... these also help. But again, only after i get out of the shutdown.

The biggest (and hardest) lesson has been that I need to keep intense things away for much longer than I want, because I can easily knock myself back down if I'm not patient enough. I need to actually feel sustainably recovered first. not just "slightly better."

When there isn't space to delay stressors, it becomes a cruel cycle, and is the definition of Burnout.

Clearly, the car accident is still a factor. I had therapy yesterday about it. It helped.

But the amazing wonderful party events were a factor too. And it bums me out that I have to protect myself from things like that too.

I'm doing a little better today. I was able to write this. But i'm still super fragile. And i think it's gonna be at least another week before I feel safe again.