Overload is one of the easier autism-related concepts to explain to a non-autistic person. Basically, it’s what happens when you’re just too tired to cope. Strangely enough, the vast majority of people are familiar with this concept!
The difference with autism is the reason for the overload. Often because of sensory processing difficulties, such as hypersensitivity to sound, bright colours or smell, the wrong environment can put an autistic person in a perpetual state of overload and exhaustion.
My understanding of my own sensory sensitivities and triggers is still in its infancy. With the recognition of my autistic identity came the framework for realising that some things I find difficult might not actually be my being fussy or demanding, but because I actually experience the world in a different way. Even with that knowledge, though, deciphering my sensory environment and the aspects that can send me home practically incapable of changing my clothes, let alone cooking dinner for myself after work, is an ongoing process.
At some point I’ll write a bit more about overload, recovery and how I manage those risks in the workplace; but that’s not where I’m heading with this post. This post is about choosing the right self care at the right time, and how that’s not always as easy as it looks.
As well as sensory overload, I’ve also struggled throughout my life with depression. Although I didn’t seek help until early adulthood, looking back, I was an awfully depressed child! I spent some time at university not being depressed, but my life has really been arranged since junior school in bouts of relative mental “wellness” punctuating a background of depression, rather than the other way around.
Now the problem is that the symptoms of depression and overload, on the face of it, look identical. But they’re different.
You have to stop. Stop now and curl up somewhere quiet. Your brain just wants to cry. It’s hard to think, even to move. So you move slowly: to protect yourself, to conserve your strength. You can’t cope with anything more.
You cancel social activities. You stop going out. You restrict exercise to the routes you know, because you just can’t cope with the unexpected right now. It’s almost too much effort just to go out the door. You don’t enjoy the things you love. You just need to stop. Stop now.
And at this point I ask myself: which is it? Depression or overload? Is there too much, or too little? Is there just too much of the wrong thing?
What does self care look like today? Is it a quiet night in with the lights on low, with a book and a blanket and a hot drink? Is it a choir rehearsal: immersion in music until you can feel the sound in your bones; keeping up with instructions; singing under bright lights? Or is it an evening run in the fresh air? Can I risk being up late, or do I need that sleep more than usual? Am I moving too slowly to keep to a schedule? Do I need to protect my senses tonight, or stimulate them?
What are the costs of choosing badly? What’s on at work tomorrow – what could go wrong if I’m having a bad day? Who am I meeting with? Can I afford to risk it? Or maybe there’s something I’ve been looking forward to on the weekend. Is it really worth jeopardising that?
What did self care look like last night; last week; the week before? How many choir rehearsals have I now missed? Are there real things in the medium term, whether necessary or just desirable, that will be jeopardised by my not doing something tonight? Does it matter whether I’m broken tomorrow if the alternative is unpaid bills, or not seeing a good friend for a holiday this year?
I’ll know if I chose wrong. Overloaded me can’t safely drive: she can’t process the visual signals quickly enough. Depressed me can, and probably should – she just doesn’t want to go out. Overloaded me will suffer in a choir rehearsal. Depressed me will suffer if left alone with her thoughts. All the me’s can enjoy a good book, but depressed me will be restless afterwards, and overloaded me might not even be able to focus on the page. If not allowed to recover, overloaded me will be exhausted at work the next morning. If left to fester, depressed me will struggle to get out of bed. But none of these signals come before the event.
Right now I’m overloaded. Last night I wrote a list of things I couldn’t currently do, when I’d last been able to do them, and when I anticipated being able to do them again. I looked at the list and realised I had bills piling up because I’d not been able to pull myself together to read the meters. I realised that the next time I expected to be able to make a financial decision involving more than a grocery shop wouldn’t be for another week or three. Not making that decision has implications, as does making the wrong one. So today I know that self care looks like clearing my schedule and asking nothing of myself but to fix up those bills, and maybe by the end of the day my head will be clear enough to think about finances. Sometimes it’s that easy. Sometimes it’s not.
It’s an interesting dilemma, when you’re not in the middle of it. I wonder: what would you do?