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How to Tell the Difference Between Depression and Autistic Burnout

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My depressive episodes and my autistic burnout episodes are two completely different things, although it did take quite a while to figure out that they were two separate entities. When I was younger, they blurred together a lot. I wasn’t able to verbalize the difference until recently.

In my depressive episodes, all I want to do is sleep. Napping is the perfect way to diminish hours until it is time to go to bed again. I cry so much, usually loud gasping sobs. I also will talk to myself while crying, mostly nonsensical sentences. With burnout, I basically become paralyzed. During burnout, all I can do is sit somewhere and stare off into space. I don’t even feel like sleeping. I just become non-verbal and stare at the wall until a human comes along and tries to snap me out of it, although I am not always able to. If I’m by myself, it’s even worse, because I just have to sit there, waiting for it to be over. It’s like my meat puppet is there, but my soul is gone. I am able to cry, but it is usually just silent tears running down my face. Burnout is one of the scariest parts of being autistic, for me. It is terrifying being unable to even twitch a finger.

There are differences in what causes the depression or burnout. I feel like my depression is more of a mental state and my burnout is when I just completely shut down. My burnout occurs most when I am done trying to exist in the scary human world and need a break. It happens a lot when I feel lonely or when I am going through a PTSD experience involving my abusive parents or ex-spouse. It also correlates a lot to when I feel like my social skills are inadequate and that no one will ever want to interact with me.

One thing that is the same in both burnout and depression is the mean voice in my head. It is a constant litany of self-hate that enjoys reaching into the deepest depths of my mind to find whatever material it can use. The mean voice delights in bringing up whatever is necessary to keep me in a state of misery. Another similarity is the urge to kill myself. Both depression and burnout hurt a lot physically and mentally and my usually passive suicidal thoughts take a turn for the worse. The last thing they have in common is the occasional yo-yo effect. I will find myself being terribly upset one moment, better the next, and right back into the sadness. That makes it even harder to cope, because I never know what or when is happening next.

There aren’t many tips I can give for dealing with either depression or burnout, other than to just try and get through it. I have made plans while in a good state of mind as to what to do if burnout or depression strikes. I have a list of activities, such as knitting and reading, and a list of people I can go to if I need help. I tell myself a lot that each minute that passes is another minute you managed to survive. It might be the smallest triumph, but at least it is a triumph.

Getty image by Jorm Sangsorn.

Originally published: September 1, 2021
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