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Autism and a career: signposts

July 27, 2015

7 years ago ~ July, 2008

We’d moved to Maryland the month before. I felt guilty that I still hadn’t physically or emotionally recovered from how grueling the move process [from IN to MD] had been, so I jumped into looking for a job, any job, much sooner than I probably should have.

I’d applied to GIS jobs, but got no callbacks. In desperation, I applied for a bank teller job in a nearby town because I knew I could do it well (although I expected I would be bored stiff within weeks). Their HR dragged the process out long enough that I ran across an office manager job in Baltimore City, working for some art consultants, that at least sounded way more interesting, possibly even design-related (one of my newer special interests).

Neither was what I really wanted, but I didn’t know what I did want, except for the nebulous: “more creative, but also a technical aspect so I can become an expert. An environmental focus would be great!” {What job is that? Neither of these 2, that’s for sure.}

By late August, I picked the Baltimore job. Within the first week, I knew I’d made a horrible mistake. After my first day, I was practically catatonic: Spouse took me out to dinner, and it was an utter disaster in a way I’d never experienced before. I don’t remember much of that evening, except that (I think) Spouse left the food on the table without eating any of it. He was annoyed, but I had no energy to deal with him. All I do recall clearly is me sitting on a bench outside the restaurant, so tired and out of it that staring at the ants on the sidewalk was all I could focus on. I was so beyond-exhausted that I forgot how to talk.

{That’s apparently a thing that can happen to autistic people who are overwhelmed.}

The job got worse and worse. My 2 bosses were abusive, and I was afraid of them. I got injured on the job, and they used that as a way to coerce me into doing even more things that I shouldn’t do. I would get so panicky, I couldn’t think at all. Then I’d feel guilty and stupid and horribly ashamed at how ‘weak’ I was afterwards — there was no way to describe any of it to my friend K or Spouse that made any sense to them, so I started to feel like a hopeless loser who deserved to be treated poorly.

That was the beginning of the end of ‘normalcy’, but… I only figured out the connection this past weekend.

If the move hadn’t been so horrendous for me… well, who knows?

I remember telling my friend K, at the time, “I can feel that something essential, some fundamental resource, is being depleted faster than I can replenish it. But I don’t know what it is! So not only can I not halt the depletion, I can’t replenish either. I can’t avoid the bad stuff I’m currently doing, since I don’t know where the problem is. And when that resource runs out, … I don’t know what’s going to happen.” It felt so dire, I honestly thought I might die when I hit that wall. But… she didn’t know what I was talking about, and I didn’t know a better way to explain it, since I didn’t understand what was happening.

It was autistic burnout.

After 6 months, I got laid off when they went out of business. In a few months, I got a job as an executive assistant, which was, if possible, an even worse disaster. I didn’t even make it through the 3-month probation period before I was fired (for the first time ever).

For the $120/week unemployment I was qualified for, I had to apply to (iirc) 4 jobs every week. Nobody wanted to hire me to do anything. After a year, I stopped looking. Might as well change careers! I’ll become a graphic designer! But then I found out I had carpal tunnel syndrome. And then a whole host of other medical problems cropped up.

I entered a depressive phase that lasted 4 years. When I started to come out of it, I realized my energy levels were extremely low. I couldn’t be sure they hadn’t always been, since my parents insisted I push through that (or injury or illness), because how I felt was irrelevant. But in case this fatigue was a new problem, I entered the maze of medicine, looking for answers and solutions. Many, many expensive tests later, no one could tell me anything useful, although I did learn about other problems I hadn’t known I had.

Was I disabled now? How could I even establish that? It was too overwhelming to think about making a case to the government when I couldn’t get my friends or Spouse to take any of it seriously. Also, I was terrified of being permanently dependent on someone else. I wanted to go back to work, if only to earn money so I could feel like I deserved to exist.

On the other hand, I knew I could never again work a 9-5 job, sitting for 8 hours all day everyday. Pretending I care about the stupid crap everyone else thinks is so important.

+++

9.5 years ago ~ January, 2006

Business trip to Tysons Corner, Virginia, for software training on ICIS [US EPA database]. The 12 days I was there was the longest time I’ve ever been away from Spouse. Got to know 3 of my co-workers a lot better, plus our counterparts from all over the country.

Despite the cold weather and snow on the ground, took public transportation to DC Saturday to see the Textile Museum, and the National Museum of Women in the Arts; Sunday, I spent in Alexandria, Virginia, so I could revisit the Torpedo Factory my childhood friend KB had introduced me to in 1981.

Hatched a dream of someday working for US EPA. Region 5, headquartered in Chicago seemed likeliest, but Region 3, HQ’ed in DC, suddenly seemed a lot more appealing.

{By the time I stopped applying to federal government jobs, I’d been doing so, on and off, for 12 years. Never got even a glimmer of interest.}

+++

12 years ago ~ July, 2003

Still new at my Environmental Scientist job at IDEM-OWQ, but starting to get the hang of it. Gearing up for my negotiated ‘special schedule’ for my first semester of grad school, beginning the next month, which would allow me to work the usual 37.5 hours, but at slightly-odd times, accommodating my need for 8 class hours/week. (Requirement of my fellowship.)

Thinking that a M.S. in GIS was going to get me somewhere I wanted to go.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 30, 2015 17:04

    “I can feel that something essential, some fundamental resource, is being depleted faster than I can replenish it.”

    This feeling is so hard to explain, especially without knowing what it is, but that really nails it. A lot of feelings and experiences specific to autism seem ineffable and that was a very lonely acknowledgement for me before diagnosis.

    I relate to so many of the feelings you described, if not the situations themselves. Some of those things are really difficult to experience. You’re very strong for going through it and then processing it in this way. Thank you for sharing.

    • July 31, 2015 00:52

      Thank you for commenting! I’m always glad to hear something I wrote resonated for somebody.

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