Running on fumes

I’ve been re-thinking Spoon Theory and how it applies to me recently. I wrote about spoons before, but I have come to the conclusion that Spoon Theory doesn’t really reflect what I experience. The way I understand it, you start the day with a set number of spoons, and when you have used them all up, you hit a wall. That’s it. Nothing more doing. I am also astonished that people seem to be able to quantify how many spoons they will need for particular activities. I don’t know how they do it!

I still think it’s an excellent metaphor and a good, comprehensible explanation of what people experience, but I think that what goes on with me is something different. You see, I don’t hit a wall. I don’t crash. I don’t shut down, or meltdown. I keep going. Probably not as efficiently as I should, but nevertheless, I keep going. I know that people also speak of borrowing spoons, to take up a spoon credit, so to speak, to keep going in a particular situation, but this debt has to be paid, and the crash is all the harder afterwards. That doesn’t happen to me either. Also, a period of rest does not necessarily replenish my supply of spoons. For me it is more like I keep going on and on and on, on a lower level, but without crashing completely.

When I was a child, I had a rechargeable torch. You could uncap the end and plug it in to recharge. It shone brightly for a little while, then the light would dim as the charge was used up. But the dim light would actually last for a long time, before it eventually went out altogether.

That’s what’s happening to me: I keep going for a long time, but only dimly.

I came across the phrase “running on fumes” recently. When you drive your car and the fuel indicator is on “empty” but the car is still going, you say it is running on fumes. (We once went for 30 kilometers on an empty tank!) All the liquid fuel is gone, only the petrol-saturated air is left to burn.

That phrase describes exactly what is happening to me. I don’t really have any energy left, but I burn the fumes and keep going regardless. It’s more of an effort, more of a struggle, and a lot of the time I’m teetering on the edge of a breakdown, but I don’t actually fall over.

This metaphor can be extended even further. What I feel quite often when I wake up in the morning is not that my energy has been renewed, but only that I have marginally more that I did in the evening. Possibly just enough to get through the day.

Imagine that you are driving your car and you are indeed running on fumes. Finally a petrol station comes in sight. Unfortunately the petrol there is very expensive. So what you do is that you don’t fill the tank up, but you take just a few litres to keep the car going for a bit, until you hopefully reach a cheaper petrol station. You travel on, with a bit more in the tank, but not much. Alas, soon these few litres are used up, and it’s back to fumes. Another petrol station! Oh no, it is yet another expensive one. So you take only a few litres, because you can’t afford more. And so the process is repeated.

That is how I feel over long stretches of my life. (Not always, there are some better times, but yeah, a lot.) I drive on, using the fumes or just enough energy to keep me going. I soldier on, and on, and on, always keeping my head above water, but only just.

Of course, as long as you keep going, nobody notices that there is anything wrong with you. After all, you manage, don’t you? If I had a breakdown, nobody would deny that I probably need to take some extended sick leave and try to get back on track. But with me, it never comes to that. People might notice that I’m not happy, or more irritable, or stressed out, but I always keep some sort of “it’s okay, really” façade up. I suppress the tears, ignore the stomach pains, ram the smiley mask tighter onto my face and keep going.

So what is this? Autistic burnout? Or simply middle age? I’ve been reading about the phenomenon of autistic burnout a lot, but again the characteristics mostly don’t seem to apply to me, chiefly because I am never actually completely burnt out. But one phrase used in the context of autistic burnout really hit the nail on the head for me. Someone (this was on Twitter, and I can’t remember who it was) cited an inability to connect with or pursue interests. And that is something I definitely experience, and it’s getting me down even further. I spend all my energy just living my life (and barely that – I haven’t vacuumed the floor for about 4 weeks), there is nothing left for proper interests. Sure, I read books, I watch “The Sky at Night” or whatever on television, but as for a real, all-encompassing, all-consuming, all-enveloping autistic interest – I haven’t had one for about 2 years. The last one just faded away and hasn’t been replaced with anything. I tried to rekindle this or that, but it didn’t work. I just can’t work up the energy, emotional investment and attention that it needs. There have always been in-between times, but they have never lasted that long. And I miss it. I need these interests to make me happy. They actually give me energy, they make me feel more alive. They enable me to survive the dreary day-to-day. But now the dreary day-to-day is all I am left with. So I’m caught in a vicious circle. I haven’t got the energy to sustain an intense interest, which, if I had it, would actually supply me with more energy. I can only hope that somewhere around the corner is something so huge, so amazing, so overwhelming that it will just sweep me away to a better place. But until then, to borrow a line from an old song, “life gets tasteless, don’t it?” Yes, tasteless. Colourless. Meh.

I just wonder, what will the effect be in the long term? Surely this way of life isn’t sustainable in the long run. But I have in fact sustained it for a long time – certainly a couple of years or so. So what I’m really afraid of is not that it might some day come to a real crisis. I’m afraid that it will go on like this, month after month, year after year, just about managing, never being happy, but never slipping into actual clinical depression either. Just an endless slog through the grey zone of life. Running on fumes. Forever.


Image: Sun shining onto a footpath through trees. It has no relevance to the post, I just chose something nice.


8 thoughts on “Running on fumes

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  1. Of all the topics you’ve covered on this blog in the past, the one that has resonated the most with me is special interests, and the way they can sustain you and give you a sense of purpose. I’m very sorry to hear that you don’t have the energy for one now. On the other hand, I wonder, if you had a special interest, would it be enough? I’ve long thought that your job was making you unhappy, even though you don’t hate it or anything like that. I can’t help but feel that a special interest would have the effect of making the symptoms more palatable, without treating the underlying problem. I don’t mean that as a negative thing–anything that makes life more enjoyable is good, especially if the underlying problem might go away on its own. (For instance, you might get a job offer or your family might say they want you to be near them, events that would change the basic framework of your life.)

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Of course, having such an interest would not solve the fundamental problem, but it would make my life much nicer! You are right that I’m not happy in my job, but at the same time I can’t think of any other job that would be better, so for now I will stay where I am. Some fundamental renovation of my life is in order, but maybe it needs to be more my inner life than my outer one. I’ve been seeing a therapist since February, not often, only about once a month, but I think this will help me. It’s not a quick process though.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. When the fuel indicator is on “empty” there is still gas in the tank. A car can’t literally run on fumes. The car will stop abruptly when the gas tank is actually empty. (I realize this is irrelevant to the point you’re making, but couldn’t resist correcting this inaccuracy.)

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    1. Yes indeed, I should have said that we drove for 30 km with the fuel indicator on empty, not the tank actually physically empty. I’m sure my readers knew what I meant but I concede that it was in fact inaccurate.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. To me it sound (reads) like you have depression as those are the symptoms of it. Even a low-grade depression will give you those symptoms. Spoon theory can look like it but I agree with you that it’s not what you have nor is it a good descriptor for what you are experiencing. And spoon theory was originally meant to apply only to physical conditions such as the Lupus that the originator of the term had. (I’d say ‘has’ only she seems to be doing quite well these days, if her youtube vids are anything to go by. I wonder if she’s taking medication for it.) ‘Spoons’ are just a metaphor for ‘Energy’. So if the person who has this type of physical condition rests, after a while they’re likely to get a little energy back. I have this up to a point – for me, if I get enough sleep (though normal rest doesn’t do it for me) for several nights then I’m usually okay for a few days, but with me it’s cyclical.

    I’m sure your autism (if you are autistic) has an effect on some of how your body reacts to energy input and output, but while all human beings have things in common in the way we function, there are a lot of differences in individuals, regardless of anything else. So you probably have your own ways of reacting, both physically and mentally, to circumstances and the way you experience your life and the world beyond your self, and you have to learn to adapt to your own strengths and weaknesses while in there amongst other people’s.

    I hope the therapy helps you. It does take time (and you have to have the right therapist for you, often this means going to someone different if you’re not showing signs of improvement. If that happens to you, don’t ever think it’s your fault, it won’t be. Some therapists are good for a particular person and not good for another). As for not enjoying interests or having a ‘special’ interest that’s what happens in depression. Enjoyment vanishes until the cause of the depression is found and eradicated or changed. But there probably are things in your life that you enjoy still, it’s just your responses to them at present that are the problem.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I think you are absolutely right, it is low-grade depression, I came to that conclusion a while ago. And I also agree that there are many things in my life that I enjoy. I am trying to change my inner processes, pathways of thinking and feeling, which have become automatic but need to be nudged in a different direction. I am trying this in several ways, therapy is one of them. I think the first thing I have to do is to convince myself that things actually can change! So far the therapy experience has been positive. I feel I can be absolutely honest there. Plus there is an adorable dog 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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