The enduring benefits of slowness (and how it’s helping me through Autistic burnout)

When I was younger, one of my favourite books was Slowness by Czech-French novelist Milan Kundera. At the time, I was aged in my 20s and living life ‘slowly’: single, engaged in part-time, casual employment, hanging out with friends.

Unfortunately for me, as the years and decades passed, I lost touch with this concept of slowness as what I now realise to be Autistic masking took over in my efforts to conform to the world around me. I also became busy with a family of my own, and found myself working harder and longer to help pay the mounting bills.

Slowness, the book, doesn’t focus on a single plotline or theme. And, like many of Kundera’s novels, it’s didactic and interlaced with philosophical digression. It isn’t the type of writing everyone would gravitate towards reading, but it always struck a chord with me.

Cover of the paperback edition of Milan Kundera's novel Slowness.
Slowness was Milan Kundera’s first novel written in French. My paperback copy is now almost 25 years old.

My reflections on Slowness are that it manages to capture, over the course of one night and in a mere 150 pages, the spirit of modern life itself: speed, ecstasy, passion, acclaim, and approval.

From the novel (note that Kundera’s use of male-centric pronouns is his preference, not mine! 😝):

Speed is the form of ecstasy the technical revolution has bestowed on man. As opposed to a motorcyclist, the runner is always present in his body, forever required to think about his blisters, his exhaustion; when he runs he feels his weight, his age, more conscious than ever of himself and of his time of life. This all changes when man delegates the faculty of speed to a machine: from then on, his own body is outside the process, and he gives over to a speed that is noncorporeal, nonmaterial, pure speed, speed itself, ecstasy speed.

Discovering that I am Autistic as a result of feeling like my tank was bone dry and subsequently having nothing more to give, has forced me to consider the past several decades and, more importantly, the way that I want to live.

It’s nine months now since I took leave from work, and six since I resigned completely. During that time, I have fought ableist [more on ableism in an upcoming story] thoughts about how I should be doing more than I am. I have battled guilt and shame. I have compared myself to others. I have, perhaps most of all, thought about all that my wife and I are losing by me not being in paid employment.

But, thanks in large part to my wife’s support and encouragement, to the NDIS funding I have received, to the health professionals I am able to see, and to my own research (including writing this blog – huge thanks to the readers, friends, and other family members who have offered kind words, too!), I am, gradually, gaining perspective.

When I was younger, slowness was an integral part of my existence for a reason, even though back then I couldn’t have told you what that reason was. What mattered most was that I was instinctively living the life that I needed, rather than the one I could see others around me living, and I benefitted as a result.

I used to delight in my freedom: I was able to write whenever I wanted, to listen to entire albums in a single sitting, to read books in only a couple of days. I had space, too – what sometimes seemed like infinite gaps between one activity or outing and the next, allowing me to think, to savour, and to reflect.

I was honest with myself about my limitations, and I said ‘no’ to people – a lot.

Not everyone would need or even welcome the type of time I’m talking about. It might feel like dread to some; to be left to one’s own devices, alone with little more than your own thoughts.

But to me, I realise now with renewed clarity thanks to the time I once again find myself with, that kind of space holds me and sustains me, nurtures me in a way little else does.

Without time, without the space that I need to live my life more slowly, I will, again and again and again return to Autistic burnout – to a place where I essentially cease being me, I just know it.

It’s a challenge for sure to try and overcome what society demands of us, and what most people would like us to be. But for some, including for many Autistic people, it is indeed necessity.

Milan Kundera, who passed away only a couple of weeks ago on 11 July at the age of 94, knew this – you can see it, feel it, in his writing.

Slowness is, to my mind, a cautionary tale about what we miss and what we sacrifice when we live our lives far too quickly.

The novel itself reflects – through some of its characters and in some of its passages – on the idea that happiness is slowness is remembering, and misery is speed is forgetting.

From the novel:

His step firm, he hastens toward his motorcycle; he desires his motorcycle, he is swept with love for his motorcycle, for his motorcycle on which he will forget everything, on which he will forget himself.

Certainly, when I was younger and living life more slowly, I was aware with knife-like sharpness that something was different about me. But I never once suspected that those differences could be Autism.

And as my life grew more hectic, I did forget, I did turn the proverbial ‘blind eye’ to my own inner discontent until last year, when, like the car (or motorbike in the case of Slowness) that’s thrashed to a point beyond its limits, I crashed and could run no more.

It’s now, once again through practice of slowness, that I’m remembering the enduring benefits of a life lived more slowly and with less. And it is instilling in me a confidence and assurity in who I am and what my life can be that exceeds anything the past decades of thrash and wallop have ever offered.

Slowness for me feels like a gateway and a path to recovery from this latest debilitating iteration of Autistic burnout and of understanding more about who I am as an Autistic person.

And if I can continue to make slowness integral to the way that I live, I know that it will at least give me a fighting chance of keeping future incidences of burnout at bay.

Hmmm, I think I just stumbled across a new affirmation – one I can truly live by.

I am space, I am slowness. And, best of all, slowness is me.

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