The Pain of Boredom

July 16, 2013

Imagine your nervous system is inflamed. Every inch of nerve fiber in your arms, your legs, your head, feels hot and itchy. It’s not painful like an injury, but it is pain. It’s distracting, and it hurts. You’ll risk almost anything to make it stop.

That’s what boredom can be like for someone on the spectrum. Doing homework or household chores isn’t just tedious, but can literally hurt. The only way to extinguish that fire is the find some shiny distraction and hyperfocus on it. Less than five minutes into folding laundry and all you can think about is the sweet relief that a video game or a good book would bring.

So as a kid, I was considered lazy. My endurance for chores was low because of this pain I could not then articulate. I also didn’t know that chores weren’t literally painful for others; how could I? So I avoided chores. My parents didn’t understand why I couldn’t spend more than 5 minutes cleaning my room before I was distracted by something. It wasn’t unwillingness, but survival instinct. It was the same as pulling your hand back when you’ve been burned.

And sometimes it’s worse. Sometimes this nerves-on-fire sensation comes on you even when you are surrounded by shiny distractions. You discover that none of them are distracting enough. There is nothing shiny and compelling enough to dampen that fire. You try your favorite book before throwing it down in frustration. You try a video game but it’s no good. You get frustrated and upset. You pace and jump up and down and flail your arms trying to drive out or burn off this maddening sensation.

This is what boredom, for lack of a better word, can be like on the spectrum. It’s a horrible burning pain. As a kid I’ve risked punishments for avoiding tasks that produced it. As an adult I’ve taken pay cuts, called in sick, and risked getting fired to avoid the pain. It’s why I bite myself or close my office door and jump up and down. It’s why I scream.


  • Luna Lindsey says:

    Wow. I’ll have to ask my son about this. He’s always complained about boredom as if it’s the end of the world. For me, boredom is uncomfortable, but I just go with it. No pain at all, just “blah”. I often enjoy quiet moments when nothing is going on (which isn’t boredom, it’s something else). I like to just sit sometimes, doing absolutely nothing. Sometimes when I’d otherwise be bored, I go into that mode. I avoid chores more because it is an energy-draining, frustrating gearshift. Once I start doing the chore, I’m not that bored.

    But as we discussed, I do get the nerves-on-fire sensation when I’m severely anxious. I’m putting it down here for the record, because I want to see more writing about this. Also, for the record, when I take gabapentin, it reduces or eliminates that sensation, and makes anxiety much more manageable. My psych said that makes sense, because it’s a nerve inhibitor.

    There’s another time when I feel a similar sensation, but it’s a good feeling, and very rare. When I’m falling in love, my hands and feet feel it. Just like in a Lisa Loeb song, where she says, “Your hand, so hot, burns a hole in my hand. I wanted to show you.”

    If only the latter feeling happened as often as the former.

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