It’s rare that I have a true meltdown. I do experience sensory overload (which I’ll talk about in another post) quite often, but a meltdown is a true collapse of my ability to function. I often hyperventilate. I cry or even wail uncontrollably. Sometimes I rock or sway or thrash or bang my hands on the ground. Other times I’m mute and stare blankly ahead; I may become unresponsive. I literally can’t even think about completing even the simplest of tasks. I become needy and childlike and feel vulnerable and broken. I go masked, “normal” person to fully, obviously Autistic in 30 seconds flat. Not many people have seen me this way.
In the last year or so, I can think of three significant meltdowns:
- During the process of moving from Japan after 3 years living abroad. I knew it would be a stressful process so I planned well in advanced, did everything I was supposed to (and more), and thought I was ready. I should have been more than prepared and it should have been a fairly painless process. Then some insane wrenches were thrown into the mix which involved unexpectedly needing to facilitate moving furniture across the city in a short amount of time with: a car/van, international license, and manpower which I didn’t possess all while attempting to pack, clean, and prepare for returning to the United States. I was dealing with grief over leaving my job and friends, a strong sense of shock and betrayal toward the people who had ruined all of my planning and hard work, and my fears about returning to the US. This was by-far the largest meltdown I can remember having and it was actually really terrifying for me (and my wife!).
- After a post-wedding bridal shower planned by a family friend for my wife and me. There were so many emotions that day, but the biggest drain was the mix of people who attended. There were friends from my middle and high school days, kids that I used to babysit as infants who are now taller than me, coworkers of my mom who I grew up looking up to, my wife, and my family. In that mix of people, I had no idea which mask to wear or what role to play. I couldn’t relax and be with my friends and show a more immature side to my mother’s coworkers. Nor did I feel entirely comfortable being my old babysitter side around my friends or family. I couldn’t even act like I do with my family or with my wife. I felt awkward almost the entire time. It was a lovely day and I had a lot of fun, but just before bed that night, my body and mind told me they had finally reached their limits. This was a mini meltdown and more akin to an anxiety attack due to exhaustion.
- During the moving process into our first official apartment together as a couple. This meltdown came after a day or two of the moving process, sitting in the car on the dreaded highway 40 minutes each way, unloading a storage unit into cars and trucks, hauling boxes inside, etc. While we were trying to fit our brand new couch through an unexpectedly (nearly too small) narrow doorway, I got a text abruptly changing plans for the remainder of the day and I had finally had enough. I felt the tension and panic build until I finally collapsed on the recently (triumphantly!) settled couch. I couldn’t bear to do one more thing until I rested. I cried and rocked and my wife and mom tucked me in on the couch to nap while everyone went to go get another load of boxes. This was a medium-sized meltdown which left me helpless for a while.
When describing my meltdowns to my newest therapist, she said something that really hit home and made a lot of sense.
She held up her hand and touched each finger as she said, “Mental, Physical, Emotional, Social, Sensory. Each of these has a threshold. Most of the time, you’re able to keep at least some of them in balance and are able to handle things. You’ve developed ways to deal with a lot: overstimulating things, constant pain from fibromyalgia, your social anxiety, etc… You’re constantly pushing you mind and body. But sometimes, when all or most of these pillars have been overtaxed for too long, your body and mind just can’t take any more. Things need to shut down for a while to compensate.”
This is the perfect explanation. When looking at the three meltdowns above, I can see the pattern well. These were already high-stress situations, but nine times out of ten I can handle the stress. Over the years I’ve developed ways to deal with a lot of challenges and function pretty smoothly in most situations. It’s these unique times when the majority of my pillars have been too overburdened for too long when I snap and cannot handle anything further.
I sometimes think of these pillars as video game stat bars. Sometimes I can almost feel one of my bars blinking red. LOW HP! ABORT MISSION!! If I’m out socializing, my meter dips further and further toward the danger line. It starts out at half if the environment is noisy, crowded, or bright. If I overexert myself, I’d better hope that I haven’t exerted myself too much in the other categories, otherwise I will have no choice when my mind and body shut down for a rest.
Meltdowns are not “tantrums” and I have very, very little control over myself when I have one. I am vulnerable. I am scared. I am exhausted. I dread the day that a bad meltdown happens around friends or even strangers, but I have hope that someone around me may recognize my needs and help me to a quiet space where I can refill my pillars.
You can hear more about my meltdowns and shutdowns and the pillars in my YouTube video: