On the whole, I think my experience of meltdowns and shutdowns is probably quite mild. This post is mostly about meltdowns because that’s where I’m at right now but I usually have far more partial or mild shutdowns than meltdowns as an immediate response to sensory, cognitive or emotional overload. Even when they happen at home meltdowns still leave me feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed. There’s usually a lot of build up to a meltdown and for a while I’m able to keep a lid on things until I’m alone, where the rising pressure shows up in pacing, talking/shouting to myself and also sometimes a sudden short burst of tweets related to the cause of the pressure that seem to come from nowhere and that I regret afterwards (around about the time people reply and I remember I’ve just had an outburst in front of hundreds of people). The tweeting thing happens when I’m absolutely at breaking point, whereas pacing and talking out loud are things I frequently do but do in a different way as the pressure builds. The other thing that can happen during this period is my having and trying to fight off a series of shutdowns, especially at work where I’m afraid to give in and slide under completely so I try to force myself not to but I can’t function. If the cause of the pressure doesn’t go away or if more factors are added on top, a meltdown may happen. If I get to the point where I’m being snappy at work and expecting others to mind read me, forget “may”. It’s almost inevitable at that point.
The causes are the kinds of things you might expect and keep adding on top of each other. Although sensory overload doesn’t cause meltdowns on its own (but does cause shutdowns on its own), it can be a factor in one, especially when the overload is noise. Disruptions to routine send me off kilter. Interruptions. Not being allowed to follow my plans. Questions about my emotional state. Being told other people’s assumptions about how I am and what I need when I can’t communicate that they’re wrong. When other people are throwing their emotions about. When I don’t understand what’s going on or what’s expected of me. If I meltdown there’s a very good chance that I’ve repeatedly asked to be left alone (why don’t people listen when that’s my answer to their asking me what I need?) or for the source of overwhelming confusion re emotions/communication to be explained to me (ranting at me that I’m being deliberately difficult, manipulative, crazy, stupid doesn’t help).
Immediately before and during the longer build up to a meltdown it’s very likely that I’ve at least thought things like: what does any of that mean? Why are you telling me that? Why are you asking me that? Why do you think I’d know the answer/care/find that helpful? Why are you making assumptions about me? You don’t know me. Oh my god, mind your own business. Back off. Too many people. That’s a horrible thing to say. What have I done wrong this time? Why won’t you explain what you expect from me? Why won’t you/everyone just leave me alone? Stop pushing at me. What am I feeling? Why can’t I do anything right? I’m so weird. I feel trapped. Stop talking. Stop interrupting my work. Stop disrupting me. What am I meant to be doing right now? What was I doing before I was interrupted? Why can’t I ever get anything finished? I’m so stupid. Why won’t everyone stop pestering me? Too many demands. I’ve used up all my talking ability already today. I had a plan for today. I had a plan for this morning. I had a plan for this hour.
There’s also, unfortunately, one particular person at work who is a trigger. I seem to have an actual phobia of her. It’s not dislike. It’s a desperate need to escape from her at all times. She triggers my fight or flight response but it’s always flight with me. Other people don’t like her and are horrible behind her back but since I realised that my issues with her are completely different I’ve worked hard at adopting a front of polite but extremely busy solicitor with her. Much of the time it works well because it satisfies the basic requirements of niceness while enabling me to escape quickly (literally – hurrying away makes me feel I’ve escaped), although I don’t always have the energy to remember during things like hallway and kitchen encounters and might go blank and unresponsive.
This month I spent two weeks covering her boss’ work. You can imagine how that turned out. When pushed into close quarters in circumstances where she’s actively doing things that are causing me to head towards meltdown on top of my own basic fear of her…It was like a runaway train. I tried. I really did but it was like she was digging her fingers into a gaping open wound on me every day (which a first aider with a very poor grasp of English in London once actually did to me – she only stopped when I pulled my jumper off and sat there in my bra to demonstrate my unbroken arm with a massive, wide gash in it, exactly where she’d been digging her fingers in). I tried my absolute best because I know that meanness is meanness no matter what the reason but there’s only so far I can stretch myself before I break. It was the same last year. It’s been a week since her boss came back and I realised yesterday that I still couldn’t even look up from the floor when we crossed paths in the corridor and she said something to me.
There might be shaking, shouting, tears, rocking and (mild) headbanging when I meltdown. Sometimes I seem completely cold and the only real signs I’m melting down are my frantic movement and the fact that I’m saying things I wouldn’t say if I had control of myself. If I’m talking or shouting, it’s instinctive and not consciously filtered. I’ve been trying hard to remember so I can be honest here. When I lose control in public it’s about the immediate “threats” in front of me. They’re not the only cause if there’s been a long build up but anything I say during the meltdown is going to be related to the immediate threats. I’m not deliberately mean because my entire focus is on making the cause of the pressure stop, only I don’t have the ability to actually do whatever I’m meant to do to do that at that time. So I’m very unlikely to say horrible things about someone’s personality but I can’t rule out saying things that are upsetting. At the time, I don’t know or care if it’s upsetting because everything is about me and protecting myself from the things that are affecting me.
The best way I can describe it is a burst of frantic, barely coherent energy. It builds and builds until it’s released. I need to escape and hide but that’s often not possible. Being somewhere like work where I can’t run (although I’ve been so far gone that I have literally run away down the corridor a couple of times) is really hard. I might go outside on the roof and sit in stillness to escape the approaching sense of meltdown or hide out in the toilet. I’ve always been one for running away. Or walking as quickly as possible away, at least, given my back problems. I need to escape and then hide. At home I’ll often end up sobbing and curl myself up small as if I can disappear completely if I can just make myself small enough. I feel like I’m shrinking, like I’m drawing myself in. Sometimes I sit on the dark staircase, hunched over my knees. Even during a meltdown at home when I’m alone there’s a voice in my head telling me I’m being dramatic and attention seeking. There’s a part of me watching myself but it can’t actually stop what’s happening.
Afterwards, I feel embarrassed and ashamed but I also feel relief. The storm has passed and I can function again. Often I feel cold and shivery afterwards. Often I lose my appetite so it’s not unusual for me to meltdown very soon after getting home from work and then go without dinner because I can’t make myself eat. Eventually I snack instead. I want to pretend nothing happened around people who either saw the meltdown or the build up to it. Because hardly anyone knows it’s an autistic meltdown, I might try to shrug or laugh it off as having had a “hissy fit” or a “shit fit” but I’d rather completely pretend it didn’t happen. Asking me if I’m ok after seeing me in meltdown or pre-meltdown is a pretty good way to start me back on the path again.
If someone sees something is going wrong in the build up to a meltdown or after one has happened and tries to help, they invariably make matters worse from my immediate perspective. To be fair, my boss doesn’t know about the Aspergers. I’m beginning to think I have to tell him, even though I don’t have a formal diagnosis, because what works for other people is pretty catastrophic for me. On Friday he came to my office at the end of a truly awful day from the point of view of aspie me and promptly made things worse by trying to help. He’s worried. He’s noticed I’m struggling. What would help? What’s going wrong? Would I feel less overwhelmed if my office was neater? I panicked. His questions caught me completely off guard and I couldn’t process what was happening. I wanted to escape but I couldn’t. I was almost in tears with the pressure and the frustration of not being able to communicate what’s going wrong and why and, in particular what went wrong during the two weeks of holiday cover earlier in the month or even to identify them in that moment. I couldn’t answer his questions. I didn’t even know the answers, even though I do know the answers. I got the usual unfiltered “I just need to be left alone” out but I couldn’t engage in an actual discussion. I was too exhausted and too close to the edge of another meltdown already and to top it off I needed to leave work more or less on time to get my cats to the vet (added stress – my plan for that was at risk now and I was worried about their screening blood tests because they’re elderly, although they hardly act it). I couldn’t accept his attempt at helping. By talking about my office he came across as trying to add even more work on top of the mountain I’m already struggling with and drawing attention to an aspie problem (namely if I see the mess at all, I don’t recognise it as something that needs to be dealt with each time I do see it and I only care about it at all anyway because it draws criticism from him).
I couldn’t have explained what’s going wrong, why and what I need without using the words autism and Aspergers anyway. I don’t know if I’m ready for that conversation. Unfortunately, I don’t think I have a choice now. I think the choice has probably been taken away by my own inability to cope. I’ve had two meltdowns in two weeks. That’s not normal for me. There’s been a horrible day to day edge for months now. A sense of teetering over a brink. And I haven’t been able to fix it. You’ll notice I’ve said other people’s actions cause meltdowns. That’s the kind of thing that apparently really pisses neurotypicals off. To be clear, I have meltdowns because I can’t handle a lot of things people do. Those things are attacks to me at a level I don’t have control over. It’s not the fault of people who don’t know what’s happening. It just feels to me like it is.
I do know I’m not reasonable by NT standards because I know common NT complaints about Aspies in the workplace. On the other hand I feel the same way about a lot of NT behaviour in the office…like when people are whatsapping during working hours because someone in their group is bitching about her payrise and then all sit down to lunch with the boss like they haven’t wasted a large portion of the morning having secret conversations about his decision. That kind of thing. Just as I manage my pain usually, I managed my Aspergers in the office in the past. I played to my strengths and accommodated my weaknesses to a considerable degree. My strengths are so very strong that other people could ignore my weaknesses to some degree or chalk them up to a certain level of precociousness or the eccentricity they expect from genius. The reality is I find my weaknesses hard to cope with and have been relieved that most of the time they go unchallenged. Not anymore and I’ve got to face it now.
Although it’s been raised nicely, the bottom line is my boss raised performance issues with me. I can’t ignore that. My mum and I discussed it last year and I said unless my job became unmanageable, I didn’t want them to know. It seems like I’m there. Even without a formal diagnosis. Maybe I have to start that process now but it could take anywhere from one to three years on the NHS, from what I’ve gathered. I wish I didn’t have to say anything at all, much less without a piece of paper saying doctors agree but I don’t think I’ve got a choice now. I don’t know what’s worse. Saying the words or knowing I don’t have a plan of action to make this better. I don’t even know where to start right now.