Anatomy of a Meltdown

Last weekend, I had a meltdown and the next morning I tried to capture some scattered impressions of it to share. I’ve purposely left this raw and unedited, the way it unspooled in my head, to give you a feel for how chaotic a meltdown can be. While meltdowns are different for everyone, this is how I experience them.

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A meltdown can go one of two ways: explosion | implosion.

Explosion

Everything flies outward. Words. Fists. Objects.

Implosion

Have you ever seen a building implode? The charges go off somewhere deep inside and for a moment you swear nothing is going to happen and then seconds later–rubble and dust and a big gaping hole in the ground.

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It feels like a rubber band pulled to the snapping point.

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What I don’t want to hear:

It’s okay.
(It’s not.)
You need to pull yourself together.
(I will, when I’m ready.)
Everything will be fine.
(I know.)

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I’m not looking at you because I don’t want to see you seeing me this way.

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It feels like the end of the world. It feels like nothing will ever be right again.

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What I need:

  1. Space
  2. Time
  3. Absence of judgment

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The headbanging impulse is intermittent but strong. I stave it off as best I can because:
a) my brain is not an infinitely renewable resource
b) headbanging scares other people

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Meltdowns are necessary. Cleansing. An emotional purge. A neurological reboot.

——————————————-

Please don’t ask me if I want to talk about it, because:
a) there’s nothing to talk about
b) I don’t have the resources necessary for talking

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meltdowns

Evolution of meltdowns over a lifetime:

For my first 12 years, I internalize well. So well that I end up in doctor’s offices and emergency rooms with mysterious headaches, high fevers, stiff necks and stomach bugs. At various times I’m told that I don’t have meningitis, migraines, appendicitis. What I do have . . . that’s never conclusively decided. Things come and go, seemingly without rhyme or reason.

Puberty hits. Hormone surges make internalizing impossible. I slam doors, sob uncontrollably at the slightest provocation, storm out of the house, crank up my stereo. My anger becomes explosive. I pinball between implosions and explosions.

Early twenties, into my thirties, the explosions become rare but the implosions grow worse. I can’t get through an emotionally charged conversation with my husband–let alone a fight–without imploding. The headbanging impulse appears. Muteness takes center stage.

My forties–I can count the explosions on one hand. The implosions are down to a couple a year at most. As the meltdowns have lessened, the shutdowns have increased. This is lateral movement, not progress.

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It feels like my whole body is thrumming, humming, singing, quivering. A rail just before the train arrives. A plucked string. A live wire throwing off electricity, charging the night air.

——————————————-

I’m 90% successful at staving off headbanging. The thing is: when that impulse arises, headbanging feels good. It’s . . . fulfilling?

——————————————-

Will comforting me help?
No.
Do I want the meltdown to be over?
Yes, but not prematurely.
Would I like a hug?
No.
Am I in danger?
No. I’m conscious of the boundary between stimming and serious self-harm.
Do I want company?
If you’re okay with sitting silently beside me.
Can you do anything to make me feel better?
Probably not. But you can avoid doing the things that will make it worse.

——————————————-

Muteness: Complex speech feels impossible. There is an intense pressure in my head, suppressing the initiation of speech, suppressing the formation of language.

——————————————-

My meltdowns aren’t so much about triggers as thresholds. There is a tipping point. A mental red zone. Once I cross into that zone, there’s no going back.

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It feels like dropping a watermelon on the pavement on a hot summer day. The bobble, the slip, the momentary suspension of time just before the hard rind ruptures and spills its fruit, sad and messy, suddenly unpalatable. And no one knows whether to clean it up or just walk around it.

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A shutdown is a meltdown that never reached threshold level. Either my threshold is rising or I’m becoming less sensitive to the precursors as I age.

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Meltdowns are embarrassing. A total loss of control. Humiliating. They make me feel like a child. They are raw, unfiltered exposure.

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Panic. Helplessness. Fear.

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Imagine running as far as you can, as fast as you can. When you stop, that feeling–the utter relief, the exhaustion, the desperate need for air, the way you gulp it in, your whole body focused on expanding and contracting your lungs–that’s what crying feels like during a meltdown.

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Please don’t touch me. Don’t try to pick me up, move me, or get me to change position. Whatever position I’ve ended up in is one that’s making me feel safe. If it makes you uncomfortable to see me curled up in a ball on the floor, you should move–remove yourself from the situation.

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There is emotion at the starting line, but a meltdown is a physical phenomenon: The racing heart. The shivering. The uncontrollable sobs. The urge to curl up and disappear. The headbanging. The need to hide. The craving for deep pressure. The feeling of paralysis in my tongue and throat. The cold sweat.

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The physical cascade needs to run its course. Interrupt and it’ll just start all over again a few minutes later. Patience, patience.

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What I need when I’m winding down:

  • deep pressure
  • quiet
  • understanding
  • to pretend it never happened

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The recovery period is unstable.

Exhaustion comes first. Mixed with anger, at myself mostly, for losing control.

My filters don’t come back online right away. Unless you can handle an unfiltered aspie, proceed with caution.

Finally, there is euphoria. A wide open feeling of lightness, of soaring, of calm.

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92 comments

  1. Justin

    I always hate when I get a “Why are you mad at us?” question when I’m melting-down over something that’s happening.

    –Look, I’m not mad at you — I’m just mad. At life, at the situation, at myself because I feel this way about life and this situation.

  2. tialys

    Wow! That is so scary. My daughter, who is awaiting the results of her evaluation, seems to be coming out the other end of your puberty stage in that she has stopped being quite so volatile or at least is managing to control (or hide) it a little better. She once tried to explain the way she felt just before a meltdown and she used the metaphor of a bird beating its wings inside her and throwing itself violently against her internal organs. It made me cry. I know now not to try to hug her or comfort her when she is going through this ‘process’ – she takes herself off to her room and emerges sometime later a calmer, happier person and we don’t refer to it. Whatever works!

    • musingsofanaspie

      It sounds like you and your daughter have found the perfect way of managing her meltdowns. I know it’s hard to watch and sounds scary but for me, it’s a part of life and one that I’ve learned to accept as necessary (or at least unavoidable). It really did improve quite a bit once adolescence was past, though you’re right about there being a fine line between learning to manage the meltdowns vs. learning to hide them.

  3. Erin

    I always dread the questions,”Is there anything I can do?” and “Do you want to talk?” No and No! I fight the headbanging impulse. I see myself doing it in my mind and it brings some relief. I feel when meltdowns are imminent. The pressure in my head continuely builds. Sometimes it feels like there is some creature trying to claw its way out of my brain. I can’t seem to focus and my memory is for garbage. When I get like this, I hide and go into shut down mode. I think of it as rebooting myself. One day is not always enough, but I can only take what I can get.

    I know exactly what you mean when you wrote about implosions. I just want to be left alone, but someone sitting quietly next to me is fine. If I am not left alone, the explosions happen (normally in front of family members) and I get the question, “Why are you so mad at me?” Why can’t people read my nonverbal cues? The answer is the same reason why I have trouble reading theirs. Not only do I speak a different language (aspie), I also have different nonverbal cues.

    After I get control of myself, I then feel that I have to explain my behavior, especially to my kids. Trying to find the words is not always easy and I feel so guilty and embarassed for coming unglued in front of people. I wish I could just hold up a sign that warned people of imminent danger and they would know not to ask questions and give me quiet time.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Oh yes, I’ve used the imagined headbanging trick to keep myself from actually doing it. It’s amazing that it works so well. I also really feel your pain about being embarrassed when you meltdown in front of your family. It’s rough to share something so painful and traumatizing.

      It’s interesting that you sometimes need more than a day to recover. If I shutdown (withdraw/dissociate from the world around me), sometimes one day isn’t enough to work it through but a full-on meltdown usually works itself out pretty quickly for me.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences here. It’s very reassuring to see that others experience and feel something similar.

  4. Terra

    I don’t find that my meltdowns have a trigger either. I feel that they are usually the end product of a series of frustrations – typically happening during an argument when I have to explain things I can’t explain. For me it’s like tsunami of fury and hurt; I don’t want to injure myself but I do throw things, bang doors etc. and once I’m calmer I am a skin picker and that really calms me the rest of the way down. Argh, just talking about it knowing that this is what my kids see feels awful. I think the worst thing is that people often think that if you talk it out it, it will resolve itself. We are a nation of talkers. I remember reading in a linguistic anthropology class about a Native American tribe where the care for someone who was suffering from some extreme emotion such as grief or rage was to just be there but not talk. To have them feel like they aren’t alone, but not to ever impose your presence on them. An awesome way of dealing with things, I thought.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Wow, the idea of being with someone without talking during an emotional crisis sounds perfect. My need for talking during or after a meltdown is slim to none. I wonder if talking is actually a way for the person doing the comforting to feel better? Sitting silently by has to be harder for most people (though it’s my first and often only instinct when someone else is upset). Also, I’ve been a skin picker on and off since childhood. I was shocked to discover that it’s a form of stimming.

      • aspiewriter

        Skin picking…stimming??? ha! Well that explains it! I’ve moved on to picking the skin on my scalp–not good, it bleeds. I knew I started doing it more when I began to get stressed, but hadn’t thought about it as stimming until now. But–yes you are right, it certainly is, isn’t it?

        • musingsofanaspie

          I’ve seen a lot of parents post that their autistic children are skin pickers and after some more research discovered that it’s considered stimming. And yes to the scalp picking too. *sigh*

          • Liz H.

            I was just wondering if skin picking was considered a stim! I tend to pick at the skin of my neck. I feel like it’s such a bad habit, but I’ve done it since I was a kid. Also, picking at eyebrows, eyelashes, face.

            • musingsofanaspie

              I started skin picking in adolescence, which seems to be the case for a lot of people on the spectrum. I’ve been able to break the habit at times but it’ll come back under severe stress and I find it really really hard to stop.

  5. Hannah

    I really, really struggle to believe that I didn’t do it and that I shouldn’t try to make it better… I know I’m a needy bitch but I feel abandoned when my partner shuts down.
    *sigh*
    Note to self: Shut up!!
    x

    • musingsofanaspie

      Aw, I know it must be hard to wait it out. My husband often tries to make it better, with little success. In some way, the more he tries the worse I feel because it’s as if I’m letting him down with my inability to respond to his effort to help me. We aspies are not an easy lot to live with. :-)

  6. Erin

    I would have to agree with you, Terra, about how that Native American tribe you mentioned cared for someone experiencing extreme emotions. Just having someone sit there with you, but having no pressure to talk would be awesome. When a person is ready to talk, then they should feel free to talk, but on there own terms.

  7. Mados

    That is a really, really good description – as drafty as it is. A systematic overview over something that is messy, chaotic, and wordless and it beautifully describes the other side of it – That it isn’t ONLY bad, but also a relief and necessary in order to move on. (I also love your timeline-graph btw:-)

    My meltdowns aren’t so much about triggers as thresholds. There is a tipping point. A mental red zone. Once I cross into that zone, there’s no going back.

    That is very accurate… The trigger is usually a relatively minor event (although not always) that brings me over a tipping point and into a ‘red zone’ where everything erupts & all stability comes crashing down. It happens to me very seldom at my current age, and I have never used the term ‘meltdowns’. I’ve called it ‘break downs’ (although I never talk about it) and did wonder if it is the same as ‘meltdowns’. Based on your description, it sounds very similar. I’ll withdraw urgently to as far & invisible away from people as possible. If I am home typically to my room, curl up along the wall, may rock and wriggle just trying to contain & bear the unbearable sensations of intense emotional & physical stress & chaos. I tend to bite my hand or finger very hard (head banging has also happened, but that’s something I try really hard to not do due to risk of damaging the brain) to distract myself and because it helps. It gives a sense of short term relief that enables me to breathe & stay sane under it all. I know self harm is bad. I had serious self harm behaviour problems when I was young, leaving scars I still have and am embarrassed about. However, I don’t think self harm behaviour is totally avoidable, because the sense of relief is necessary in some situations (an act of self-preservation). Biting one’s hand or fingers doesn’t leave any permanent marks, in fact marks disappear within a few minutes, which is long before I come out and face anyone, anyway. I never talk about this. I don’t have kids or anyone else to walk in on me, so I’ll just get over it and come back when I am ready to face the world again (it may take a few days before fully recovered). Thanks for your post again, this I think actually gives me a more organised way to think about it and maybe even talk about it (not sure that would be a good idea).

    • musingsofanaspie

      I’m glad you like the graph. It was fun to make and also helped me think about how my responses are evolving over time. Your description of an eruption and total loss of stability is exactly what I feel. There’s that tipping point that’s so clearly identifiable and I know that past that point, I can’t stop it. So frustrating.

      It’s interesting that everyone here who mentioned engaging in some form of self-harm (including myself) is so aware of the potential dangers and knows where the line between temporary and permanent damage lies. I want to write a companion piece to this that talks a little about how family members might help provide a safe space/environment during meltdowns but I need to research some more about self harm and when it might be appropriate for someone to step in.

      • Mados

        That sounds like a really good idea. Self-harm is an extremely taboo-covered, but it seems, very relevant topic and I would love to read an article about it in your usual systematic, clear style:-) This guy Springtiger has also written about self-harm, just his personal experiences & reflections (navigating his blog is a bit hard, there is no search function, tags or categories, so maybe the easiest way to find it would be to ask him for a link).

  8. Life&Ink

    Outstanding post! Sort of a confirmation of many things I suspected. It has been a while since we have experienced a meltdown but oh my, when Ted was little they were a very frequent event. I learned quickly, once he was fully in the meltdown stage there was nothing I could do for him but preserve his dignity. I got him to his room so he could do what he needed to do away from watching eyes, but he knew I was right there across the hall and there if needed. Instead I kept a watchful ear on him. I knew the cycle and what to listen for. As he got older they subsided, replaced by shutdowns. Thank you for describing this. Ted says he can’t remember that period of his life. I don’t know if he is emotionally blocking out those times or if he, as he says, he was “out of his mind” and really can’t remember. Again, thanks for an excellent post.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Thank you! Preservation of dignity is very high on my list of needs during a meltdown. It’s an awful feeling to know that someone is watching me fall so completely apart.

      Perhaps Ted’s lack of memory about his meltdowns is a combination of both emotional blocking and simple forgetting. I sat to write about this latest meltdown as soon as I felt able to was because the sensations recede so quickly. There’s no way I could write this same piece today, five days after the meltdown occurred. The sensations have become blurry now and my retelling would be mostly fact based.

  9. Ben Forshaw

    What you describe is uncannily similar to my own experiences. The loss of control, inability to communicate… the sheer intensity of being in meltdown and the exhaustion, relief and calm that follows. And the shame.

    You may have described this post as “raw and unedited” but it is not chaotic: there is narrative structure and a simple clarity to it. I found the style engaging and effective. A nice piece of writing.

    • musingsofanaspie

      Thank you for your kind words about the writing. It seems that many of us have similar experiences and I’m grateful that so many people are sharing their own feelings. Hopefully we’ll create a glimpse inside these events that will help others understand them better.

  10. aspiewriter

    I love how you kept this post “raw” it gives an extremely good description of what a meltdown feels like. I too have to fight that headbanging urge, which has been confounding me lately because the urge to headbang really has only come on full force over the past couple of years. I don’t recall wanting to bang my head earlier in life, but maybe that is because I wanted to bang everyone else’s heads into the walls back then.

    Lately, I seem to be fighting these meltdowns (which are coming on more frequently these days) by withdrawing, shutting the world out, ultimately resulting in a complete shutdown. Shutdowns for me, I think are worse than the meltdown. AFter the meltdown I am exhausted and can sleep and sleep, but do feel better. A shutdown can last for what feels like an unending amount of time, and I rarely feel any better afterwards. Maybe because everything is kept inside, and not flying outward?

    • musingsofanaspie

      Thank you. :-) I only developed the headbanging urge as an adult too. It’s a strange thing to have appear so late in life. The shutdowns are horrible, aren’t they? Sometimes it’s days before I shake that awful disconnected feeling and like you say, it’s often followed by very little actual relief.

      • aspiewriter

        Lately, I’d say within the past year a few shutdowns have been accompanyied by painful mutism! I don’t like it, it hurts, and it makes me more angry than when I started. I’ve had that happen to me this past Saturday, and still don’t feel quite “right”–several days later.

        I was so glad to hear about the head banging urge in another adult because it was something that I was reluctant to admit. It just sounds strange to me, as an adult, to all of a sudden want to bang my head on the wall, or the car door, or my palms…thank you for sharing that. I realized this weekend, that my head was hurting terribly while I had no voice, and even lighting tapping my head in my palms feel a bit better. (confession…i want to hit it really hard, but restrained myself)

        • musingsofanaspie

          I’ve had problems with mutism all my life. It’s so frustrating as an adult because I want to communicate and it feels impossible. The headbanging is hard to admit to, but it’s real and it exists. At least we have some ability to control the severity of it. (And I wasn’t going to admit to skin picking until someone else did, so I guess we all have things we’d rather conceal.)

  11. Vincent

    It’s very seldom I have meltdowns, but I do have the head banging behaviour that you’ve spoken about. I slam doors, even ripped a wardrobe door off its hinges and then in half before. The pressure in my head gets so bad and I feel like I’m going to go mad. What I do have a lot of are shutdowns. Disconnection, not feeling real. Or sometimes where my body is humming, is so hopped up on something that its like being on a million energy drinks, where I talk fast ad my skin crawls and I shake. I’m not even sure what those are but I hate them.

  12. Andrew Raymond

    In my early 50′s, I find that my meltdown graph matches yours VERY closely. Which is more interesting since I was already 42 before I knew about Aspergers, or meltdowns, or stimming. But from what I can see the trend pretty much continues.

    • musingsofanaspie

      I was diagnosed at 42 as well, so my making the graph was a bit of a sense-making exercise for me. It’s good to know that things pretty much continue on as expected. It’s so hard to find information for middle-aged and older aspies.

  13. Mel

    Thank you for writing this. I am going to print this out and keep it to help me make sense of meltdowns and explain them to others. It is like you crawled inside my head and found all of the words I had misplaced!

  14. Allison Cuthbertson

    I’d like to say I enjoyed reading this, but that seems wrong. I found it very enlightening. Having never experienced meltdown personally, other than watching and waiting, your explanation has given me more understanding. My impulse is to hold, but I know that is wrong. I recognise your tired as the meltdown subsides but had not thought about the emotional effect.
    Thank you

    • musingsofanaspie

      I’m glad you found this helpful to read. It has to be very hard to watch someone experiencing a meltdown. It probably feels like watching and waiting is akin to doing nothing but that quiet support is very meaningful. :-)

  15. Emily

    Thank you so much for writing this! I had a student for the past 2 years who has meltdowns that seem to me very similar to the progression you’ve described except that he explodes in the middle. Thankfully, I was able to quickly understand the need to sit silently by in a supportive manner, provide cold water and tissues as it began to subside, and quietly check in about returning to the group, and then letting it go without further discussion. That student has since moved on to typical private school that is very supportive, and I am passing on this post to his mother to share with his teachers. I think this: “What I need: Space, Time, Absence of judgment” is really important, especially the last part.

    • musingsofanaspie

      I think if I was younger, exploding would be part of my meltdowns. Over years, the exploding feelings have become more inwardly directed if that makes sense. Now I tend to quietly bang my head instead of punch things or slam doors, etc. It sounds like you have a good grasp of what kind of things are helpful for someone who is having a meltdown. The lack of judgment is so important–meltdowns are just plain embarrassing once they’re over.

      I’m really touched that you’re going to share this–it means a lot to me each time someone says that this post has helped them understand someone in their life. :-)

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  17. tagAught

    Hm. Based on your definitions, I’d say my meltdowns tend to be implosions (the crying jags) and shutdowns. I think I’ve only exploded once, when I was a teenager (unless I’ve forgotten more), and that scared the hell out of me.

    And yeah. I can *see* them coming, feel that tipping point approaching, but I’ve only been able to stop myself from going over a few times (and when that happens, I get a situation like in my post Meltdowns and Control on my blog). Most of the time, it hits before I can gain control, and that’s it.

    I tend to have selective mutism – sometimes I can talk about some things, or follow some of my scripts, others I can’t say a word.

    Interestingly enough, I’ve never felt the impulse to head-bang. I’ll sometimes bite on my finger (a stim I used to do as a young kid), or dig my fingernails into my palms (though that’s usually when I’m trying to head the tipping point off). I skin-pick a lot, so I can’t necessarily say I do so more during or after a meltdown.

    And I agree – leaving this post in “raw” form works best. It helps form the impression of what happens. There’s disconnection during shutdowns / meltdowns, and gaps, and sometimes you can’t think in coherent lines. The “raw” form of this post helps to convey that, I think.

    I need to get away from people when it happens. I tend to curl up in a fetal position, wrap my arms around my legs, or double over so my arms are crossed over my knees and my face is in my arms.

    And unfortunately, unless the source of the frustration that builds up and triggers the meltdowns is taken care of, I don’t necessarily feel better afterwards. Sometimes I do, but not always.

    Anyway, just some thoughts to add after having read this post!

    :) tagAught

    • musingsofanaspie

      I was definitely more prone to exploding as a teenager, though it did happen once a couple of years ago and resulted in me breaking things. That was actually kind of scary because it’s not in my nature to break stuff on purpose.

      Thank you for sharing your experiences in details. It seems like we have things in common and then there are big and small differences. Creating a record here of the similarities and differences will, I hope, be helpful for others who are trying to understand what meltdowns are like or to figure out if they have meltdowns.

  18. Lisa Hazell

    Thank you so much for that. My son who is 10 has Asperger’s and it has given me real insight into what he goes through. Whilst his meltdowns are becoming less & less (thank goodness!), I now have a truer understanding. Thank you :)

    • musingsofanaspie

      I’m glad you found it helpful. Also, don’t be surprised if his meltdowns resurface during puberty or adolescence. It will likely be something he’ll live with all of his life to varying degrees.

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  20. Liz H.

    What do I do with a spouse who seems to have a very hard time understanding that a meltdown can’t be talked/argued out? That, when I’ve reached the point where, against my nature, I’m frantically yelling at him to stop what he’s doing, stop arguing, and just be calm for me, be simple, be loving, that he needs to STOP, instead of trying to argue and engage me in conversation about how I’m not responding to his attempts to help correctly? That, while it looks like I’m “acting out” while yelling frantically and curling into myself, what I’m doing is, with my mind at its limit, still trying to desperately restrain myself from, say, throwing myself against walls, slamming my arms into things, because I do. not. want. to. scare. my. daughter. and I am pleading with him to help bring me down? Last night, he just kept pushing, pushing, asking, arguing, until, finally, I was pushed to the point where I was temporarily completely nonverbal. Scary for me, scary for him.

    Life is frightening for me lately. There are so many events in life right now that are pushing me to the edge on a weekly basis. He knows this, and knows that much of what has put us here has been the result of his actions, and that I’ve been trying to keep the boat afloat for us. Somehow, I’ve been the strong one in our relationship, and I think he’s gotten used to that role from me. But, I’ve known that that role (me being the strong one, day in, day out) was something that was NOT sustainable. He says that he knows that I need and deserve the support, but in the moment, he seems totally lost, and goes back to the roles he is used to. (“Well, I could help…but, she’s tough, she’ll fix it like she fixes everything, right? Maybe if I talk and argue with her long enough, she’ll start acting like her usual tough self.” He seems lost when faced with the fact that I, too, can be weak and lose myself.) I am cracking. I’ve been trying to stave off meltdown for so long. Before I even knew that what I was trying to ward away WAS meltdown. All I knew was that if life kept pushing me, pushing me, it would eventually exceed my ability to cope, and I would be where I am now. Daily, balancing on the edge of a knife, with a chasm on each side, one named “shutdown” and the other named “totally losing my shit.” Trying to explain to my husband that the way he responds to me and helps me daily can be the difference between offering me down some ropes to aid my balance, or giving me the final push to fall over one side. What I’ve gotten is, instead, him watching me balance while arguing about which foot I should put forward, and which arm I should wave to catch myself.

    After meltdown last night (horrifying, mortifying) and while still mostly mute, I showed him this post, and one other
    http://snakedance.tumblr.com/post/27786575185/meltdowns-adult-aspergers-part-3
    His initial reaction was, “Oh, yeah, you already had me read these,” but, when I finally got him to re-read the both of them, it seemed like he finally took a step back and understood. He gentled himself, and the rest of the night was much better. Still, I’m afraid. I desperately don’t want there to be a “next time” of this trying to argue me out of meltdown. I can. not. handle. it. If he didn’t take it to heart the first time I showed him, when I was calm (but still, internally, knew that I’d need him to know how to respond, before too long.) how do I know that he will take it to heart now?

    I wish that there was a resource out there for the NT spouses, some long, set in stone, what to do and what NOT to do, that could do the “arguing” for me in situations like this. I would LAMINATE that shit.

    • musingsofanaspie

      It sounds like you’re in a really difficult place. I’m sorry you’re feeling so pushed to the wall. From what you say, it sounds like your husband is scared too. He’s come to rely on you and you’re hitting the end of your rope and that has to be scary for both of you. What used to work isn’t working anymore and that can be really hard on both partners. But obviously change needs to happen so that you can share the burden and not feel so dangerously stressed out.

      My meltdowns were a ongoing source of tension in my marriage before I understood what they are. My husband used to think I was purposely acting out (as you so aptly put it) to get out of hard discussions or avoid finding a solution to a problem or all sorts of other manipulative motives. He’d push and push and we’d both get more upset and frustrated until one of us just walked away. It was very unproductive and left some lasting scars on our relationship. But even if we both logically understood what was happening, I’m not sure how much better we would have been able to manage those times because we were both stressed by other things (especially being a young family) and very much caught up in our own pain and difficulties. So I guess what I mean is, I get it and things can definitely get better, but maybe not right away.

      This is going to sound like a bit of an “out there” idea, but would having a safe word/phrase work? It sounds like your husband wants to understand and be supportive when things are calm then forgets in the heat of the moment. If you’re in a pattern where when you say X, he responds with Y, maybe completely changing the way you’re reminding him that you need support would help. I’ve used something like this a couple of times to defuse a tense situation. If the word or phrase doesn’t have an emotional connection to the situation but will remind your husband of a specific action you’d like him to take, that might be enough to short circuit the typical course. For example, if he can’t be supportive, maybe he can simply leave you alone until you’re past the meltdown and you could let him know when that needs to happen by saying your safe word. And I think as much as it would be ideal to have him with you and being supportive, that may not be possible. Meltdowns can be scary to watch, especially for a partner who wants to help but doesn’t know how or doesn’t have the ability to help in the way you need. I’m fine with my husband simply going off to do his own thing until the worst passes and I think that’s the least difficult for him as well so it works for us. Not saying this is the best option for you, but it may be an interim step or something.

      I hope things start to improve for you in general.

      • Liz H.

        Thank you for the reply! I think that a “safe word” or phrase might not be a bad idea. I do want to emphasize that, in the moment, he isn’t arguing in an “angry” way. It’s not a, “I can’t stand you and the way you’re acting, snap out of it, I don’t want to be around you!!” arguing. It’s more of a frustrated, but trying to calmly explain tone, like, “You know that when you don’t wear shoes outside, you scratch up your feet. Why on earth won’t you put your shoes on??” The sort of thing that, were I in any other state of mind, I would understand and do my best to listen to.

        I think, like you said, that when he thinks about it, he wants to be supportive, and is just lost in the moment. I think that some of it might be vastly different expectations about how we want things to go. This meltdown happened after I hadn’t had enough time to reboot myself from a stressful situation before having to go to work. I went to work, and pushed through it, and when I got home, I needed immediate calm, soothing, no stress. But, he didn’t know that. He’d missed me, wanted to talk, and had also had a stressful day that he wanted to unload about. So, he did. And, a situation that most nights, i could have handled fine, ended in meltdown.

        So, I’m wondering if a safe word upon getting home would communicate what my expectations/needs are in that moment more quickly and adeptly. Or if, even, maybe calling before I head home to give him a heads up that tonight, I’ll need some time to wind my mind down when I get home, because I’m very overwhelmed? I asked him if this would help (the heads up) and he said that he thought it would help a lot, and that he’d be willing to try. He wants to help, so that I can go back to feeling like myself. I want it too, so that I can go back to being the person I like being for him. So, here’s to hoping that things go better!

        • musingsofanaspie

          What you said about expectations is so important in a relationship. If you’re both trying to work toward a goal but in different ways, it can get really frustrating. It does sound like you both want to try and make things better and have the best interests of the other in your heart. It’s the process that’s giving you a hard time.

          I think the idea of a safe word can also help you separate the regular “i had a hard day” statement from the “I had an awful day and absolutely need you to do ________ or I’m going to lose it” times. As a kind of reverse example, a few weeks ago my husband was having a hard time with something and I kept trying to offer solutions and eventually he said, “I’m having a meltdown.” He wasn’t literally, but when he said that I knew that he needed me to back off and give him some quiet support from a distance. It was like a magic phrase that suddenly made me understand what he needed and how badly I was thwarting his efforts to solve his own problem.

          I hope your new strategy is helpful and things go better next time!

  21. Pingback: Turtle Mode: For when everything gets a bit much | Feminist Aspie
  22. Jeroen De Busser

    I’m an aspie myself(20 yo), and I can totally relate… I don’t have the headbanging impulse though, but I get that the specifics of how everyone deals with meltdowns are different.

    As for the types of meltdowns, I have a different definition for shutdown, which I only recently experienced: http://fav.me/d6xvyey (That’s a link to deviantArt).

      • Jeroen De Busser

        I wrote that text both for me to vent, and to explain to my friends who saw me or brought me back what happened. I think I *might* have freaked them out a bit(and that’s a serious understatement)

  23. Hayden Silbermann

    I am an aspie and had a major meltdown today. It went from implosion to shutdown. However, I felt as though I really needed hugs and comfort. Is it possible that coping methods are almost different for everybody?

  24. Erin

    I get really frustrated with my husband during a meltdown. I get frustrated and angry because he becomes angry and verbally abusive towards me or my animals, threaten me that he will take them away. If he decides to destroy something – it is always something of mine – then he blames me afterwards. I cant always see the meltdown coming, and I understand that they will sometimes happen. But for me, breaking the things that are MINE (NEVER his stuff) There have been times I was afraid for my own safety, he seems so…… calculated with his destruction. When the whole thing is done I want him to pay for what he has done/broken.
    I wish when he was starting to have a meltdown, he would indicate to me somehow what is happening. Are you just pissed and being a jerk because you are frustrated (as we all get sometimes, me too) or are you seriously having a meltdown and unable to deal with this? Could you step away from the situation, have your meltdown, or even let me take over this task? I would love to be able to help. If I catch on to what is happening soon enough – sometimes I can intercept and prevent the meltdown, or reduce the severity of it.
    The screaming, wall pounding, falling in a heap, the crying, his frustrations etc I can all take and understand… I cant take it when I feel so….. attacked. The advancing towards me, screaming at me how everything is my fault. How this or that decision I made has ruined his everything……. The balled up fists….while advancing towards me….. How do you (or anyone else here) deal with this sort of thing with your partner? What is your advice to me? I love this man. I want to be as supportive and as understanding as possible, but I dont think that I or my things should be destroyed during a meltdown. He wont talk about meltdowns and what I can do during them, or find ways to help curb them, or at least a less destructive way to deal with his feelings.
    What is the right course of actions about my possessions that have been destroyed?
    I really do love my husband, his quirks and idiosyncrasies are part of why I love him. There is so much that he is good at, that he compliments me with (he is good at money, I am not etc) but the meltdowns I find terrifying.

    • musingsofanaspie

      I don’t have any experience with this type of violent meltdown, though I know it does happen for some autistic adults. If you’re feeling unsafe in your home, I would strongly advise you to seek out a counselor (psychologist, social worker, pastor) who can help you address this. You aren’t responsible for stopping or controlling your husband’s violent behavior. If he doesn’t want to talk with you about it or seek help to cope with it, it’s still okay for you to seek help on your own.

  25. Justin Smith

    My partner of just over a year is going through private diagnosis atm. She is 32 and has never been able to get diagnosed. I have done some reading but has proved relatively fruitless. She tends to hit herself in the head, now more than ever. Seeing someone I love trying to harm themself is too hard and I am compelled to try restraining her. Is this the right thing to do? When she is in an uncontrollable rage and she shouts at me or twists my words it is hard to not take it personally. But if I walk away and leave her to it she thinks I don’t care. And thank you for this blog. It has already proved more helpful than trying to filter the right information from massive books

    • musingsofanaspie

      Restraining her is definitely not a good idea. My guess is this would only make her more upset.

      You might try talking to her about how you feel at a time when you’re both in a place to calmly talk it through. I’m sure she recognizes that her self-harm is difficult for you to watch, but that will probably have little impact on whether she continues to do it. Stimming that way is very internally driven. However, you could tell her that it’s hard for you to be the target of her shouting/rage and try to find something that works for both of you. Maybe you offer to stay and be silently supportive and she agrees not to try not to make you a target? Without knowing the exact situation it’s hard to say more, but hopefully this is somewhat helpful.

  26. superstringbeing

    As ive gotten older the increasing demands of independent life have taxed my ability to face it with equanimity. They say that aspergers becomes clinically noticeable when life’s demands surpass one’s coping skills. This happened in a massive way when I was around 17. From there my meltdowns assumed greater intensity. I had them as a child – but my childhood was nowhere near as rocky as my adulthood so they were less intense…. that said I did have a number of severe “incidents”

    • musingsofanaspie

      I think late teens is a very typical time for the more challenging aspects of AS to appear. It definitely was for me too. And perhaps those childhood meltdowns are more transitory because they lack the hormonal energy that we’re so blessed with in adolescence and adulthood. I’ve noticed that the hormonal swings of perimenopause are ramping up the frequency and intensity of my meltdowns again after a fairly dormant period.

  27. Pingback: My “first” meltdown | Aspie Dragon
  28. galadriel2727

    Thank you so much! I am together with a “Aspie” and I have been together with him for a while now and have read up on Aspies (Sorry if that isn´t the right word ) because my boyfriend would tell me about his “condition”( sorry dont really know what to call it either) if i asked but every time I do he gets sad and therefore i don’t want to push him into telling me. Everything i have read are wrong in different ways into explaining me about what to do or stuff like that or what being an Aspie is like because i truly wish to understand him. My boyfriend is very caring and I love him SO much and he says he loves me too and I know he do he and he REALLY tries to be the “perfect” boyfriend for me and he is.
    But every time he has had an meltdown I just want to help him ( he closes off and it feels like he fades away from the world for a bit. ) and I dont know what to do and he tried to explain what he felt but he said he couldn’t put words too it and that he´s ashamed of what he thinks of when he´s like that. And now when I read this I think I will get it a little bit more. All I have done previously was to stay beside him and try too hug him and when he “pulled” out of it he would hug me and say he was sorry. And I said there is nothing to be sorry for. I know that in many cases he really HATE that hes an aspie and I love him the way he is. “Aspie” and all but what should I do when he get his meltdowns because I am at a loss and he seems so hurt and I just want to help him.
    Thank you once again.
    Sorry if i said too much I guess this was kind of an outlet to what I have been feeling… And Sorry again if I used any wrong words English is not my first language so Sorry once again if it didn’t make any sense or if i used any offensive words.

    • musingsofanaspie

      I’m glad you found this helpful in understanding your boyfriend more. It sounds like you really want to be supportive of him and understand his experience better, which is great. Reading the experiences of other adults on the spectrum is a good way to get an idea of the different kinds of things that make up being an aspie and how we feel about those things. Some are positive and some are negative and the negative stuff can be hard to cope with at times, so having a supportive partner is a huge help.

  29. Summer

    I’m 17, and I read this just now and realized: this perfectly describes how I feel during a meltdown. I have not been officially diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome, but through looking into it I have found that many of the symptoms describe me. I’ll be getting a professional opinion soon, and, if I have it, it will explain so much about my past. And the present, too, for that matter.
    My outbursts tend to be explosive, and a biweekly occurrence in the least. (One every couple of weeks, usually more, like once or twice a week) I first get frustrated, and try to reason through it, but then my emotions build up to where all I can do is yell. I am not usually violent, but I have hit things before. I feel bad for being so “out-of-tune” with my emotions, but this normally sneaks up on me. I have been learning coping skills to help me recognize my anger and take care of it before the outburst happens, usually by leaving the situation for a while. After an outburst, I usually have a dull and nagging headache.

    Anyway, its blogs and articles like this that have been helping me understand myself, as well as my counselor. Thanks for the helpful blog!

    • musingsofanaspie

      It sounds like you’re taking a proactive approach to managing your meltdowns, which is great. I learned what they were quite late in life, but knowing the signs of an impending meltdown and understanding why they happen has helped me tremendously. If it’s any comfort, once I got to my mid-twenties, the explosive meltdowns lessened quite a bit. I think the hormonal changes and surges that we experience in our teens can exacerbate meltdowns significantly. So hang in there and good luck with the diagnostic process.

  30. Yana

    All my life I’ve been out of sync and off center. Recently did Aspie self-diagnosis (came out on the gifted scale?). I have had these epic meltdowns but my stims for the most part are socially acceptable – as a teenager I flew into a rage and baked 9 chocolate cakes, 3 batches of cookies and hand made pastry for a bakers size pan of baklava.

    Yes I had the mysterious and undiagnosed ailments. Most recently a 1.5 week long headache that landed me in hospital and enforced bedrest. I’m struggling at the moment with the implosion and shutting down as I have a new partner with whom I’m very much in love and have developed a high level of possessiveness over. He doesn’t mind and returns my affection but doesn’t understand the level of stress/anxiety living separately is creating. He wants me to talk about it because I’m very articulate (usually). But I seem to revert to near muteness from my childhood and the level of awareness or ability to formulate coherent communication is just not possible. He tells me not to worry because it won’t change anything but I do worry and I have no clue how to stop. I now worry about everything most of it nonsensical.

    • musingsofanaspie

      I know someone else who is a rage baker, so you’re not alone on that score. :)

      With regard to your partner, would it help to communicate some fundamental things to him in written form? I’m terrible at talking about anything emotional or related to my needs (though I’m improving recently with effort) but I’ve found that I can communicate some things in writing to help my husband better understand what’s going on in my head. It sounds like your partner is trying hard to meet you halfway and is an understanding person, but maybe needs help in understanding how not all communication is created equal and some topics can cause verbal shutdowns, even in people who are usually articulate.

      • Yana

        Wow… You hit it on the head. Two days ago I had a shut down that was…near implosion levels. I couldn’t communicate what was going on but my partner knew something’s was up and gently tried to prod…completely wrong for me I wanted him near but couldn’t look at him. I did the staring into the middle distance (while I was completely lost I’m my mind). Trying to catch hold of my thoughts that were racing just so I could pin one down and examine it to understand what was setting me off. After a while I couldn’t bear his concern and delicate questioning and said I was tired of talking even though I’d been answering with only ‘yes’ and ‘no’. When I got home I started texting him explaining how difficult TALKING is and how I could write it but didn’t want to see the ‘poor-little-freak-girl’ look. He was amazing and said there’s no judgement and if that’s what was necessary then that’s we we did to make things work. He is also one of the few people who’s energy it’s soothing for me. My mind is like a room full of feathers with a fan going and he has the ability to switch the fan off so everything settles. Which is why it’s taken months for the anxiety and worry to build to shut down proportions. He’s reading about Aspies and realizing what a major stressor lack of routine is for me which means I rely heavily on day to day plans to stay focused and too quick changes of that when they stack up can lead to me scrambling to try to regroup leaving him feeling a bit shut out while I try not to shutdown.

  31. murfomurf

    Thanks for being so candid about the experience of meltdowns. As the owner of a “majority brain” I hadn’t realised how impossible it was for you guys to stop yourselves once a meltdown started, since I’ve always thought about things in a traditional cognitive therapy fashion. Possibly the “self-talk” works for you outside of meltdowns, but inside them is a unique world where no one else’s “rules” can apply?? Recently my friend whom I suspected has an Aspie brain had what turned out to be a second meltdown with me via Facebook but I hadn’t realised ,before reading yours and other blogs, that adult Aspies could still have meltdowns. My real-life dealings with diagnosed ASD people have been mainly with children and teens up to about 20 and most of the bright and communicative people had learned to control their meltdowns, at least when they had an audience. I’d also only seen meltdowns based on an Aspie seeing/hearing/touching something that just became unbearable; I didn’t think words on a screen would be meltdown possibles because I thought people would just get off the computer and go through a calming routine or explode behaviour-wise. When my friend immediately came back with a meltdown made of words typed into their computer, I just did not recognise it as a meltdown and kept typing also- now I realise I made things worse. Woe is me. Now I need to be able to convey the fact that I have learned my lesson and will stay away from provocative topics on screen as well as IRL. Also, I can dismiss most of my feeling of being hurt by the tirade of words as I know they were spewed out on auto pilot. Thank you again. You are so valuable for people like me, just as you are for fellow ASD people. I definitely believe in differently wired brains, rather than disordered or diseased ones, these days. It’s a long way from what I could discover in the 1970s when I first started trying to understand how ASD brains functioned!

    • musingsofanaspie

      I’m so glad this post was helpful to you in understanding what happened with your friend. I think you’re right in assuming that many of us learn to “save” our meltdowns for when we’re in private or around people we trust greatly.

  32. Geraldine Kennedy

    Hi, my 19 year old son has regular meltdowns and I never know how to help him, and he finds it difficult to know how to tell me. this is really helpful. He does most of the things you speak about, headbanging, curling up, uncontrollable sobbing, not wanting intervention – although I find this difficult as his mother. Thank you for sharing this as it makes it slightly more understandable to me!!

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