Where I Go When I Shutdown

This is loosely related to last week’s post on flat affect. When I look blank or checked out, sometimes it’s because I’ve withdrawn or shut down.

—–

“You disappeared.”

When my husband said this to me, we were sitting in a restaurant waiting for lunch to arrive. It was the tail end of a great weekend at the beach and I was off in my own world.

Withdrawal. Shutdown. You’ll hear people with Asperger’s use different words for the disappearing act we perform under stress.

For me, withdrawal feels more accurate. The sensory input becomes too much. Too many people, too much noise, too many decisions, too little time to process it all.

Sitting in the restaurant, I felt the telltale signs of withdrawal creeping up on me. The first is a sudden heavy sleepiness. All I want to do is put my head down and close my eyes. Or better yet, curl up in a nice safe place and take a nap. Of course, the urge to withdraw almost always hits at at a time when a nap is impossible and there are no safe places nearby.

The second sign–the one that makes it clear I’m not just overtired–is the sensation of moving through a long tunnel. Everything around me recedes and grows quieter. I feel myself disconnecting from the conversation. It becomes harder to formulate responses and I have no motivation to initiate any interaction.

Once I’ve drifted far enough into the tunnel, I’m quite content to sit and stare off into space, detached from everything that’s happening around me. I feel invisible.

Cumulative Stress

My withdrawals are almost always triggered by cumulative stress. The morning leading up to that lunchtime withdrawal was marked by a series of little frustrations. On any other day, I would have simply rolled with them, but I think two days of being in an unfamiliar environment was silently taking its toll.

The scene of my latest shutdown

Suddenly the music in the restaurant was too loud, the sun was too bright, I couldn’t tune out the conversations at the tables around me, the menu had too many options, none of which looked good. Sitting half in the sun and half in the shade, I was too cold and too hot at the same time. Every time I looked up, the guy at the next table quickly looked away–and I think that was the last straw.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about why I frequently catch people staring at me, often repeatedly over the course of a meal or a train ride. So off went my perseverative brain, puzzling over that question again. Then–bam–the sleepiness rolled in and next thing I knew I was slipping into the tunnel.

Going Offline

Contrary to how it must look externally, when I’m withdrawn I’m not sad or depressed. Sometimes a withdrawal is triggered by anxiety but sometimes it’s triggered by having too much fun. Whatever the trigger, a withdrawal is always the result of being overwhelmed.

Once I’ve disappeared, though, the dominant feeling is one of comfortable blankness. Relief.

Withdrawing or shutting down is obviously a defense mechanism. My brain decides that the processing demands of my environment have become too high and it takes some resources offline for a while. The withdrawal itself is restorative, a sensory timeout, but it’s not voluntary and even when I know it’s happening, there’s little I can do to stop or control it.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot. Do I need to control it? Do I want to? Ideally, it would be nice to delay a withdrawal to a more convenient time, like during the drive home instead of in the middle of lunch. I’m not sure if this is possible. The urge to withdraw is a strong and physical, more like being hungry than being sad. I can talk myself out being sad, but being hungry only goes away if I eat something.

Looking at a withdrawal as a physical need makes it easier to see that it’s not something I can simply distract myself from. Still, I hate the idea of feeling helplessly ruled by my body. Maybe the answer lies in what comes before the withdrawal, that series of little frustrations made worse by being out of my element.

I’m getting better at managing unexpected change. I’m slowly learning to embrace the unfamiliar. I’m becoming more mindful of the ways my physical comfort affects my emotional shifts. But perhaps I’m still too good at stuffing down the negative emotions, the little discomforts and anxieties that don’t feel important enough to waste energy on.

Resurfacing

Normally if someone tries to engage me in conversation when I’ve shut down, all they get are monosyllabic answers. When my husband asked, “where are you?” my nonanswer was “why?”

He paused  a moment, probably wondering if he was doing the right thing by confronting the situation head-on and then he said, “You disappeared.”

That simple acknowledgement of what I was experiencing helped me re-engage with him. We’d never talked about my withdrawals before. My husband has always, I think, assumed they were simply “bad moods,” something to be ridden out and ignored.

They’re more than that, and now he has a better understanding of not only where I go when I disappear but how I feel and why it’s not entirely a bad thing.

31 thoughts on “Where I Go When I Shutdown”

  1. Thanks.
    I have been searching for some experience that mirrors my own. This aspect of my behaviour i have felt badly about for years and have tried to change it.

    It come down to too much stimulation socially for me. It’s worse if i am generally more anxious, also.
    Sport seems to allow me to get on top of it.

    So, too, it seems do anti dpressants.

    The worst is when it comes on strong and does not go away (for long) and I am stuck in the scenario that has provoked it.

    1. It’s a very confusing experience when it happens and not very pleasant. I’m glad this gave you some insight. I think both medication and exercise can be ways of helping us cope with the overload and reduce the severity or frequency of shutdowns and meltdowns.

  2. I go on shutdowns a lot. It feels exactly like you’ve described. First I start yawning a lot, I feel exhausted and I stop responding. Then I just want to lie down, sit down or rest. I lose interest in things around me. It happens too much in my opinion, almost daily. My new boyfriend is very understanding, but unfortunately I go on shutdown almost every time we meet (he works from Mon to Fri on another city and I only see him during weekends).

    1. The urge to just lie down and sort of disappear can be intense, yes. Sorry to hear your shutdowns are interfering with the enjoyment of spending time with your boyfriend. Perhaps when you get to know him better it will happen less.

  3. For me, the first thing that happens is I lose the ability to pick out sounds or follow conversations. Noise at once seems louder and muffled as it washes over me like waves on a beach. Then the brightness in the world seems to dim. Then I get tired and stop responding. Usually, I make an excuse at this point to go somewhere quiet to recharge for a few minutes, but if I can’t, I’ll sit there, saying nothing and doing nothing, staring absently into space… it’s almost like a trance.

    Sometimes it comes on gradually and I can recognize that I need a break. Others, it’s almost a physical jolt where one moment I’m having fun enjoying something and the next I’m not and I’m unable to make sense of conversations and I just shut down. I find if I’m so absorbed in enjoying something taxing to me, I don’t notice I’m running on empty until I can’t go anymore. If I’m not as absorbed, I recognize it a lot earlier.

    1. A trance is a good analogy. I feel very . . . not present.

      I think for me it almost always comes on slowly. If something comes on suddenly, it’s more likely to be the start of a meltdown or a burst of intense anger and irritation that will make me lash out rather than go inward. It’s so interesting to hear the different ways we experience similar phenomena.

      1. I’m not sure how much of the sudden shutdown is that it’s actually sudden and how much is that I’m hyperfocusing on the situation at hand and I don’t notice my exhaustion until it becomes so great that I can’t hyperfocus anymore.

  4. I just stumbled upon this site. I am the mother of a 17 year-old who has recently been diagnosed with Asperger’s. He has been withdrawing more and more the last few months. He went through a clinical depression for about a month and has recently come out of it. He no longer feels depressed, but he’s tired a lot and withdrawing more and more from activities he enjoys and friends. He is very bright and also has ADD. For the first time he’s having trouble staying on top of his homework. Has anyone had similar experiences? Can you help me understand why this happens and how I might help him?

    1. Oh, I just wrote about something like this here: https://musingsofanaspie.com/2013/12/19/autistic-regression-and-fluid-adaptation/ You’ll find lots of people talking about similar experiences in the comments.

      Is it possible that his diagnosis has had an impact on him in some way? Or is there some other recent major change in his life that might be especially stressful? He may be withdrawing and having trouble keeping up with homework because some other aspect of his life is draining his resources and making his usual coping skills ineffective.

      1. I read your posted link and all the comments. Thank you! I suspect it’s the accumulation of many things. He had a mass removed in January and missed a couple weeks of school. After that he ended up developing ulcers and migraines that kept him out of the end of his sophomore year for almost 2 months. I thought we would start his junior year on a new note, but it’s gotten worse. He hit puberty late so that could have something to do with it as well as the increasing demands of his junior year. He dropped one of his AP classes and it seems to have helped, but the problems persist. I am thankful to have found these blogs. I couldn’t understand why this was happening. Knowing that it happens with others is very reassuring.

        1. I’m so glad! It sounds like he’s had a really hard year. Disruption of routine (missing school, illness, surgery) can be a huge stressor for people on the spectrum. The new year might be a good opportunity to help him reestablish a routine and also to emphasize the importance of not pushing himself too hard until he’s had a chance to recover. Doing things is important but self-care is important too. 🙂

  5. Gently remind him that he needs to find a way to get his work done and ask if he’s given some thought to it, what ideas he’s had that might allow him to move forward. Also, ask him to go with you somewhere that you’re sure he won’t be made anxious by, (just for example to go for a walk with you somewhere appealing to him, or if he doesn’t like walking, then for an interesting drive, etc.). Since he’s bright, there’s probably a way he can think of solutions or ways forward through the issues at hand, but too much “stillness” especially indoors isn’t conducive to creative thoughts. I hope that helps. Best of luck to you and your son.

  6. I do this alot. First is the tiredness and then I am so tired I cannot keep my eyes open. I cannot hear, I cannot speak, I cannot stand. It happened to me today. I went shoppping with a friend. I hate shopping more than 30-45 min. Too many information.This was a long day, she wanted to go allover. I drove home half aware of the reality, and fall asleep like I took a drug. This is the light shutdown. Stressfull times make me walk like a zombie, without understanding very much what is happening arround me. I had long, bad times, when I came from my job, turn off the phone and the dor bell and just go to sleep for 14-18 hours. I lived like that for month, unable to talk to anybody or to change a very strict routine: eating, washing, listening to the music, sleeping. I wasn’t depress, just dead tired. I always say my shut down are like I am diving very deep, at the bottom of a dark and silent ocean. After a while, I start floating up, to the light.

    1. I pretty much always have at least a mild shutdown after shopping. There’s so much sensory input in stores, especially big stores and malls. Deep diving is a great analogy. Makes perfect sense to me and really captures the sensory deprivation that happens in shutdown.

    2. Lovely description. These blogs are very helpful and actually a link to my sanity right now. I am in a 4 month relationship with a man who is undiagnosed but who I know has Asperger’s. He has been moving towards a shut down which I think has corresponded to an increase in the intensity of our relationship. He told me that he loved me about a month ago and since then our contact has steadily decreased and he is now not responding to my texts or phone calls. Very hard to deal with….afraid it was the end of the relationship, but it may not be. I just wonder how long this will go on. It is the first one I have experienced with him. I am feeling hopeful after reading these posts, however. Thank you

      1. Interestingly, there was a comment on another post by a man having the same experience with his girlfriend a few weeks ago. An increase in intensity of a relationship is definitely something that could trigger a long withdrawal. It’s impossible to guess at how long his might last, but I hope you’re both able to work things out when he’s ready.

        1. What is the other post where people described a similar relationship shutdown? My undiagnosed boyfriend withdrew 5 weeks ago after a major meltdown. He’s ok in his other life activities but has gotten withdrawn and stuck with the relationship. Definitely an increase in intimacy and possible change was at the root.

  7. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your writings..
    .. Just wish I had SOMEONE in my life who “gets it” .. who doesn’t Ridicule me when I tell them I am an Aspie .. 😦
    .. I’ve been melting down OR shutting down with very little in between over the past few months .. Pretty much in that fight or flight mode for over a year now .. since my landlord died and things Drastically changed where I live .. I .. can’t cope. I have No family and .. my friends .. sigh .. :(.. I am limited .. and tired.. exhausted with trying to explain and get SOme understanding ..

    .. I am 56. My “diagnosis” is a result of reading and identifying with people like you who are insightful, experienced and sharing of what they know as well as numerous ‘online’ tests.. I even tried to fudge one and was Still “Most LIkely” an Aspie .. > I have No doubt.. but .. I am so very alone.. Mine is complicated by CPTSD (Complex PTSD) .. meaning the abuse started in Infancy and continued on into adulthood.

    Anyway .. phew ..

    Thank you.

    1. I’m glad you took the time to share a little about your life here. I know it doesn’t make things a whole lot better, but I’ve found that sharing can make us feel a little less alone and that’s something.

  8. I’m so glad to have found your blog. I’ve been reading through it recently, and it’s really helped me understand my girlfriend better. Currently, she is completely offline and has been that way for about 3 weeks. This is the first time I’ve had to navigate something this serious with her AS in our 8 month relationship. We were living together during the summer in our own place, but I had to move back home to finish my last year of college which meant she had to move back to her family home as well. I’m in California now and she’s all the way in Massachusetts. She has told me that that transition and change and other stressors that came with moving back home was what really sent her into this spiral. She says she’s losing touch with reality, having intrusive violent thoughts, outbursts, and is just too stressed and tired to even speak to me at all. It’s been extremely hard, not only because I feel like my happy, loving relationship just disappeared before my very eyes, but mostly because I feel so, so helpless all the way across the country. I desperately want her to be okay and to be able to look after her and help, but I’m slowly realizing there’s not much I can do except wait for her to “resurface”. When this started, I was sending letters, packages, calling multiple times a day – basically doing anything I could think of to show my love and support from so far away. I thought I was helping, but now I feel like I may have pushed her further into her shutdown.

    However, your writings are a comfort and help me to stay positive and less anxious, and be ready to be there for her when things calm down. I’ve been doing all the research I can possibly do to fill the void and to better educate myself on how to come back from this and continue to have a healthy relationship with her. I especially love your perspective because it’s similar to our situation. I know I rambled a bit, but I really just want to say thank you for taking your time to document your life and learnings and to help people like Zoe and me. I miss her during this time more than anything, but am hopeful and confident that we will get through this and make it to the other side with a better understanding of Asperger’s Syndrome and the challenges and blessings it brings to our relationship.

    Wishing you smooth sailing and happiness.

  9. The way one feels during shutdown and the causes of it are different for each aspie as an individual. I shutdown if around people for too long, or when I get angry enough for a rage attack and choose shutdown instead.

    I don’t feel tired or sleepy. I feel detached, confused, unreal. I can’t understand what people say, and on slight occasions can’t speak. Sometimes can’t move or think. I’m floating. I’m completely not there, and I feel totally numb.

    But it’s not really a bad feeling. Preferable to meltdown anytime.

    1. Wow, that is the first time I’ve been able to form the complete picture of it. I think i might call this event my ‘aspie head’

      i can get to the point where i can feel ‘scared’ of how big a disconnect I experience and feel ‘untethered’ a floating ‘out of body’ feeling

  10. I am so glad I found this article! I have recently come to realise that I have Aspergers and I am going down the route of a formal diagnosis. I explained my withdrawal to my wonderful gf as going into a ‘Bubble’ We now refer to it as such. I am in a literal trance. I am absent from my own head and body. I try so hard to say the right thing and do the right thing (giving hugs, making tea etc) but the entire time, my face and eyes are blank and I don’t remember much about being in the Bubble when I’m in it. If my gf is not around and I am in my Bubble, I will literally sit on my bed or sofa and stare at a wall. I am a intelligent and articulate woman but when I am in this state, I am childlike in my words, tone and movements. It’s so wonderful to hear that it’s not just me who has this! I usually go into my Bubble after a stressful situation, especially when personal conflict is involved. My gf is so wonderful and understanding when I do this but she finds it very difficult as well to deal with emotionally. How do other people’s partners cope when they disappear following a argument or important exchange of words?

  11. It’s eerie… I have read all of this and can relate to it in its entirety. I am not diagnosed with Aspergers, but feel I may possibly have it or some of the issues related to the disorder. Reading this helps me understand what I do and go through and it also gives me an idea of what my partner goes through when I do these types of things with him. Very eye opening… thank you.

  12. thanks for writing this, I’m starting to suspect I’m autistic too and whenever a quiz asked me about shutdowns I always imagined something complitley differant. But I understand what you described and relate to it a lot. So thanks for writing this, it was very helpfull.

  13. Thank you for sharing. I’ve only recently been learning about what it means to be an Aspie, and I’m learning that many things I didn’t understand about myself and thought were abnormal are completely normal for who I am and how my brain works. This idea of a shutdown is one of them. Though I could use some advice about how to keep my shutdowns from spiraling into something more… dangerous. Any suggestions?

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