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 When I look blank or checked out, sometimes it’s because I’ve withdrawn or shut down.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.