Tag Archives: shutdown

Backstopping: Supporting the Autistic Person in Your Life

The Scientist and I moved cross-country a few years ago. We made the drive In four days and by the middle of the fourth day I was on the verge of shutdown. It was way past lunch time, we were out of snacks and we were driving through Middle of Nowhere, West Virginia.

When we finally came upon a place to eat it was a McDonald’s. Just the thought of eating fast food made me feel nauseous. I said I would walk the dog around while The Scientist went inside to order. When he asked what I wanted, I said “Nothing.” By the time he came out with a big bag of food, I was sitting on the curb by the car with my head on my knees, wishing I could teleport myself the final four hundred miles to our new home.

The Scientist sat down to me and said,”I got you something.”

Even though I was so hungry that I was light-headed, I couldn’t imagine being able to eat a burger or fries.

“I don’t want anything,” I said.

Undeterred, he reached in the bag and took out a container of oatmeal. When he opened it, I saw it was topped with fresh blueberries. He’d found the one thing on McDonald’s menu that wouldn’t totally repel me. I was so happy, I nearly cried.

What’s the point of this rather boring and uneventful story? It was the first memorable instance of something I’ve come to think of as backstopping.  Continue reading Backstopping: Supporting the Autistic Person in Your Life

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.

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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.

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

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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.

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

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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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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.

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“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.