In a relatively recent post, I explained the differences between a meltdown and a temper tantrum. Even for those who haven’t personally experienced or witnessed a meltdown, it’s pretty easy to form a mental picture of what one looks like, using only minimal imagination; on the outside and at the surface, a meltdown resembles a garden variety tantrum (except that it’s not).
But few, if any, allistic people (those who aren’t on the autism spectrum) know what a meltdown actually feels like. Truthfully, it can be tough to understand. As with many other aspects of Asperger’s and the autism spectrum in general, it can be difficult to explain, and the details may vary among individual people, as do the thoughts, emotions, and “why”s behind it all.
I’m fortunate in that meltdowns don’t happen to me very often. But I’ve had my share. People have gotten hurt in the process. I’m not at all proud of that.
Some of what I’m about to say may sound redundant. But with a closer look and a dilated mind, nothing listed is exactly the same.
For me, a meltdown often feels like…
…..a complete and frightening loss of control, during which I am not myself
…..nerves and a psyche so frayed that I feel rubbed completely raw at the core
…..a desperate need to Make It Stop(!), whatever “It” may be (and sometimes even I don’t know; usually, though, it’s the sum of many minor instances or irritants built up over who-knows-how-long a period of time)
…..total overload and overwhelm, a freezing, a blankness
…..other desperate needs that we may or may not be aware of, able to identify, or able to express
…..sometimes a feeling of being outside one’s mind or body
…..sometimes a sketchy memory or complete memory blackout, but at other times, it’s just the opposite: a painful 100% recollection
…..waves and floods of emotions all whirling, swirling, snarling, and battling in tornadic activity
…..emotions such as shame, guilt, regret, remorse, confusion, incompetence, humiliation
…..emotions like frustration, drowning (emotionally and mentally), rage, anguish, panic, hopelessness, helplessness, desperation, and powerlessness
…..feelings of inadequacy, immaturity, inferiority, insignificance, outcast
…..either a string of profanity and personal attacks or insults, or sometimes just the opposite: going completely mute
…..a storm that keeps building and unleashes mercilessly
…..feeling filled to the brim, and overflowing relentlessly, the current flowing against one’s will
…..reaching the edge of a cliff, and sailing over it, plunging down; or crossing a line or point of no return
…..a lashing out or alternatively, being paralyzed and frozen
…..a volcano erupting, destroying everything within a certain radius
…..sheer terror, terrifying, frightening
…..a cognitive shutdown, involving a total loss of all higher reasoning, thought, control, even my humanity
…..explosion or implosion
…..a feeling of breaking and/or being/having (been) broken
The list above is just my own personal firsthand perspective. The feelings and descriptions will likely vary widely among people of the spectrum community.
True to Aspergian/autistic form, I’ve noticed a theme in the descriptions above, which is a weather/geological pattern:
- “cliff edge”
When a meltdown is imminent, I notice a progression in certain emotions:
- Fear/Anxiety => (become(s)) Panic
- Irritability => Anger => Rage
- Confusion => Powerlessness => Helplessness
From everything I’ve read and experienced so far, I know that once a meltdown has begun, it can’t be stopped; it simply has to run its course, however long that takes. The best (and the only effective) strategy that I’ve found thus far is prevention. The only way to prevent one (again, that I’ve found so far) is through recognition. Awareness of the early signs, recognition of when they’re starting to happen, admission to oneself that they’re starting to happen, respect for the fact of life that is that process, and the action we must take to either subvert it or seal ourselves off so that damage to our surroundings (people and environment) can be minimized.
The early signs might not be obvious at all, even to Asperger’s/autistic people ourselves. They, too, will probably vary from person to person.
Possible examples of early signs (again, these may seem redundant, but look closely; they’re slightly different) (Note: these are in no particular order):
- Feeling uneasy or antsy (I call this “neurological buzzing”, when I’m starting to feel overloaded or overstimulated, because that’s what it feels like to me)
- Feeling a greater-than-normal desire to stim, and an increased anxiety or irritability if/when I can’t
- Irritability (increased in general)
- Anxiety (increased in general)
- Feeling a need to rant
- Feeling over-stressed
- Situations where several stressors have hit within too short a period of time; these may include conflicts (inter-personal, internal/self, or professional/co-workers; these may be spoken or unspoken), being around too many people (especially if they’re unfamiliar or I’m feeling a pretentious or caustic “vibe” from them)
- A feeling of accumulation or buildup
- Feeling a need to escape, flee, spend time alone
- Feeling a need to rest, do nothing, stare into space, daydream, read, zone out, let thoughts wander, slow down, stop, meditate, or sleep
- An unusual “shortness” or brusqueness with others
- A shortening fuse in general
- A need to delegate tasks or rely/lean on others
- A feeling of “filling up”
- Dry mouth
- Food cravings
- Fatigue (may different types: physical, emotional, mental, cognitive, social, exertion-related, etc)
- Blood pressure rising
- Face gets hot
- Nervously wiggling one’s foot, leg, or other part of the body
- Rigidity (usually emotional, mental, or cognitive) and inflexibility; reduced tolerance or ability to “go with the flow”
- Compromised memory, forgetfulness
- Beginning to overreact to minor upsets, setbacks, changes, or environmental conditions
- The feeling that nothing is right and everything is wrong
The list above contains some of the characteristic signs that I’m aware of, either through my own experience or by reading about the experiences of others. Not all of these early signs may appear with every impending meltdown; there may be only a few.
Like I mentioned, the “process” of buildup and melting down may vary a lot among us. You may only identify with a couple on the list above, and you may have several other signs that aren’t on the list. If you’re aware of one that you don’t see here, please feel free to add them in the Comments section below! 🙂
The possibility of a meltdown will almost surely be a fact of everyday Asperger’s/autism spectrum life. But recognizing the signs early on can make a huge difference. Recognition by itself isn’t the only measure that needs to be taken (there are a couple others), but it is a crucial prerequisite. I’ll address those other measures in the near future.