22 Jan 2020

Meltdown - Old vs New behavior

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9 mins

Mind Melting Down My thoughts are running through my head and through each other. My head is full and I notice I’m scared. My body gives all the classical signals for this; my heart beats much faster, my eyes wander over everything without seeing much, my breathing is much faster than normal. For me the worst thing is that I lose my self-control, my grip on my reactions and the mask with which I filter my statements normally.

In short, this is my so-called meltdown. A meltdown is not something that only children with autism have, even adult autistic people run into it from time to time. And for every autistic person a meltdown is different. There are certainly similarities between meltdowns and they are all extremely miserable.

What’s a meltdown for me?

Like everything on this blog, I write this from my own experience, my view of the world. Like I wrote, a meltdown is different for everyone. My meltdowns are characterized by the loss of my social mask and the inability to interact socially. It often expresses itself in anger and sadness. Answers to questions are short and with an angry tone. I am also no longer able to accept disruptive factors. It goes beyond over-stimulation, where I can still react “normally”, I can’t think reasonably anymore during a meltdown. The world is too much for me at such a moment.

Although from the outside it may seem that I am angry, I am actually scared. Fear is the driver of my anger. Frustration reigns supreme and reasonableness is nowhere to be found. If someone tries to help me by talking to me, I shut them out. This more because I am unable to explain what caused the meltdown. I can’t talk about it. My thoughts are flying through my head and I can’t control them. One minute I’m angry and the next I’m almost crying.

My old behavior

Caution, meltdown in progress! When I didn’t know I was autistic, I was desperate to get myself under control. Losing self-control was the worst thing that could happen to me. I lost control of myself and my emotions. That made me scared and angry. With words I lashed out at my surroundings and pushed everyone away. I was no longer able to see that there were people who genuinely wanted to help me. But I couldn’t talk about how I felt either. I wasn’t able to explain that everything was too much for me. I turned completely inside myself and wasn’t able to tell what was going on. This often turned into pushing away the emotions I felt. With this, I regained my self-control, I thought, and “I solved the problem”.

In short, I did ostrich politics; I stuck my head in the sand and waited until the “ mood “ was over. I did not see the help that was offered as such. During a meltdown I was sometimes a different person. That was fodder for the anger I aimed at myself. I also didn’t understand why other people around me seemed to be able to deal with this kind of thing. After all, I was no different from the people around me, so why could they seem to cope with situations like this without any problems and I couldn’t? Again, I didn’t know anything about autism and meltdowns at the time. According to my own thoughts, “I was being a wuss” and “I just had to act normal”.

This behaviour cost me a lot. It led to quarrels, misunderstanding, broken relationships, loss of friendships and eventually (partly) to my depression.

The realization that I’m different

As with many other things, this behavior became clear to me when I was diagnosed with autism. By reading more and more and hearing stories from other autists, I slowly came to realize that there is such a thing as a meltdown. More and more stories I read and heard confirmed to me that having a meltdown is part of autism. It’s the emergency brake that my brain uses when it gets too much. It’s an “alarm phase red”, a “mayday mayday”, an “S.O.S.” and many other phrases.

Slowly the realization came to me that my way of dealing with a meltdown only made things worse. Coming out of a meltdown took me days, sometimes even weeks. Not that I stayed completely in a meltdown for days, but I kept floating on the edge and a little push was enough to get me over the edge again. Help was offered, but I didn’t accept that. And that caused me a period of mourning. Remorse for how things had turned out earlier in my life. Regret for things I had said and done. But in the end that period led to acceptance. I can’t change the past. All I can do is do better in the future.

New behaviour

Although I now know that the behavior I am showing is part of a meltdown, it is still not easy to communicate during a meltdown. However, these days I have fewer meltdowns than I had. Part of that, of course, is that I know better and better what my autism looks like to me. I also now know better what gives me over-stimulation and what I can do to calm myself.

A meltdown still looks the same to me. I have to say that these days I see it more like a tsunami while standing on the beach. I hear the tsunami alarm go off loud and clear, but I also know that it is going to hit inland for miles… and that means for me there is no way to go. That’s the beginning of a meltdown I can’t escape. It evokes fear and often anger towards myself. I retreat into myself and become inaccessible to those around me. It is not easy to talk to me.

Storm in mijn lijf

But I’m trying to do better than I used to. It’s another thing I have a lot of work to do, and it’s certainly not easy. But I’m now trying, when the worst of the meltdown has passed, to talk to someone about the cause. Like yesterday with a care worker of mine that I can talk to very well.

She heard something when she came in. My answers were brief and my gaze was like thunder. At the beginning of the conversation I indicated that I wasn’t feeling well but didn’t want to talk about it. She reacted sympathetically and wanted to give me room to work it out. The only thing she said was that she saw me “falling into old behaviour”. And with that she broke through the wall I had built around myself. I realized at once that she was right! And I made up my mind to do better. So I started talking (with difficulty). About the cause of the meltdown and what I was dealing with exactly, how my thoughts in my head went in circles.

With that a burden fell off my shoulders, I was able to put my thoughts into words and discuss my problem. Of course I am very lucky to have coaches who can listen patiently. I also have the advantage that I am quite strong verbally, I usually manage to put my thoughts into words. Starting to talk was a huge threshold for me, but once the dam was broken it went well.

During a meltdown talk?

Let’s get back to the communication during a meltdown. The conversation with my counsel was yesterday, the day after my meltdown. During the conversation we also talked about talking during a meltdown. In short, I can’t do that. I don’t have the space to communicate in a neurotypical way.

What I then start doing is posting images and songs on social media. Sometimes they are images that indicate how I feel, sometimes they are songs with a meaning that is only clear to myself at that moment. It’s not an effective way of asking for help, because I can also post in that way if I feel fine. But the difference is in the chat. If I feel fine, I can also chat via Messenger or WhatsApp, for example. Not during a meltdown, however, I don’t react or hardly react at all.

If I really need to, I can talk during a meltdown, but it costs me a lot of energy. Normally, social interaction costs me energy, but during a meltdown it increases tenfold. It also means I can give short answers faster and often without worrying about what it looks like. My goal is then to end the conversation as quickly as possible, in whatever way possible.

Learning goal

Although things are going better than in the past, for the time being it remains a great learning goal of mine to deal with this better. I can already think of several things that could help me to deal with it better:

  • Sooner after a meltdown, looking for someone to talk to about it…
  • If I feel a meltdown approaching, make this known by means of a predefined signal (to be determined)
  • During a meltdown maybe show me a card or something with what someone can do for me
  • Creating an understanding for these types of meltdowns and giving people information about what they can do

Maybe there are many more things I could do, but as I wrote it’s a great learning goal. But I’ve already taken the first step; I know I can have these things. And now I need to deal with them better for myself and for those around me.

Every day a little better, a step forward and further in the discovery of this neurodiverse world.

Thanks for reading
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Tags: autisme meltdown persoonlijk sociaal-gedrag 
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David Westerink
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I am David, born in 1984 and I'm autistic. I write blog posts and advocate for autism acceptance. I'm willing to talk to anyone about anything.

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