Meltdown

I had a meltdown. At least, I’m fairly sure that’s what it was. I’ve had many in my life, but not that recently – not since I realised I was autistic.

I’d had a very difficult week at work, and there was a work social arranged for the Thursday evening at a local pub. I arrived later than my colleagues, on my own. I was already so stressed that walking out of the office, and round the corner to the pub in the rush hour, through crowds of people, felt difficult and exhausting.

I arrived at the pub, which was also crowded. There was loud music playing, and louder conversations. The pub wasn’t very bright, but there were flashing lights, I think from slot machines, and dazzling lights visible behind the bar. By the time I got there, I’m guessing a lot of the people had had a few drinks and people sometimes behave unpredictably when they’ve been drinking. I could see and feel that in the way they were randomly shouting and laughing, so I felt threatened and even more on edge.

I couldn’t find my friends from work at first, so I walked round the pub a few times. The noises and flashing lights started to feel like physical blows, and some of the people were pushing past each other, and me, getting into my personal space. Someone turned awkwardly away from the bar and banged into me – not hard enough to hurt, not even hard enough for them to really notice, but it shook me up and I started to feel upset.

I found the people I was looking for, and made my way to the table, but as I got there I realised that I wouldn’t be able to maintain any kind of normal conversation at the same time as protecting myself from the sensory overload. And I shut down.

I remember saying something along the lines of ‘I’m out of here, see you later’, turning around and bumping into a few people trying to get out of the pub. Then I was outside, on the pavement, walking but feeling disorientated – I was expecting to see the Tube station on my right but it wasn’t there. I carried on walking in the same direction. A couple of times I stumbled, as if I’d missed a shallow step, or the pavement was slippery (I hadn’t and it wasn’t). But I didn’t stop and ended up walking round a corner and seeing the Tube, and then I knew where I was, and was able to get back to my bedsit ( where I stay when I work away from home during the week).

From the point at which I reached the table and knew I had to leave, I didn’t feel much emotion. I phoned my husband as soon I felt stable and was on my way back. I was slightly worried about what my work colleagues would think; I wondered what I should tell them, and when I should try to speak to them; I felt a bit embarrassed, and when one of my colleagues rang, I felt unable to speak to him on the phone but chose to communicate by text instead.

But that was all.

I’ve had meltdowns before, or rather, since I didn’t know what they were at the time, I’ve had episodes where felt a desperate need to get out of a situation, and immense amounts of pressure. At most of those times in the past, I felt overwhelming emotion – usually extreme distress which could transform into rage. This time I did not feel that.

I’m working on figuring this out. I think my acceptance of my autism, and of some of the darker aspects of how it affects me, has made a major difference to me. I think that in the past, I felt that my reactions were unacceptable; that I was somehow wrong or inadequate to react or feel in those ways in the first place; that I should have been able to control myself, and therefore felt even worse about myself when I was unable to. And that I felt judged by everyone else when I failed.

I don’t feel like that any more.

I seem to have become hardened in some way. Uncompromising. Maybe I’ve spent a lifetime compromising and I’m not prepared to do that any more. I’ll do a certain amount of adjusting myself and my attitude to fit in, but not to the extent that it causes me damage.

I have mostly given up on socialising for the moment. I might try to find a way of spending social time with my colleagues in a different setting, but it’s hard to find even a coffee shop these days without loud music playing in the background, and I doubt anyone would take kindly to taking coffees out to sit in the courtyard in November. And then the effort of trying to explain why I can’t cope, to people who don’t experience sensory overwhelm and therefore, with the best will in the world, can’t quite understand what’s going on – I don’t have the energy spare for that. Not right now.

I do like being social. I enjoy spending time with people I like, talking to them, listening to them, finding out about them, engaging in conversation about work, families, current affairs, films, music (I can even manage conversation about some sports, although not many and not football and not for long). I think this is probably far more common than the wider world understands – not all autistic people are introverts. And even if we are (I think I am), some of us get lonely without a certain amount of social contact.

But I clearly cannot do that in the only environments that seem to be available in a neurotypical world. Given a jackpot win on the Euromillions, I would start a chain of autistic-friendly venues. Or even just one. The Family have in fact started planning how this would look – a cafe with different rooms for different tolerances of noise levels, maybe even some self service points for those of us who can’t talk, or can’t face talking to people some of the time. Menus that are modular, with very plain and simple food, and the ability to produce and price any combination of ingredients. No special offers. No freezing noisy aircon.

In fact if there is anyone out there who wants to start up a new, autie-friendly business, please get in touch…

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12 Responses to Meltdown

  1. This blog post is excellent. Mike that you have be one less judgemental of yourself and more understanding and respectful to your own needs. I love the idea of autism friendly socialising spaces. I think you should put do e ideas together and look into Kickstarter funding xxx

  2. Alan Garde says:

    I think you are really onto something in how your reaction is different now.

    Acceptance of who you are and what you need in a given situation, and that it’s ok for you to need that even if others aren’t like that. That’s such a great thing to see you’ve found in what is a distressing situation. My partners youngest has Aspergers, possibly BPD, possibly PDA and we get regular meltdowns in situations she finds distressing, or afterwards when she just doesn’t know hot to cope with how it’s left her feeling, and they can be pretty violent outbursts. The sorts of things you’ve described as your “old ways” of reacting. If we are lucky we can see it in her face, going blank, non-responsive, fidgety and it will often lead to the rage, but it can be near impossible to head off when its gone down that slope. I know she feels locked up inside and can’t say anything when its started happening, partly its because of trying to push down the feelings of anger, partly because she doesn’t know how to express it as she’s scared of anything she says coming out as snappy or nasty. Lot’s of embarrassment and deflection on it being other people. I’m glad you mentioned about this, I’m trying to get her to have a silly “safe word” or phrase she can say when she’s starting to feel like she really just needs to be out of there, no arguments, don’t ask what’s wrong (as that just makes her feel worse), and the difference in how you felt in owning who you are and what you need, makes me feel like we are trying to go in the right direction. Obviously I wish she’d be independent enough to make those decisions herself, just as you did, but I feel like we are trying to help her learn how to take responsibility rather than it being everyone elses fault (which is what it comes out as). I really hope that if she can try to do it, and feel better that if she took care of her own needs (and sod what anyone else things) then it’s not failure, its good self care, it may feel more “acceptable” in her own head.

    I love your idea of autistic friendly venues. Even as an introvert with social anxiety I find most places people go too noisy, too in your face. Loud background music or too high a noise level of people around (trying to talk over the music) totally screws my hearing so it all becomes white noise and I can’t understand a word people are saying around me or too me, which then makes me more uptight and not want to be there as I’m not “fitting in” and can’t hold a conversation. It’s even worse in groups (and with casual acquaintances) where you are trying to follow multiple people talking and trying to find when is the right time to try to “chime in” and not just sit there silently like a lemon. At least with those I’m really close to they know I struggle in noisy restaurants and if I’m sitting quiet and just eating it’s not because I don’t want to be with them, but because it’s just too difficult to follow. I find it hell in casual groups though, especially work or meeting peoples other friends when you really want to make a good impression but just can’t join in.

    Self service points are great 🙂 Especially in busy places. I was flying back from Oklahoma at the weekend and busy crowded airport and the normal overwhelming choice of hundreds of things to go into a fresh sandwich, with someone who won’t understand my accent and I won’t understand them or what the choices are. Went straight to the self-service kiosk and could choose all my options and what I wanted to add and remove from the pictures without having to fight and panic and just go “yes” to whatever was being offered and end up hating it. Doesn’t mean I didn’t want to be friendly with the staff though, but meant I could be friendly with the guy who brought the order as I hadn’t stressed out over the choosing it.

    As always, thankyou Eleanor for your blogs and sharing your discoveries with us. It’s always enlightening and sharing your deeply personal experiences really helps me in finding new ways of seeing things from our girls perspective.

  3. What do you think about AuTasty (autasty.wordpress.com)?

  4. Lucy At Home says:

    Oh I’m sorry that this happened. I know it’s not the same, but I used to get panic attacks and many of the things you describe here feel very familiar. I’m glad to hear that you are being kinder to yourself and not blaming yourself when you need to look after yourself and do some self-preservation – that is so important. I think an autism-friendly chain sounds like a fab idea!

    And congratulations because someone loved this post so much, they added it to the BlogCrush linky! Feel free to collect your “I’ve been featured” blog badge 🙂 #blogcrush

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