How to Avoid a Meltdown… According to My Therapist

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I have been having near daily meltdowns since I returned to work about two months ago. At first, we thought maybe it was just due to the increased stress from the pandemic and from being sick with COVID-19 in March.

That didn’t really sit right with me, though. I knew that wasn’t the whole picture. I have been dealing with health concerns for the last 12 years with my autoimmune conditions. My meltdowns used to happen on occasion. Maybe once or twice a month, and sometimes with specific triggers (like an important social engagement I had to get dressed up for). I’ve done insane things in the middle of meltdowns before. At their extremes, I’ve thrown a heavy chair down two flights of stairs and ripped a door off it’s frame. But these incidents were pretty spread out. Daily meltdowns is completely new territory for me.

About halfway through the discussion with my therapist, the real reason for the meltdowns occurred to me. It was just stress. It was grief. I lost my cat suddenly a few months ago. Four months ago, to be exact. Four months and I still cry almost every day. He was my baby since the very day he was born and has been by my side my entire adult life. I still don’t know what my life looks like without him.

I never realized how much comfort he actually gave me until now. Losing him has thrown me into a state of chaos. I seem to have lost the ability to regulate myself and recover from being over-stimulated. All I used to need was some quiet alone-time. Now, I find myself unraveling with no way to stop it. Sometimes I will be unraveling without even being aware. My conscious brain will think I feel okay, and that I actually had a good day at work. Then I get home and completely go to pieces because I trip over a stray flip flop, accidentally bump my elbow on the door knob, or the blinds are making a horrible flapping sound with the fan on. In fact, I’m on the brink right now because my upstairs neighbors are watching movie so loud it can be heard from two buildings away (they do this on the regular—honestly never had neighbors more oblivious or disrespectful. Random passersby will even comment on how loud it is when they are out for a walk around the block).

According to my therapist, I need to find ways to help regulate myself throughout the day. One of the things she has asked me to do is a sensory scan. What am I hearing? What am I seeing? What am I smelling? What am I tasting? What am I feeling? I am supposed to go through each sense and just notice what I am experiencing. This will help get me in the present moment and will help ground me.

Another little exercise she has asked me to try is deep breathing. Since I’ve been trying to pay attention to my breathing I’ve actually noticed I tend to hold my breath a LOT. When I start getting tense at work, I just stop breathing. I’ve started combing those two exercises together, so whenever I notice myself not breathing, I make sure to breathe and then I do the sensory scan.

I’m supposed to give it a few weeks with these new techniques to see if things improve, but I’ve already noticed a difference. The only other thing I’ve changed is what I do after work. I’ve been taking more baths and experimenting with different bath bombs (not easy when you can smell things from a mile away). I’ve managed to actually find a few bath bombs with a suuuper light fragrance that doesn’t make me sick. With my highly sensitive nose, I can’t get within a mile of a store like Lush or Bath & Body a Works, so I’ve taken a few leaps of faith online and amazingly it’s worked out for me.

And on that note, I am going to go take a bath before bed with a different kind of bath bombs. I’m out of all my usuals. Cross your fingers for me—I need something relaxing right now and I’m not sure if “cotton candy” is something I can tolerate on my skin for 24 hours.

Undulating Special Interests

We all have ways of coping. One of the ways I cope is with my special interests—only, I never knew they were “special interests.” My whole life, I have always had obsessions. For me, they come in waves. Most of the time it is something artsy or crafty. Origami, watercolors, drawing, graphic design, coloring, knitting, quilting, crochet. But it’s also been super girly things like make-up, hair products, nail polish, or nail art. Recently, my special interest was succulents, but since my stress levels have increased at catastrophic levels, I’ve turned back towards art.

It started with puffy paint because I wanted to make myself a button to wear at work, so people know I am immuno-compromised. Once I had the puffy paint, I wanted to paint other things too, so I just started creating. I found it helped me relax because it took all of my focus, so my brain could have a little bit of quiet. Somehow, the puffy paint obsession turned into a gel pen obsession. Now I am interested in learning how to create gel pen art—specifically bright, colorful mandalas. 

When I have a special interest, I pursue it to the exclusion of everything else. It is all I want to do. It impacts my self-care, my eating, my sleeping, everything. Now that I know a little bit more about myself, I am able to look at my special interests through a different lens. I am able to enjoy them as intensely as I always do, but I don’t have to let them consume me. In fact, this blog post is a perfect example of that. I managed to pry myself away from my gel pens and compass long enough to pull out my laptop and write this.

I know I have to get up for work tomorrow very early, and I am well-aware how much I am struggling to function. As soon as my fiancé left for work this evening, I took my night medicine. I am usually one to put bedtime off as long as possible, and it is especially hard to make myself go to bed when I am in the middle of exploring a brand-new special interest. Having my diagnosis doesn’t change who I am, but it does allow me to see things a little clearer. I have always been a very logical thinker. The added clarity gives me the space to view my special interests a little more logically, and (so far, at least) I am able to moderate myself a little more. 

Part of that increased moderation comes from feeling far freer (how’s that for unintentional alliteration?) to obsess. I used to judge myself and wonder why I couldn’t have hobbies like “normal” people. To me, “normal” people had one or two hobbies they pursued regularly—and I mean that regularly as in an average amount of time spent and regularly as in on a regular basis over a prolonged period of time. My hobbies have never been regular. They fade in and out and burn with a ferocity that consumes all. My list of hobbies is as long as my arm.

What I love about my arm-length list is that not only am I always adding new things, but I cycle back around to almost each and every one. Not only do I have the joy of finding new interests that I love, but I also get to experience the joy of rediscovering the old interests I set aside for a while. There are many challenges I face in this neuro-typical world, but there are also gifts. My undulating hobbies or special interests is just one of the gifts my Autism has given me, and for the first time, I can truly appreciate that.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to draw a few more circles and squiggly lines before bed. 

Overload, Honestly.

I returned to work after months of my work being closed due to the pandemic. It was a rough quarantine for me. It began with being sick with COVID-19 for nearly two whole months (likely prolonged due to my autoimmune conditions and immunocompromised status), then my cat, who I’ve loved and cared for since the very day he was born, cared for through illness and nursed back to health after injury, passed away suddenly. I had him for twelve and a half years, my entire adult life. I don’t think my heart will ever heal. He was an indescribable source of comfort for me. (Going through that loss is a subject for another post—one I feel is important to discuss because of the ways my Autistic brain processed the grief in its acute stages—yet another subject there is close to nothing written about.)

With the stress of living through a pandemic, falling ill, losing my fur-child/my entire heart, being forced to return to work full-time with zero notice, with a significantly weakened, already-compromised immune system, in a hotel, serving guests who feel it is safe to travel and who treat the state and county laws of wearing facial coverings like mere suggestions or political games, and I’ve lost complete track of this sentence by now. The length and content is overwhelming, and I do mean that in more ways than one. With all of those factors, my ability to function has drastically suffered. The threshold for what I can handle before experiencing overload has lowered by a significant amount.

I come home from work every day and experience a full-blown meltdown. I come home so overloaded I cannot even stand being talked to or touched by my fiancé and it is hard. He is the most caring, understanding, supportive man, and I am so unbelievably lucky, but watching me suffer is incredibly hard for him. Especially when there is nothing he can do about it, because nothing helps. By the time I get home from work, all sound hurts. I have synesthesia, and sound causes me to see flashing lights and experience physical sensations (like electric shocks) all over my body. The more overloaded I am, the more pain it causes. So, not only is the sound overloading, but the flashing light and the feeling from the sound is overloading, so the amount of overload I experience increases at an exponential rate. It’s hard to break the cycle once it’s that far gone.

For me, a meltdown can happen a few different ways. Sometimes it’s hysterical crying, sometimes its hysterical anger.  Usually, it’s the angry type. Interestingly, I’ve spent my life in therapy learning coping mechanisms for my meltdowns, it’s just no one ever knew what caused them. Most of the time, I am able to exercise some amount of control. I scream into pillows at the top of my lungs, punch pillows, throw pillows, kick pillows, pound on the bed with my fists, use a pillow and beat it against the wall, or the floor, or another pillow… most of the time. These last few weeks my pillows have taken an incredible beating, but there were a few times I lost control. One night I collapsed to the floor and started hitting myself on the head with my fists. Another night, I started pounding on my legs while I sat on the couch. In these moments, I don’t even know that I am doing these things. I only become aware of it because my fiancé says “HEY! Stop!” In these moments, his voice brings me back to myself and I can start pounding something softer, like the mattress, or a pillow, or a couch cushion. 

Though my fiancé is as supportive as they come, I hate that he has to see me like this. Prior to the last few weeks, throughout these 32 years my meltdowns have happened on occasion. Now it’s daily and I feel broken. I want to be clear—I am not inherently broken, but I feel like the outside world is breaking me. The outside world has always seemed brutal. There were always certain challenges I faced. It just wasn’t hitting me as hard before the pandemic—before everything I’ve gone through since March. Before my heart was shattered, I had more strength. Now when I get home from work and I need my kitty, I have to go into my bedroom and lift his little box off of its spot on my nightstand. Ill lay on my bed and let his ashes rest on my chest the way he used to, and stroke the spot on the box where his name is engraved. I lost him three months ago, but somehow it hurts even more now because I just need him so much right now. He was always there for me no matter what. Really, solidly there. I haven’t learned how to function without that yet.

I’ll say again: I want to be clear. I didn’t write this post to throw myself a pity party. This pandemic has been hell for me, but I know it’s been bad (or worse) for others. I thought I would start to feel better and more like myself once I could get back to work. Heck, I was actually really excited to get back to work. But given the pandemic and my new additional challenges with illness and loss, it turns out returning to work has only taken me to the next level of hell—one from which there seems to be no escape. But, still, I am moving forward. I am continuing with my new therapist/specialist, and I have reached out to a few psychiatrists to see about getting an assessment. (That is a first for me. I’ve never seen a psychiatrist. But from where I am sitting… I think it’s time to try.) I just can’t do it on my own right now.

I want to be honest here. I want to be honest in my experiences, even when they are not great ones. Because that is what I want to read. I start writing every post by asking myself “What do I feel like I need to read about right now? What would help me in this moment?” My assumption is that I am not the only one who has ever looked to others’ experiences for help and not been able to find them. I appreciate all the positive stories. All the success stories. All the encouragement. All the everything that’s out there. I love reading about the good moments, but I need to read about the bad moments too. That is why I am writing this. I am writing this for the others who are sitting in the dark, feeling battered and broken, and in a constant state of overload. I want whoever finds and reads this to know that they are not alone. That we are in this together. And that we have nothing to be ashamed of. Prior to my diagnosis, I spent a lot of my life ashamed. Since my diagnosis, I reject that feeling. It’s a feeling that is hard to beat, but I will beat it (with a feather pillow, if needed).

I returned to work after months of my work being closed due to the pandemic. It was a rough quarantine for me. But coming out of quarantine has been rougher.

Good Vibes.

There are about twelve subjects on my mind today. All of them are related to Autism and how it is impacting my life. There are a lot of large, looming questions I need to answer that are just floating around my head on a loop. But, I don’t have any answers for those yet. So, for now, I will have to satisfy my need to share with you by discussing something both mundane and critically important: earplugs.

Today was expected to be a crazy day at work, so it was the first day I brought my new earplugs with me. I recently bought those popular Vibes earplugs that allow you to hear everything, but just at a less intense volume. I’ve been messing with them for a few days now and finally found a good fit. (Apparently, my right ear is a size medium and my left ear is a size small. Who would have guessed one person’s ears could be such different sizes? No wonder I have a hard time finding comfortable headphones.)

One of the things I struggle with at work is the noise around me. I run a smoothie and ice cream shop. Right off the bat, you’re probably going “Oh, the blenders! Yeah, I’d need earplugs too.” Yes, they definitely helped with the blenders. But—that’s not why I brought them. The hardest thing for me to do at work is have a conversation, especially when there is as much going on as there is right now. I will be having an important conversation with my coworker about the new menu items, while the owner is having a conversation with a loyal group of customers, while another customer is having a conversation via FaceTime with someone else, and two other coworkers are discussing our supply of fresh fruit. My brain will not filter any of that, so I am forced to try to understand what five or six other people are all saying at the same time, isolate from all of those words what the person in front of me is saying, and then select the correct response on the drop down menu selection from the “acceptable dialog” program running in my brain at all times. 

(Another fun fact I’ll share because I haven’t seen anyone else say it—I don’t always respond to the correct conversation. It can get especially awkward because the person I’m actually talking to won’t have any idea what is going on in the other conversations in the room, so my random response comes totally out of nowhere.)

Today, I put the earplugs in whenever too many conversations were happening at once. I could still hear all of them, but what the earplugs did was they lowered the volume on the conversations happening further away, and my brain was able to separate what was happening directly in front of me with a little less effort. It still required an extreme amount of focus, but it became possible. I think that is the most exciting part about finally having a diagnosis—more things are going to become possible. 

In learning that I have ASD, I am finally learning how my brain works. I have words for the things I struggle with and, for the first time, I also have potential solutions that make sense. I’ve been looking for solutions my entire life, but it’s as if I’ve been reading the wrong manual. Though there are perks to having all of your senses on overdrive, it would be nice to be able to turn the volume down every once in a while. And that’s what I did for the first time in public today. I’ve got the right manual now—I don’t have to wish I could “reset to factory settings” anymore. My version is different than everyone else’s, and that is actually a pretty cool thing. (Are you still following this metaphor?) In short: the earplugs were a success. 

Not what I want to hear.

I first stumbled upon the idea that I might be on the spectrum when I saw a post that someone I followed on Instagram had shared. It was a graphic that had symptoms of Autism in females listed in a colorful column. Reading those bullet points was the first time I really recognized myself—so many parts of my personality, my being, that had never been described anywhere else. To my conscious mind, they didn’t exist until someone else held up the mirror.

Naturally, I began researching and collecting as much information as I could. After 8 or 9 months and a grueling search for a specialist that could assess adults, I finally have my diagnosis. I now know the reason I face challenges on a daily basis, and my work with the specialist is only just beginning. But now what?

I see the specialist once per week. Well, let me tell you, after 32 years of feeling physically stuck behind an invisible wall, I have no desire to progress at a rate of 45 minutes per week. If you are an Aspie, or you love an Aspie, then you will already know we don’t do anything half-assed. When something sparks an interest, we pursue it balls to the wall and damned be food, sleep, or anything else that gets in the way. The problem I face now, however, is the sheer lack of resources.

There is just not enough information to consume, and what little information there is, seems to be all the same. I’ve watched the same YouTube video and read the same blog over and over again, just filmed by different YouTubers or written by different bloggers. While this information is valuable and serves a purpose, it’s just not what I want to hear: “Ten symptoms of Autism.” “Could it be Asperger’s?” “7 Little Known Symptoms of Asperger’s.” “How to Spot Autism in Girls.” “5 Surprising Signs of Autism!” “Asperger’s or Autism—What’s the Difference?”

While many of these videos and blogs are written by people who are actually on the spectrum, they are the same thing on repeat. What is missing is firsthand accounts. Real experiences. Detailed problem-solving. I need more than to just recognize myself in a detached list of symptoms and the ways they manifest. I need to relate to other people. I need to learn from their experiences. I need to know how they worked through a problem. I need to know how they made it to the other side of that invisible wall. Am I alone in wanting to make this connection?

I know from seeing memes on Instagram that we all experience similar things. The way a single picture and a few short words can capture a lifelong experience is both awesome and disturbing. Awesome in the feelings of validation it can evoke, and disturbing in the knowledge that these experiences are not spoken about—experiences like what I am experiencing. 

Experiencing. Right. Now.

As I write this, my upstairs neighbors have a fan going, and I can hear the motor rotating. The vibrations are coming through the ceiling. If I asked my fiancé, I know he wouldn’t be able to hear it. I don’t know if anyone else I know could hear it. But I can. It is fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

I tried covering my ears with my noise cancelling headphones, but the cancelling of the ambient sound only makes my tinnitus louder. And I can still hear the repetitive whirring of motor through the headphones anyway. If it was the same level of sound throughout the whole rotation of the motor, it would be okay. But it starts quiet and gets loud, and then repeats, all in the space of less than a second. It’s like a hammer on my eardrums and my brain and I want to dig my nails into my skin. But I don’t. Constant sounds to me, are soothing—the fan I have in my bedroom. Repetitive sounds, to me, are absolute physical and mental torture. Nothing more, nothing less.

It is things like this that I want to hear about and read about. Can anyone else feel and hear their neighbors fan repeating its sinister vibrations through their ceiling and their bones? How did they respond? What did they do? How did they turn their brain and their bones and their ears off to deal with it? I will never know unless they share.

And in the spirit of sharing, if you are now wondering how I will choose to deal with it, my answer to you is this: I will drown it out. Blocking the noise with the headphones didn’t help. But, the loud fan I have in my bedroom is magic; It is the ultimate white noise. Loud enough to drown out most noise from upstairs or outside, loud enough to drown out my tinnitus, and constant enough for my brain to not even notice that it’s there. So I am going to get in bed, turn my fan all the way up, and listen to Jim Dale read me a Harry Potter book on Audible for the 1,738th time—because that IS what I want to hear.