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.

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.