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.

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.