Meltdowns – for me, it’s more than a crying jag

After the meltdown seated figure holding head with negative words
After the meltdown, nothing is the same… for days

My book about sensory overload — now titled “Into the Deep – A day in a sensory life” — is coming along. It’s turning out to be a bigger challenge than I expected (actually, no surprises there) because I know so much more now than I did in 2008, and a lot of things I documented in 2008 now have much more clarity. And I have a lot more context. It’s that perpetual balance between showing and telling… Between staying true to the original I wrote back in ’08 and filling in blanks I didn’t yet know how to fill in.

Anyway, just as often happens when we focus on something, I’m suddenly finding tons of references to meltdowns all around me. Online, especially. Not so much in person. And other people  I “know” online are talking about them more than they were before.

Or so it seems.

Some accounts come from people on the autistic spectrum. Some are shared by parents or loved ones or teachers of folks on the spectrum. Some are highly detailed accounts (as only an Aspie can provide) of what it’s like, what takes place, what results. Some are musings about the nature of meltdowns and if they may serve a valuable purpose and should even be avoided.

I’ve heard them likened to “having a good cry”. That was from someone who is not on the spectrum and was trying to understand a little better. They wondered if maybe meltdowns can be a kind of release, a cleansing experience that frees up the melt-ee to clear away emotional overload.

Reading that really upset me, for some reason. It reminded me of other attitudes I’ve come across, where people would deliberately try to get me to “open up” and “let it all out”. Former therapists, especially. Poking, prodding… trying to elicit some extreme reaction from me that would somehow open the floodgates of emotion and let me release the emotional burdens they thought I carried with me.

Despite my obvious and glaring lack of psychological/psychiatric training, even I know that can be dangerous for someone like me. Because what they’re proposing — and trying to trigger — is not a “good cry”. It’s a closer cousin (and a precursor) to migraine than it is a release. It screws me up royally.

It’s an experience closer akin to what I’ve heard that seizures are like. In fact, years ago, I was evaluated for epilepsy, because the meltdowns I was having sounded like seizures to the doctors. And the experiences I had sounded exactly like Dostoyevsky’s descriptions of his seizures:

Fyodor Mikhailovich often told me that before the onset of an attack there were minutes in which he was in rapture. “For several moments,” he said, “I would experience such joy as would be inconceivable in ordinary life – such joy that no one else could have any notion of. I would feel the most complete harmony in myself and in the whole world and this feeling was so strong and sweet that for a few seconds of such bliss I would give ten or more years of my life, even my whole life perhaps.”

As a result of his fits he would sometimes bruise himself in falling, and his muscles would hurt him from his convulsions. Now and then his face turned red and sometimes splotches appeared. But the most important thing was that he lost his memory and for two or three days he would feel utterly broken. His mental condition was also grievous: he could scarcely overcome his anguish and hypersensitivity. The nature of this anguish, in his own words, was that he felt he was some kind of criminal; it seemed to him that he was weighed upon by mysterious guilt, by a great crime.

That is almost precisely the kinds of experiences I was having. I wouldn’t lose my memory, but the anguish and sensitivity and sense of being a broken criminal would last for days. Sometimes weeks. Additionally, I’d hit myself, bang my head, stand wailing in the middle of the room, unable to move, unable to stop the torrents of grief and pain, unable to do anything but be led to bed, where one or more of my cats would curl up against me, purring and kneading me until I calmed down — which sometimes took hours.

I didn’t feel a sense of relief or release. I felt tainted. Broken. Worthless. As though I had committed a terrible, horrific crime against someone I loved more than life itself, and I was unredeemable. Utterly beyond hope of redemption. And for days after, I would feel the most profound sense of remorse and regret. Shame. The deepest shame you can imagine.

So, no, it wasn’t like having a good cry, at all. And the thought that others are advocating “embracing” meltdowns as an opportunity for emotional release… well, that strikes me as optimistically dangerous. At least, when it comes to people like me.

For the record, I was evaluated for epilepsy. I had an MRI, an EEG, and I underwent a battery of tests with neurologists at a Very Famous Hospital. They found nothing. They leaned towards diagnosing me with pseudo-epilepsy (the emotionally triggered kind, where there’s nothing wrong with your brain, you’re just hyper-reacting to something). They wanted to do more psych tests on me, admitting me to the hospital for a few days to be tested, observed, poked, prodded, and stress-tested. But I opted out, because (as one friend put it), if I didn’t go into the tests with a psychiatric condition, considering what they were planning to put me through, I would have emerged with at least one — possibly more — as a result.

I was ultra-clinical about the prospect of it, thinking it could shed light on what was going on with me, and at the very least glean some useful data. The problem was, I wasn’t going to be managing it all myself. And in the end, I might have ended up being diagnosed with some pretty serious stuff — personality disorders, for example — and been put on meds that turned me into someone I was not.

I’ve got nothing about meds, when they are needed and beneficial. In my case, I don’t believe they would have been. Medicating me would have been inappropriate. Overkill, really.

All I was doing, I now believe, was melting down. In a very big way. And over time, I learned how to better manage my diet, my sleep, and the details of my stress-filled life, they subsided. Also, menopause was a huge relief. It was also meltdown-pause for me. Hormones, I believe, have long played a significant role in my roller-coaster emotional life… which had a parade of meltdowns at semi-regular intervals.

Now I find myself once again working with someone who believes that having a good cry is essential to your emotional well-being. And she doesn’t seem to differentiate between a meltdown and a good cry. So, I have to protect myself. And in the process, protect my partner, my co-workers, and the people of the world who depend on me being functional. By avoiding (and averting) meltdowns, I stay functional. I stabilize. I can carry on my everyday life with regularity and predictability. It’s not over-controlling to want that. It’s recognizing the things can spontaneously erupt in very disruptive fashions, rendering me pretty well useless for days on end.

Am I in a position in life to be useless for days on end? No.  Especially not now, when my partner depends on me more than ever, my aging parents are starting to show sings of wear, and members of my family are having health issues that require me to be all the more stable to support them.


So, yeah. That whole “have a good cry” thing really only works, if that’s in fact what you’re having.

If it’s a meltdown, it’s a whole other story. At least, for me it is.

One thought on “Meltdowns – for me, it’s more than a crying jag

  1. Pingback: Meltdowns – for me, it’s more than a crying jag – bookwormval

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