Shutdowns and Emotional Dysregulation
My whole life I’ve thought of myself as unemotional like Mr. Spock, but when I look back at my life, I realize I’ve had frequent emotional breakdowns. The problem has been that my body doesn’t always show emotions in the same way as other people, so they don’t always read me as being emotional. I might be stony faced in public, then hold in my emotions for several hours, finally retreating home to lie on my bed silently, while my emotions go through my whole body. One of the things a diagnosis of autism has done has been to help me reprocess a lot of my childhood memories and the wrong stories of myself I’ve had.
I spent a lot of time in childhood and teenagehood as the “peacemaker” of the family. If there was a conflict going on, I felt a deep need to resolve it, to get everyone happy again. I realize now that I needed to have other people calm and happy around me because I was so emotionally volatile inside and because I struggled so much to regulate my own feelings. They seemed to overwhelm me without warning and I would run away to my room for hours on end.
This made me into a kind of family policewoman or watch dog. If I saw any behavior that I thought might lead to a family fight, I would be proactive in trying to stop it. If one of the younger kids was sucking their thumb, which often led to the older brothers bullying them, I’d try to get them to stop so that there wasn’t a fight. If the older boys were wrestling, I’d offer to get them food or try to get them to go outside. If my sisters were fighting about makeup or a hair piece, I would literally do extra chores so I could go out and buy a second one so they wouldn’t fight anymore. I was obsessed with there being no conflict anywhere because it was so distressing to me.
When I was 14, I wrote in my journal:
“I’m feeling emotions but I don’t know which ones. It’s very aggravating when I don’t understand myself. I understand parts of myself, yet how I can be 5 different parts feeling 5 different emotions at the same time is beyond me.”
If you think about a child who learns to mimic adults by making the same faces and the same body language, this is part of them learning what their emotions are. For autists, who don’t seem to do the same mimicking as very young children, it makes emotions enormously more difficult to understand.
This is another way I feel like I as an autist live in an upside down world. Instead of listening to other people show me how they experience emotions and copying that, I have to deconstruct things after the fact to figure out that sometimes I laugh when I am sad. Other autists are like this, too. And telling us it is wrong doesn’t fix the problem. We know it’s wrong. It can be terribly embarrassing, but our bodies still won’t behave the way other people think they should. I suppose it’s no wonder that I didn’t see my emotions for what they were when other people didn’t, either.