This is What a Meltdown Feels Like

I didn’t know I was having meltdowns until I was nearly fifty years old. I thought that I was just getting upset at something and needing to go home to deal with my emotions. I didn’t understand that other people’s emotions weren’t as violent as mine or that they didn’t require several days to recover from an outburst. I remember at some point a friend saying to me something like, “But after you have a good cry, you feel better,” and I stared at her thinking that this was impossible. I had never had a good cry I felt better from afterward.

The first public meltdown I remember was in high school, after I’d come back from my sophomore year in Germany as an exchange student. I was intent on keeping up with all my “gifted” and academically accelerated friends, despite the fact that I’d missed a year of school. I signed up for Spanish 2 without taking Spanish 1, and I was taking eight classes in total, including one during lunch. I was also on the swim team and was waking up at 5 a.m. every day, then heading to school without breakfast.

In essence, I was massively stressed and I think everyone around me knew it and puzzled over it. But I didn’t know it. I wasn’t aware enough of my own body’s attempts to communicate distress to me to see the problem. Friends asked me why I was doing this and I just said that I felt I had to. My parents kept trying to suggest that I take an easier load, but the only thing I heard them saying to me was that I wasn’t tough enough to handle this, so I was determined to prove that I was.

The day of my this meltdown was the day I had volunteered to do a special end-of-semester project for Spanish 2. I had for some reason thought that, because I’d learned German and French, and because I imagined myself “good” at languages, I could jump into Spanish 2 without taking Spanish 1. This meant that I was absolutely lost for the first month or more of class. I did a lot of homework, but I couldn’t really understand much, and whenever I tried to speak Spanish, it came out either as German or French. But I didn’t let myself give up.

I spent hours writing up and practicing a presentation about Germans living in Brazil and used some slides my brother-in-law had helped me with from his Mormon mission in Brazil about fifteen years earlier. But when I got to school, I couldn’t get the teacher’s slide projector to work. I hadn’t thought this would be a problem. Honestly, I’d assumed that the teacher would be in charge of the slide projector. But after ten minutes of me in front of the class, I realized it wasn’t going to work.

I was filled with rage and frustration, but I tried to do my presentation anyway — without the slides. I couldn’t get through it. I ran out of the classroom, sobbing, and to the office. I called my mom and asked her to pick me up from school. She asked me what was going on, and I tried to explain it to her, but as always happens with an autistic meltdown, I had limited capacity with words.

“I just need to come home.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I — I need to come home.” I’d rehearsed those words in my head, but I didn’t have any others.

“Are you sick?”

“I — yes,” I said. That was easy to agree to, and maybe I was sick.

“Can you just make it through school and come home on the bus?” she asked.

“No,” I said.

I think she thought I was having my period. I didn’t care what she thought, as long as she came.

For ten minutes, I sat in one of the chairs in the office, wishing I didn’t exist anymore, and yes, rocking back and forth a bit.

I felt overwhelmed. There was no way I could say anything to anyone. I was humiliated and no longer in control of myself. I just couldn’t see how I could make my body act in a normal way. I tried to block everything out and hoped time would pass quickly. It didn’t. It passed excruciatingly slowly, and every breath hurt.

Finally, my mom arrived. On the way home, she kept trying to get me to explain what was wrong, to talk to her, but I couldn’t. I just rocked back and forth some more in the car. As soon as we were home, I bolted out, left my backpack behind, and hurdled toward my bedroom.

There I could let myself go, stop following normal rules, and weep uncontrollably. I fell asleep at some point, ignored my mom when she asked me if I wanted dinner, and cried more. My head ached and my whole body was tense, but in the morning I felt a little bit more like I had a body of my own again — like it wasn’t just pieces lying on the ground that would never go back together.

Somehow I went back to school. It was hard, but I made myself do it.

In class that next day, the Spanish teacher tried to make a joke about how badly the presentation had gone, and I couldn’t believe she thought it was funny. I was certainly not capable of laughing about it at that point.

At home over the next several weeks, my parents increased their pressure on me to drop some of my classes because they thought I was too stressed, based on the behavior that one day. I realized this meant that I had to do a better job of pretending that I was doing fine, and that meant that I had no one to turn to when I needed to vent my feelings. It wasn’t a good recipe for avoiding future meltdowns.

If I spend a few minutes here trying to explain the meltdown (also sometimes called a shutdown) and how it felt from the inside, maybe that will be useful. It felt like I was going to explode. I had stuffed feelings down inside for a long time, and was normally good about waiting until I got home to cry in my room. In elementary school, I quickly learned that bullies were more brutal if they knew you were hurt, so I became adept at clenching my fists, literally biting my lip, and holding my breath until I could find a bathroom or run home from the bus. I thought things would get better in high school. I thought that I had made myself normal.

I’ve heard people ask how to help someone in a meltdown, and I’m not sure I have a good answer f because it’s not like I want to have a chat at the moment. In fact, I am utterly incapable of speech. I think it’s also possible that I can’t hear what other people are saying to me, so trying to talk calmly to me isn’t likely to be effective. It would just be more noise added to the other noise.

The only thing I’ve found helpful is to go into a dark room that is very small, like a bathroom, and to push against both walls so that my back is pressed tightly against one end and my feet against the other. I don’t know why this helps, except that it makes me feel like I’m bounded again, like I’m real. This is me, Mette, and I have limits and do not, in fact, contain the whole universe and all the things. Lack of noise, smell, and other sensory input are also super helpful so that I can come back to myself.

I actually hate talking about this because I feel like it makes me seem “weird” and “scary” and not normal. I recognize it isn’t normal, but I’m also trying to describe it clearly so that it can at least seem human. Ideally, I try to control my environment so that I don’t have these meltdowns, but until I was diagnosed, I didn’t know that was what I was doing or that there was a name for this exploded, out-of-control feeling. I thought it was something I should just hide and never speak about, never admit to. But it was scary to me, too, the thing that I most wanted to avoid happening, and years before the diagnosis, I was already making lists of things to avoid that I knew might be likely to trigger something like this, even if I didn’t realize that was what I was doing.

A smaller version of the meltdown is what I would call a mute meltdown. That’s what happens before a full-blown meltdown. It is a result not of being overwhelmed with sensory input, but with social expectations, with people watching me, and the sense that I have that I can’t do what they’re asking me to do. I feel frozen, my whole body unable to move, and my ability to speak just disappears. This is also scary for me, because I’m a word person. I’m a writer, and I am confident in my ability to use words. It’s the one thing I do best, so when I lose that, it’s like I’ve lost who I am.

I’ve seen those videos of parents with autistic kids at the mall, filming the meltdown as if it’s entertainment. It seems cruel to me to capture a moment like this on film and to share it with others when it’s such an awful moment in life. And many parents seem to think that these kids are doing this for attention, for drama, that they have control over this meltdown and could stop if they wanted to.

They can’t. Their body has taken over to protect them from any more demands. They asked too much of it and it rebelled. It’s not about manipulation. Autistic people are the least manipulative people in the world. We don’t think about anything in that way. You can accuse us of being self-obsessed. I get that. But trying to manipulate others with a meltdown? No, that doesn’t happen.

In the end, I come back around to the idea of empathy. I think that if you expect an autistic person to try to learn how to understand facial expression and to figure out that someone else is hurting and offer comfort, you should also be able to sit with the idea that even if this is an experience that is utterly foreign to you, it is real,and you can try to have empathy with it. People say that autists lack empathy, but I’d argue the complaint goes both ways.

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Written by

Author of The Bishop’s Wife mystery series, The Mormon Sabbatical Podcast, Princeton PhD, fiction editor at Exponent II, autist, she/her

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