Tinyletter 5: Meltdowns: the white heat and the slow burn


It’s funny how people from the autistism community use the term ‘meltdown’ quite willingly. You’d think it would feel insulting, a relic of a time when our behaviour was only ever viewed from the outside, and so always seemed extreme and unfathomable. But no: ‘meltdown’ seems to fit. Personally, I’ve been grateful to adopt it. It gives me a shorthand for a state of being that I’ve fallen into throughout my life.

Everyone has moments of ‘Nope. That’s enough.’ Are mine any different? I don’t know. Mine make me forget how to talk, or walk. The sudden ones feel like an explosion in the brain, a momentary deafening and white-out of my vision. I am blanked out, and not in control of my behaviour during this interruption. I’m an animal, lashing out. The experience is grim, but the aftermath is embarrassing past all endurance, knowing I’ve lost control and not truly, hand-on-heart being able to remember what I did or said.

Sometimes, I look back on my meltdowns and find them funny, if only in extreme retrospect. I am capable of extraordinary feats of articulation in my bestial haze. After an unproductive night on the labour ward, for example, surrounded by noise and more human beings than I prefer to encounter, I drew the curtains around my bed in an effort to shut out the rest of the world. Minutes later, an orderly marched in and abruptly threw them open again, yelling – or so it seemed to me – that she can’t have people closing the curtains because of health and safety.

I don’t remember what happened next. I think I probably sat, fuming, for a while. H says he dozed off in his chair, and then woke suddenly to the sound of shouting and knew, immediately, that it must be me. I had apparently detached myself from various machines, marched into the midwives’ station, and entered into a tirade which is a complete blank to me, but which I hear was quite an impressive analysis of the (multiple) failings of their department. Whatever it was I said, it had a startling effect on the staff, who scattered like skittles to calm me down and arrange the discharge I was demanding. The orderly was wheeled in to offer a fulsome apology, and my curtain was returned to its rightful status: closed.

Other meltdowns are slower though, and more insidious. They’re a chain-reaction of small implosions, a build-up of pressure in the brain, as if the contents have turned into an incoherent liquid that’s sloshing dumbly around. If the sudden meltdowns are a bright flash of release, these are a smouldering taper, building the damage inch-by-inch until everything is blackened. They make me yearn for a form of trepanning that would let the air hiss out of my skull. The only way to restore myself is to disappear from sight, perhaps for a day, perhaps for a week.

I’m writing from the middle of one of them. Writing is the only part of me that stays; it always has. In all other ways, I’m failing to make any sense. I’m completely incompatible with everyday life. The pace of the outside world is impossible; I need everything to slow down. It refuses. I’m distressed by the speed that my son moves through the house, his constant, noisy, motion. I’m distressed by the million tiny demands of my work, the ways in which I have to calibrate myself to the needs of all the different people I find there. I’m distressed by the brightness of daylight, the loudness of the street outside, the chaos of objects in my house. There are so many of them: so many things, all being there. I’m not sure how I’m supposed to process all of them.

I often try to end my letters by drawing a positive from my experiences. It’s not all bad. I feel, on balance, that I offer more to the world than I take away. But this is a brick wall that I face, over and over again. It’s insurmountable at this moment, but it’s also a constant rhythm throughout my life. I cope so far, and then I stop coping. I will return to coping again, but then I will also drop back out again, at some point. Right now, I’m exhausted by that inevitability, and I don’t know how to solve it.

It’s Mental Health Awareness Week, and it’s important to say that autism is not a mental health condition in itself. However, the process of living in a world that seems endlessly inhospitable means that, for most of us, the line is very easily crossed.

Take good care of yourselves,

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