Stress and shutdown

I haven’t blogged for a while or been on Twitter. That’s because I crashed.

Broke down. Refused to work. Rebooting doesn’t help. Doesn’t make the error message go away and the operating system start.

It had been building for a while.

Work has been stressful for months. I’ve been taking on too much for myself and blaming myself for being inadequate. I’m a manager with few managerial skills and poor executive function so I find planning and big pictures difficult.  I am good at figuring things out, completing tasks, creating.

On top of it all there was the referendum and all the bad news that just goes on and on.

Things just built up and built up. I found myself becoming isolated. It was impossible to blog or tweet about it. I just didn’t have the words. I stopped trying to communicate online. I just kept battling on, hoping things would get better.

One day, I noticed the symptoms of an impending shutdown.  Talking was hard – it hurt to find words.  My executive functioning was worse than ever.  I found my morning routine hard to follow.  My spatial awareness was bad, I walked into people on the way to work. The world seemed louder than ever.  The label on the back of my top rubbed against my skin, itched and made me feel sick.  And on top of that my emotions were running high.  I had a feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. But it wasn’t a day I could just closet myself in the corner and get on with work.  I had to attend meetings. Talk. Arrange things.

I somehow got through most of the day. Pushed everything inside me. Tried to stim unobtrusively in meetings. Fidgeted, trying to pull my shirt up so that the offending label didn’t touch my skin.

Then at the end of the day, when the meetings were over, I received an email that was the final straw and I had a meltdown.

Normally when I have a meltdown at work, I take it to the toilet where I’ll sit and rock and cry.  This time I couldn’t control myself. I am just relieved I didn’t have a full meltdown. The full blown angry, scary meltdown. I didn’t shout. I didn’t hit myself. I didn’t throw anything. I just cried. Loudly.  And I have nice colleagues. It just seemed like a stress reaction to them.  They comforted me, trying to help.

And then after the high emotion of the meltdown, I felt nothing. I thought I was OK. I felt no emotion. My lovely colleagues were solicitous, concerned about me, but I was fine.  I thought everything was OK again. The situation that had caused the meltdown was resolved.  The only clue I had that I was still feeling stressed was when I closed my eyes at night and my worries overwhelmed me.

It was only after last weekend when Sunday night came around and work loomed again that my mind said NO.  I am not doing it.  I was suddenly overwhelmed by a huge amount of anxiety and stress.  Could not go on.  Could not function. Could not prepare for work, could not go to work.  Couldn’t communicate.

Is it depression? Anxiety? Stress? Shutdown?

I think it’s all of the above. Feeding into each other.

I got anxious and stressed.

When I’m stressed my sensory problems, executive functioning, communication become impaired.

This leads to depression as I can’t do so much. I have difficulty communicating and have more arguments. I also find work gets harder and harder because I can’t cope with any noise and my already feeble organisational skills get worse.

Then if I can’t have a break, I become more anxious and stressed, the world gets even louder, communication even harder. I have meltdowns over the smallest thing, leaving the house is impossible. Functioning at all is difficult. I become more and more depressed, more anxious. And then a moment comes when I cannot go on at all. I just can’t function.

That’s what happened last week.

Total system failure.

I’ve had a week off now. I hid away and didn’t do much.  I’m feeling a little better now. The break seems to have helped a little which indicates that this time it’s a stress-related shutdown, not a full-blown depression. Time to pick myself up, dust myself down and go on. Quitting isn’t an option.  Not yet.

I now have to navigate new stresses. The awkwardness of returning after sickness. I hate being unreliable. I also don’t know how my boss will react to my having time off for stress at an inconvenient time for the business. I don’t know if it will put my job in jeopardy. How can I manage my work better so I don’t get so stressed again?  I am still terrified my mental health will get too bad and I won’t be able to manage work at all.  Been there before, don’t want to again.

All I can do is try and manage my stress. Don’t let work get on top of me. Try and ask for help. Get time alone.  Go to bed early. Exercise. Stim. Spend time on my interests. Look after myself.  Eat well.

I’m not sure it’s enough. I don’t know if more is needed to change to stop it from happening again.  But I also don’t know how to go about it.



My autistic, marvellous, magical meltdown solution

I have autistic meltdowns.

I’ve had them most of my life. They were at their worst during puberty but they never went away.

My meltdowns can be violent explosions of rage caused by stress, sensory overload, change or something I can’t deal with. I’d describe a meltdown as a mixture of fight, flight and freeze all at once. I feel angry, afraid, want to run, want to lash out, a huge melting pot of conflicting emotions. Although they may appear it, autistic meltdowns are not an anger-management problem – they are an overload problem.

Over the years, my meltdowns have lead to damaged possessions, a damaged head (due to my tendency to hit myself round the head during a meltdown) and damaged relationships.

At the very extreme, the worst ones have seen me at risk of trouble with the police, at risk of emergency psychiatric intervention or have caused other people to be at risk (when I threw something through a window). Although the vast majority are not that bad, they are still unpleasant.

I would do anything to stop having meltdowns. Preferably before I damage another laptop.

I’ve tried many things to control meltdowns.

These include: CBT, mindfulness, counting to ten, exercise, diet, learning how to cope with stress, heavy-duty psychiatric drugs, Accepting Responsibility for my Behaviour (as the mental health professionals put it), drinking a lot, not drinking anything, more psychiatric drugs, just stopping doing it.

Most of these don’t help. Some things work a bit. If I don’t drink, exercise regularly and eat healthily, making sure I don’t let my blood sugar crash, I can reduce the risk of meltdowns. But I’ve never been able to stop them particularly at times of change or stress.

It turned out I was looking in the wrong place for answers. Without a diagnosis, I was doing what might help an neurotypical with an anger-management problem. I needed to do what would help an autistic with a meltdown problem.

I found the answer unexpectedly.

A few weeks ago. I had a meltdown. I was going away the next day. I usually have a lot of stress and at least one meltdown before I travel. This meltdown was getting nasty. I was a maelstrom of anger, frustration and fear.  All logic had escaped me – I had hit myself and dumped the neatly-packed contents of my suitcase in a heap on the floor thus increasing my stress even more.

Then, mid-meltdown, I threw myself into a chair and started to rock. I don’t know why I did this, it’s not what I usually do. But I noticed a feeling of calm and, although I still felt shaky, I was able to think rationally, repack my suitcase and finish my preparations.

The next week I was at a conference, another hotspot for meltdowns. I had already had one minor meltdown but the chaotic feelings I experience prior to a meltdown were bubbling up in me again. I felt stressed, angry and panicky, couldn’t concentrate very well and my thinking was becoming irrational.

The last time I’d been at this particular conference three years ago, I’d had a nasty and very public meltdown. I didn’t want a repeat performance so I took myself away and sat on my own in a hotel room.

Normally I would have just hoped that being alone away from the trigger would make it go away. This is an ineffective strategy once my thoughts have become jumbled and the meltdown has begun to build, and could have lead to a wrecked hotel room.

Instead, I shut my eyes and rocked.

After about 15 minutes, I was dizzy, the room was spinning, but an amazing thing had happened. I was not on the edge of a meltdown any more. I could think clearly, I felt in control, like I’d come back to myself and even better, I had the peaceful feeling I sometimes get after a meltdown without having to go through the meltdown. I have never had this happen before.

I went back to the conference feeling calm. I rejoined my discussion group and was even able to participate without getting upset.

Rocking had actually stopped a meltdown. It blew my mind.

I expect there are people out there that had this figured out by the age of 11. I am middle-aged. But it’s incredible to me to find something that actually stops meltdowns. And what’s more it’s autistic behaviour.

Too often autistic behaviours are seen as problematic and bad. People who rock are seen as weird. Perhaps it was one of the things I was told not to do as a child. What if my parents had instead told me at the age of 13 to go and rock for half an hour when I was having a meltdown. How different would my life and my family’s life have been?

Now post diagnosis, in my 40s, I don’t care if people think it’s weird.  I’m autistic and this is an autistic solution.

I’m not it’s solved the problem completely and I will never have another meltdown again. There’s  a chance that if I leave it too late and the meltdown takes hold, I won’t remember to rock. Also over Easter I diverted a meltdown by rocking but it morphed into a shutdown where I was unable to function for a couple of days.

However, it’s still amazing for me to have found something that actually helps. I now rock regularly to keep myself calm, because it feels good and as a preventative measure. If I do have a meltdown, I won’t beat myself up for it, but when I can, I will rock and calm myself down.

I wonder what other autistic behaviours I can use to solve life’s problems? Certainly routine is a big one that helps me a lot. What helps you?