From barely functioning to melting down

When I’m somewhere outside my comfort zone – anywhere new, busy, or with a lot to remember – I will go into the mental equivalent of power saving mode. I keep my head down, remain on the sidelines, or wherever it’s quietest, and withdraw into my own head.

If I have an obligation to be in this place, I will do what I think is expected, but, though polite, will not be at my most sociable. Nor my most attentive. My brain is doing only what it has to. As soon as is socially acceptable, I will recharge in the seclusion of my own room, and start to feel more human pretty quickly.

Now turn it up a notch. I’ve been in such a place too long, or there are too many demands being made, or maybe I’m in a difficult situation with a person. At this point, even power saving mode is wearing thin. Until it becomes…meltdown mode.

What is a meltdown, anyway? It’s something people with autism experience. It’s something people with mental illnesses experience. It’s feeling something snap inside you and suddenly having to leave the room because you can’t take any more. It’s crying because of some minute trigger that unleashed festering negativity. It’s snapping irrationally at those nearest to you. It’s doing anything to shield your senses from the world around you. It’s being too stressed, bewildered, and unfocused to function. It’s…it’s…it’s…

Well, it’s lots of things really. And no two people melt down in the same way.

For me, meltdowns are mostly internal. I don’t have big, emotional outbursts, because it just isn’t in my nature. I feel that mental “snap” inside me, and I might cry, or try to escape, but usually I’m just stuck in a daze, with my mind in turmoil and my social skills gone. Outwardly, on the other hand, there’s little noticeable difference between that, and power saving. So it looks like I’m doing ok.

How do you deal with a meltdown anyway? Write down what it means for you, and the situations you might struggle with. Useful for showing to people for future reference, and can help you understand yourself better, too. When facing a high-stress environment – for me, it would be airports, very large train stations, or my graduation ceremony – plan when and where you could take a breather. Learn in advance what to expect from the occasion. Stick with someone who understands you well. And bring a book, or an ipod, or anything that helps you calm down.

Whichever coping methods you come up with, try to use them while power saving mode is still working. Because the more you are struggling, the harder it may be to communicate your needs. It’s not easy telling others about what feels like a weakness, especially one that the majority won’t have experienced. But the people around you have a right to know. And you know what? You have a right to not suffer in silence.

Kind or patronising? Just ask

One of the things that I had no idea how to deal with at school was when people spoke to me as if I was a toddler. I would be muddling through a lesson with as much difficulty ease as the next kid. Who, if they weren’t ignoring me, would be trying to do stuff for me, explaining the simplest things, and telling the others “it’s not her fault she’s slow.” Or weak. I even had one person ask me – completely innocently – if I had brain damage. Seriously.

And it wasn’t just kids. I remember a teacher talking about our latest homework assignment, and mentioning how I’d been allowed to skip certain parts because they were too hard. Or classroom assistants who would follow me like a shadow in front of other kids, when all I needed was to ask a few extra questions.

What I found hard was knowing what to say. For the most part, I’d internalise the inner conflict between not wanting to offend and hating feeling patronised. Very occasionally I’d speak up, but the other person would act like I’d just karate chopped them! So much for not offending.

It’s hard to know where to draw the line here. If you have a disability or illness – whether physical or mental – you will probably have extra needs that require accommodation. And you don’t want to be ungrateful to someone who wants to help. Don’t wait until you feel like exploding. Just explain to them the nature of your needs – and be sure to add what you don’t need.

And if you are someone who wants to help, you might want to look at these pointers.

Don’t be afraid to ask your autistic/partially sighted/depressed (etc.) friend what sort of help they need. Do be discreet, especially if they are with other people – you don’t know how open they are about their needs, and they will appreciate you trying to learn without embarrassing them. One of my new discipleship course leaders took me aside recently to ask me about my Asperger’s and how it may show itself on the course. I gave a brief explanation, told her about my blog, and later brought in this letter. Both parties were happy.

Don’t make assumptions about their abilities. Any writing about their condition only describes exactly that – the condition. Not an individual who has it. Just give them the help they ask for. No more, no less. I find I’m more comfortable asking for help if I know it won’t make the other person act like I’m stuck in a burning building. Trying to help always comes from the best of intentions, but when repeatedly done unnecessarily, tells them “I don’t think you are capable.”

Note the difference between sympathy and pity. Pity is when people say “I feel so sorry for *insert name* because of that thing he/she has.” Sympathy is paying attention to what someone is actually struggling with, and offering moral support because you care. As for words like “cute”? Babies are cute. Pets are cute. Mature adult humans? Forget it!

And finally…remember that not every aspect, or even hardship, of a person’s life is linked to their condition. Special needs or not, anyone appreciates friendship from someone who takes them as they find them.