• I’m autistic and during a meltdown I’m not ‘ok’, I’m not able to ‘calm down’ and I have no space to consider other people’s thoughts or feelings. (Hector Mackenzie)
For me, the words "calm down" make my pain more acute and unmanageable.
By
Madeleine Ryan

3 May 2018 - 6:15 AM  UPDATED 4 May 2018 - 11:42 AM

It’s amazing how destructive the words ‘calm down’ can be. Whenever I’ve been asked or told to calm down, somehow, like magic, whatever pain I’m experiencing becomes more acute and unmanageable.

I’m autistic and during a meltdown I’m not ‘ok’, I’m not able to ‘calm down’ and I have no space to consider other people’s thoughts or feelings because, in all likelihood, I was considering other people’s thoughts and feelings so much that my own didn’t factor and, now, I’m having a meltdown.

And a meltdown is a wave that must be ridden until its conclusion. Fighting it, trying to make it stop, reasoning with it, attempting to fix it, ordering it to subside or kindly asking it to hurry up is a waste of energy. Resistance is only going to ensure that a meltdown lasts longer and is more turbulent.

Getting to the point of a meltdown at all indicates that a sense of helplessness has emerged on top of whatever feelings of betrayal, disappointment, sadness or anger were already present. These emotions need a safe space to be released and the process of expressing them doesn’t require intervention, restraint or confrontation. It requires patience, stillness and acceptance.

I got into the habit of not expressing any emotions, in any situation, at all. Ever. I didn’t know how to ask or even cry for help

Managing a meltdown as a child and teenager was difficult. I developed a pattern where I would freeze, implode and end up alone, in my bedroom, quietly melting down and deconstructing, scared of the intensity of what I felt. And while this behaviour was more socially acceptable – because it couldn’t be seen, or heard - it was also very dangerous.

Over time, loneliness and isolation quietly wrapped themselves around me. I got into the habit of not expressing any emotions, in any situation, at all. Ever. I didn’t know how to ask or even cry for help when it might have been best to. Instead, I remained silent.

I lost touch with myself and with others because I assumed no one was equipped to hold space for what I was feeling. I believed myself to be unlovable, and alone. I thought that my feelings were wrong; that I was wrong; and that there was no way out.

I spent years soul searching and going to therapy and reading and I eventually got to know my feelings and started to pay attention to the conditions within which their tides would get tumultuous. I learned how to honour their machinations and discovered that it was possible to move with them safely.

If I’m drained by participating in conversation at a party, or over dinner, I go to the bathroom and mediate, or redo my makeup. I find the process of putting on some face spritz and reapplying lipstick very stabilising

Now, I incorporate times throughout the day to air my feelings and lessen the likelihood of a meltdown. I exercise regularly and, sometimes, I literally schedule into my day beating the bed or screaming into a pillow. I’ve never regretted doing this; it has always proven to be time well spent.

I have a bath when I’m feeling tense, or stuck. Before going anywhere, or communicating with anyone, I allow lots of time and space to ready myself. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or dizzy in overstimulating environments like the supermarket, or in a crowd, I extract myself and get some air. If I’m drained by participating in conversation at a party, or over dinner, I go to the bathroom and mediate, or redo my makeup. I find the process of putting on some face spritz and reapplying lipstick very stabilising.

When my thoughts are outrunning my energy levels, I lie down or stand on the grass. A dip in the ocean is always powerful, when possible. If I can’t get to sleep, I get out of bed and cry and rock until I stop crying and rocking.

Because crying, rocking, wailing, screaming, clawing and beating the bed always stop. The wave comes to its conclusion. It cannot sustain itself for long, especially when it’s given room to do its thing. So while no amount of pleading, bargaining, yelling, fixing, restraining or condemning is going to help, emotions and meltdowns don’t have to be frightening, or complicated.

I am a wave, you are a wave, and we are all waves. All we need to do is learn about and respect our differing tides.

Madeleine Ryan is a freelance writer.

Readers seeking support and information can contact: Lifeline 13 11 14, Kids Helpline 1800 551 800 or the Suicide Call Back Service 1300 659 467 .

Related content
The relief of being diagnosed with autism as an adult
Instead of spitting us out, allow us in. Listen to the stories, the struggles; we don’t want your sympathy, we just want your support.
How I navigate social interactions with Asperger's syndrome
Madeleine Ryan reflects on the challenges of negotiating social interactions with Asperger's syndrome, from the chaos of parties to reading personal cues.