A child’s resting heartbeat can be as low as 60 beats per minute.
One of my earliest medical memories is standing in a cold white room learning how to attach electrodes to my skin with words like ”heart defect ” hanging in the air. Doctors had no idea how a young child could go from a very low resting heart rate to over 240 beats per minute while simply sitting in a chair. Walking across the room at home, I’d simply drop to the ground with pain shooting up my left arm. This happened seemingly randomly and later on these carried the simple label of “panic attack” so it was just a part of my life. This was years before my Autism diagnosis when I was simply referred to then as a “hypersensitive child”.
As I grew up, these panic attacks began to take a shape and a clear pattern emerged.
The word meltdown sometimes gets thrown around with people thinking it is equivalent to a temper tantrum. That could not be more wrong. Children (and adults) throw tantrums to get something. Meltdowns are your body’s way of saying it is overloaded. The human body is capable of taking in millions of pieces of sensory information a day, however there is a limit. This limit changes based on a myriad of variables and can be different from day to day.
Even years later, I’m still trying to figure out my warning signs of a meltdown before I’m in one. The biggest warning sign I’ve been trying to push past is exhaustion. It doesn’t matter if I eat well, hydrate, am in limited physical pain, or anything else as there is a clear tipping point for me. The tipping point is related to my Achilles’s heel.
I’ve spent my entire life trying to study social skills through movies, TV shows, books, observation, and imitation. Inside my head lives hundreds of social scripts for thousands of life situations other people simply experience. It’s only very recently I’ve felt comfortable enough to build my own scripts in public or with people I don’t know too well. People who do know me well have a better idea of how my mind works and know I sometimes “cycle” or repeat conversations without intending to. They also know my conversations can jump around from topic to topic seemingly randomly.
My meltdowns look like that scene in the remake of Stepford Wives when Faith Hill starts misfiring and sparking on the dancefloor. My emotions bring me to an anxiety loop where I go from calm to crying repeatedly. My left arm stops behaving like an arm and my heart races. My hearing sharpens and so does my sense of smell. My eyes become very sensitive to light. The worst part is feeling trapped unable to speak.
My words tend to fail me and often I can only mutter “help, please help.” My mind races, but perseverates on either real or imaginary flaws. It’s my own personal torture and one I strive to keep behind closed doors. It’s a combination of fear that has me try to hide these struggles. I am afraid of others seeing my weakness in moments where I am my most vulnerable. In these moments of being completely overwhelmed in the world, there is a thought floating in my mind that this is The End.
My meltdowns pass and I always survive, even though I never think I will at the time. When I was a kid, the heart monitor I wore would upload the recordings over the phone line once a week when it was plugged in. I would sit next to the machine for almost an hour as meltdowns were a frequent part of my life. Now they are further apart, but are still a part of who I am.
Life has struggles and everyone goes through them differently. The kindness shown to me by friends when I’m struggling with meltdowns is overwhelming to me. Even something as simple as a smile or asking if I am okay helps me. I am so thankful for having kind people in my life who understand I do get overwhelmed. I do try to hide my weaknesses, but I’m lucky enough to have people not who don’t run away when they see me looking like a hot mess.
I remind myself tomorrow is always a new day and a day to try again. A meltdown one day simply means I need to change something the next day. I will survive and be stronger, personally and in my relationships with others, the next day.