Category Archives: Anxiety

Anatomy of a meltdown

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.

Social skills.

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.

(Don’t) Panic

I don’t have many memories of when I was younger.

They all tend to blur together in a random mess of connections. It’s interesting because sometimes memories will be triggered by a specific sense. The smell of Florida is one that always stays in my mind. My mother, father, and little brother would vacation down there in the winter. We staying with my grandfather in his retirement village. We drove down from Chicago some years and I think in there lies some of the reason why I love to travel by car. One time, I managed to back all my barbie gear and can almost remember how things looked out on the porch when everything was assembled. I can almost remember the book I was reading that dropped in the water, or it got dropped in a pool, or it somehow got wet. 

I almost remember which book.

So when I did my Midwest/Southern road trip: Escapism Is Cheaper than Therapy, I only briefly passed through Florida. I say briefly because it takes about ten hours on I10 to cross the top of the state. That was the only time I really paid for a hotel/motel. I needed to rest. That’s when the smell triggered me back to my childhood. I remember an ice cream stand in the shape of an ice cream and a mini golf course.

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When I was younger, my parents and doctors thought I had a heart defect. I don’t know how long, but I know I wore a electrodes attached to a bulky electrical box. Once I week we would connect this box to our telephone and it would transmit things to the doctors at the other end of the line. This was in Chicago and since my father knew so many medical people, I remember these guys had a fancy office.

It turns out it was not a defect, but panic attacks.

My panic attacks are very well defined and they have become even more refined as I get older. They still mimic some of the same characteristics, however there are new more devastating results.

When I was in College, I started experiencing some very bad health problems my freshman year. This was after have a very difficult transition to College because I was still physically recovering from my Traumatic Brain Injury and taking tons of medication to control, in part, anxiety. The worsening health problems came from Lyme disease which I had contracted but never experience a ‘target mark’ so it went undiagnosed for years. As an autoimmune disease, Lyme really can be devastating when I have a bad habit of getting myself so stressed out that I become physically ill.

I miss 279 days of my high-school career due to medical issues. I still managed to get on the honor roll a few times, much to the dismay of several people who did not take my medical issues seriously. I’d love to one day receive an apology for how I was treated by some, but it does no good to stay fully in the past. I’d like to say I’ve forgiven many of them who said horrible things to/about me, however the truth is simply I’ve forgotten about them. The only benefit to some of my TBI is I’ve been able to forget some of the bullying I’ve endured, at least most of the time. Being a survivor of many types of abuse, being treated certain ways can induce a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Panic Attack.

Part of my complete health overhaul has been getting myself in a place where I can remove extraneous anxiety from my life. I have the skills now to know how to remove myself from situations which will induce a panic attack. It’s taken me a bit of time to spot some of my triggers and it is still a work in progress.

My biggest problem lately has been my stress load. It has been getting very stressful in my life and this has compromised my health. I’ve been having non-epileptic seizures recently, which I have not had since the end of September. My lyme disease has acted up because I’ve been so stressed and this is causing me to be tired, thirsty, nauseous, not hungry, as well as increasingly difficult to swallow. My anxiety also is directly connected to my sensory system causing everything to be hyperactive. This means I can hear things from far away, see very well in virtually any condition, smell things stronger or lingering odors, tastes are stronger or sometimes taste completely different, and every spot on my body has a painful sharp needle feeling similar to when a body part has fallen asleep resulting in one limb being paralyzed for an indeterminate amount of time.

This is my life now.

This is crippling and debilitating feeling. It is on these days when the world swallows me whole that I get the most messed up feeling of optimism. I have no idea where it came from except my mother takes credit. It is on these darkest days when I know the good days will mean so much more. I know those days are filled with laughter and happiness. Those are waiting for me on the other side of this cloud.

I’ve known what it’s like to get lost in this anxiety cloud. I know all too well what toll this is as it’s one a pay every few months. Normally, it’s just a weekend break or something and I pick up the pieces and move on.

This time it’s different?

I’m not use to letting people see the vulnerable side of me. Sometimes when I show the breaking, people run away. I break loudly and ‘suddenly’ all because some straw finally broke the camel’s back. I’m pretty sure this is an autism thing, too. The world gets too loud for us and instead of people helping us quiet it down their voices get louder, too. The anxiety causes me to distance myself from some people out of….self-preservation. Some people it takes a lot out of me to interact with them. Those are the people who move and think very quickly while I’m still lost in the corner. The speed at which they move and talk actually increases my anxiety.

I remember in college interacting with people and it triggering me at times when it seemed like their words fit seamlessly together or moved too quickly. Unfortunately, I hung out with debaters, performers, and campus leaders. These are all pretty loud groups and often I would end up overwhelmed.

It’s been said multiple times by multiple people; nobody is ever neutral to me. People either enjoy my company and like me or else they find me frustrating and rude. It’s in large part because I don’t know how to interact with people in every situation and sometimes I say things which come out just ‘wrong’. I’m still actively trying to work on the interaction part, but as I’ve mentioned earlier it is a work in progress.

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Last night I remembered somethings.
I was triggered back to younger days in different paces. These were memories from when I was much younger and but even more recent. The seemingly random pieces of memories, a view of an elevator or a feeling of the carpet in-between my fingers, again share a sensory trigger.
This trigger is the same panic attack long thought of as a false memory or a bad dream. Trying to convince myself it was only a story I once read, I know this feeling too well in my body.

Even as I move around to new states and grow up, this lump in my chest still feels like home.

This is living with anxiety.

Let the floods come in

There’s a snap that happens. Maybe it’s just me, but I doubt it’s only me. My snaps just ring silently under the skin until they leak out.
This is the peak when overwhelmed greets anxious.
It’s these times when I wonder how something so loud can be so silent.
These are the days where the last stone finally slips out of place and the floods race in.
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This snap is very familiar to me and I’ve experienced it since I was a child. It’s the snap of anxiety when it finally takes your breath away. As a former friend once said, it can reduce me to “a crying ball of useless-ness on the floor“. Yeah, I’ll forever remember those words as a warning to stay away from a person who I once considered a dear friend.

As much as I try to manage my anxiety, yesterday was the breaking point.

I’d been seeing my warning signs written on the walls, but I had been trying to ignore them. I’ve been too forgetful. I’d walk into rooms and not even know why I was there and forgetting important things. My appetite has been non-existent while leaving me with a nausea feeling. Bruises have once again randomly appeared because I have not been paying enough attention to my body and I don’t always realize something is wrong physically. And then there’s the emotions which just cap off the everything.

My overwhelm sessions don’t scare me any more because I know what they mean now.

Some people come home from a stressful day and they take a hot bath or have a drink to unwind. I don’t do that. I just keep going. I process my stress and anxiety internally so it affects me physically. This leads to the number one thing I’ve heard for my entire life and I heard it again yesterday.

This seemed to come out of no where. One minute you were fine and the next you were crying.”

THIS is anxiety on the spectrum. It’s not just that there is a difficulty separating ourselves from anxiety, we literally get stuck in an anxiety loop. It’s a real thing and terribly ironic that I had to grade an assignment on it this morning.

I’ve stopped looking at my crashes as a negative thing or as if there is something wrong with me. The jerk who thought he could make me feel worse about my own mental health issues underestimated me. I am vulnerable, but not useless. I am fragile, but not delicate. I am strong and I am also weak. Unfortunately, I need to reach my crash point when enough things aren’t working in my life. For me, this is just a sign to rebuild and make things stronger.

I’ve been slipping into ‘unhealthy’ the past few months and it’s time for a bit of a reboot. I’m not ashamed of my struggles because I know other people face them. When I posted the poetry/reality at the top of the page, 3 of the 4 people who responded with messages are on the spectrum. This type of anxiety and meltdown is something we know all too well.