Something that I wonder about as a late diagnosed autistic/aspergian: what did I think was going on or did others around me think when I had a meltdown?
I am good at masking; I’ll make eye contact and can go for stretches operating apparently ‘normally’ in the big wide world. I can do job interviews and various other social ‘performances,’ and I treat many of my interactions like structured interviews.
There were raging meltdowns labelled ‘tantrums,’ when I was small. I learned quickly that I’d get less negative attention if I ran off sobbing to my room. By the time I was in high school, I generally kept a pretty even demeanour, but would sometimes bail out of lessons with a major headache or coughing fit. Mostly, the meltdowns happened at home in private. I spent many hours stomping angrily around the hills near my house to draw the buzzing out of my brain and body. Nature, even on cold, bleak, rainy day, has always earthed me. I burnt out frequently, spending time in bed at home reading.
In my late teens a few friend witnessed spectacular meltdowns, once when I had a car accident and raged, kicking the vehicle in the road until someone dragged me away. On other occasions I lost it, swearing uncontrollably and kicking inanimate objects (bins, bus shelters). My friend were mainly angry young men, so this behaviour wasn’t considered that much out of the ordinary. “She’s lost the plot!” It was all a bit of a laugh.
And so it continued into the workplace, mostly bottled up with physical issues such as IBS, migraines, and panic attacks playing out largely on the fringes. I was ‘fine’ at work, waking shaking and gasping for breath in a cold sweat at night or spending whole days at the weekend sleeping. I was plagued with nightmares.
My body and mind had been crying out for over two decades that they just could not cope with this level of input. When I failed to rest or retreat, my body would have its own way by crashing the system through illness.
Finally I confessed at work that I was not coping. This seemed absurd as I was simultaneously taking on more advanced and intellectual assignments. The ‘simple’ routines and responsibilities I was also meant to complete had spiralled out of control. I have since learned that this is a very common pattern among autistic people like myself – the hard things come easily and the easy things can be incredibly hard. In other words, I could (and did) pass a course in quantum mechanics but my brain ground to a halt when faced with four or five simple filing or letter writing tasks due by the end of the day.
There were other signs of not coping. I was drinking too much alcohol in the evenings and too much caffeine to get through the day. I was losing self care routines, eating sporadically and spending unwisely. My behaviour became spiky and several relationships with my peers started to crumble – I was erratic, inappropriate or rude. I’d stopped being “fun and a little bit crazy,” and was now acting just angry, sad, and out of control.
Failing at friendship
Much of this happened outside of the workplace, but one work colleague who had become a friend and drinking buddy was warned off by another woman who told her I couldn’t be trusted, I was unreliable and out of control.
I had given a slightly creepy guy the benefit of the doubt and he was living in one of the rooms in my house. My poor judgement was based on the fact that other people I trusted were friends with him. Later they told me that they didn’t trust him that much, but that they trusted me to make my own decision. How wrong they were about me and how little they knew about my social skills. Autistic people are unfortunately often misled, manipulated and abused for this reason. One of my more impressive meltdowns involved me raging and swearing uncontrollably at him after proof emerged that he had been doing some inappropriate and stalker-ish behaviour. While my reaction was understandable, my actual behaviour was truly a sight to behold. The majority of people (excluding very close friends and family) who have been on the receiving end of one of my extreme meltdowns never speak to me again.
I was on the fringes of a larger group of young people from another country, introduced to me by a mutual friend. They were all up and coming young professionals, did a lot of partying, hosted dinner parties, met in bars and that type of thing. In other words, successful neurotypical young people. To begin with I was accepted. I have no doubt that the fact I was from another country and there were some language bridges to cross was a factor in me not appearing to “stand out” initially for the wrong reasons. In parallel with my performance at work deteriorating, I also blundered through a string of unfortunate social gaffes with various members of this group – including some inappropriate attempts at intimacy. They gradually realised that I was not just “foreign” but also deeply weird by their standards. After several months of being included, they stopped returning my calls, had “other” plans, and politely but firmly made it clear that I was no longer invited.
At work I was hauled in for a conversation with human resources, and they asked incredulously how it has got this bad, why didn’t I ask for help? I asked myself the same question. The answer? I didn’t think anyone would understand. Not knowing how to ask for help is another common problem for autistic adults like me, I later learned. Even the idea of it makes me very anxious. Through trying to hide my difficulties and act professionally, I had become increasingly unreliable and actually more unprofessional.
Passed over for a promotion that would have meant more of the intellectual work I found so easy, I burned my bridges and left for a similar job elsewhere. In hindsight, much of my behaviour at work had been awkward or embarrassing in some way. I did not understand office politics.
All of this happened without my awareness that I was autistic. A number of other people pointed out that some of my behaviour was strange, but it didn’t really register with me that this meant “strange: get help from a professional!” I did seek help for my panic attacks and IBS a few times, but having been assigned a clueless doctor by the NHS and with no-one joining the dots between individual incidents, I was just sent away with some vague advice about “stress.” They were correct that I was suffering from stress, but they did not look further and I did not think to push for more information on the underlying severe anxiety I was dealing with, or the reasons for it.
Some things I learned during this time were:
- That I could not keep up socially, and needed more time for rest and better routines.
- That I should choose my flatmates very carefully (I moved into a house share with two kind and trustworthy people next time around, although as it turned out they did have mental health issues of their own.)
- That office politics are complicated and I needed to watch quite carefully and sometimes keep my head down. (I only partially succeeded in my next job.)
- That exercise, both in the gym and long solo walks at lunchtime, were absolutely essential to my mental health. Many of these benefits apply to everyone – the part that I understood later on was how important it was to me that during this time I was alone. Without the chance to do this part way through the day I could not function in a 9-5 office environment.
I offer this experience as a window into how an apparently heathy young woman with very good qualifications and superficially acceptable social skills can, in fact, be physically and psychologically falling apart. How someone with a high IQ can be a poor judge of her own and other people’s emotions. How a so-called (and this label is problematic) “highly functioning” autistic might be barely functioning at all…