What do you see here?
A mum watching her child in the swimming pool? If you look a bit closer, you might notice the loop earplugs. So a mum, with sensory sensitivities, maybe autistic? Watching her daughter having a swimming lesson.
Not much more to see, right?
Would it surprise you to know, that what you are looking at, is a woman who is completely overwhelmed? This is a woman on the brink of meltdown. It doesn’t look that bad or does it? She looks alright. I doubt anyone would even notice.
But inside my head, I was trying so hard to hold it all in at that moment; feeling as if one more unexpected thing presented itself to me, I might just start screaming, running for my life, or just put myself into the foetal position on the swimming pool floor and refuse to move for a few hours. I know from many an experience, that I can probably hold this explosive feeling inside until I get home. As long as nothing happens. As long as I can just sit here and get through it. I know I can… I hope I can… but I’m counting the minutes. And it’s really hard.
It was only at this point, that I realised that I wasn’t ok. And I should probably do something. Sounds obvious doesn’t it. But it took me a while to realise it. To be honest, it is still a new thing for me. Since my diagnosis in January, I’ve been analysing, and learning more about myself. More and more insight is constantly being revealed. From talking to other autistic people, using peer support such as Aupeer, I can recognise this in myself today as complete overwhelm with a meltdown pending.
The jigsaw pieces suddenly start falling into place. I can now see how this has been building up. I’ve had a tough couple of months with some difficult life events. Christmas is coming. The days are dark and I’ve been struggling to get up in the mornings. The after school clubs feel harder to get my children to. I’ve been snappier and more emotional than normal. I’m tired ALL the time. I don’t want to speak to anyone on the school run. I’m not feeling articulate with my words or able to read situations as well. I’ve lost my appetite.
When I take my phone back and look at this photo, I realise that I’m not wearing earrings. Have I worn them at all this week? I can’t remember. I also realise that I’ve been wearing the same jumper for three days straight. I don’t trust my judgement at the moment. I keep changing my mind about everything. I can’t stay focused on anything. There is a Christmas card in the kitchen that has been sitting there for days but I just can’t bring myself to open it. The mess is piling up.. the list goes on.
These are all clear warning signs for me, but amazingly, it’s only at the point of feeling sheer anxiety and panic at the swimming pool, whilst trying my damned hardest to keep my cool mask intact and keep my body so still that nobody notices me, that it all becomes very clear. I am overwhelmed, at high risk of a meltdown, and if I don’t do something now, I’m about to hit a massive burnout.
So first thing’s first, I get myself out of there (well… after the swimming lesson anyway…) I drive anxiously home, try to listen to what my kids are telling me, watching the traffic, full of fear and when I’ve finally reached home and starting to feel safer, the anxiety easing off somewhat, I start to wonder; what should I actually do now? This is still a massive learning curve for me. In fact, this is probably the first time I’ve ever correctly identified the problem pre meltdown rather than in the emotional ruins after.
There have been a lot of conversations over the last year in peer support about overwhelm, burnout and the dreaded meltdown. It’s been so insightful and has given me the opportunity and space to listen to others lived experiences and think about what I might need. And this time, I’ve recognised it.
That’s good right? So I decide to address it a little differently this time. I can’t change it, I can’t deny that it’s happening, so instead of fighting it, I’ve decided to just accept it. I’m very close to meltdown and burnout. That’s a fact. And now I can do something to help myself, rather than be victim to it.
Thanks to peer support, my first thought went to demands. Lower the demands. That’s what I’ve been advised. I’ve been thinking about how many demands we may have on any given day. When I feel good, I don’t think much about these. I just do them. But when I am overwhelmed, they all add up. Even the little ones. It’s not just the ‘take kids to school, walk the dog, go to my appointment’ etc; even the little ones like ‘take a shower, brush teeth, use a skincare routine, put your earrings in’ can all start to feel… well… too much! This is made more obvious by my clear, naked earlobes.
So as I write this, I’ve been planning the next few days when my children will be with their Dad for the weekend. And I’ve been looking at how my demands can be brought right down to a minimum. And this is what it’s going to look like:
Cancel anything that’s not important or can be easily rearranged.
Ask for help with work based tasks (I tried this and actually got very supportive responses from my team)
Surround myself with things that feel familiar, comfortable and safe. Examples of this are:
Only eat ‘safe’* foods. That fish thing I made yesterday can go straight in the bin. Cheese on toast anyone?
Sleep if and when I want to. The power of the nap is strong.
Wrap myself in my favourite blanket at any available opportunity. Preferably all day.
Wear my most comfiest, fluffiest, cosy clothes. Hell, just keep the jumper on another few days if needed! No ones watching.
Watch my favourite feel good films. This will most definitely include The Labyrinth. I can happily recite the whole script in my head from start to finish, and stare unashamedly at David Bowies highly questionable tights.
Keep everything else to a minimum. Yes the dog still needs walking, but an easier walk. Yes I need to get the shopping, but I’ll have it delivered.
You get the idea.
Little things like this, can make so much difference. Sometimes it makes all the difference. To nurture myself gently back to a good space, where I can go back out into the world feeling comfortable and capable again is priceless. And I believe that every single one of us is all worth that level of care when we need it.
But the most important thing is, that whatever I decide to do (or not do); I am going to do it knowing that I am doing something important for myself and that’s ok.
I will not allow myself to feel guilty for doing it. Or weak. Or less than. Or that other pesky one, when my brain tells me that I’m probably faking it all. And I am just being lazy. Damn you brain!
I know today, that as an autistic woman living in a busy neurotypical world. It’s not always easy. It never has been. And since hitting my forties, I don’t seem to have as much masking power and boundless energy in me anymore. I have a lot of adult responsibilities. I know that I will sometimes get overwhelmed, and that’s ok. I am not lazy, I am not broken. It is not my fault that this happens to my body. The world can be tough enough without me handing myself an extra guilt trip for meeting my own needs. So I’m going to be my own advocate this weekend. My own support. The same things that I might suggest to a friend who deserves a bit of a break.
These built-up feelings of overwhelm might pass quickly, it might take a little longer. I hope it is short lived, but if it doesn’t work out that way, I’ll try not to stress and instead, listen to my body and respect what it’s telling me. And I will continue to advocate for myself until I am feeling well again.
And that’s ok.
This is dedicated to all the lovely peers for the valuable insight and shared experiences, that show me that I’m not broken, I’m doing ok and I’m just fine, exactly the way I am.
To find out more about peer support visit www.aupeer.org.uk
*Safe food - an easy food that is comforting to me when in overwhelm. A go-to. The fish I cooked is technically safe to eat, just not to me at this particular moment! I would rather starve.