Faces with mouths open wide in an angry yelling expression

Meltdown: Is It from Sensory Overload – or Something Else?

Recently I had a wailing, sobbing meltdown. Here’s how it went.

A discussion on the phone with my sister

February, 2020. I was on the phone with my sister doing what we often do: analyze the bejesus out of the hostile, toxic behavior of one of our loved ones. It went as it usually does. We talked about the latest incident and how it made us feel, followed by what we need to do to take care of ourselves. We also discussed how to handle this raw, brittle loved one with diplomacy and tact. So far so good.

The approach of a therapist

This time, however, the loved one threatened to cut all ties with us and go it alone. We planned a kind of intervention, and we had to do it in a way that preserved their dignity, validated the pain that motivated their hostility, and listen very carefully to their words, making sure we respond in a measured way and with the distance necessary to keep the whole enterprise on a calm, supportive, caring, rational plane. In other words, our approach is that of a therapist. This is what we’d been doing with the loved one.

I suddenly broke down

But as I was listening to my sister continue with our strategy, I suddenly broke, feeling anguish gush forth in a single painful burst. “I can’t,” I wailed into the phone in a strangled voice, “I can’t do it!” I sobbed uncontrollably as my sister asked what was happening in a hushed, slightly freaked out tone.  But I couldn’t get the words out. I was exhausted from the effort of trying to talk while crying so hard and my throat was hurting. Now I realize I felt like the injured party and needed to be comforted and understood myself. Spending tremendous energy on the loved one that wasn’t spending any energy thinking about my feelings was something I’ve done my entire life. The thought of doing it now made me snap. I could not stop sobbing.

This was not like me at all

This just isn’t like me, not at all. As a kid, I never cried in front of anyone. Heck, I was too embarrassed to cry in front of myself, alone and in the safety of my bedroom. Crying was dangerous. I feared that once I started it would turn into something cataclysmic and destroy the world. Think Stephen King’s THE FIRESTARTER and CARRIE, in which two girls possessed tortured souls and the telekinetic power to kill with fiery rage. If I kept my hurt and anger pushed down then I wouldn’t lose the control that eluded Drew Barrymore and Sissy Spacek. I was a girl in a self-imposed lead-lined vault, keeping the world safe from my sub-atomic wrath. But like everything else in life, I changed.

Three personal cases of sensory overload

Loud noise levels

1. Christmas Eve with family, 2017. I had an angry meltdown that, in retrospect, was clearly caused by sensory overload. My family has always been very loud and the noise level is such that small animals and humans will sometimes flee and find refuge from the deafening onslaught. We were playing a very hard trivia game that lasted for hours and with no let-up, no breaks, and no silent interludes. I used to find a way to escape these situations for a while. But not that night.

Loud music blasting at the gym

2. March 2019, at a local rehab facility. Cycling happily on my recumbent elliptical when suddenly the volume on the loud speaker was turned up, blasting music I’d barely noticed before. I felt my blood pressure spike, my heart start to race, and I could no longer concentrate on my workout. I went from happy to spitting mad inside ten seconds. I asked the desk clerk to turn down the volume but she refused and I stormed out. Three days later I came in to work out and the same thing happened. Again I asked them to turn down the volume and again I was refused. I stormed out once more, never to return.

A thundering timpani solo during band practice

3. Band practice, 1973. Sound played a role in an incident decades ago, too. In high school band we played a piece that had a thundering timpani solo right smack in the middle. Every time the timpanist beat on the drums, I flinched uncontrollably. The decibel level was so painful and piercing that I developed a headache. In such instances it should be a simple matter of fight or flight, except I was age 15 and didn’t feel that I had the right to get up and run out of the room. Besides, at 15 I would rather have died or gone deaf than suffer the embarrassment of being conspicuous in that way, let alone take the consequences of leaving the classroom without a hall pass.

Do you suffer from sensory overload?

Have you had meltdowns the reasons of which still mystify you? Do you suffer from sensory overload meltdown? Please share!

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