Like most behavior, meltdowns have “shared” qualities, but I think that the “total collapse of well-being” may be experienced differently, especially as one grows up and grows older.
When I was little, a meltdown was an explosion of fear; inexplicable, unintelligible, a supremely physical manifestation. Death is what it felt like. If possible, I would run away and hide. Someplace dark; safe. But of course, meltdowns mostly happened in places crowded with people. Concerned bystanders would rush in to pepper me with questions, sure that I had injured myself or become ill. Some grabbed at me; others stared. My parents were mystified, embarrassed and sometimes angry when I couldn’t explain: how does a three or four year old explain anything?
How does a rabbit explain what it feels like to be chased down by a dog that snaps its jaws shut on its body? I truly think that meltdowns, however they are triggered, are comparable to the life and death, fight or flight climax of predator / prey interaction that occurs millions of times a day on earth. Survival instinct gone awry? The “gift” of trauma? I don’t know, but I do know that as I grew up, the character of “meltdowns” changed.
What is odd is that they changed in a “normal” way. Adolescent behavior, but more pronounced. Defiant, confused, angry, longing to grow up and be on my own: it seemed that my family members knew just the right thing to say to set me off. Don’t all teenagers feel this way? I believe that I suffered more than my family did. Five seconds of yelling and it was over, but not for me. I might be physically ill for hours or even days, and stuck with grief over my failure to control myself. Never again, I’d vow, but it was useless self-deception.
Who was this person that I became, however briefly? Not the person I wanted to be; and not the person I lived with in my own mind. How can one be comfortable with this tension? How does one follow the drive “to be the authentic me” when that person is not exactly “nice” but volatile? It is of course the challenge that one must face in order to become an adult. It took years of being slapped around by “life” – by the status quo, by my own inaccurate idealism, by confrontations with injustice, with the “big boys” who make the rules before I noticed that my friends had mostly found a spot in social reality, somewhere on the pyramid. They had settled in to compromises that they found comfortable and rewarding.
Meltdowns again changed: the big picture drove me crazy. I can trace 99% of it to the Asperger expectation of truthfulness, equality and fair play. These backbones of “decency” were utterly missing in social reality. The dreadful period of the Viet Nam War brought out these latent values in many young people, but once the war ended, there was a rush to get back on the pyramid; to get money and status and to “screw” other people. We’re still there. Ironically, I had secured a nice spot in the hierarchy myself, but “meltdowns” became a way of life.
It’s also ironic that I’ve never done anything important by choice: my Aspergness has pushed me off every cliff. Curiosity can be dangerous. The United States has become a culture that I couldn’t have imagined: I know what it was like to live in a different America – optimistic and energetic, with the focus on individual contribution and opportunity; problems too, big ones, but we had a history of increasing personal freedom. Was it an illusion particular to youth? I don’t think so. Jobs were plentiful, advancement expected. And something intangible: people wanted other people to succeed. It was a generous society; people talked with each other and listened.
Now that I’m old, my meltdowns are about the here and now. The Asperger foundation of truthfulness, equality and fairness is in tatters and it will never be an influence in a society which badly needs these values. The only relief is another Asperger trait. Live the day; today is all there is.
Meltdowns aren’t merely terrifying tantrums that overtake children, they can be mature reactions (emotions) brought on by the circumstance of being an alien on the wrong planet.