69. Anatomy of a Meltdown

5th Sept 2018

One of the first things that goes when depression comes knocking is a solid memory, or at least a reliable one. I honestly do not recall describing a meltdown in detail including what goes through my mind, how I feel, and how I cope with the aftermath, though I’m pretty sure I’ve gone over it at some level.

A depressive or mental health meltdown is nothing like a child’s meltdown. An adult’s meltdown also involves a lot of blubbering, tears, and snot, but that’s probably about as similar as it gets. It’s scary to watch an adult in meltdown mode, unless you’ve already seen it before. And it usually doesn’t involve a tantrum, though limb flailing might be part of the equation depending on circumstances.

It’s scary from the inside as well. 

My latest meltdown was pretty recent, and I thought that I’d better write it down for posterity and education. Why education? People don’t usually understand what a meltdown entails from the inside. It’s easy to watch on the outside, and wonder why an adult person would allow themselves to carry on in such a way. But what goes on inside during the meltdown gives clarity to why a meltdown even occurs.

My recent meltdown came near the start of the day. Something very personal set me off soon after waking up, and I had been forced to respond by shutting off communication even for a while with the person(s) involved. With all my therapy methods in my head, I was able to focus on breathing, and forced myself out of the room to deal with the girls. I was repeating to myself that the pigs need me. I had to work on cleaning their cage and feeding them.

As always, I released the girls from the cage. I then opened the top of the cage. I was about to take out the water bowl. I forced myself to keep focused on the next step ahead. It involved cleaning their bowl and refilling it with water. But something made me stop, my hand hovering over their bowl. 

Then the first wave of sobs and pain hit. I found myself doubling over, pain coursing through my heart and my chest. It hurt to breathe, it hurt to think, and I don’t recall any concrete thoughts going through my head. I was gasping and crying out in pain, and I started screaming out the pain from inside me.

I stumbled out of the fenced area around my pigs’ cage. I knew that I was in trouble, and I was fighting hard not to collapse right there. If I did, I risked alarming and squashing or even hurting my guinea pigs. I knew I had to get away from that spot, even as I was doubling over, because any damage had to be contained to myself. As soon as I was out of the fenced zone, I allowed myself to fall. 

I remember screaming in frustration and pain. I hated myself even more because I couldn’t do what I should be able to do for the person(s) who had wanted more from me that I couldn’t give. I was in pain because I felt useless, and I felt the pain of disappointing others and the pain of not being able to fulfill my God-given role as a person in someone else’s life. I was angry with myself. I was angry with the other party for not understanding. And I was grieving over how I was in this state, in a pile next to my guinea pigs’ cage, unable to do anything but cry and cry and yell.

I remember wanting to hurt myself to make things better. I pounded at the floor with my fists, gasping, not screaming anymore because I’d lost my voice at some point. I remember how good the pain felt shooting up and down my forearms and fists as I pounded away. I couldn’t scream, so I was just crying and letting my voice squeal out from between my clenched teeth. 

And all the while, I was trying to stop.

There is almost always a struggle and conflict in the mind of someone struggling with depression. Just what is reality? The one where we’re terrible, and don’t deserve to live, or the one where we cling on to life and keep fighting? In the same way, during a meltdown, I find myself trying not to have the meltdown. 

Society tells us that grown men shouldn’t be crying. Or even if we cry, that there should be a good reason. Well, at least no meltdowns please. Stay in control. Don’t be a useless lump of blubbering mess. So even as I have a meltdown, I’m reprimanding myself. There’s a part of me though, that takes the part of my therapist, reminding me that it’s okay to not be okay. Suppressing my feelings and trying to refrain from crying hasn’t worked so far. I should just let go. 

But not at this level. Not in this way. Not pounding the floor and screaming inarticulately. Not over a single incident that I should have been able to handle. Not trying to hurt myself just to make myself feel better. No. No. I cannot be like this. I must not. I’m a guy. I’m hurting. I’m a father. I hate myself. I’m useless. I have to got to start breathing, and stop sobbing these sobs that I hate to hear.

And the tears continue to fall.

When I finally regained some semblance of control, I managed to call out to my wife who’d been fortunately far enough from me that she hadn’t realised that I had been having a meltdown. I sobbed for a while more, while asking her in my broken, sobbing voice, why things had to be this difficult. The towel helped. Her presence and her soothing hand helped. I slowly dragged myself back to reality, away from the pain which was still there, but less intense. I could finally, slowly, work on cleaning the cage, even as I had to wipe away all the tears and fluids that had pooled under my face as I had bent over, crouched on the floor, letting my emotions storm over me. I remember babbling to her that I had really tried to not melt down, but that I just couldn’t help it.

The storm had passed for now.

Recovery usually takes a couple of days. I usually have to monitor my thoughts to make sure that I stay safe, usually by staying at home or near home as my wife’s and kids’ presence helps me to remember why I need to stay alive and not give in to any sudden impulses. The energy expended during a meltdown is also very extensive, and sleep is usually very welcome. The tendency is to oversleep during recovery. Speech is also a lot more halting, and I definitely am not able to be social in any way.

But the priority is to ensure safety, including the safety of those around me. As far as possible, I keep to myself and turn inwards so that I don’t harm anyone even with my moods and irritation. I also ensure that I stay away from anything that could remotely trigger a separate episode, or impulses to harm myself further. The first day is usually worse, and I usually get very little done. 

The second day is usually spent picking myself up little by little. Light activities that I enjoy, and sometimes comfort food, help pick me up to be ready again to try to focus on recovery.

There is little that I can do to predict a meltdown. Usually there is a trigger, and triggers are almost always out of my control. Until I learn to resolve the pain and the reactions that I have to such triggers, I expect that I’ll simply have to continue to learn to deal with the fallout of my emotional meltdowns. But at least, I hope that this account will help others to understand how a meltdown looks like.

And perhaps, be able to help some others know that they’re not alone.

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