The Clarity of Pain

ASSAULT!

Loud. Bright. Voice. Touch.
Stress. Retreat. Stim.

People stare.
Eye pressure.

“STOP THAT!”

“ACT NORMAL!”

Loud. Bright. Voice. Touch.
All too much. Overload.

Wanting to scream,
But no sound comes.

Confusion. Ravenous fear. Feeding
On the mind’s elemental chaos.

One hope. One chance to escape.
One solution to calm the storm.

The clarity of pain washes through
Like a tsunami. Silent wreckage
In its wake. Peace has a price.

Decompression and Recovery

It’s amazing how much difference a couple of days can make. On Sunday I was in such a dark place; my mind was in turmoil and I was suffering such fear that I could barely function.

I responded to a kind offer from friends to visit for a while, to get away – run away – to somewhere I could feel free of the pressure that was causing me such distress. By Monday evening I was over 100 miles away and beginning the process of recovery.

Unusually for me I wanted to talk, to share how I had been feeling: having an understanding audience is vital. And it can be cathartic to simply speak about your troubles. To put them into words, give them shape and gain a fresh perspective.

In this case talking about how I’d been feeling served to organize my feelings, put my thoughts into an order that allowed me to deal with them, to start to release the pain and fear. To take the first steps towards recovery.

My surroundings have been very conducive to that end: my friends have a comfortable house right near the coast in a quiet part of Dorset: peaceful, lovely scenery, plenty of fresh air and not many people around me. It has been as close to perfect as I could have wished for.

A number of people have contacted me, through email, SMS and social networks, to offer their support. It has been a revelation that I have so many people who care about me: I don’t have a lot of self-esteem and it can be hard to believe that anyone else would think much of me.

The friends I stayed with made me so welcome and didn’t put me under any pressure to explain what had happened or how I was feeling: they gave me the space I needed. I felt safe and was able to relax, and as I did so I started to talk. They listened and understood. They didn’t judge, didn’t tell me what I should do.

I left this morning feeling calm, and also a little embarrassed that I’m not able to thank them nearly enough for being there for me when I needed their support. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such kindness: I was close to tears — of happiness — as I drove away, and again now as I write this.

It is because of these friends, and others who have contacted me in one way or another over the past couple of days that I am starting to feel good about myself again. It feels as if the crisis is behind me and I’m moving on. I’ve got the time and support now to complete the healing process.

Cutting Relapse

Just a little cut

Just a little cut: barely visible

It hardly broke the skin. (Probably just as well: the blade I used was a little rusty.) But I was in a bad place, my head scrambled by fear and stress: I couldn’t think straight. A tortuous feeling for one so reliant on intellect. So I gave in to the desire and experienced, in that instant as the blade sliced through a couple of layers of skin, a terrible clarity. A focus that cleaved through the turmoil. That intense instant of sharp, pure, cleansing, beautiful pain as I slowly drew the blade over my wrist.

Fully intentional, in control of my actions. No wild slashing for me: a slow, deliberate motion. Experience telling me just how much pressure to exert for the necessary effect without excessive harm.

What happened to cause this? I was cornered in my safe place, overloaded but going the way of dissociation rather than meltdown. But instead of being left alone to decompress I had to endure further provocation. I ended up with confusion rather than dissociation. The one beacon of hope, the one idea that my mind was able to present to cope was to relapse and cut myself.

I did it with the first blade I had to hand, on an old “waiter’s friend” bottle opener: I’ve used it in the past. I felt that same old release. The confusion sloughed away and my mind began to function again.

This wasn’t done for pleasure. It was desperation. I couldn’t see another way to regain control, to shock my mind back into its usual rhythm — just like defibrillation. It worked, and as the photo above shows I didn’t cause myself much harm. Not that I’m recommending this as a regular course of action.

I’ve had so much going through my mind recently; my blog posts didn’t give much away but I’m struggling: starting to feel burned out. I chatted to a few friends afterwards: they’re worried about me. A lot. They’re awesome and I don’t think I deserve them.

Can You Hear Me?

Why do I bother trying to tell you I’m overloaded and need to be left alone? That your soapbox monolog — the volume of your voice and your emotion-laden tone — are hurting me, costing me so much energy to maintain self-control that I am becoming rapidly exhausted. Are you listening to me? Can you hear me?

I gave up; I wasn’t getting anywhere. Again.

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Sidestepping Meltdown

It’s curious that the day after I wrote about violence in meltdowns I felt myself approaching one. This is how I handled it.

It was Tuesday morning and I was feeling tired after a poor night’s sleep. That in itself is never a good thing because it heightens my sensitivity to sensory stimuli such as bright light, loud or high-pitched noise and touch. It puts me on edge: I become liable to jump at the slightest disturbance, balanced on the cusp between holding it together and going into overload.

Well, I was a mess. Couldn’t concentrate on anything: the slightest disturbance grated. The noise of the air conditioning, people’s voices, vibrations in the floor as they walked by all contributed to my discomfort and I could feel that I was becoming more and more tense.

And then an alarm went off! Loud and high-pitched. I felt myself sliding into meltdown, the anger building as I began to feel the urge to lash out…

..but I was aware of all this. I realized how close I was to a meltdown and that realization slammed the mental brakes on. In recognizing my state of distress I had subconsciously triggered my learned coping strategies. My focus shifted from the external stimuli that were overloading me to instead observe my own body: I was breathing too fast, I was very tense. I began to consciously relax, the tension easing and the anger ebbing as I did so. My breathing slowed to a more normal rate as a result of the meditative technique.

And the alarm stopped. Bliss! Comparative peace at last. Until the fire alarm test sounded a few minutes later, which caught me unawares despite happening at the same time every Tuesday morning for the past six years and more. I’m laughing at the irony in hindsight: I just got over one alarm and there was another! However this one didn’t cause me nearly as much distress because I was already in my coping mindset. Yes, it was painful to the senses and I couldn’t physically do anything while it was ringing, but I had successfully reduced my stress level from the first alarm and had the reserves to avoid a full overload.

A couple of minutes later it was all over. I went for a short walk to give myself a break and help complete the process of relaxation which helped somewhat. The tiredness though; that was exacerbated by the effort of will to drag myself back from the brink of meltdown. It wasn’t a very productive day after that: I got through and made a point of not setting my alarm that night. I knew I needed to sleep and recover enough to be able to function the next day and it’s better to be late in to work and productive than turn up on time with a mind like molasses in winter.

The Third Degree

Believe me, being in a non-verbal state is as frustrating for me as it must be for anybody trying to communicate with me. It is usually a symptom of stress, of emotional overload, so the worst way to react is in any fashion that increases my stress – becoming emotional, speaking louder or more insistently, coming too close and encroaching on my personal space. If you must try to interact with me at least speak quietly, unemotionally and without approaching too closely or making sudden movements.

Any hint of threat, whether it is a raised voice or unexpected proximity, only makes me feel more anxious and ensures that the episode will last longer. If I do manage to force some words out then don’t assume I’ve come out of it – this can be a delicate moment as I start to regain some control and pushing me – giving me the third degree – will only send me deep back down into my uncommunicative state.

Above all, don’t take my lack of responsiveness as a sign of indifference, ignorance or antipathy towards you: it is not. It is simply that my faculties are fully occupied dealing with my own mental turmoil and there is no spare capacity to handle interacting with people. I don’t enjoy being non-verbal: because of the continual commotion inside my head it is mentally exhausting, and the muscular tension that results also causes physical tiredness. It is absolutely draining and leaves me in need of peace and quiet to relax. The fact that I might have been sat there, hardly moving or uttering a word, for hours does mean that I am ready to jump back into “normal” activities from the get go. Without some down time to recuperate it is very likely that even a small trigger will push me back over the edge.

Recognition of the causes and effects involved coupled with a little understanding makes it quicker and easier for me to work through the effects of the stress overload, and that has to be a good thing all round, doesn’t it?

The Rage

Bright, flashing lights. Loud, high-pitched sounds. Rough, scratchy touches. I find all of these overstimulating, sometimes to the point where they overload my senses causing physical pain and stress. It’s a cumulative effect – as I experience the sensory input I first feel discomfort. This builds along with my stress level.

There are times when I just up and leave to escape from the sensations. This is effective from my point of view but not so good when I’m in company. Then there are times when I dissociate – withdraw into myself – and largely stop being consciously aware of my surroundings. Finally there are the times when I am not able to get away from the stimulation, when I am not in a calm enough frame of mind to withdraw.

In those situations the stress builds and builds like a lake filling behind a dam. Only instead of water it is an inner rage. From trying to block out the offending sensation, I now find myself fixated on it – tunnel vision where all I can see is the source of the anger and pain. My muscles tense, my blood pressure rises. Unbidden, dark thoughts of violence rise from the depths of my mind, hurling themselves against the walls of self-control that contain them. I am beset by images of the destruction of my nemesis; I picture myself wielding sledgehammer or wrecking bar and pounding the offending object into mute submission as I scream and howl, releasing the rage.

I am not a violent person by nature – people know me as laid-back and easy-going. It usually takes far more to rouse me to anger than most other people, and I very rarely feel anger towards a human or other animal. But when the pressure builds inside… I find it exhausting to hold it all in, and when the dam breaks open everything I had held back floods out in a meltdown.

Afterwards is emptiness and exhaustion. And then, later, comes the shame. Shame of failure because I lost control. Shame of drawing negative attention from those around me.

Two things prompted me to write on this subject today. The first was this blog post about misophonia. The second was a very unwelcome change in my local pub: a slot machine was moved to a new position right next to where I usually sit. Bright, flashing lights directly in front of me – need I say more.

Overloaded (Again)

This sensory overload business can be so darned inconvenient at times. It caught me out tonight – wasn’t expecting it to rear its head at all. I was out with my wife at a friend’s birthday party. All fine until it got busy with loud music.

The trouble is that it all makes such demands on my faculties as I try to pick up what people are saying to me, while simultaneously attempting to block out everything else that’s going on around me, that I end up very quickly feeling drained and shutdown looms.

At that point I need to take time out – find somewhere quiet to sit for a spell – and “chill out”. (Literally chill tonight because I’m sat in the car and it’s none too warm out here.)

So right now I’m afraid I’m poor company and not much fun to be around. I’m managing ok out here, and some of my friends have popped by to see if I’m all right – that helps because it shows support from which I take strength.

It’s just unfortunate that at times like this I am unsociable – not antisocial – and just need a little space. I’d hate to think I’d put a dampener on anybody’s enjoyment of the birthday party.

Getting Through

I have times when I feel such utter frustration and helplessness, times when I feel buried under a growing mountain of pending tasks, times when almost everything I touch seems to go wrong or fall apart and I don’t know what to do to fix it, times when I just feel trapped by the flow of events – pulled in so many different directions that I feel dizzy and overwhelmed: adrift.

At times like these there are some things that help me get through, none more so than the support of kind words from friends. That gives me just enough of a boost – a positive feeling of hope and self-worth – that I can face the situation and start to deal with it instead of feeling dwarfed and powerless by the terrific enormity of what is facing me. I need to have my mind at peace to handle difficult, stressful situations – this is a great challenge to achieve and I often need help. That little bit of support, telling me that I’m doing OK and I’ve got somebody behind me who can catch me if I fall.

That’s all I need to reduce my anxiety and insecurity to a level I can manage, a level at which I can think straight. Because when my mind’s thrashing about, floundering, wasting energy in an attempt to keep afloat, it can escape my notice that I’m not really out of my depth – I’m just so flustered and panicky that I don’t realise I can touch the bottom and instead feel as if I’m drowning. That’s such an unpleasant sensation. The relief I feel when somebody helps me find my feet and steady myself is immense.