It can really be anything, depending on who you are. The cube-neighbor who decided to put his conference call on speakerphone. The two managers who each gave you a task that needs to be done right now. The customer who’s completely unwilling to stop yelling at you just because you won’t tell them that they’re entitled to have that phone for free.
Or maybe it’s something smaller—the fact that you forgot your lunch and your stomach is crawling up your ribcage. A flickering fluorescent light. Maybe even the fact that you didn’t brush your hair this morning and spend every interaction convinced that everyone’s judging you for it.
Either way, it’s here, and you’ve got to deal with it: The Meltdown.
There seems to be a couple of disagreements about what’s involved in this term, so I’ll go by what I generally experience: an emotional tsunami, a loss of control, a tendency toward regrettable actions. It might involve screaming and crying, it might involve beating your head against a desk, it might involve running out the door like the hounds of Hell themselves were chasing you.
It’s bad. It’s my absolute worst work nightmare, and to some degree or another it’s happened more than once at every job I’ve been at.
So, sit down and make yourself comfortable as I share what little I’ve managed to learn over the years about meltdowns: Prevention, what to do while it’s happening, and how to deal with it afterward. I hope something helps. And if you’ve got any advice of your own, I’d love to hear it in the comments!
An Ounce of Prevention
In a very real sense, most of the meltdowns I’ve ever had could have been prevented.
That is to say, it’s very rare that something was so egregious to my senses all on its own that it sent me instantly into meltdown mode. Even in those cases, if I’d maintained the presence of mind to go to a manager in the early stages and change the circumstance, they probably could have been kept at a much lower level.
Now, the world’s not perfect and I don’t really blame myself for those circumstances where I started out off-kilter due to insufficient self-management. But the fact is, when I’m mindful and take care for my routine, I am way less likely to have problems.
So what’s really important for keeping my balance?
Food. Food is probably my number-one issue. If I don’t eat breakfast, if I forget my lunch, I am in Problemsville, and even a sideways glance is likely to send me over the edge.
Fortunately, this is one of the easiest issues to solve, as well. And it’s not just a matter of never forget your lunch. It’s possible, and I highly recommend it, to set up about half a dozen backups. Keep backup meals in your desk. (There are a lot of options for shelf-stable meals, and if anyone’s curious I’ll make recommendations. They’re more expensive than cooking your own lunch, but ideally you’ll only use these occasionally.) Also snacks. Teabags or soda cans work great if caffeine is something you just can’t get through your morning without. Nothing perishable, and mind your office’s rules about food… but even if it’s just keeping a crate of individually packaged cheese-and-crackers in your car’s trunk (or even military-style meals-ready-to-eat), it’s better to have something.
If you can rely on yourself not to spend whatever’s in your hands (…I’m really bad at this), I’d also recommend keeping an emergency twenty-dollar-bill somewhere you won’t usually think about. It’s great for food, but also for a lot of other unexpected things that might send you into a tailspin. (Like gas. Yes, I’ve had a meltdown because I didn’t know how I’d get home, too.)
Sleep. Everyone gets extra-snappy when they’re tired. They lose capability, they can’t keep track of their thoughts… they even get more hungry. In short, they’re bad for everyone—and for Aspies, it’ll bring you even closer to the edge.
Unfortunately, there is no magic-wand for sleep. But if it comes time to start a new tunnel in Minecraft or to get some shut-eye, try to remember how much easier it’ll be to tell your boss “No problem!” with a smile if you’ve got your Zs.
Emotional comfort. Issues at home spill immediately at work for me. And it’s not just my husband and baby (who are both gigantic net-pluses to my mental health and wellness… but come on, there’s not a relationship on earth that doesn’t sometimes get you down). My relationship with myself, my concept of my future, the state of my house… it all builds up and adds in.
When I find myself consistently on-edge and having trouble keeping it all in… okay, I think what I’m supposed to recommend here is making sure the house is clean and all of the things I can control are controlled. And I won’t deny it’s nice and always feels good when I do that? But if you’re on edge, I can’t recommend anything more highly than reading an old favorite book or watching an old favorite movie. Get into the head of someone strong, capable and willing to save the day.
It’s honestly done better for my sense of wellness than sleep sometimes. And that makes no sense.
When it happens
Now it’s time for the bad news. Meltdowns will still happen, regardless of what you do to prevent them. They’ll just happen less. But it’s how you handle it that says whether or not you can look your boss in the eye tomorrow.
So, what are my recommendations for when you feel that nasty feeling coming on?
Take a break. Ideally, you’ve saved your break for this occasion—in a lot of my jobs, I always took my breaks and lunch at the last possible moment so I knew that I had a card up my sleeve in case I needed it. But even if you didn’t… it is so amazingly much better to leave before the meltdown starts than to try to weather it out. Imagine the reprimand you’ll get for taking an extra break. Then imagine the reprimand you’ll get for screaming curses at your coworkers while hitting yourself in the head with a ceramic mug. Choose wisely.
Go to your car. If you don’t have a car, you’ll have to be more creative. But the idea is someplace distant, enclosed, and with some amount of privacy. Somewhere where you can scream obscenities and cry and do whatever you need to do without having security called on you. Even if it turns out you just needed a quiet place for a few minutes… your car is a little part of the world where you’re the only one you have to answer to.
Phone a friend. Once you’re past the peak, you’re probably still going to be in a fragile and angry place. (If not? Congratulations, you can go back to work without further incident.) Try to have it set up in advance that there’s someone you can call to talk you down, reassure you that you’re still okay and a functional person, and maybe even give you advice for the issue you’re facing. (Also, to tell you you absolutely should not go back to work right now and should go home instead, if that’s the case. It happens.) Ideally, this is someone who doesn’t have a job of their own—or whose job it is to help you. Either way, it can be good to get some perspective from someone who won’t judge you.
Sing. I cannot tell you why, though a friend suggests it’s a way to regulate your breathing. But singing is a great way to make me feel better. Also drawing or looking at pretty pictures. (Yes, I keep a sketchbook in my purse.)
Stay as long as you need to. Yes, you might get fired for not returning to work on time. You’ll definitely get fired for screaming curses at coworkers. Choose.
When it’s over
We’re back to good news again: Your meltdown won’t last forever. Once you’re back on an evener keel, you can return back to work, and there’s a good chance you can pretend like nothing happened. (Yes, some people will have noticed your sudden exit. Depending on the workplace, they might think it’s rude to bring it up. That’s okay. It might go against all of your instincts, but the stuff that they don’t talk about will be sooner forgotten than what they do.)
A lot of this depends on the workplace. My current workplace is very image-conscious, and I’ve been brought to the office “to talk” a number of times because my odd behavior was disturbing others. That was okay too, because, well, I still have a job, right?
I don’t have a lot to say about this part, because it’s so amazingly different depending on your particular workplace. But. The main concept is to re-normalize.
Something that helps me is, among the different types of work I can do, to pick the simplest one to do first. That’s a good way to remember that this is something you can do. If it was a particular work item that caused my meltdown, a quick message to my coworker asking if they can take that particular piece for me, or to my manager asking if there’s any way I can not, sometimes helps. Figuring out if it’s the sort of thing that can be put off until I feel better.
Either way, the point of this stage is to pretend like you’re already better… and a fair portion of the time, it’ll turn out that you are.
So yes, that’s my meltdown advice, beginning to end.
It’s very incomplete, this having been my number one unsolved issue so far—but that’s part of why I want your advice so much. Help me! Let me know what else we can do!
And thank you for your patience. I’ve been wanting to write this one since I wrote the last one, but it got bound-up in my heart because the bigness of the topic. I hope it helps someone, in any case.