What I Wish Loved Ones Knew About My Meltdowns and Shutdowns


Meltdowns and shutdowns can be extremely difficult to deal with for the person experiencing them. Anyone who has experienced one for themselves could probably tell you that. But here’s what I wish my family and friends understood about my meltdowns/shutdowns and how to respond.

The first thing is, in my experience, many people tend to have one or the other. They can either shut down or melt down, seeming at least partly to do with personality type. A meltdown and a shutdown are very different, as with a meltdown you are likely to be dealing with a person expressing extreme emotions in reaction to something. This person may cry or shout or in some cases become very angry. A shutdown, however, is a complete shut off of response to stimuli. This might be more common in those who are naturally shy, quiet or reclusive.

As they are two very different things, of course, they must be dealt with differently.

As a person who has effectively had three different personalities throughout my life, I’ve experienced a meltdown or shutdown based on the personality I’d taken on for that period of time. It seems to me many parents see their children grow and change through phases, but I’ve come to find it is uncommon to see a child become a completely different person two times in their life. Unfortunately, for reasons I don’t understand, I’m as good as unable to remember any of the first nine years of my life, which included my first self and the beginning of the second. I do not know if I experienced meltdowns or shutdowns at this point.

During the next seven years, I was a reclusive and reserved person, commonly depending on my friends to speak for me when I whispered in their ear what it was I wanted to say. I had a stutter, which made me afraid to talk in front of people, which I believe played a part in my complete change of character during this point of childhood.

As for what I wished people knew about how to deal with my shutdowns back then, it was kind of like this: rather than having my friends, teachers or other people around me poke and prod and ask me what was wrong, I wish there had been someone around who would’ve noticed. There were always signs I was retreating into a shutdown, which included a lack of turning to locate sound or movement, closing my eyes and breathing deeply, or staring blankly at the object nearest to me. I think it would’ve helped enormously if the people who told me about these signs of shutdown had used them to explain to other people who would repeatedly ask me that I was not going to respond to or answer them.

I wish my friends knew that in a shutdown environment, I cannot listen to them and what they are telling me. I cannot taste the piece of chocolate you’re offering me, or even really note that you’re offering me anything in the first place. I wish that instead, I had just been moved to a less overwhelming environment and left alone for a while until I could come back into myself and carry on as usual.

However, in the last about seven months of my life, I seem to have become someone new yet again. I haven’t become a sociable person or someone who is good with people, but rather I’ve grown out of my stutter and found I need to learn to communicate with my own voice. Doing this has effectively given me more independence and, oddly, self-respect. Since finding my voice, I have not allowed people to treat me poorly as I had in the past. However, in becoming this way, I lost my understanding of how to deal with myself when I’m overloaded.

I haven’t experienced meltdowns for very long compared to the shutdowns, but I have found they come about much more frequently. With these meltdowns, my already quick temper can get out of control, and I will experience outbursts of yelling in an attempt to halt whatever it is that’s caused the meltdown. On a good day, I am able to keep myself contained enough to express myself to my friend, who is very passive about it all.

I wish friends wouldn’t just agree with everything I said. I really do wish they would take me by the shoulders and say to me, “Rachel, you’re being unreasonable,” and play a bit of music off my phone, which tends to settle me down again. Part of me wishes that someone would pull me out of the situation and put me somewhere very quiet (I tend to experience meltdowns due to noise more so than anything else) and let me settle down.

It doesn’t help to let me sit there and get myself so worked up that my temperamental shutdown becomes one that involves yelling or crying as well. The best way to deal with a meltdown or shutdown, I think, is to remove the person who is experiencing said issue from the current situation if possible. If not, I believe the next best thing you can do is learn what seems to get them calmed down again and put that somewhere they can access it. For myself, the calming thing tends to be music or silence — though typically, when it comes to the silence, I also need something to do with my hands.

Try not to stand by and let it happen; I’ve found it can just make the experience worse, longer or more uncomfortable for everyone involved.

Image via Thinkstock.

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