What My 'Quiet Meltdowns' Look Like as a Neurodivergent Adult
I have meltdowns, but until recently, I didn’t know that was what they were. I do not have a diagnosis of autism, or at least not an official one (common for adult Autistic women; depression, anxiety, and sometimes ADHD is often diagnosed before autism because it often presents in a way that is different than stereotypical “boy” presentation). I bring up autism because this is what is most typically associated with meltdowns. That being said, serious (and sometimes quiet or even silent, elusive, sneaky) meltdowns can occur in individuals with other neurodivergent conditions, especially those that have mental illness too.
My meltdowns are not intrinsic to having bipolar, depression, borderline personality disorder, or OCD. Those disorders certainly do exacerbate the meltdowns, but those are more akin to… mental “breakdowns.” Granted, I know things are not so simple. One can have both things happening simultaneously, and they can intertwine and interact, further amplifying the situation and pain the melting down individual experiences.
Still with me? I know, I can be rather long-winded in my explanations. My mom says I have a “busy mind.” That might be an understatement!
When I was a baby, I didn’t like to eat. I struggled with sleep. I cried a lot and needed to be held by my mother and my mother only. As a kid, I rarely remember getting angry or having full-blown tantrums. What I do remember is having crying fits, anxiety included, when it came to sensory overload, any change or transition — big or small, and not getting my way. Was I spoiled? I had no diagnosis, no treatment for anxiety, ADHD, or sensory issues. I was just “sensitive.” “Emotional.” “Quirky.” “Hyper” and yet “quiet.”
My meltdowns as a child were evident, but really only at home. At school, I was a good student, really only ever getting in trouble for talking too much during class, and only needing extra support in math class. I would hold it together all day, with my millions of thoughts and feelings swarming all around me; I struggled to pay attention, listen, and be social in a way that was deemed acceptable. I also masked a lot, leaving me exhausted by the time I got home. And despite that exhaustion, I lay awake at night with insomnia, as well as sleep-walking and talking and weird, unsettling dreams upon falling asleep. I would ask my father to “turn off my brain, please.” Too much mental energy and yet a lack of physical energy. I still relate to this today: the phrase “tired but wired” very much describes me, always has. So yes, as a kid many meltdowns were silent or quiet, but at home, it was mostly crying, whining, mild tics and compulsions while I endured sensory overload and burnout.
My meltdowns today are essentially the same. Only differences? I am even better at masking in public and yet even worse at masking at home or during particularly stressful situations or even minor, unexpected changes to my schedule. My meltdowns have become more severe, as at this point they are not just meltdowns relating to sensory overload, social burnout, stress, and change (ADHD, sensory processing disorder, learning disabilities like nonverbal learning disability, Autistic traits); they are intertwined with the workings of my major mental illnesses, such as bipolar disorder, borderline personality disorder, OCD, trauma, etc.
My most severe meltdowns occur when I am overloaded by changes to routine, high social expectations (and I even saying this an extrovert, perhaps an “introverted extrovert”), and too many sounds and sights, only worsened by episodes of mania or depression and the extreme thoughts and reactions to rejection and perceived abandonment. From what I’ve read recently, I have learned there is a surprisingly significant overlap between borderline personality disorder (often triggered by childhood trauma, PTSD, C-PTSD) and autism/Autistic traits in adult women. As someone diagnosed with both borderline personality disorder and neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD, I wonder if this applies to me. This typically means the individual either has both BPD and is Autistic or they are Autistic and BPD was the initial misdiagnosis. Regardless, the label for me isn’t the end-all, be-all, but this does interest me and help me better understand myself.
I had a period of bullying in middle school, often subtle, but I now understand that this is what it was. This ongoing trauma (ongoing off/on for three years I suppose) may be what has contributed to my BPD traits. I wonder though if being neurodivergent and possibly Autistic is what led to my susceptibility to being teased and bullied throughout my life. This is a bit of a side tangent, but it all relates regardless.
I have always had meltdowns, and today as an adult they are more intense, including the sensory symptoms, further exacerbated by mental illness. I often view myself as “immature” in the way I react to some seemingly “simple” things and changes. This is why finding the neurodivergent community through Instagram, TikTok, Facebook, and The Mighty has helped me so much, to finally see I am not “weird.” I might be “different,” sure, but not less than because of those differences. I was born this way for the most part (my premature birth and low birth may have been contributors, too).
So, how do I cope with meltdowns today to avoid possible dangers like self-harm and skin picking (self-harm for me is not only a punishment during depression, but also a sensory equalizer in a sense, but not a healthy one)? I stim in other ways, healthier ways. Stimming often looks like fidgeting. I sensory seek at times by using fidget toys, headphones with white noise, my weighted blanket, touching soft items (including my dogs!) and so forth.
I also cope by using my dialectical behavioral skills which involve not only forms of healthy sensory stimming but also distracting with hobbies, changing body temperature, meditation, or changing one’s thoughts through mantras and the use of “wise mind.”
I’ve only had a full-time job once so far in my adult life, and it was a struggle because of not only major anxiety, but I now realize, sensory issues and overload as well as my learning disabilities. Meltdowns on the job, sometimes noticeable but often silent, were common. I am learning how to mitigate these moments so that I am able to work going forward. I have improved in my latest part-time job, and so hopefully this will only progress as time passes and I implement skills and safe stimming.
I also decided to let go of the shame and stigma that comes with being neurodivergent or mentally ill. I am receiving accommodations in graduate school for my disabilities; I wonder if this is something I can implement in a future job if needed. As I said, I do not have an autism diagnosis, and nor do I know if I would even meet the criteria for one. What I do know is that my many other diagnoses could likely help me receive work accommodations, depending on the nature of the job.
I am a 26-year-old neurodivergent individual; as I always say, I am a dog lover and passionate writer, as well as a mental health advocate. I used to write about strictly mental health, but now that I have acknowledged and embraced my neurodivergence, it feels impossible to separate the two, and so I write about both.
Do you have meltdowns? Do you stim? How do you cope with life and/or your mind?
Getty image by Fizkes.