Tag Archives: overwhelm

New Beginnings

Emma suggested I write about “new beginnings and offering ways to practice tolerance and hope for those who despair.”

I asked Emma what she suggested to those who are in despair.  She typed, “Best to give despair less space.”

“Yeah, okay.  How do you suggest people do that?” I asked.

“By filling the mind with all the beauty that is life,” Emma typed.

Yesterday Emma, B. and I talked about what happens when one becomes overwhelmed and how this is a human response, no matter what the neurology.  Overwhelm and feelings of not being able to cope are things all people feel from time to time.  We discussed different ways people try their best to cope: taking a break, taking a nap, acts of kindness, identifying all one has, gratitude, helping others, being alone, quiet, taking a bath or a walk, being in nature…

Emma described her feelings of overwhelm as, “my mind becomes jumbled and louder.”  Her words certainly resonated as this is exactly how I feel as well when everything seems too much and feels more than I can cope with.  Then Emma typed, “there should be practice before it gets too jumbled.”  This then led to a discussion about meditation and how those who meditate regularly call it “practice” because it is something one does daily and can help when “the mind becomes jumbled and louder.”

At the end of a lengthy conversation Emma typed, “I do want to try meditation.” And so we will.

The Buddha with Merlin

The Buddha with Merlin

Raging Screams and Shame

The other week I was present for the following typed exchange by two people.  Both are Autistic and both cannot use spoken language to communicate.  (Their names have been changed, as even though both agreed to have their words published here, this issue is sensitive and distressing, as well as deeply misunderstood by most non autistic people.)

Layla:  You have an extremely loud stomp.  (This was in reference to the noise Jerry made several days earlier and that Layla heard while working in a neighboring room.)

Jerry:  Is that a guess or are you certain?

Layla:  If you tried to hide it then you gave away the secret.

Jerry:  That is what I am behaving like on some days but proud I am not.

Layla: I heard it all and was curious and wanted to give help.

Jerry: Really do you believe that I am not evil?  (J. turns his head so he is staring down at the table.  His body is completely still.  It is a noticeable change from the way he usually sits while having a conversation with Layla.)

Layla:  Evil is not this and best to forgive yourself.

Jerry:  Thank you for not judging me.

Layla:  I  only ask for the same respect.

Jerry:  The deal is on.

I asked Layla and Jerry if I could transcribe their conversation and publish it here because non speaking Autistic people and the way they act in times of stress or overwhelm are so poorly understood.  Non autistic people who witness the actions (often termed “behaviors”) of a non-speaking Autistic person who is overwhelmed, perhaps frightened, often ashamed, unable to control their movements and unable to express themselves are often viewed with annoyance, irritation, fear and/or bewilderment.  As the non-speaking person cannot make themselves understood, they are at the mercy of those who care for them.

As I watched this conversation unfold I was struck, once again, by the disconnect between what most of the world believes about autism and Autistic people and the reality.  Jerry expressed profound shame and upset and Layla responded with  identification and deep compassion.

Their exchange reminded me of something Emma wrote about four months ago after having had a terrible night.  I wrote about that ‘here.’  One of the things she typed was:  “Pounding terror is all that remains.”  More recently she wrote, “The raging screams in my head are starving and want to consume me.”

Raging screams…  Pounding terror…

August, 2014

August, 2014

Finding Hope ~ By Emma

“Finding Hope

It cannot be found in fear, anger or when overwhelmed.

Hope must be cared for. It has to be nurtured and fed yummy treats.  Hope needs love and trust to grow.

Many people give up on hope because they are told it is not realistic and they need to face reality.

But what is reality?

Do you prefer living with hope or without it?

I prefer to be hopeful.”

*This post was written by Emma, including the title and she chose the accompanying photograph.*

This photograph is what Emma chose to represent hope.  It is a pine cone resting atop her great grandfather's tombstone.

This photograph is what Emma chose to represent hope. It is a pine cone with a metal heart, resting atop her great grandfather’s tombstone.

“Be Patient With Me…”

“Be patient with me, Mommy.”

This is what Emma wrote on the airplane coming home when we were delayed yet again.  This was what she wrote after spending four hours waiting to board the aircraft, an aircraft that never took off, a plane that sat at the gate for another two hours waiting for the pilot to show up, an airplane that we then had to de-plane when that same pilot never arrived, forcing us to stand for two and a half hours in the airline’s customer care line, only to be told we would not be able to get home for three more days, oh and by the way, our luggage was nowhere to be found.  Oops.  Sorry.  Shrug.

“Be patient with me…”

There were tears and a struggle to contain the overwhelming feelings of panic and exhaustion.  Cries and fists that pummeled, teeth that bit, flailing limbs, and I was right there, wanting to do the same.  Wanting to lash out.  Wanting to scream and do something that would make it all go away.  Change reality.  Change these feelings.  Change these circumstances.  Scream.  Disappear into the screams.  Clench my jaw, grind my teeth, breathe, clench, grind, breathe, clench, grind, breathe…

“Be patient with me…”

“You’re impatient,” people have repeatedly observed and thought to tell me.  Yeah.  I know.  That feeling that begins as mild anxiety, builds into an almost impossible feeling of discomfort…  the feeling that if I don’t DO something, anything right now, I will die… that’s my impatience.  I get that now, though I didn’t always.  It used to be I didn’t know what those feelings were called, I just knew I would do just about anything to avoid them.

“Be patient…”

There’s an ongoing irony to parenting.  How many times have I admonished my children to do the very thing I lack or am incapable of?  I remember going to a parent/teacher conference at my son’s school.  He was in grade school at the time and the teacher made a comment about how he needed to work on building his tolerance for frustration.  I replied, “Yup, that’s something his mom’s still working on too.”  The teacher looked at me with surprise.

“Be patient…”  

I try.  I am trying.  But don’t use me as a model.  I’m not very patient.  I tend to be controlling too.  I don’t like when things change suddenly, I feel calmer when I know what will happen next.  I don’t love spontaneity, it messes with my sense of order.  And once I’m in overwhelm, once the feelings are coming at me so quickly, I cannot access my thoughts, it doesn’t occur to me to say to the person I’m with, “Be patient with me…”

But my daughter did.  My daughter was able to get in touch with what she needed from me during a time of heightened distress.  So who was helping whom in that moment?  Was I helping her or was she helping me?

“Be patient with me…”

Em & N. ~ 2010

Em & N. ~ 2010

The Conversation Continues…

The comments continue to pour in, both through email and on yesterday’s post and the post from the day before on the topic of violence and coping when overwhelmed and overloaded.  A number of parents have emailed that a behavioral program helped tremendously and a few wrote about various medications they’ve (almost always) reluctantly given their child as a “last resort”.  One parent wrote:  “I had to go to the ER because he broke my nose and when the doc saw the bruises on my arms and my broken finger they called social services.  I was told my child would be taken from me.  Another doc prescribed _____  (anti-psychotic drug) and told me it was the only shot I had at keeping my son with me.  Sometimes the choices we parents are given suck.  I never went back to the ER even after he broke two ribs and my toe.  Years later he was able to type that three kids were bullying him on the school bus and had been for years.

Has anyone had experience with being given a behavioral plan?  Did it help?  If it did, what was it exactly?   And if it didn’t, and you don’t mind sharing about it, what was your experience of it like?  Did anyone have drugs given to you as a child and what was your experience with that?   As always, I will not use whatever name you give unless you leave it in the comments section of this blog or give me explicit permission.

Feministaspie wrote:  “The adults around me would tell me to take deep breaths, count to ten etc, and while I knew they meant well (and frankly, that was a much better way for them to deal with me than some of the other things I’ve read online, so I’m lucky really), that sort of thing didn’t really work for me. This was because at the time, I’d basically go into fight-or-flight mode so I absolutely was not thinking about that at all. I think it might also be to do with taking things literally, because apparently I’d just scream the numbers 1 through 10 at whoever told me to count, which obviously didn’t help matters. In hindsight, perhaps a more detailed plan was needed as far as that was concerned!! This made me feel really frustrated because that sort of thing was supposed to help and it didn’t and I felt like it was completely hopeless.

Ashmire wrote:  “I’d also add that sometimes there is kind of a feeling of powerlessness, of knowing that no matter how bad I hurt someone I don’t/didn’t have the capacity to hurt them as much as they are hurting me, because they are hurting me with emotions and I can only use physical damage which just doesn’t, can’t, ever, inflict as much pain as emotions can.

bjforshaw wrote:  “As for what helps, I would say that being given space is paramount. Confronting the violence feels like being cornered and makes it worse. What helps me is whatever makes me feel safe and unthreatened. I’m not able to speak or even type (I hate to think what effect my pounding would have on my keyboard) but as long as I’m not pressured I will be able to talk about it after I calm down. It has to be in my own time, on my own terms. That’s when I can start to explore the causes, the triggers.

In his blog post, Violence as a Means of Expression, bjforshaw writes: “Why do I do it? That’s a very important question. I am usually able to communicate effectively but emotion is a minefield: I have alexithymia which means I have great difficulty identifying and describing my emotional states. Strong emotions, especially negative ones, are very stressful. Add to that the fact that I become practically non-verbal when under stress — words are in my mind but I can’t get them to come out of my mouth — and you have a recipe for disaster. I’m not able to communicate my state of mind or my immediate needs which adds to the sense of frustration.

What Others Had to Say: Love, Overwhelm, Violence

Yesterday I wrote a post entitled, When Upset Turns Violent.  I wrote it hoping for feedback from those who may have at one time, or currently have felt so overwhelmed they strike out and from parents who are on the receiving end of children who become violent.   I wanted to get a better idea of the kinds of support that might be beneficial to all involved.

As the comments came in, both here and through email, I realized a few things.  One was the shared feeling of shame so many felt. Tremendous shame was described by almost all the parents of kids who express themselves violently, as well as some who become so overwhelmed they become violent.  Exacerbating, or perhaps a part of the shame, was the feeling that this should not be spoken of for fear of ridicule, blame and judgment.   Many people remain silent, which serves to further feelings of isolation and disconnect from community.

Another thing I realized as I read, was how both parents and those who are in overwhelm are actually feeling similar feelings of powerlessness and wanting a safe place to go.   I identified mightily with all the feelings described and thought it might be most helpful to reprint a number of the things people have written, both from the comments section on this blog, but also from some of the emails I received.  (For those who asked that I not reveal what you wrote, don’t worry, I haven’t.)   There are too many wonderful thoughts, comments, advice and experiences to publish here in a single post, but you can read, at least some of the comments in the comments section of yesterday’s post and a few that came in on Emma’s Hope Book Facebook page.

What follows is a sampling from some of the terrific comments received.  There are many more and they are all insightful and wonderful.  So please do read the related articles at the end of this as well as all the comments from those who so generously wrote in on this blog.  Obviously, there is a huge need for more conversations like this…

A few quotes from parents –

“I just want a safe place where I can talk about this stuff.  Not publicly.  I don’t ever want to be “one of those moms”  but I want to be able to talk about what’s going on with other parents who know what it’s like.”

” I know what it is to sit in an IEP meeting begging for help for my child with my eye swollen shut and bite marks and scratchs covering my arms.”

“I am scared of ____ and that makes me feel terrible.  What kind of parent is scared of their own kid?  A kid I love with all my heart.  A kid I want to help…”

“It changes you when you live in a state of perpetual fear and not having any place to talk about that makes it  harder.”

“I would love a support group, but not where everyone sits around blaming all their problems on autism and their kid.”

Comments from others:

Emily K. wrote:  “Remove yourself from “their” space but do not leave. Defend yourself but do not leave. Let your child Leave/ escape and do not block his/her path. Follow but do not intrude. Allow space and time do not react but respond in the opposite, we need peaceful and loving parents.”

Autisticook wrote a number of really powerful and wonderful comments, this is but one of them:  “I have given some thought to what I would have needed as a child to cope with my violence. I would like to start with a caveat: first of all, anyone who knows me in real life would be shocked at my description. The only people who believe I can be violent are the people I’ve actually hit. That’s about 4 or 5 people. The rest of the world calls me sweet natured and a good person and empathic and supportive of others. I’m also just over 5 feet tall and present as extremely non-threatening.

Second of all, my parents are still the most important two people in my life. A lot of people in the autism community weren’t so lucky with their parents and have a lot more to deal with as a result. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have such generous, loving people prepare me for the outside world. I have a lot of emotional stuff that’s coming out now that I know about autism, but I don’t blame them for any of it. So here goes: the things I needed as a child and didn’t get.

1. Don’t blame yourself. Don’t punish yourself for not being a perfect parent. I can tell when you feel bad and what I’m learning is that I need to be perfect as well. When I’m not, I feel as if I’m disappointing you and making you feel bad. I want you to be happy with me. But when I make you feel bad, I feel bad as well and that is making me even more stressed out because I’m still learning to deal with my emotions.

2. It will get better. I’m trying to learn how to walk. You can show me how it’s done but you can’t force me to walk. It might take me a bit longer to learn this, or I might do it a bit later than others. But it doesn’t mean I will never learn. I just need someone to show me and teach me and support me. This is as true for feeling upset as it is for walking. Teach me how to be upset. Show me there are other ways of being upset, instead of only telling me the way I have chosen is wrong and leaving it at that.

3. Help me recognise my triggers. I might come home from school cranky and tired and overwhelmed. My brother sticking his tongue out at me might simply be the last drop. If I am not saying much, if I’m curled up in the big chair kicking my legs out, or if I seem to be absorbed in an activity like playing with my toys and not paying attention, it might be because I’m trying to self-regulate and deal with all the stuff that’s coming at me. Help me recognise that this is what I am doing. Maybe you need to learn how to read my behaviour first, like hanging upside down in the chair (vestibular stims) and kicking my feet (propioceptive stims) and the attention on my toys (visual or tactile stims). You’re the adult, so I’m depending on you to explain to me what I’m doing and why. I won’t be able to correct you on your assumptions until I’m an adult myself. So please be careful in learning my behaviour and don’t label it until you’re absolutely sure. It’s also OK to ask my input on this when I’m calm and happy.

4. Allow me a way out. If my self-regulating isn’t allowed, I can guarantee you I will get a meltdown. And once I am in that space, all I can think of is making the thing stop that made me go into meltdown. I only have short term memory and very limited reasoning power when I go into meltdown, so I will latch onto whatever trigger I see in front of me. First it will be my brother who stuck his tongue out at me. And then it will be you for restraining me from hitting my brother. Or myself for being in the way. Triggers triggers triggers. I will keep triggering until the world is empty of triggers or until I am utterly exhausted. So if you hold me down, you’re actually keeping me in the world of triggers. I need a different world that is practically triggerless. But I’m too young to know this, which is why I will sometimes keep following you and hitting you even though you try to remove yourself. Because I want the upset feeling to stop and the only way I know how to stop something is to hit it until it stops moving.

5. Don’t ask me questions. If you want to know how I’m feeling, please ask me afterwards, when I have calmed down and can find my words again. Ask me too soon and it will just be another trigger. I am dealing with my overload, with my own feelings of anger and guilt and frustration and sadness and pain, and there’s so much going on that there’s no room for words. It’s hard enough for me to even understand, LITERALLY understand, what you are saying. Formulating an answer is simply not going to happen. However, if you talk about it with me afterwards, that might be a really big help for me in learning how to understand emotions and how my mind works. I may sound resistant to questioning, but that’s also because I’m afraid of going into another emotional meltdown.

6. Don’t try to distract me. I’m not having a temper tantrum, I’m having a meltdown. Trying to get me to focus my attention on something else means I get even more input that’s getting on top of the input overload and I just can’t deal with that. Fewer triggers, not more. You can try getting me to hit a pillow instead of you, but the pillow isn’t triggering me so I might not listen to that. What’s better once I get that violent is bringing me to a GUARANTEED safe space (I emphasise guaranteed because it needs to be not just a space of your choosing, but a space where I can feel safe no matter what and where I won’t be forced out again). My safe space was the back of my mother’s wardrobe, between her clothes, because even if I had the door to my room closed, people still barged in. Once I’m in my safe space and I know people will no longer ask me questions and I can block out the noises and lights and stim to my heart’s content without someone telling me it’s wrong, I usually calm down within an hour or two.

7. Yeah, it takes that long. Please give me time to process. I will come to you once I’m ready. Because I love and trust you, even if I don’t always show it in a way that you can recognise. Please don’t punish me for not understanding why things went wrong or for losing control. I’m punishing myself already. Trust me on that.

Anon wrote:  “I used to hum to myself for comfort when I was sick (about 7yrs) and my father used to threaten me into silence – it was his ignorance and fear, not malice… but I stopped humming.”

Autisticook wrote:  “It was NOT HAVING WORDS and SO MUCH FEELS and STOP TALKING I CAN’T MAKE SENSE OF THINGS and HELP ME NOTICE MY DESPAIR NOTICE MY NO WORDS HELP ME. And above all just stop stop stop stop stop.”

Ischemgeek wrote:  “Especially big for me was stop yelling at me so I can think and figure out what you want because I don’t even know what you want and why you’re screaming at me I just know you’re screaming and I can’t take it just stop.”

And in another comment wrote:  “For me, violence of the meltdown variety (as opposed to sibling bickering violence, which stopped around age 8) was never so much about getting my way and more about gettingaway, if that makes sense.”

MonkeyPliers wrote:  “I’d be concerned about any child developing the kind of anger towards her- or himself that I learned to have towards myself from not being understood and being accused of “putting on a display” when I couldn’t regulate myself.”

Related articles

There Once Was A Girl…

There once was a girl who was in tremendous pain.  Her pain was so great she couldn’t manage it.  She tried, believe me, she tried.  She immersed herself in books, particular those dealing with people’s neurology, but also dabbled in science fiction, mysteries, thrillers, horror, romance, this was before the age of memoirs, so she devoured studies of other people written by psychiatrists, therapists of every ilk and doctors.  Losing herself in reading was thrilling, but it didn’t help her sort through the intense feelings she had.  All those books couldn’t begin to heal her often overwhelming feelings, anxiety, sadness and fear.

She thought that moving away might help so she did that, and then she moved farther and farther still and eventually she found herself living in another country and all those intense feelings moved right along with her.  By this time she was using substances to quell the pain, on a daily basis.   She knew she could zone out and for a little while anyway she would feel nothing at all and it was a great relief.  But as soon as the substance wore off she was left, once again, with herself.  She went from seeking relief, to needing relief, to feeling that if she didn’t do those things that gave her even momentary solace she might die.

There is no other way to describe what she went through when she could not indulge in certain behaviors.  SHE WOULD DIE.  She did not know this for a fact, but she felt sure that she could not exist without the things that changed her consciousness.  She was convinced that these substances helped her cope and that without them she would not be able to, and all those feelings would overwhelm her, suffocate her.  She lived in terror of this.  Years went by and she did the best she could, but her need for calm and peace was never satiated.

As time went on she knew that if she was going to continue living in this world she would have to change, she would have to find other ways of coping, of just being.  And again her fears both mesmerized and caused her to stay stuck doing the same things again and again that now did not give her the relief they once did.  She knew in her heart she would die if she continued doing what she had been doing.  She knew it was only a matter of time now.  The thing that she once thought was keeping her from dying, was the very thing that would kill her.  Still, how to change?  What could she do?  How would she stop?

At first she sought help from doctors and therapists and the medical profession.  She tried the various things they told her to do.  She made charts and ate specific foods and took supplements and lots and lots of vitamins, but nothing she did made a difference.  She went to psychologists and talked and talked, for years she talked, and while that helped her understand some of what ailed her, all that talk didn’t help her stop hurting herself.  One therapist, someone who loved her very much and had been trying to help her for many years said to her, you must find others who do what you do, they will help you.  So she found them.  Hundreds of people just like her who did the same things she was doing.  They listened to her pain and shame and they nodded their heads and told stories of their own and they said, “Here. Grab our hand.  We will help you.  We will show you the way through because you cannot do this on your own.  This isn’t about will power, this isn’t about desire, this is about needing help.”  And so she did, though she was filled with abject terror and was not at all sure she would be able to follow them, she did.  They taught her to breathe when she was scared and they took her calls in the middle of the night and they came to her when she was too frightened to leave her apartment and they sat with her when she was too overwhelmed to move.  They taught her that she alone could not help herself, she needed others.  This was both a great relief and also her greatest fear.

Over time she learned to tolerate all those feelings she once believed would kill her.  It was incredible!  She could not believe she was able to sit with feelings!  This was a revelation and she grew stronger and more able to be in the world.  She learned to ask for help and she found some people were safe and others were not.  She learned to be in a relationship with another person and to respect them and to honor their boundaries and she experienced the joy of kindness and acting in kindness for no other reason than because it was a part of who she was – to be kind.  She experienced the joy of helping others who were in pain and came to believe there is no greater gift in this life than to offer a hand to another being who is in the depths of despair and pain.

(To be continued)

When the Words Don’t Match

The other night Em woke up at around 2:00AM crying.  She kept saying the same words over and over.  It was a kind of script, about an indoor playground that I used to take both children to when they were toddlers.  It is a playground that has been closed for more than six years.  “Mommy has to look.  Daddy has to find new Sydney playground.  The tickets are broken.  Mommy has to fix it.  Oh.  You want to go to new Sydney playground!”

Do not try to translate this.  Lean into the emotion, what is she telling you?  Forget the actual words, the individual words are less important, it’s the emotion, it’s the intent… 

This is what I’ve been taught.  I’ve paraphrased the exact words my friend Ibby actually used, but it captures the general idea of what she has reminded me of more than once.  It’s an important concept and one that I didn’t readily understand at first.  In fact our initial conversation went something like this –

Ibby:  Do you speak another language?

Me:  What?  No.  I barely speak English.  Do I need to learn another language?  If you tell me I need to learn Russian to help me understand, I’m on it.

Ibby:  (I imagine Ibby took a deep, calming breath before continuing)  No.  You do not need to learn Russian.  But you need to feel the words instead of trying to do a word for word translation.

Me:  Feel the words?  Mind began to race, a panicky feeling overtook my body. I don’t know what that means!  What does that mean?

And so Ibby patiently tried to explain that by getting lost in the exact meaning of the words I was missing the emotions being expressed.

With this in mind, I went back to Emma’s bedroom with her.  Very distressed, she continued to repeat the script and then suddenly veered off to an unrelated, yet another, unattainable, desire.  “I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard.  Not binyard, v, v, v, vineyard.  Mommy I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard.  No baby.  We can’t go to Martha’s Vineyard, it’s too cold.  I want to go to Martha’s Vineyard.”

As I sat with her listening, I tried to be present, neither lying to her nor adding to her anxiety, just being present and as I did this I felt a flood of recognition.  I realized I do a version of this too, only I call it “spiraling out”.  It happens at odd times, but being tired makes it harder to cope with.  When I think about how I spiral out an image of a pin ball machine comes to mind.  My thoughts are the little metal ball careening around hitting one side, ricocheting off the little bouncy things that make noise while the lights flicker, before shooting off in another direction.  Nothing anyone says helps me.  In fact, often well-intentioned people will make it much, much worse, because my mind is literally looking for things to think about that will create more anxiety.  The only thing that has ever helped me when I get this way is a calm, loving voice gently nudging me down a different path.  It has to be authentic and very, very loving and very, very calm or I become suspicious and even angry.  With this thought in mind I gently said to Em, “Is it okay if I tell you something?”  She nodded her head.

“I get upset too, Em.  Just like you are right now.  And when I do I have thoughts that I can’t stop going around around in my head.”

She sat up and looked directly into my eyes.  “Sometimes when I feel stressed and tired I can’t make the thoughts go away.  Sometimes the same thoughts just keep repeating in my head and I can’t get rid of them.  Daddy calls it spiraling out.  But you know what?  It’s going to be okay.  I’m going to stay with you.  It’s going to be okay.  I promise.  Try to breathe.  Here breathe with me.”  We inhaled together and then exhaled.  “Feel the cool air on your face and the warmth of the blanket on your body.”  I continued in this way, talking to her softly, trying to guide her, trying to make her aware of the present.  These are the things that help me when I’m agitated and feeling overwhelmed and eventually she rested her head on me, leaning her body into me as I spoke to her in a soft voice.

It was during those early morning hours with the two of us sitting together while everyone around us slept that I felt a surge of understanding.  When I get lost in the words that fill my head and when the words don’t match up with the emotions it feels confusing and I become perseverative and spiral out.  I see this now.  In the past I’ve called it anxiety.  I’ve said I’m overwhelmed and tired.  These are good words to describe what I’m feeling, but a more accurate explanation is that when I become fixated on specific thoughts, in my case they are often in the form of fears, I can become so lost in the specifics I lose sight of the emotions.  This has happened my whole life, only it took my daughter to get me to make the connection.  We are not so different, my daughter and I.

An image that calms me – The Manhattan Skyline taken while walking to my studio the other morning

Manhattan Skyline