Feminist Aspie

Turtle Mode: For when everything gets a bit much

on October 19, 2013

It’s that time again when I remember I’m supposed to be blogging every week (Saturday nights are likely to be when blog posts happen, actually), so I thought I’d talk about shutdowns, basically because I had a pretty bad shutdown earlier this week so it’s all still fresh in my my mind.

I should probably discuss my experiences with meltdowns first, seeing as that tends to get talked about more often. This post, “Anatomy of a Meltdown” by Musings Of An Aspie, explains the feelings really well and also notes how the ways in which meltdowns manifest themselves can change over the years. When I was a kid, I got pretty aggressive (although thankfully I don’t think I’ve ever properly hurt anyone) but these days meltdowns mainly consist of crying and lots of it, which is something I never normally do. They’re now few and far between, too; I think I hit meltdown the day I came back to uni because we had issues finding my new room but other than that, my last full meltdown was back in August, the first time I tried to leave my ex, and the time before that was back in March 2012, in the middle of the school library due to a student-council-initiative-gone-wrong (it’s a long story). I guess as I grew up I just learned coping skills, to breathe, to stim, to control it, and if all else fails to just get out of there as fast as I can.

For me, especially over the last few years, shutdowns are much more common, and they feel almost exactly the same, bar the inevitable horrible crying headaches that follow a meltdown (or any crying for that matter; those headaches are just horrible, aren’t they?). As Musings of an Aspie puts it:

It feels like my whole body is thrumming, humming, singing, quivering. A rail just before the train arrives. A plucked string. A live wire throwing off electricity, charging the night air.

Thinking about it now, most shutdowns start with me being stuck in a noisy, crowded room (so party situations, then) and that was the case a few days ago, too. I don’t know how to explain it other than everything gradually got a bit much and then, as my friend put it, I went into full-on turtle mode.

turtle in shell

Well, I would have done this if I was actually a turtle with a shell I could hide in, but I’m not, so instead I just sat there and vaguely attempted to sing under my breath to try in vain to calm myself down.  Didn’t really work, because people kept pouring in, for ages and ages and ages. I remember telling said friend that I wanted to curl up into a tiny ball and not take up any space. That must have been roughly when the “thrumming” started, like every cell of my body was vibrating. Then there were introductions, there was quiet, there was calm, in theory I had a minute or so to regroup. It doesn’t really work like that, though; there were still people coming in, still, and there were still so many people around me, and as a mere human being I couldn’t just disappear and take up no space. After that, getting up and talking to people. Talking to people. Right. That wasn’t going to happen. I couldn’t find the person I was looking for so I sort of wandered around aimlessly, staying around the edges of the room where it was less dense, resisting the urge to hide behind or under chairs, just about breathing, never mind anything else. I sort of knew that I needed out, I thought about how I could grab my phone and step outside for a few minutes and calm down and text my friend to let her know where I was/ask to be rescued, but I couldn’t just make that happen, I was too far gone.

Then I ran into someone I knew; I don’t think she knows I’m autistic unless she’s worked it out for herself, but I was visibly distressed, so she had to do a bit of guesswork:

“There’s a lot of people here tonight, isn’t there, is that stressful for you?”

You bet it was.

“It’s really warm in here, isn’t it, are you too warm?”

Probably, and to be fair that’s always a very good guess with me, but frankly at that point I was solely concerned with all those people.

And, finally, “Do you need to go out for a while?”


Fantastic, problem solved, right? …Wrong. You see, my annoying habit of insisting I’m okay when I’m not okay even extends to when I am clearly, visibly, obviously several thousand miles away from “okay”. That, and I could barely make words happen at all. I could think all that stuff, but I couldn’t say it. The help I clearly needed was being handed to me on a plate, but even then, still, my body was having none of it, which is always massively frustrating for all parties involved. Instead, I froze, and panicked, and didn’t say a word, and then just continued wandering.

Eventually, to cut a long story short, I got out and was immediately distracted by something else, which on the one hand was really bad timing (as you can tell, my conversational skills weren’t exactly brilliant at this point) but on the other hand, at least it was a distraction, and a positive one at that. After that had happened, the event was almost over, so I left; my new room is much further out than my old one, which on this particular evening was a good thing because for a while I could just focus on putting one foot in front of the other without having to think about anything else. I got back to my room and even though the “danger” was over, everything was still on a go-slow. I slowly thought about getting into my pyjamas, then eventually did so, then slowly thought about making tea before deciding that was just more input I didn’t need, so I slowly got myself a glass of water instead, then sat on Tumblr for a bit, then got into bed, cocooned myself in the covers (deep pressure for the win), and attempted to explain all this to the person I was with via Facebook (hence “turtle mode”). I always forget how long it takes for the “thrumming” to stop, for my body to catch up with my brain and realise everything is okay.

I should probably just give people here some vague instructions as to what to do when this happens, because like I said, there were people doing everything right and I just couldn’t accept the offers of help. Basically, if it’s possible to get me out of there, get me out of there. I actually tend to be okay with touch for the most part, so if I need to be sort of guided feel free to do that, but obviously if I flinch that’s probably a sign you should stop. Once I’m out of there, I can probably take care of myself, breathe, stim, whatever. Maybe sit with me if you’re worried, don’t ask too many questions at first because you won’t get any helpful answers, let me process it all for a little while and then I can start telling you what’s wrong and we can do something about it. I guess for meltdowns (you will know if this happens, trust me, it’s really obvious!!), again you’d need to get me the heck out of there (although that might prove difficult), obviously I’m going to need tissues and water would be nice too (for the headaches) but other than that, once I’m out and I’m safe and I’m not having all that information thrown at me anymore, it’s best to leave me alone for a bit, let it happen, let me slowly calm myself down and then, finally, I might actually have the words to tell you what happened. Of course, everyone on the spectrum is different – it’s a spectrum – so please don’t take anything I say as a strict template to follow for other people.

So I guess shutdowns and meltdowns aren’t that different, internally. And not being able to ask for or even accept help is really not nice.


8 responses to “Turtle Mode: For when everything gets a bit much

  1. Alana says:

    Turtle mode. I like the name. It’s a good description.

    • It is, isn’t it? The person who said that also sent me the accompanying picture. I concluded that life would be so much easier if I actually had a shell into which I could retreat. 😛

  2. kit says:

    I turtle. I turtle a lot. And even before I consciously feel like a situation is too much, I lose the ability to speak. And far too many people think if you’re not complaining, you’re doing fine.

    • Yeah 😦 I think I’ve been really lucky at uni in that everyone’s been really supportive and they do eventually pick up on it, but by that point I can’t tell them what’s wrong and what they need to do about it, so it’s as good as useless anyway half the time.

  3. bjforshaw says:

    Great description. I get the urge to do this a lot in noisy, crowded situations: I just want to curl up in a corner and feel safe.

    • Thanks! 🙂 Same here, actually. Sometimes if it’s really crowded I find myself sort of backing into a corner, I guess because then I have that tiny little space and I feel a bit safer.

  4. Turtle mode is a great phrase. I’ll often physically turtle up into my imaginary shell in places that I feel comfortable when I’m overloaded (like curling up in the corner of the couch at my daughter’s apartment, even though nonfamily members are present, which is probably awkward but I don’t really care).

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