Another One of My Work Meltdowns

Keep Calm Don't Melt Down
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Another one of my work meltdowns happened when I worked in the office of a manufacturing company. I had gotten the job through an acquaintance. She knew a man in her church who was looking for a temporary admin assistant to fill in for someone who was taking a six-month leave of absence, and since I had office skills and training, she put us in touch with each other.

That man did not actually end up being my direct boss. He was the production manager, and my boss was the office manager, but when my boss was absent, he was in charge of me.

My own boss really liked me, and gave me a lot of affirmation. He repeatedly told me how impressed he was with how quickly I picked up the tasks of the job. He said he didn’t think anyone else could have learned it as fast as I did. On the inside, however, I felt like a fraud. Yes, I had learned the tasks, but I couldn’t see the big picture. I was just following instructions, but I couldn’t see why I was doing the things I was doing or how it all fit together. It was like following directions in a recipe and measuring out flour, sugar and cocoa without knowing you’re supposed to be making brownies, or doing a jigsaw puzzle without having a picture of what the finished result should look like.

Also, the whole place was a rather grimy, smelly, noisy environment that made it hard to concentrate. So I was already feeling overwhelmed, and then my boss told me they’d soon be training me on a new task: taking inventory. He took me into the back where there were rows and rows of things like pipes and hoses and rods and I was expected to learn what they all were. They all blurred together in my vision and I thought, “I will never be able to tell all these things apart and remember what they are.”

Meanwhile, I also felt like I was in over my head socially. They asked me if I watched the show Survivor, and said that the day after it aired the bosses and employees got together to discuss it. Back then, unlike now, I didn’t watch much TV. In fact, I lived in a rural area where I couldn’t get cable and only got two over-the-air channels. I said I didn’t (and couldn’t) watch it, and they were very disappointed, as that was part of the social culture there.

After working there for six weeks, one day while my boss was out, the woman who had hooked me up with the job showed up in the office right before lunch time. I had never given her any indication that she could visit me at work; her appearance was totally out of the blue. She asked me to come to a certain restaurant with her on my lunch break. I said, “I can’t, I only get half an hour for lunch and that won’t be enough time to eat at a sit-down restaurant.” Just then, the production manager entered the office. The woman said to him, “You’ll let her have extra time for lunch so she can come out for lunch with me, right?” I hadn’t known she was going to ask him that and I was totally caught off guard. He replied with a kind smile and a gentle voice, “Yeah, of course. Take as much time as you need. Have a nice time!”

The thing is, I didn’t even want to go out for lunch with her. She had a very domineering personality and was difficult for me to be around. I used my lunch time to decompress; the last thing I wanted was social interaction with someone like her during that precious time. But I couldn’t see how I could get out of it at that point. So I went.

When I returned, with my head in a whirl from the social interaction in the middle of my workday, the production manager, to my shock, was angry at me! He yelled at me, “Don’t you ever do that to me again! Using your friend to get extra time for lunch, knowing that I can’t look like an asshole in front of someone I go to church with!”

I said quietly, “I didn’t even want to go out for lunch with her, and I didn’t know she was going to ask you if I could have extra time. That was all her.”

“You must think I’m an idiot!” he yelled back. “But I can see through your schemes! Don’t ever underestimate me again!”

He stormed into the back, and I had my meltdown. I was alone, thank goodness. My meltdowns are less debilitating when they happen in private. However, I was still sniffling a bit when my own boss returned to the office later that afternoon. He asked what was wrong, and I couldn’t think of anything to say other than, “I don’t think I fit in here.” He assured me that I was doing a great job and then went into his office.

That night, I couldn’t sleep. I just kept going over what the production manager had said to me. It wasn’t the first time something like that had happened to me; the fact is, I often get accused of lying or scheming or having wrong motives in things, when the truth is, I don’t even know how to scheme. I completely lack that ability. Perhaps I’d be more successful in life if I could lie and scheme (it seems like the most successful people do it well), but I can’t. My brain is just not wired that way.

The next morning, as I drove to work, I was in an emotional state from the stress and the sleep deprivation and was not thinking entirely clearly. I started praying, “Please God, I don’t want to quit on yet another thing, but I feel like I can’t handle this. Please release me from this job without me having to quit. I can’t do this.”

When I got to work, my boss was waiting for me. “I have some bad news,” he said. “The admin assistant you’ve been filling in for is coming back early. You’ve been an excellent employee, but we have to let you go.”

So, my prayer was answered within minutes, and I was out of a job again.

During that six weeks of working there, however, I had saved up enough money to buy my first computer, and within about a month, I encountered in an online discussion forum the man who would later become my husband. So something good came out of the experience, anyway.

 

 

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One of My Work Meltdowns

Business Furniture
Photo by bfi Business Furniture Inc. Used under Creative Commons.

 

A work meltdown I had several years ago was the result of a culmination of a number of factors.

 

  1. There was a bad smell in the building that had been making me gag. I mentioned it to my boss, who mentioned it to the janitor, who apparently tried to eliminate it, but I could still smell it. No one else could smell it, so I was treated like it was all in my head. I plugged in an air freshener near my desk (perhaps that was too presumptuous of me, but I was the only one who worked in that area; everyone else had their own office), and that helped, but in my absence it was removed. I casually mentioned to my boss that my air freshener had gone missing. He told me he had removed it because it bothered his sinuses, which of course I understood, but it still left me smelling the bad smell, and I had trouble concentrating on anything as long as I could smell it. He must have mentioned it to his wife, because she then gave me a big vanilla-scented candle as a gift, saying her husband had always been able to tolerate those. I kept it right next to me on my desk and it helped a lot, even unlit. But one day I came to work and it was gone. I mentioned to my boss that my candle had gone missing, and he said he and some other people had wanted to use candles downstairs, and he had taken it down there.
  2. My boss told me about something he was planning, saying he wanted feedback from a critical thinker, so he could plan how he would respond to other critical thinkers who he knew would have a problem with it. He said, referring to how to get other people to accept it, “It’s all in how we package it.” The problem was that his plans were, in my opinion, unethical and dishonest. Since he was asking my opinion, I gave it to him as diplomatically as I could and without using those two words, but it still got awkward. Of course, he went ahead with his plans, and the worst part is, there was a man who was basically a victim of it all but had no idea why things were playing out the way they were. This man even came to me for advice and I did my best to advise him without actually telling him the truth, as I was required to keep my boss’ scheme confidential and to be complicit with it. This all completely went against my principles and left me feeling sickened with guilt and disgust.
  3. A coworker I got along really well with quit, and told me it was because he felt he was being treated badly by our boss. This left me working alone with the boss every day, after things had already gotten awkward.
  4. As well as my job duties, I was expected to take on a “volunteer” project in my “spare time.” I had done a similar project the previous year before I worked there, and I was expected to do it again. I had determined, based on coping strategies I had learned from my former counselor, who was the very same man who was now my boss, that the only way I could manage this without overload was to set very clear boundaries and deadlines. The project required contributions from a number of other people, and I had set a deadline for these contributions which I made clear to everyone involved. On the day of the deadline, someone e-mailed me and said her contribution wasn’t ready, and asked if she could get it to me the following week. I replied and said I was sorry, but if I were to complete the project in time I needed everything that day. My boss found out I had said that, and he confronted me. He said I was being too rigid and I “wasn’t showing enough grace to people.”

Then came the meltdown. Right in front of him, I started to shake and cry uncontrollably. I then ran out the door to the front porch of the building and vomited over the railing. I sat down on the steps and shook and wheezed for several minutes.

Once I was able to regain control, I went back inside and as calmly as I could asked him if I could go home and calm down. He agreed. I said I would come back that afternoon to finish my work. I gave him my word that I would be back.

When I got home, I was crying again. My husband was home, and I could barely speak to tell him what had happened. I just cried and cried. Finally he managed to get the gist of the situation. When I returned to work a couple hours later, he went with me, and helped me complete my tasks. My boss looked at us and said nothing. He knew my husband socially and probably found it awkward.

Before I left that day, with my husband’s encouragement, I handed in my letter of resignation.

Afterwards, I was exhausted for months. That happened in September, and it wasn’t until at least January before I felt like I came out of my fog. My house was a mess. My friendships had been neglected. I don’t even know how I spent my time during those months. It would be a huge exaggeration to say I was nearly catatonic, and yet somehow I can’t think of another word. It’s like I was inside myself and was too exhausted to come out.

I try to think of what I could have done differently to avoid the meltdown. For one thing, I should never have taken a job working for my former counselor. The whole thing was a bad idea and was probably in itself a breach of ethics on his part. At the time, I was just so flattered that someone who already knew everything that was wrong with me, including my sensory and emotional sensitivity, would offer me a job I hadn’t even applied for. I started thinking that maybe it was meant to be and that it might be a job where I could actually thrive. I have always been good at the tasks of those kinds of jobs; the work itself has never been the issue.

Unfortunately, the very coping strategies he’d taught me as my counselor, he did not allow me to implement in the workplace as my boss.

While I never should have taken the job, once I had, I suppose I could have asked before bringing in an air freshener. I had to do something, as due to my odor sensitivity I couldn’t function with the bad smell, but I suppose taking the initiative to solve my own problem without getting permission was seen as me not knowing my place, or something like that.

Another thing I could have done differently was not given my true opinion of my boss’ plans. That would have prevented some of the awkwardness that resulted. But it still wouldn’t have solved the problem, since once he went ahead with them I still would have felt guilty for my required complicity with them, and the guilt would have been even more intense if I hadn’t at least offered any words of protest.

I also should not have agreed to do the volunteer project. That was too much to take on, and I only did so because it was expected and I didn’t want to rock the boat, as I already felt awkward with my boss. Once I had taken it on, however, I still think I had the right to set a deadline. I actually suspect that my boss’ accusation about me not showing enough grace to people may have been more about what I had said to him about his plans than about me enforcing a deadline for submissions for the project. He was already seeing me that way, but it was only in that situation that he said it.

So I don’t know. I suppose I made wrong choices, but everything I did was to try to cope. It’s just that my efforts to cope caused problems between me and my boss and were then thwarted by him.

There is an interesting twist to this story. This former boss and I are not on bad terms. He gave me a glowing work reference and although my husband and I have moved away, he and his wife keep in touch with us and when they’re in our area they visit us. We all just kind of pretend none of this ever happened. Once when I did try to broach the subject he told me he has nothing but positive things to think and to say about me, and we left it at that.

 

Meltdown

Photo by Enesse Bhé via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.
Photo by Enesse Bhé via Flickr. Used under Creative Commons.

There may be times in my blog when I will mention having meltdowns. I’ve read that people with Asperger’s tend to have meltdowns, although I suspect it doesn’t always look the same for everyone. I’ll tell you what a meltdown is like for me.

First, I start to feel overwhelmed. This can be by external stimuli like being surrounded by people, lots of movement, hurrying, noise, loud voices, smells. Or it can be by my own emotions, triggered by people putting excessive demands on me, insulting or criticizing me, judging me, or (and this is the very worst) falsely accusing me of something.

Combine both external and internal pressures and it’s a recipe for disaster for me.

First, my brain gets fuzzy and it’s hard to think or concentrate. Then things start to get blurry, visually. My visual focus becomes narrow and I stop being aware of things in my peripheral vision. Then I start to feel a pressure rise up in my body, from my core, up up up, tightening my chest on the way, until it reaches my eyes. When that pressure starts is when I know I need to get someplace where I can be alone. If I can, the impact on my life will be minimal. If I can’t, like if I’m at work and can’t get away, it’s catastrophic.

There’s always this one moment that’s the tipping point. Once that moment passes, there’s no going back. Have you ever slipped on icy ground and tried to right yourself, but had this moment where you knew it didn’t work and you were going down? That’s what it feels like.

Once the pressure reaches my eyes I start to cry. Uncontrollably. I shake. Sometimes I have an asthma attack. Often I vomit. There is no way I can coherently explain my thoughts. People witnessing it think I’m immature and trying to get attention. I’m not. The last thing I want is attention at that point.

Eventually the outward behaviors stop. I go home, if I wasn’t already there (and I am usually not at home when it happens, unless my MIL is visiting). If it happened at work, I then usually quit that job. Seriously. I quit. In those cases I feel like I can’t handle doing anything different. If I don’t quit, I inevitably get “let go” soon afterwards anyway.

And then outwardly, I can seem okay. I carry on with my life. I talk, smile, eat, do errands. But for months after a big one, I barely clean my house, keep in touch with anyone, or even keep up with my hobbies. I am just utterly exhausted.

I get called “emotionally unstable.” I’ve never been diagnosed with any psychiatric condition though. I talked to one doctor about it, and also one counselor, but those discussions went nowhere.

When I feel like a meltdown is coming on, I try to avoid it, but my methods of avoidance usually piss people off, like walking away when it’s not appropriate to do so or blurting out something that other people take the wrong way.

One time when I was with my family in a restaurant and there were various other circumstances surrounding the outing like having house guests and having to drive in a city I hated with a car full of people, I could feel it coming. I said to them, “I really need people to not talk to me right now.” I didn’t know how else to say it just then to explain the overstimulation I was feeling. Fortunately, my family understood and gave me space, but a stranger (who unfortunately was in my direct line of sight, otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed) overheard me and looked at my mom and rolled her eyes, as if to say, “Ugh, what a drama queen.” That just about killed me, emotionally speaking. I do not want to be that person. I said to my mom, who was next to me, “How else am I suppose to say it when I feel that way? How should I say it next time?” My mom replied, “It’s okay. It’s okay how you said it. I knew what you meant.”

I should probably mention that my mom has not always been like this. My mom used to have huge anger issues and mood swings, and when I was a kid she could be downright verbally, emotionally, and even spiritually abusive. But she has changed and grown and is like a different person now. And she’s read things I’ve asked her to read so she does understand my issues now. I know I am fortunate to have that support.

But other people. Obviously other people are not going to understand the motives behind my words, actions, and outward signs of imminent meltdown, let alone the meltdown itself. And the fact that other people judge me for them makes them, and the fallout from them, so very much worse.

I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to not have them. I talked to my counselor about it and he offered suggestions for coping strategies, but they don’t always work. Either I don’t have the presence of mind to implement them, or when I do, other people thwart the things I try to do to protect myself.

It’s not like I have these meltdowns all the time. They can range from once every two to five years or so. (My last one was in March 2014, the one before that was in September 2010.) During the times I can get away with staying out of the workforce and not having my mother-in-law as a house guest (no one pushes my sensory and emotional buttons like she does), they’re pretty much nonexistent. But when they happen, they have a life-altering impact.

For the most part, I like the way I am, Aspergian ways and all. If I truly have Asperger’s as I suspect, I wouldn’t want to change that, because I like my gifts and interests and I wouldn’t want to lose those. But one thing I would change is my tendency to have meltdowns. They are horrible, humiliating, and debilitating.

Perhaps if the world were different. Gentler, quieter, more accommodating and tolerant of differences. But changing the world is a lot to ask.