When I shut down, it is like I am becoming ill with the flu. I feel achy, extremely tired, I need to be in a quiet dark room immediately, my executive functioning stops, my body becomes frozen/very still, and communication becomes difficult or non-existent. If this happens when I am out of the house (which is the usual way of things), then I need to get a taxi home immediately and actually need somebody else to call that taxi for me and pay for it if I don’t have any money on me. Shutdown completely disables me.
There are stages leading up to shutdown where my movements become slow, I struggle making basic decisions, and I sit and stare at inanimate objects as I try to muster up the energy to get myself into a safe space.
When I shutdown it usually relates to one of three things: too much sensory input; too much continuous social input with no breaks/stressful social input (conflict, confusion, miscommunication); or a change in routine/change in general (new places, people, lots of new information). I also relate to ‘the spoon theory’ with regards this– sometimes overload can accumulate and carry over to the next day.
When I shutdown (because input for the week/day/hour/minute has been too high) it is my body’s way of being resilient. Shutdown is physiological and innate. It is not chosen. It is not a reaction to stress which can go away with the right ‘tools’. I know this because nowadays I feel lots more confident in my ability to think through problems and find solutions to common mental health problems and stress, but, nevertheless, ‘shutdown’ occurs a few times a month.
What shutdown isn’t:
- a sign that I have had an easy life – I have had lots of big stresses in my life (dealing with homelessness, abuse, and losing my entire family, for starters)– my shutdowns do not make me ‘sheltered’
- a sign that I need to learn more ‘techniques’ or ‘cant handle stress’– a suggestion I often find quite offensive as I am one of the most skilled people I know at using the tools, techniques and resources at my disposal. My life is stressful not because I ‘can’t handle it’ but because I was born with a sensitive system into an period of history and location where sensory and social input are extremely noisy and demanding. I am probably better at handling stress than most people without my neurology, because I do it every single day to a very high standard.
- Post-traumatic dissociation – this happens to me too, but is different in quality (is often accompanied by self-harming thoughts, and is more of a panic-stricken freeze than an exhausted shut down)
What shutdown is:
- a sign that I am autistic, and that life is sometimes just overwhelming and difficult for me. When I shutdown, this is my brain enforcing a break, catching me up, giving me time out, or whatever. It also signals that I might need help from others.
- a coping technique in itself. If I didn’t shut down my body would continue being hyper-stimulated and the results would not be good. It is a natural coping technique. In the past, when I have tried to over-ride nature, these shut downs have insisted so hard that I have become mentally unwell – I have ended up locking myself in, talking rubbish, pissing myself, not washing, getting paranoid, confused (in short, going completely bonkers). Shutdowns can prevent these episodes.
- a sign that I am connected to my body enough to know that enough is enough (a connection that I have worked hard for as a survivor of abuse) – especially when I am able to predict a shutdown coming on before it has hit by taking notice of the bodily signs (this is a skill I am building and means I am more often able to get into a safe place — but it doesn’t stop it actually happening).
In conclusion, when things become too much and I shut down it is because my body is demanding well deserved and necessary rest. It doesn’t make me weak, it doesn’t make me in need of a ‘mindfulness course’, or resilience training, it doesn’t mean I must be sheltered or vulnerable, it means I’m autistic. Realising this has changed my life forever: it has been the best anti-depressant and anti-psychotic a person could wish for. Knowing my limits and allowing my natural lock-down to take its course has been all I needed to mediate some horrendous mental health difficulties that I was facing. Shutdown is resilience for me.