I shut down for about three hours on Saturday. I don’t know exactly what the triggers were this time – I do know things have been building up and getting on top of me lately. I’ve been feeling more insecure than usual and I’ve largely avoided making phone calls and other interaction with strangers. I don’t even know what the “final straw” was this time – one minute I was eating my breakfast; ten minutes later I was sitting, hunched over, rocking gently and staring into space.
I am almost completely non-verbal while shut down. I hear what’s going on around me but I can’t respond – words rush around my head but I can’t get them out of my mouth. It’s as if there’s a paralysis. I can’t write either – my fine motor coordination is affected too much for me to form the letters. In that state I feel like an observer in my own body – I’m stuck inside without much control – just along for the ride.
I can’t handle much stimulation while shut down – I will actively avoid loud noises, physical contact and bright or flashing lights if I can’t block them out. I prefer to be left alone in a quiet, darkened room until I come out of the state naturally. In fact, too much sensory input while I’m shut down can switch me into a meltdown. I avoid eye contact – I just stare blankly ahead or sometimes close my eyes, more so if I know I’m alone because I worry about being touched unexpectedly if somebody approaches me.
The best way to approach me when I’m shut down is to speak slowly and quietly in a soothing tone – the actual words don’t matter so much. Don’t get too close to me because that makes me uncomfortable, don’t shout and don’t sound aggressive – any of that will deepen and prolong the shutdown. A hug is usually the only contact I can handle – but if I stiffen up then I’m not receptive at that point in time. In general the best thing to do is be patient and wait for me to come out of it.
Prevention is better than a cure – so the proverb goes. How can a shutdown be prevented? Well, it’s a reaction to stress, so prevention is all about reducing or even avoiding stressful stimuli. What I find most stressful are unfamiliar social situations and forms of aggression or confrontation. But a shutdown often isn’t an immediate reaction to a particular event. It will be a combination of factors that build up over time – possibly even years – and can be triggered by something seemingly so trivial that I might not even be aware of what it was that pushed me over the edge.
This can be confusing for people around me who may not realise what is happening – that I have shut down – and try to interact with me without any response. I’ve had people accuse me of being ignorant or sulky – as if I have any control over shutting down and am just choosing not to speak to be awkward. I find that particularly insulting – just because I don’t have many obvious outward signs of the shutdown there is an assumption that I’m being deliberately uncommunicative. So let me say it again: I have no control over a shutdown. When it happens I am simply along for the ride, trapped inside until I get a measure of conscious control over my body again. How could anybody really think I’d shutdown if I had a choice? So please have a little patience and respect.