Toxic Smoke Meltdown

Some days, being an adult is near impossible. Yesterday was one of those days.

I am naturally more introverted than extroverted, which means that in order to replenish my energy I need to be away from crowds, people, noise. Truthfully, I need to be at home. I can recharge away from home (in a hotel room while I’m traveling for work, for example), but it’s not ideal. It’s best to be in my own space with my dog, surrounded by my own things, with access to food I like to eat. That last one is especially important.

So the holidays have the potential to be a time of great soul-suck. In fact, I essentially opted out of holidays several years ago. Our family is fairly like-minded about this. All the running around, the pressure to be places—it seems antithetical to the whole point. What value is there in “togetherness” if you resent everyone you’re trying to be together with because the whole ordeal is so stressful?

A few years ago, I went to the suburbs with my boyfriend at the time to spend Christmas with his family. He wasn’t particularly emotionally aware, which created no space to discuss that I had any feelings other than joy and excitement. Every step was a buildup to the inevitable: a breakdown of some kind.

I think the main trick to living with a mental disorder (and a problem with sensory, to boot… or maybe just being an adult, period) is to know your triggers so that you may avoid them, to create a wide margin for yourself, and to implement every coping mechanism you can. That and sleep. There is just no substitute for sleep, and few things will destroy your mental state like a lack of it.

As is wont to happen when I get all, “Whatever, I’m just going to be normal and normal people do this kind of stuff all the time, IT’S FINE”, I had a meltdown. Except I was raised by my mother who was raised by her father and we all share the same blood that runs so thick with Irish Stoicism that I assume when I have children and am in labor I will try and convince people that I’m good, nothing to see here.

I'm just stepping over here to take a picture of these trains, not to choke back sobs, it's fine

I’m just stepping over here to take a picture of these trains, not to choke back sobs, it’s fine

We were at a bowling alley and I was having one of the worst panic attacks of my adult life when I should have been enjoying myself. My oldest sister has panic attacks, too—more than I ever have, in fact—except she gets wild-eyed and feral and gets.the.fuck.out. of wherever she is.

Doesn’t matter the consequences, doesn’t matter if people think she’s a weirdo, SHE GONE. I have seen that look in her eyes many times, and she passed those same same fearful wide eyes to her oldest son.

I am not immune to fleeing, but usually it’s in a situation where I have control. We have previously discussed my shopping shenanigans. I sometimes leave full carts of food in grocery stores and sometimes I do it in other stores. I have sustained serious financial pain to cancel entire vacations. When that signal in my brain says, nopenopenope NOPENOPENOPE NOPENOPENOPE NOPENOPENOPE, I take heed.

That is its way of telling me, “listen, you go ahead and do whatever you want, but be prepared for the fallout.” The fallout is almost never worth it, and usually if I keep on pushing through, the deferred fallout is even worse.

I don’t remember a whole lot about that night in the bowling alley around the holidays, or about the entire visit. I remember being along a back wall on a row of empty chairs on the phone with my mother, begging her to pray over me because I was considering taking the dog and walking the hundred-and-fifty miles home. Sadly, well-meaning people who are having a good time tend to make panic worse because the self-loathing produced from not being able to just pull yourself together and also have fun is staggering. So that’s what I remember from that night—fighting tears and hating myself and my mother’s gentle tongue telling Jesus that I really needed some help here. I barely remember the rest of the trip. I’m certain his family was kind to me, and I was probably a vapid wasteland shell of a house guest. I’m charming like that, you should totally have me over.

That was one of two times that I have ever gone and stayed with someone else’s family for the holidays. The only other time was with my high school boyfriend whose parents’ house was so large that I could disappear from everyone for hours. Plus his family was small and consisted of four introverts, and everyone was cool just being in the same space. I remember his mother made a huge batch of sugar cookies for me to make me feel at home, and there was a note next to them because we may not run into each other in the massive house, and she wanted to be sure I knew they were for me and to eat as many as I wanted.

Only the introverted folks reading this will understand that a batch of cookies with a note from someone and no required interpersonal interaction is among the best Christmas gifts you can give to an introvert.

Joe and I communicate through cookies, too.

Joe and I communicate through cookies, too.

This year, I traveled for most of the month of December. There were work obligations, friends and family, time with Em. It was a hectic month. By the time Christmas rolled around, my brain was prepared for downtime. I have spent the past several years quietly reflecting at Christmastime. After Jason died, I usually went to see my mom for a bit, or just stayed at home alone and talked to her for a long time on the phone. I also sometimes talked to my Aunt Cathie, an introvert to the extreme. She died earlier this year, and my mom died last year, and everything about the holidays this year just felt off.

Grief makes the holidays—like everything else—very complex. It is especially challenging to be “on” when you have very little emotional bandwidth because it’s all being sucked up by grief. Not to mention, both Em and I were feeling physically ill (I went to bed at 6:45 the night before Christmas eve), so even getting out of the house was difficult.

I’ll save the story of this year’s Christmas for another time, but it was draining. I feel guilty even typing that, but such is the burden of a person with bipolar II, sensory processing disorder, and a lifetime supply of personal grief: it can be draining to be around warm, wonderful people who are genuinely interested in you and who care about you. This is true of even my own family. I identify with self-centered TV characters like Carrie Mathison whose families and friends are loving and patient even when she’s necessarily a self-absorbed turd. Sometimes I have no control over it, and I have no choice but to be a self-absorbed turd. This is not my favorite thing about myself. But I am lucky to have a wonderfully supportive partner, a great family and friends, and Jason’s family was a crucial part of my survival this year.

We did manage to steal some quiet time away, an opportunity I seized for sobbing.

Em and I did manage to steal some quiet time away, an opportunity I seized for sobbing.

With the entire month of December being packed with travel and the holidays being exhausting and social engagements all the way up until Friday night, I was simply done by the time Saturday rolled around. If it weren’t for desperately needing a haircut, I would have stayed in all weekend, and maybe the entire month of January. It’s not too late for January. If we are friends, don’t be surprised if you don’t see me again until February.

We had a leisurely weekend, binge-watching a favorite show, eating, lazing. We’ve both been feeling rundown from all the running around, and it was good to just relax. Aside from unwittingly falling back to sleep and missing church, it was a regret-free couple of days…until Sunday afternoon.

We often spend Sunday evenings apart. He has something of a small group, and I like to take the time to prepare for the week ahead. One of my coping mechanisms is to make food for myself in advance so that I do not get overwhelmed in the moment and either:

  • skip eating altogether [which is especially terrible for the chemically imbalanced among us]
  • eat a bunch of sugar
  • buy All the Food from Taco Bell

So usually I prepare food on Sundays. Sometimes Em helps, sometimes he doesn’t. It depends on what I’m making. As you might’ve guessed, I’m particular. For example, I don’t just crave “spaghetti”. I crave spaghetti in the very specific way that I make it. He is willing and able to do things in a very specific way to please me, and I sometimes let him. But there are other times when it makes me feel better to just do it myself because I don’t love to impose my picky ways onto other people.

Yesterday, I decided to roast a chicken. I was thinking that I had done it before. I hadn’t.

I looked up the recipe, got everything together, and was feeling pretty good. Em asked me one last time as he kissed me goodbye if I was absolutely sure I did not want him to roast the chicken. He’s roasted chickens, knows how, is good at it.

Nah, I got this! I said, with a fool’s confidence.

And I did, in fact, have it. The chicken roasting went mostly okay. The hot oven burned the drippings and made my apartment a little smoky, but that was nothing that couldn’t be fixed with open windows for a few minutes. And I dumped a little water in the pan to solve the problem, which was mostly okay except for the steam burn on my face. Protip: don’t lead with your stupid, bare face when you open a 450° oven.

After the chicken was done, I took it out of the oven and put it on the cutting board to rest, just like the directions said. Success!

Then I decided I should use the self-cleaning function on my oven because it was getting pretty gross. This is where things turned sharply south.

As I let the oven do its thing, I went to another area in my apartment to clean, so I did not immediately notice the toxin-laced smoke filling the kitchen, dining room, living room. The self-cleaning function gets the oven extremely hot, and the scorching smoke fumes escaping from the oven melted the plastic parts on my tea kettle which created a fantastic combination of super healthy things like carbon monoxide from all the pizza droppings in the oven and whatever toxic fumes are emitted from burning, melting plastic.

Also, the apartment filled up with this stuff really fast. Not wanting to die or kill my dog, I quickly shut off the oven, opened the apartment windows and door, tossed on a coat over my leggings and t-shirt, slipped into some boots, and got us both outside. Except I had no idea it was frigid outside and there was no way we could go back into the apartment. Joe and I and her bum paw(s) took a six block walk which probably should have been one block, given the cold. Ah, hindsight.

We texted Em about all the perils of life, about how nothing ever goes right and everything is always awful and I might as well toss myself into the dumpster. I did the texting. Joseph shared the sentiment.

We finally got back to the apartment, legs numb from too-thin leggings, and burning cold red hands clutching a bag of poop. The apartment was still in bad shape, so I figured we would sit in the car and wait it out. Sure, I could have gone any number of places, including straight to Em’s place to stay the night. But, like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, I had rigid plans for the rest of the afternoon and evening. Wopner’s on at four.

One of the tells that indicates that I am near a meltdown is that I get really, really, really angry. The angrier I am, the more unwieldy the meltdown is likely to be. Maybe the anger is part of the meltdown, but usually I consider the hysterical tears, wailing, and slobbering The Meltdown.

Sometimes I get so mad that I mumble to myself and cuss at inanimate objects. Note that my anger doesn’t manifest in aggressive behavior—I might be a little bitchy to the folks around me, but usually it’s reserved for electronics, doors, and small items like shoes that I can violently shove into a closet. By the time we got back to the apartment, I was red-hot pissed. The dog who had been having trouble walking was magically transformed into an epic tool by the Beagle Nose that insisted she yank on her leash with every pound of her 60-lb frame so that she could sniff THIS! and THIS! and THAT! and OMGTHIS!

I'm working on engineering an all-spaghetti leash to keep her focused on the task at hand.

I’m working on engineering an all-spaghetti leash to keep her focused on the task at hand.

I stepped inside so I could burst into tears and run my hands under semi-warm water to alleviate the miserable cold. I could barely unbuckle the gentle leader that we use on walks, my hands were so numb. When we went back outside, I thought it would be fine to have her off-leash while we walked to the parking lot to get in the car. Except a couple across the street was walking in from their car, and of course the dog who has had back surgery and whose paws have been bothering her and who is completely pitiful indoors bolted across the street to greet them.

I cannot speak to the instincts of parents of human babies. But the dog parent’s instinct is to throw aside their dignity and do whatever it takes to protect their dog. Often, that means running after your dog, yelling your fool head off. It is automatic, there is no thought process. Instinctively, I immediately took off running, frozen tears still streaming down my cheeks, hoarse voice shouting, “HEEEEYYYY!!!”, poopbag flopping at my side. The neighbors tried to be amiable, but I was too embarrassed in my leggings and rainboots, unkempt hair and tear-stained face. I kept my head down and muttered apologies while I grabbed her collar.

We went solemnly to the parking lot. I sternly put Jos in the car, and went to throw the poopbag into the dumpster. My melted teapot was still emitting fumes from the pile of garbage bags atop which it lay.

When I got into the car, I yelled at the dog, GET.in.the.BACK! because that makes complete sense. She has the ability to reason.

And then I lost it.

I knew Em was on his way and that he would figure out how to help somehow, whatever that would entail. He had gone to several places looking for a box fan, but apparently those are hard to come by in December in Illinois. Weird.

It is my opinion that one of the purposes of having a partner in life is to share in unpleasant Life Tasks together. You should find someone who you can be with at your worst, or when circumstances are at their worst, and whose company you can still enjoy.

If you are young and do not yet have children (or pets), look at your partner and ask yourself if you want to get up at 3am with them to clean up vomit or diarrhea.

Does this person support you when things are really tough?

Are they able to see outside their own immediate needs and wants to be good to you when you need it, when you are melting down, even over things that are not warranted? Can they help you through it without demeaning you or minimizing your feelings? And can they do it without putting you on a pedestal?*

Can you envision yourself at your grossest and most miserable and still willing to talk about it with this person? Em once bought me four different kinds of laxatives and two types of hemorrhoid cream all in one shopping trip…because I am a disgusting human being with a disgusting human being body.

Equally important is whether you can also imagine yourself joyfully doing these things for that person. Or maybe not joyfully, but at least without resentment. Many of my relationships have been marked with the kiss of death when I realized I had no desire to take care of the person I was dating in any real way if it was in any way inconvenient for me.

Can you sustain real, gritty grief with this person? When your mother and father die, will your partner know what to say or know when not to say anything and to just hold you instead, or will they at least be willing to try and give you what you need? When you have to bury pets, or—God forbid—one of your own children, is s/he the person you want holding your hand and consoling you in the middle of the night?

By the time Em arrived, the apartment was closer to being cleared out, and I was no longer choking and sputtering sobs in my car. He came in, took me by the shoulders, looked me in the eyes, pulled me in for a hug, then looked at me again and assured me that it would be okay. Then he got to work solving whatever he could for me. The roast chicken had survived the ordeal, so he carved it for me, and then we sat together on the couch so I could cry some more. Again, I am very charming.

eventually, I was even able to eat the roast chicken, relax, and watch Judge Wopner.

Eventually, I was even able to eat the roast chicken, relax, and watch Judge Wopner.

*Maybe some people like this, but nothing makes me more nauseous than being put on a pedestal. It’s a surefire way to get me to walk all over you because it immediately usurps any respect I may have had.

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