Let’s talk about the really hard moments. The ones that feel like the end of the world. The ones where everything is not ok and it’s difficult to see if it ever will be. The ones where emotions are way past the breaking point. Where triggers become a bid for survival. Where a chain reaction of needs and personalities leads to nuclear explosions. The ones where everyone coming out of this alive feels like an impossible goal.
It may sound like an exaggeration, but I know we’ve all been there. In that moment where everything is intensified and your mind and body are acting as if this is in fact a life or death situation. Where you are so triggered that there’s no way to stay present or connected. No way to maintain relationship. No way to draw out some extra patience or calm or stability. No amount of deep breaths or anything else is enough to regulated THIS…
It started when the movie ended at the drive-in. Of course, who’s to say that’s really when it started, when there is so much that comes together to lead to a single moment in time. But the transition to leaving didn’t happen fast enough. Everything coming back together in the car didn’t happen soon enough. Kids in each other’s personal space. Tired. Hungry. Bored. No room for error here. For less than perfect. That’s what the nervous system of autism needs sometimes. For everything to go exactly as desired. So sensitive to the slightest detail out of place. No capacity left for the smallest thing to go wrong. No margin of error for the unexpected.
And for an 8-year-old who’s still learning about herself and what she needs, this isn’t a moment of self-reflection or awareness of reality. This is the end. Her brain cannot adapt to a sudden influx of needs that went unacknowledged during the movie. To a car arrangement that isn’t back in place yet. To a sister that’s in the way of her getting into her seat. To things not being where she wants them to be. To a sister reacting back to her reaction. To a tablet not charging fast enough to turn on right away. To the loudness of her own and her sister’s voices. To feelings of complete helplessness.
Way beyond the point of dysregulated now. Screaming. Thrashing. Lashing out. “YOU STUPID PERSON YOU CAN’T EVEN EXIST YOU’RE BANNED FROM THE WORLD YOU’RE NOT MY FAMILY ANYMORE I’M KILLING YOU YOU STUPID TRASH MONSTER I’M THROWING YOU IN THE GARBAGE…” The type of words that come out as this is all she has left to try and express what she’s feeling. To try and somehow make things ok in her brain again. To try and get what she needs most right now. To try and live through this moment.
And for a 30-year-old mom who’s still learning about herself and what she needs, this isn’t a moment of self-reflection or awareness of reality. This is the end. My brain cannot adapt to this sudden change in mood and environment. To the inability of kids to wait a minute for things to be back in order. To the loudness of the screaming. To the kids setting each other off. To everything not being ready fast enough to leave. To feeling trapped in a car when everything in me wants to run away from here. To her tablet not charging fast enough to turn on and help her regulate. To her unbuckling on the highway. To kids hurting each other. To loss of fun and ease. To feelings of complete helplessness.
When triggers meet triggers. When highly sensitive meets highly sensitive. When autism meets autism. When needs meet needs. When feelings meet feelings. When stress meets stress. When dysregulated meets dysregulated.
This moment, is where relationships die. None of it seems to matter anymore. Each of us stuck on a singular focus. Whatever our brains have decided is the only way of surviving this. For her it’s the tablet. The one thing that can bring her nervous system back to homeostasis. For me it’s getting home. The one thing that can bring MY nervous system back to homeostasis. These two dire needs, in conflict because they seem to go against each other.
The tablet won’t turn on. Not charging as fast as usual. Requires troubleshooting. Taking off her seatbelt so we’ll stop and help. Yelling at us. Yelling at her sister. Both hurting each other. Through her screams and kicks, every cell in her body freaking the hell out as it tries to get the one thing it knows will make this better.
This isn’t getting us home. I feel trapped. Trying to shut myself down to avoid the rage that wants to do whatever it can to make the screaming stop. The part of me that wants to do exactly what she’s doing too. The car isn’t moving. We can’t go. We can’t get home. I can’t get out of here. Yelling at her to stop and put her seatbelt on. Unable to hold in all of the steam bubbling up in me. Every cell in my body freaking the hell out as it tries to get the one thing it knows will make this better.
A moment of recognition. Even in the midst of it all, thankful for my husband’s own coping mechanism that allows him to flip a switch and become whatever is needed of him in that moment. He does everything he can to diffuse the tension. Empathy, listening, humor, kindness… He gets the tablet working. He gets us home. His needs set aside for the urgency of the moment. Even though internally I know he feels very much the same as the rest of us.
By the time we make it back, she’s regulated again. The tablet worked. Accomplished its goal. She can speak again. She can breathe. She can exist. She’s ok. She’s back. And I am not. But now that my mind has entered the safety of home, it can get to work in bringing me back down. I feel it jump from thought to thought, trying to solve this problem. Trying to figure out what will make this better. Trying to decide the best course of action for keeping this from happening again. Trying to make life ok again.
The only relief I find is in disappearing into sleep. There’s no regulating tonight. No unclenching of muscles and no restoring of relationship. Tonight is only making it through. A part of me knowing it will be better tomorrow, even if I don’t believe it right now. So to sleep I go. Not caring what else is happening. Because this, my brain understands, is the path to being ok.
And as I write this, it’s the next morning. I feel better now, if not completely. The aftermath is a bitch. The self-shame of things said and ways handled. Muscles still tight. Breathing still shallow. Not fully regulated yet, but at least hopeful again. The same feelings as recovering from a trauma. Because that’s what these moments are really. The small in the grand scheme of things traumas that are all-consuming at the time.
Any trauma, whether it’s judged big or small, deserves recovery. It requires reintegration. It needs healing. It asks for reconnection and restoration. It resolves to come back to a new level of equilibrium. Everything making it’s way back into flow. Pieces coming together through apology and recognition. Through making sense of what happened and providing a way forward. This is the process of realignment.
Hard moments happen. And sometimes there is no way to keep connected through them. When it comes down to a fight for survival on a neurobiological level, survival may just be all that’s possible. So survive. Minimize the damage as well as you can. Use whatever coping skills you have. And get through it. There is hope and healing and space for whatever comes beyond survival on the other side. And on the other side is where the most difference can be made anyways. Because when you’re regulated again and you have room to breathe, you have all the power in the world to integrate this experience with connection, understanding, and a wholeness that will carry your family back into coexistence together. Into life. Into relationship. Into togetherness. Into peace.