That Time You Were a Basket Case--Why meltdowns matter, and why you should listen to your whine
The band Green Day bestowed upon teenagers everywhere an invitation to rollick in their teenage tantrums when the album “Dookie” was released in 1994. I was only doing my part in the 90s grunge and alternative rock movement, when feeling my self-control coming to a grinding halt I would collapse onto the top of my baby blue bunk beds in my pocket of sweet suburbia and drown the chaos in my head with Billie Joe Armstrong crooning out “Basket Case” from my CD player.
Were we, I and my fellow flannel and Doc Martens-wearing cohorts, “just paranoid” or “just stoned”? Those questions needn’t be answered. We were kids with the freedom to give meltdowns and emotions that gave us the creeps the middle finger through the angsty art of shutting out the world. No further self-prodding was required. This act of defiance seemed not only both perfectly logical and acceptable, it actually worked for the next several years. I felt I survived many a meltdown with just the poetry of rock on my radio and a ceiling at which to stare.
And at 40, in plain view of middle age, I envy the teenager. I want to slam my door and blare my music. But, it seems that at a certain point in life, one can no longer escape the meltdown.
I have a fondness for denial, a trait I didn’t realize I had until adulthood finally slapped me in the face. Being a late bloomer, this epiphany took a while to reveal itself, and when it did, my reasons for solitary confinement all those years before came to light. Turns out, I was never surviving a meltdown. I was avoiding it, and everything it carried, entirely.
Recently, I had a conversation with a friend about some life changes I’m experiencing. I didn’t deny the struggles, but I did deny that it was worth making a big deal over.
Friend: “I’m so sorry. That sounds like so much to deal with.”
Me: “Oh, I’ll be okay. It’s nothing.”
When all the while it’s everything.
It’s one thing to own up to stress. It’s another thing entirely to deny its magnitude. And I have found that after twenty years of saying, “It’s nothing,” I haven’t fooled anyone but myself.
So ask this: Why are we hesitant to give meltdowns their appropriate respect in our sanity?
There is a Japanese practice, "hara hachi bu," in which before a meal, a prayer is sent up that one will have the self-control to stop eating when they are 80 percent full. The Okinawan people are some of the longest lived and healthiest on the planet, and all because they listen to their bodies and respect what their bodies tell them.
I’ve written before about my struggle with people pleasing, how I find my passive aggressiveness quite lame, and that I am learning from my cooler and more posh and assertive contemporaries on how to speak my truth. One thing these assertive pros have in common is that they listen to their inner voice. When something is too much, they don’t force it to fit where it can’t. They respect their sanity. This doesn’t mean they never melt down. But when the meltdown hits, they get to the root of the problem quicker. They break through the chaos and discover that the meltdown is actually concealing something. To them, the meltdown is like a melodramatic homing pigeon delivering a message: “Your job isn’t challenging you,” “You’re lonely,” “You’re with the wrong person,” etc.
I envy their poise to stop and listen. But didn’t I know this secret before?
After studying tantrums in my children for 12 years, I know that the problem isn’t always staring me in the face. Their drama is due to something grittier--third grade math makes them feel dumb, or I’m gone too much lately and they miss me, or someone is teasing them at school. And I will poke and prod like a true detective to get to the root of their anguish. But when it comes to my own, I take it at face value because “I’ll be okay. It’s nothing.”
I continue to avoid saying none of it is “okay,” and furthermore, it isn’t just nothing, there’s a problem hidden that I could find if only I made it into something.
I’m a visual person. I see images when I listen to music. I picture words on pages as I think about them while I’m driving. And when I melt down, I visualize myself in a stark room, clutching my deepest desires, my children’s dreams, the peace I long for, and all around me are tall, towering trees breaking through the walls. From their branches hang everything threatening--grief over the loss of my father, commitments, faces of those I put first, bills, laundry, clutter. They consume me and I close my eyes tight, longing for that top bunk back home. I felt safe there, but I never fully addressed my meltdowns there either.
What if I got up and walked through that very dark place I visualize? What if I willingly hit the ground walking and absorbed the darkness I fear? What if the pain of the meltdown served a greater purpose, revealing feelings I have to face and showing me that I have to swing from the terrifying branches of those feelings so that I can make it to the other side? In doing so, maybe I’ll realize that I was never grasping to control. I was grasping to understand--to understand what and why. Without those answers, I’ll always deny the meltdown and never actually survive it.
Having a meltdown doesn’t mean we’re crazy, incapable, or weak. It just means that we’re facing some serious demons. Its fire is searing and it intends to defeat. It’s a test of our strength, and we only fail if we deny its existence.
I know enough to know that I’m not a kid anymore. I can’t climb onto my top bunk, blare my music, scribble in my diary, and skip dinner. I have problems that I can’t shut out. And I think respecting my sanity means it actually deserves a legitimate meltdown--one that is noisy, disruptive, and more metal than the most amplified guitar solo, and a meltdown worth body surfing, landing me center stage where I face the harsh lights of my reality.
So here goes: I’m not okay. I still miss my father so much that the rest of my life seems long in the worst possible way. In the last several months I have been handed too much change associated with his loss. It’s drowning me and I can’t swim fast enough to keep up. And what I am most afraid of is what accepting it all actually means for the future. I have to learn to love this new life, but I won’t if I don’t listen to the melody of my meltdown.
What’s your meltdown trying to teach you?
Respect your sanity enough to make a big deal of it, listen to your inner voice, and experience each feeling with acuteness, even if they take you through that dark place you fear.
For when you come out, and I promise we both will, there’ll be Green Day, waiting.
Originally published in New Orleans Magazine online.