Coping with temporary chaos/clutter without meltdowns
June 26, 2022 11:13 PM   Subscribe

I have what I suspect is a meltdown whenever my environment is too visually overwhelming/disorganized/chaotic. Please help me figure out how to control this or how to accept it and work around it.

We are painting the kitchen. All the cabinet doors have been off the hinges for a few weeks now. Then this weekend we were actually painting them, so they have been spread out all over a couple rooms of the house.

I just finished going off on my husband because he asked me to do something nicely. He's spent the whole weekend painting for me, and he didn't care about changing the color of the cabinets. He's done it all just because I wanted them different. It took a bit to realize that this was the manifestation of a meltdown but it was.

It's like I used up all the willpower I had to stop myself from acting out from my visceral discomfort earlier in the day. (If I try hard enough I can find something that he does or did that bothers me like most of us can about our partners, but this event was really a consequence of a meltdown moment. I just lost the mask I had been using to contain all my stress about the mess and the rage came out. I've been having moments like this all weekend with everyone in my family.)

I suspect I am autistic but cannot get an evaluation for a few months. I

A few weeks ago I was super cranky and impatient and as soon as my husband finished tidying a junky room everything was right as rain. It wasn't my room or my stuff but he had taken everything out of the closets looking for something and it was like bleach on my eyeballs just walking by.

This happens even when I know that it's temporary, or it's not my stuff that's at issue - all the stuff I would say to myself as a cognitive behavioral reframe does jack shit to help.

I have other situations where a "meltdown" presents as very sudden anger/aggression. Two people talking to me at once, I've got very little space for that situation before it pushes me over the edge. The driver's side car door being left open and causing it to ding, since I was a teenager that will quickly fill me with rage. (Pretty sure I angrily flung the keys of a friend's car more than once because I could reach the keys but not the open door and needed to stop that sound urgently enough to cross a friend's boundaries like that.)

There will be more weekends needing home projects, times when the environment needs to be chaotic temporarily. Or a hypothetical scenario where I'm out of commission myself temporarily: my partner is willing to clean and tidy but doesn't see any of it like I do, so I would have to live in a fairly overwhelming environment in that scenario because nobody can reasonably expect to dictate how tidy the space is if someone is already taking care of them. And eventually my child will be a teenager. I've got to get a handle on this reaction to overwhelming visual environments.

I need to figure out how to deal with being in an overwhelming space without having the emotional response that I have. It is embarrassing to not be able to control this better. Sometimes I can control how it comes out - I can turn it into quiet weeping and shutting down instead of active angry energy - but I'd like to be able to handle a minor weekend renovation project without all this emotional turmoil. I'd like to respond to these sensory overwhelm situations without hurting people that I love also.

(Side note: I've wondered aloud to more than one therapist whether I have OCD or even OCPD. Nobody has picked that idea up to really talk about it in earnest. But my need for the environment to be orderly is not normal and my rigidity about it also isn't normal. I added that OCD tag as a question I've asked of myself, not as flippant use of the term.)
posted by crunchy potato to Health & Fitness (17 answers total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
I'm so sorry. This sounds super hard.
I'm going through a process of realising that I am probably autistic.
It's a big deal in itself to work through that, and on top of that having to deal with such a lot of chaos in your most private living space.

That amount of disruption and unpredictability is profoundly disturbing. It's not surprising that you have been struggling. Especially if you are still figuring out how to relate to this aspect of yourself. Should you try to hide it, how much understanding can you expect of the people around you, all that stuff.

You've probably spent most of your life trying to tough it out, hiding your true reactions to things you find profoundly uncomfortable, and judging yourself both for doing the things you find soothing (eg needing to withdraw, or avoiding certain sounds ) and for the inevitable melt down moments when you have just had too much.

I would lean heavily on those things I've discovered work to soothe and reset me. You will probably have to explain to your partner that you need some extra self care time, or space to withdraw.

Maybe you need noise cancelling headphones, or a room you can withdraw to, or no social engagements for a bit. Whatever will take the pressure off.

This is not something you can overcome with willpower or force or harsh self judgement. You are discovering how to look after yourself and what your real needs are.
posted by Zumbador at 12:24 AM on June 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

I struggle with this, too. In my case at least, I don’t think it’s OCD; it’s just sensory overload, too many things at once, vying for my attention. That depletes my energy and emotional impulse control. What I’ve found to help is to either decrease the sensory input (go to a calmer place, close my eyes, wear earmuffs) in the moment or try to increase my distress tolerance (take my ADHD meds that give me just a little space between stimulus and response that makes it easier to not melt down, try to get adequate sleep, those two are the biggest factors for me). This is hard, I wish we could just turn off the sensitivity some times.
posted by meijusa at 2:27 AM on June 27, 2022 [6 favorites]

Just point of order that I'm like this, but I do NOT think I am autistic - there are too many other factors against. So I first just wanted to note for the record that "not liking visual chaos" is not necessarily all on its own a sign of possible autism - it might also be a more simple "I just like not having to go on a four-minute hunt for the damn frying pan when I'm hungry" or whatever.

Does your family know that this is something that gets to you? It may be worth a discussion with them in a calmer moment that "this isn't about you, this is just that all this is making me nuts" or whatever. At the very least, that's good information for them to have so they know you don't hate their guts or something; but maybe, they can also help you brainstorm ways to cope with lessening the chaos. Like, maybe if he's cleaning out a closet he can time things so that he does it when you're out of the house at the grocery store, so you don't see stuff all over the place. Or he can give you a heads-up that "yo, I need to re-sort the box of Christmas decorations, you may wanna stay out of the basement a couple hours." Or something like that, you know?

I would also speak with someone about the degree of your emotional response - they may have other coping techniques. But - I also think that there are small ways that your husband could help you as well. He's still gotta be able to DO stuff, of course, but giving you a heads-up that "I'm gonna be making a mess, it'll be in this room, you may wanna stay away for a couple hours" is more than do-able.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 4:00 AM on June 27, 2022 [6 favorites]

How are you doing on space vs. stuff? And who is leaving stuff out? Do you do it too, and then get frustrated with yourself as well?
posted by snuffleupagus at 4:42 AM on June 27, 2022

Oh man, I am like this too. Things that help me (that aren’t necessarily changing me, because I think this is more character trait than thing that can be changed).
1. Having those around me, especially in my home know that it’s a thing. It’s easier for them if they understand that I’m not going crazy for nothing, but because there’s been the proverbial rock in my shoe all that that I’ve been dealing with
2. Have I gotten enough sleep/water/food/exercise/outdoor time? Those help to mitigate and manage big emotions for me
3. Having doors. Even pre COVID I HATED an open floor plan. Being able to close a door or focus on one room that is clean/tidy helps a lot.
4. My husband and I sleep in separate rooms because I’m an early bird and he’s a night owl who snores. The other advantage is that my room is a little quiet, calm sanctuary. There are no compromises and if it’s dirty that’s entirely my fault and within my control to change too.
(Oh and others peoples crap left all over us even worse for me because I have no control over it- or at least the rational side of me realizes that I can’t be so upset about it when I also have left things out.
posted by raccoon409 at 5:04 AM on June 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

Have you been tested for ADHD? I have it and also have reactions very similar to yours. Sensory overload is not just about sounds & lights. Medication (Strattera) has helped immensely.
posted by i_mean_come_on_now at 6:05 AM on June 27, 2022 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Mess and noise make me feel absolutely bonkers! (My self-assessment is that I'm not autistic but I am somewhat closer to the spectrum than most non-autistic people - like "on the spectrum to the spectrum" if that makes sense - and I definitely think I have ADHD.) I cannot think at all if there's an annoying noise, and I cannot focus in clutter and feel anxious, irritable, and viscerally unhappy if I can see, hear, or feel something annoying.

My tips:

I keep a few queen-sized white or pale, calm-looking bedsheets ($6 at the thrift shop) and toss them over piles of mess to calm the visual clutter.

I buy everything in white. So if I have a shelf with baskets, it's all white. That way things kind of blend into one object. A shelf like this with lots of colours, contrasts, and alternating patterns would keep drawing my eye to all that visual clutter. A shelf like this with all white, consistent patterns, and things hidden in boxes looks calming to me. So I try to do this buy buying all storage items in white, and getting things with doors, and keeping the horizontal surfaces (top of dresser, table, coffee table, etc) clear.

I always tidy up one room - or at least what I can see in my eyeline - to create one calm place to sit / work / relax.

I wear gloves when handling anything messy / damp / unpleasant

I wear foam earplugs or giant noise earmuffs (the kind meant for shooting ranges) to muffle bad sound. I keep foam earplugs in my wallet, backpack, car, etc. Use the peachy coloured ones cut in half, for public places where earplugs aren't permitted - when they're cut to half their length, you can jam them pretty deep into your ear so others won't see them - I had a boss with a super annoying voice so I wore them at work, and once I was on a first date and the person was delightful but SO LOUD, so I popped the half-earplugs in (and didn't pursue a second date lol)

For smells, I open windows a lot, run an air fliter or fan, or use a drop of essential oil (on something removeable!)

When I know I'll have to be in a chaotic environment, I'm more careful about lessening other things that make me unhappy - I'll be sure to wear comfy clothes and shoes, eat/drink enough, shower more, and use the bathroom often enough. Sometimes a mild feeling of having to go to the bathroom won't really register with me consciously but it does massively up my irritability. Ditto the feeling of greasy hair or stinky pits or uncomfortable shoes - they make me more irritable.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 7:09 AM on June 27, 2022 [17 favorites]

What helps me when i feel completely overwhelmed by clutter and chaos is to sort the items as much as practical. Eg i might re-sort the content of the door-less cabinets as meticulous as possible. (I assume they are now in boxes? Or perhaps in the cabinets, either way i would Just rearrange them simply to calm myself) Arrange not just by type of item (eg all plates, or all glasses or spices or whatever is in the cabinets but arrange by size, colour, shape etc. This activity both occupies my mind and soothes me.

Is it feasable to have the doors only in one room?
I might also sort the tools, brushes, paint etc.
The screws needed to re-hang them (eg when dismantling furniture my ex used to just throw all screws into one plastc bin. I would the sort them, eg by cabinets etc) simply to calm myself.

Last week i felt totally overwhelmed by a project i started and because my apartment is small i ended up soothing myself by sorting the content of the two tool boxes: all the screws by size and kind (torx and philips), all screwdrivers , etc. I also cleaned them out etc and i calmed down doing that. Just the satisfaction of the two tool boxes now being immaculate. Then i started on the various wooden parts of the project, arranging them in order and how they will be needed. All this took many hours, and my mind temporarily off the temporary chaos.

Anyway, my point is, sorting and tidying a small segment of the big chaos into an order that makes sense to me gave me peace for a while.
And it may not work as perhaps it could annoy your husband. I moved out couple of years ago, so i can sort without annoying anyone.
posted by 15L06 at 7:21 AM on June 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Anxiety can present itself as irritability. (I used to get furious at people walking down the street in front of me because they might possibly get in my way.) It occurs more often in men, so doctors may not even screen for it in women. If the disorder in your home is making you anxious, that would help explain your impulsive anger--whether or not you have clinical OCD. You can try addressing that to see if it helps more quickly than (it sounds like) you can get an autism evaluation. Just a suggestion.
posted by praemunire at 7:36 AM on June 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

I don't have adhd nor am I autistic but I do have generalized anxiety disorder and a lot of my anxiety, when it is untreated, manifests in meltdowns and total inability to handle disarray. Once I got the anxiety under control (therapy and meds; thank god for meds OMG), my temper calmed down.
posted by cooker girl at 7:38 AM on June 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you for the suggestions so far.

Additional data: I am diagnosed with ADHD. Meltdowns are more common later in the evening when it's too late for stims. I am currently treated for anxiety with meds and therapy.
posted by crunchy potato at 8:01 AM on June 27, 2022 [1 favorite]

this is anxiety.

All the methods for dealing with anxiety could be potential avenues of help: mindfulness; meds; hard exercise. Experiment and see what works for you. It's not the worst thing in the world if you need to take half a valium for the next few days.

"Mindfulness" is a broad category. What I'm talking about is deliberate acknowledgement of the offending input -- not on how much you'd like it to stop, not resisting it, but rather leaning into it. "Ah yes, that noise. It's so shrill. It sounds like trains. And parrots. And mating cats. What else does it sound like..."

With stuff like the cabinets, don't concentrate on how much you wish it were clean, but rather on the details of the mess, its colors, its shapes, its chaos. This sounds counterintuitive, but I find that it helps a lot in situations where the offensive input can't actually be fixed by me.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:03 AM on June 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

Are you by any chance a Highly Sensitive Person? I am, and I get easily overwhelmed when things get messy or I am experiencing sensory overload. (Highly recommend Elaine Aron's book btw)
posted by radioamy at 11:28 AM on June 27, 2022 [4 favorites]

I'm not clear whether there actually is a lack of doors in OP's home, but if so room dividers and curtains in hallways/empty doorframes/archways can help. The need is visual, not about security. If it works for the decor, Japanese 'noren' panels may be suitable.

I've also started keeping grouped clutter in labeled shoe bags and packing cubes, or transparent plastic zip envelopes. It's remarkable what a difference it makes. Much, much better than resuable shopping bags or bankers boxes, because those look like clutter too, even though the effort is the same. Plus the findability of what I'm storing is much much improved.
posted by snuffleupagus at 1:02 PM on June 27, 2022 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Thanks everyone. Saw a new therapist today that confirmed my suspected autism and suggested supports. In this case I need to remove myself from the offending stimulus as early as possible and have a "yes space" to recalibrate my nervous system.

I am not thinking anxiety-inducing thoughts about the clutter. It's overwhelming because it is overstimulating and I can't control it. Cognitive behavioral approaches feel like gaslighting myself because my brain is still over-processing everything whether I am using beginners mind on it or not. I feel like a cbt failure but then I read about studies like this one and realize the problem is my brain doesn't adapt and learn to ignore sensory input that initially felt like an assault and in that study they found that the neurodevelopmental model fit the data better than the environmental stress model. (Translation: Sensory processing issues are a consequence of autistic traits/brains, vs autistic traits including sensory stuff being a way of adapting to stress). Yes I can zoom in on something which works in a pinch but doesn't last very long.

Great idea about the pillow cases. We are painting these cabinets white because the more white stuff we have the more I can tolerate visual clutter because it all blends in with the other white stuff.

Yes I identify as a highly sensitive person, which has a lot of overlap with autism.

Thank you again.
posted by crunchy potato at 8:01 PM on June 27, 2022 [5 favorites]

crunchy potato, i did this assessment via Zoom, and it was very helpful to me in sorting out what type of therapy might help me. Highly recommend, if you can afford it.
posted by 15L06 at 9:29 PM on June 27, 2022

Best answer: Oh god yes I am like this too, hello. I find it *very* difficult to make any significant change around the home because the need to increase the level of disorder before reducing it is so hard on me - it's not about the inconvenience, it's the overwhelm and the sheer visceral distress of having things all wrong and, specifically, things being WORSE.

The odd thing is that I'm a fairly cluttery person, and I'm not bothered in the same way by the sort of gradual increase in disorder that happens through daily life. I do definitely feel better when surfaces are clear, but I still function adequately when they're not. But having stuff spread out all over the floor while I try to organise it, or everything out of the kitchen cupboards because they're being worked on, or furniture dragged out of place to allow access to the wall behind... it's awful.

I am also in the am-I-autistic grey area and hadn't really considered this as part of that, but it does fit, doesn't it.

Things that help (although in honesty, not much):

I cope better if I don't have to see the chaos. If I'm not involved in doing the work, it's best if I can avoid the room till it's back to normal; knowing it's happening is still stressful, but it isn't the same as seeing it.

If that's not an option because I'm directly involved, I *have* to have a distraction while I work. Conversation or a podcast or an audio book. Something language-based for my brain to catch hold of so that it's not catastrophising or panicking or just wordlessly howling in distress.

Having somewhere to escape to is good. If I'm about to start screaming it's a much better idea to get out of the house and go for a walk, which burns off some energy and gets me to somewhere where I can stare at the sea, or listen to the birds, or watch the trees waving in the breeze.

Finally, I can't make decisions in this state, so if I can make them all in advance, or if there's someone else who can make them for me, that's extremely helpful.
posted by ManyLeggedCreature at 9:26 AM on June 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

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