16 seconds to a Meltdown
As a father, we learn quickly that the energy of our day can change so quickly. I experienced this on an otherwise ordinary day where everything in our house shifted in just under 16 seconds.
It is Sunday, December 9th. Our house is bedecked in Christmas lights and decorations in every room. Vaughn and I are enjoying this Sunday as we have the past 13 weeks --- in front of the television watching NFL football. The New England Patriots are playing the Miami Dolphins in Miami. Despite their past history of AFC Championships and Super Bowls, the Patriots do not fare well at away games in Miami, a statistical fact that Vaughn and I are well aware of.
“And the Field Goal is good!........” the announcer says with enthusiasm. Vaughn and I high-five as we jump off the couch. The Patriots are now up by 5 points, the score is 33-28, and there are only 16 seconds left on the clock. Vaughn is jumping up and down in front of the TV, his excitement exacerbated as he punches the air with his firsts. He’s grown savvy enough with his football knowledge to know that this game is wrapped up. It will be impossible for the Miami QB to march down the field with this little time on the clock and no timeouts. Even on a fluky play that gets them close enough for a field goal, it won’t be enough. We are up by 5 points.
“Hurray! We won! We finally won in Miami”……Vaughn exclaims jumping up and down.
“I know! I know!” matching his enthusiasm.
The NFL announcer comes back after the commercial to tee up the final play of the game.
“Tannehill fades back, shovel pass to Stills, he’s at the 50, lateral to Parker, he’s at the 45, another lateral to Drake, he’s at the 20, the 10, he punches it in! Can you believe it?! Miami scores! UNBELIEVABLE! Miami wins! Miami wins the game!”
The blood coldly drains from my face. Before I even have a chance to turn away from the TV to look at my son, there is a shrill, blood-curdling shriek from him.
My deep disappointment with the New England Patriots is overtaken by the emotional tsunami I know will pour forth from my son. He’s behaved this way in the past with unexpected Patriots losses, but this one will be different - a sudden, last minute fluky loss. My son does not like surprises and I know we are in for it.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!” he shrieks again. This time, the scream comes from a place deep inside him – an audible cry of physical pain. He turns a bright shade of crimson, grabs his left ear tugging on it hard, tears already down his face.
“I WANT TO DIE! I WANT TO DIE!”……
I immediately try to appeal to logic, a mistake I’ve made before. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Vaughn. They’re still going to win the AFC East”
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!! I WANT TO DIE! I WANT TO DIE! TOM BRADY SHOULD RETIRE!”…..he demonstrates his anger by punching himself, in the stomach, on his chest, on his head.
“Vaughn, Stop it!!
“I WANT TO DIE!...........” his scream is so loud it hurts my eardrums.
All of the activity in the family room draws attention from my wife. She sprints downstairs from the upstairs bedroom. She typically hides out there watching Hallmark movies during Patriots games. She is not a fan of watching Patriots game, and would rather know the score once the game is over.
“What is going on?” she says breathlessly as she enters the family room. She looks as though she’ll find Vaughn in a pool of blood from some sort of injury, one that maybe I had inflicted on him.
“AHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!........” Vaughn screams at the top of his lungs. He’s reached the apex of his meltdown, where he can hardly use words. He sprints past me to the dining room and into our living room, flinging himself onto the couch and thrashing.
“I WANT TO DIE!...........”
“Vaughn, what is the big deal? The Patriots are still in first place. We’re almost at the end of the season”. Jen is the second person that tries to appeal to his sense of logic, which will of course be useless. My son’s brain is releasing enough adrenalin and endorphins to kill a man my age.
“NOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!” Vaughn screams as he runs up the stairs to his room.
Jen and I follow him into his room. Amidst more screams, he is trying wedging himself underneath his bed. There is absolutely no room for a human being of any size to squeeze under this bed, but that doesn’t prevent him from trying. With all of his adrenalin, he is able to wedge the front half of his body under the bed, which is now balancing on his lower back. The screams continue…..
“I WANT TO DIE! KILL ME! KILL ME!”
“VAUGHN, STOP IT!!”
During times of complete overdrive like this, Jen usually steps in as the peacemaker. She’s dealt with this before. We have an understanding between us during meltdowns that there can only be one person in the room. Two people talking to Vaughn at the same time will only overwhelm his sensory processing, getting him even more and more worked up. Jen enters the room and plops on his reclining chair. I stand in the hallway, looking into the bedroom, but deliberately out of Vaughn’s vision. I flashback to a memory from several years earlier, where he had a meltdown so bad that he locked himself in his bedroom. Despite my angry yet concerned pleas, Vaughn was unwilling to unlock the door. Once he’d calmed down enough, he did try to unlock it, but he simply couldn’t do it. He had never locked and unlocked this door, and lacked the manual dexterity to figure out. My anger swelled to the point that I kicked the door in with my right foot, like an FBI agent, destroying the strike plate, which then flew out across his room to the opposite wall. My son has not locked the door again after that moment.
“I WANT TO DIE! I HATE THIS! I HATE THIS! I’m never watching the Patriots again!”
How long has this meltdown gone on? 10 minutes? 20 minutes? I’ve lost track of time. I just want to hit the reset button, start over. I want to flee the house, escape this constant screaming. It’s as though the tantrum has sucked all of the oxygen out of the space. I can feel my heart racing.
Knowing I can’t do anything with our single-person strategy, I peer as innocently as possible around the bedroom door to Jen.
“I need to get gas. I’m going to Cumberland Farms” I tell her, relieved that I’m not telling a lie. I do in fact need to go. She responds with a terse nod. This meltdown is getting the best of her as well.
As I drive to Cumberland Farms, I flip to local sports radio. The local New England announcers are trashing the Patriots - their lack of discipline during the final play of the game, their inability to win on the road in Miami. The frenetic tone of their voices reminds me of the chaos I left behind at the house. I turn off the radio and drive in silence.
The gas station is only 4 minutes from the house. As I get out of the car, I’m struck by how quiet it is here. Other than a breeze rustling through some oak trees stripped of their leaves, there is no sound. This quiet relaxes me, I can now feel my heart rate starting to drop. The short ride and the silence have done me well.
Returning to the house, I feel my anxiety increase, not knowing what I’ll face as I return. A man’s house is his sanctuary, or so we’re told - a retreat from the common stressors of the world – that is not the case today. I climb the steps from our basement to the kitchen door, pausing on the second to last step. This is where I typically stand when I come home from work. The door will open and Vaughn meets me there, his height matching mine on the uneven steps as he leans in to kiss me. As I linger on the last step, I listen. Nothing. Nothing at all. I open the kitchen door slowly and continue to listen. Still nothing. I step out trepidatiously out into the kitchen, my footsteps intentionally ginger. The meltdown must be over.
As I ascend the stairs, I peer into the bedroom. Jen is still in the chair, looking off into the distance, her head tilted to the side, resting on her left hand. Vaughn is lying on his side in the bed, scanning his tablet. The hair around his ears and on the nape of his neck is wet and matted down, the meltdown generating quite a bit of heat within him. He is engaged in his standard post-game ritual of reviewing each Patriots players’ stats. As Jen looks at me, I immediately know what she says with her eyes. “Don’t say anything. Don’t talk. Just let him be”.
Retuning the family room, I sit on the couch, grabbing the remote. Turning on the television, I am instantly shown a replay of the final play of the game, which causes me to turn it off as though I’d been stung by a wasp, tossing the remote onto the coffee table. The room is silent. The house has returned to silence. All has returned to normal. Tomorrow the sun will rise. There will be meetings at work, laundry will continue to pile up, and there will no doubt be turmoil in Congress. My son -- the son I know --will return – the one who greets me at the top of the basement steps to kiss me when I’m back from work. The boy who says I love you without being told first. Tomorrow is another day.