Asperger’s and the Silent Treatment, aka Trapped in Your Own Head

When I get really upset, I can’t speak. Literally, I can’t speak. I am sure this is immensely frustrating for my husband – God bless him – but I don’t know if I can ever explain just how horrible it is for me, too.

It can start with a stupid argument or minor annoyance that just builds and builds inside me until I’m really upset – it can be either the mad or sad variety of upset. It can start out so logically, where there’s an identifiable trigger. But like an explosive meltdown – which may or may not have an irrational (or even discernible) cause – I can get completely trapped in my own head and unable to speak. It’s called selective mutism.

It’s not that I don’t want to say anything. I just can’t. I will have dozens of thoughts running through my head, things I want to say, words that want to pour out of me, but I physically can’t open my mouth. Or if I do manage to get my mouth open, I can’t make my voice work. No sound comes out. It’s sort of terrifying, and so it upsets me further, and so it gets harder and harder to just say something. The tears are often pouring out of me as this is happening. Sometimes I wonder if this is what it’s like to have the nonverbal variety of autism. Do nonverbal people have this burning need to talk, to tell someone what is going on inside their heads, but they are just unable to do so? How incredibly maddening. I can’t bear it when it rears its head for 10 minutes.

Upset But No Words

Perhaps the strangest thing is what breaks me out of it: permission.

The permission isn’t literal. But when I’m stuck in a silence loop, I need Tom to ask me a question that I can answer. It can’t be complex, like, “What’s going on?” or “How are you feeling?” The words won’t come out. I’ve tried. I’ve hurt my throat trying to talk before my brain said, “Go.” But if he can ask me a simple yes or no question, like, “Are you ready to talk?” That’s what I need.

Of course, it doesn’t always work. I can’t be stuck too deep in the loop. If he tries to draw me out before I’m ready, it doesn’t happen. Sometimes, he tries to talk to me, realizes it isn’t going to happen…and then just lies there next to me as I’m curled up in the fetal position in bed for the next 20 or 30 minutes before he tries again. Sometimes, this is exactly what I need. Sometimes, I’m desperate after five minutes for him to say something again, and completely unable to do anything about it.

I’m sure this sounds ridiculous to many people. I mean, how hard can it be to say a few words to your husband, the man you love more than anyone else in the world?

It can be infinitely hard.

Sometimes, as I’m ruminating about whatever set me off in the first place, I have all of those thoughts in my head alongside something like this:

“I just have to get it out, get it out. Say something. Say something, dammit. Oh God. Talk to me, please talk to me. If you talk to me, I can tell you, tell you what’s in my head. I can’t talk, I can’t say anything, please say something to me. I’m going crazy, this is crazy, Oh my God. Oh God. Gotta say something. Gotta talk. Want to scream. I could scream forever, but I can’t even open my mouth. Oh please, say something, let me talk. Talk to me, why won’t you talk to me? Please, just ask me a question. Help me. Please help me…”

I find myself blaming him for not giving me an opening to talk again, but it’s not his fault. When he does try, he’s sometimes “rewarded” with me burying my face in the pillow, covering my head with the blanket, or renewed sobs when I’d started to settle down. How is he to know? It’s not his fault.

How can I be physically unable to do something one moment, but able to do so the next, if and only if my husband talks to me first? I don’t know. I don’t understand. It doesn’t make sense. And I hate it.

This is one of the reasons I write so much. Speaking…it doesn’t come easily to me. When I have something I need to talk to Tom about, it’s infinitely easier for me to write it down, although I hope that’s not too impersonal for him…

I don’t know if this is a common Asperger’s trait or if it’s unique to me. I’d love to hear from other Aspies to see if they end up giving people the silent treatment without actually wanting to.

Christina Gleason (973 Posts)

That’s me: Christina Gleason. I’m a professional copywriter, editor, and blogger. My company is called Phenomenal Content. (Hire me!) I’m a relatively high-functioning Aspie who also lives with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (CFS), depression, anxiety, and chronic pain. I am not ashamed to admit that I am in the care of a psychiatrist, who assures me that people in therapy are often better adjusted than “normal” people who are not, because at least we know what our issues are and are working on them. I’m a geek for grammar, fantasy, and select types of gaming, including World of Warcraft and Empire: Four Kingdoms. I hate vegetables. I have an intense phone phobia, so I’ll happily conduct business over email or IM instead.


Comments

  1. When I get upset, I get quiet too. It’s not so much a “can’t talk” with me as it is a “don’t want to talk.” I too feel a ton of thoughts rushing through my head, but I feel like I can’t assemble them into a coherent argument while I’m so upset.

    When I’m upset it’s like my brain won’t stay on task to make sense of the feeling. I’ll be upset about X and my brain will bring up Y, Z, and a few more items that I was upset about years ago but that I thought were resolved. Except now it will all seem like a string of malice aimed at me. I know this isn’t the case, but it’s like there’s two voices inside me. One telling me that everyone is against me and/or that I’m not good enough for anyone, the other telling me not to listen to the first. My brain jumps from topic to topic keeping me from organizing my thoughts in any manner.

    To prevent my simple “why can’t you do X?” from turning into a rambling, accusatory rant about Y, Z, A, B, and C, I’ll just keep quiet. I know it doesn’t resolve anything, but it seems like the better course of action over either making no sense or (even worse) saying something that I don’t really mean because my brain’s filters are disorganized at the moment.

  2. You have no idea how helpful this post really is. Thank you so much for writing about this. I deal with 2 Aspie family members who without a doubt suffer from something similar. In the heat of the moment, it can be hard for the non-aspie to understand why they won’t respond. Hopefully this post will help others to be a little more understanding.

    • I’m glad this is helpful to you, Nancy. I wrote this not only for myself, but for my husband to hopefully better explain what’s going on in my head when this happens, and for anyone else who deals with it first- or secondhand. My husband is the non-Aspie in our family, like you…outnumbered!

  3. Explained very well I think. How my life partner tolerated this so long must be based in him having the patience (and love) of Job. What I came to learn though, is that “silent loop” (great term to a programmer!) stems from the innate (illogical) self-loathing we have. Explaining this in a time of lesser anxiety to your “better half” helps in his/her being more prepared for it. Now forgive me getting geeky, but its like you can create a sub-routine in your grey-matter machine. Cognitively store the fact that you are really upset with yourself at what we cannot at times help. Your mate knows this. That in itself can relax those the misfire(s) “upstairs”. A keyword that you and s/he both know can trigger that implanted process: “I am mad at myself for having a bit of a melty time and I now forgive myself for it.” Sort of an IF {silent loop mode} THEN {go to subroutine: “self-forgive”=”relieve anxiety”} CANCEL {silent-loop}

    Our companions know how our brains work (and love us anyway!) Instead of curled up in the fetal position, lay back, breathe in through nose and out through mouth with eyes closed, arms at side and the damned tight shoes off 😉 We all CAN rule our brains, when they start to take over. Peace Love Understanding Respect

    • It’s very interesting that you put it like that. One book I read stated that people with Asperger’s typically think in If-Then format. I recognized this in myself and furthermore realized why I do so well in computer programming: All computer programming is, when you boil it down, is a series of If-Then statements. I think like a computer!

      My brain and the computer are perfectly compatible so it is easy for me to envision just what needs to be done for the computer to give me the result I want. Many neurotypicals seem to get highly confused by how I can juggle all these “If-Thens” in my head to come to the correct conclusion, but it’s easy for me.

      It’s also interesting that you mentioned ruling our brains. Back when I was in high school, I felt like my brain was its own entity that did what it wanted to do, whether I wanted it to or not. Through college, I worked very hard to get my brain under my control. It was hard, and I still have moments when my brain slips out of control, but I was very successful. Now, I need to figure out how to teach my son the same thing: How to control his brain and channel its energies into something useful instead of behaviors that wind up hurting him socially and emotionally.

  4. This happens to me quite alot. I open my mouth and nothing comes out because I’m too sad and would cry or what I would say would sound silly. Generally I’m hurt and embarrassed for the melt down. But I grab my cell phone and can text to his cell phone everything I want to say 🙂

  5. This is exactly what happens with my son– who also has Asperger’s. I never quite understood it before, so thank you for describing what it’s like. Next time we have a discussion, I’ll try some of the suggestions you made, keeping in mind that, sometimes, I’ll have to be patient and just love him until he’s ready to speak. My heart knows how badly my son wants to talk–I can see it in his eyes–but my brain gets impatient. Later, once things have calmed down, I feel so sad for my son and the pressure I put on him to do something he just couldn’t do in the heat of the moment. Your insight will go a long way toward helping me communicate better with him.

  6. This makes so much sense!!! Thank you so much for being able to come up with the right words. You described everything my brain does, usually when I’m by myself or doing assignments. It’s been a nightmare for my the last few months. I got fired, had to fight for 5 months to get unemployment insurance, I had hostpital payments after a meltdown one day and kept sending me bills, my grandmother died new years day, come up with the tuition money for graduate school. The loops pattern of thinking keeps busy and it feels like I’m trapped.

    When I was 7, I was diagnosed with ADD. a few months ago, I got the diagnosis of Aspergers. I was so obsessed with figuring out ways to help me think, or at least find out what I was going through. So I ended up getting my BA in Psychology, that didn’t help at all. In fact it made it worse, cause now can I comprehend psychiatric theories and concepts. I’m 29 now after 22 years of trying to find the answers. If you guys know of any sites or books I should be reading about aspergers, please let me know.

  7. Hi Christina!

    This is so familiar to me! It hadn’t happened since my teens (I’m now 30) and I had actually forgotten about it, but I’ve had more or less continual problems with anxiety (and it’s possible I have bipolar rather than the depression I was diagnosed with at 17) for three years since disclosing being raped to my fiancee and family (who knew that delayed-onset PTSD was possible- I sure didn’t!) and last week I got over-upset and found myself suddenly incapable of speech- even to be able to tell me extremely worried fiancee why I couldn’t speak!! It was half an hour before I was able to calm down enough to go and try and explain what had just happened and that I wasn’t ignoring him on purpose! I will tell him if it happens again to try the ‘yes or no’ question thing 🙂 Interestingly enough, I recently found out from my Mum that they sent a psychiatrist in to observe me once for a possible diagnosis of autism and seemingly concluded I wasn’t on the spectrum- I have suspected for a while now that may have been incorrect!

    My GP still can’t seem to tell the difference between my symptoms of depression, rapid-cycle/mixed state bipolar, and anxiety- so I have my doubts that a psychologist would have been able to pin-point the problem when I was a little kid! I think it’s probably worth being a bit more assertive with the GP with regards my diagnoses- it is difficult when you (as I do at this point) know considerably more about your condition than your doctor does yet you still have to defer to their opinion on your health because they’re the one with the prescription pad! Sometimes I do wish they would consider that my opinion on my mental health is relevant!

  8. Debbie Wessler says:

    Dear Christina,

    I am in a world of hurt and confusion. I do believe your post applies to my current situation. My boyfriend of 7 years has Aspergers. He is high functioning and I did not know until after 4 years of being together that he was on the spectrum. He hid it fairly well, but I did notice behavior with obsessive qualities, noticed the very light intimate part of our life, and the regular outbursts of anger many times a day. It was when I was in the process of getting my own brother diagnosed with Autism, that Brian came to me and told me he has Aspergers. I told him I realized that, and it did not matter to me. I love him for who he is. We have enjoyed some wonderful incredible times and I have stood by his side through an auto accident, financial pressures etc. He has brought wonderful things into my life too. We race sailboats together, and he has taught me much about sailing which is his passion.

    Fast forward to now: I became very ill with Lyme disease. I am currently in treatment and I have lost the ability to sail and do much of what he and I used to share. I moved closer to my family temporarily as I did not want to burden him with my illness. I saw him this past Christmas when he came to visit me. We communicate daily, several times a day. His home has mold in the basement and a lot of it. I cannot go back there as mold and Lyme will make me even sicker. He does know this but claims he has not had the energy to repair the home this entire past winter.

    Sailing season started this past April. Although Brian has a touch of Lyme, he does not have it as severely as I do. He is still able to work and sail. I cannot yet. So I have great frustrations at missing him, the life I love, to be housebound. I am not jealous, nor do I ask him to give up sailing, I just get frustrated (I am NT). This past Wed. after racing he tried to call me. I missed the call and returned it 20 minutes later. He was at the sailing club for race results and socializing. I returned his call and his deameanor was abrupt and crude. “Hey, I feel like a dick standing here talking to you”. Of course that upset me and I hung up. I then sent a text to him stating that it hurts me to see he has energy for sailing and late night socializing but no energy to fix the house so I can come home. That makes me feel not important to him. He called me a bit later, raging on the phone telling me to “eff off” and to stop making him feel guilty.

    I have tried to call back several times. He will not answer. I have emailed twice no reply. I have texted numerous times. Thursday he replied “leave me alone” Thursday no reply to my attempts to explain and clarify things. Friday I texted asking if he was ok. He replied “yes and I don’t feel like talking”. Later that evening I texted asking if we still have a relationship. He replied: I’m very upset and I still don’t feel like talking about it.”

    So here I am, sick, emotionally upset, as I love him dearly. Just two weeks ago he sent me a sentimental birthday card with beautiful flowers. I believe he cares. But he won’t talk to me, won’t tell me what is upsetting him, but he is able to carry on with his work and sailing seemingly with no upset.

    I am hoping you can offer some advice to this NT. I don’t want to lose Brian. Our friendship, our life together, has been the highlight of my life, even with all of the quirks.

    Thank you kindly for your time if you are able to offer advice or insight.

    Debbie

  9. Michelle Strobeck says:

    Hi Christina! This happens to me every time I get angry or upset, but only when I try to talk to the person with whom I have a problem. I’ve never been diagnosed with anything other than ADD. Truth be told, it never affected my life all that much until I got married. Now, when I have a disagreement with my husband I just sit there and cry. I loose all ability to talk even though there are things, so many things, running around inside my head. It’s just good to know that it’s not just me. I don’t feel so alone now.

  10. I want to cry. I’ve had this problem for years. No ones ever understood. No one has ever had this problem.
    By chance I came across this. I thought I was crazy. Even my primary care doctor didn’t really believe me or know what to say. Thank you so much for writing this!!!

  11. Thank you so much for posting this it definitely made me feel like I wasn’t alone or the only one downtime so get stuck on this for too long it can go on for more then 2 hrs and I really hate it if your willing to give me more info on how to deal with this it would be great thanm you so much for this tho

  12. Margaret Kunz says:

    Wow! How wonderful to not feel so alone dealing with this ‘problem’! Makes me feel extremely hopeful that there may be practical solutions to act lovingly together with all of this!

  13. I have this problem and it was caused from being tortured as a child and forced to stay quiet and not cry. Now when I get mad or very upset I am unable to speak. It’s aggravating.

  14. I have something similer. I have never talked much. Mainly to people I dont know. I feel stuck, isolated. I don’t know if its this or severe social anxiety. But I cant speak a lot of times. Most people just think I dont want to talk, but am really so scared and nervous that I cant speak. If I do manage to get anything out its just a short polite comment that kind of fits the situation.

  15. Your words express exactly what I go through when I feel extremely hurt or angry, though (as far as I know, and I’m 41 ?), I don’t have aspergers, autism, or anything else.

    Thanks you for sharing this very personal insight. You are helping so many people out there.

  16. This has always happened to me. If I am overwhelmed, or upset, or mad, or crying, or being drilled by someone who is mad at me and demands me to speak, I physically become unable to speak. It just doesn’t happen, no matter how much I try. I know I am supposed to, but it’s like I shut down and my ability to vocalize fails. I can text or write, but I can’t talk. It causes massive problems with relationships. Usually it lasts for a while too, 30 minutes or an hour after the situation has ended. Then I slowly get the ability back. It’s exhausting. I’ve never been diagnosed with anything, but I suspect I have Asperger’s. My daughter has classic autism… Which is what started to clue me into my own issues and that I may have ASD also.

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