Being a sensory sensitive person in a sensory overloaded world
Yesterday I learned that the bushmen in the Kalahari desert can hear the stars singing. This resonated deeply within me because there are many things that we experience that are so real to us, yet not visible to others.
For me this has been my experience with having sensory issues. Most people do not experience sensations the way I do, though it is so so real to me. It took me many years to realize that I process senses differently from most people, and that it’s okay to have a different experience. I’ve opened up to people about it and the feedback has been mixed. Some people are skeptical, some respectful and some think I’m nuts. I learned to ignore the judgment and do the best I can with what I’ve been blessed with. It also has allowed me to respect others for their differences, whether it’s their view of the world or their perspective on things. It is real to them, as my sensory issues are real to me.
Being sensory sensitive is the way I always remember being. It has affected every sense in my body, my eyes, smell, hearing and touch. I have made many creative adaptations that enable me to function in the world. Many people who know me are not even aware, those who know me better may see a glimpse, while those closest to me see it the most. No one though feels it as acutely as me.
I will attempt to describe what it’s been like as a child and an adult.
As a child I was intolerant of wearing shoes or socks and many times I would bury my shoes in the sandbox at school. I was unable to tolerate my hair being pulled back into a ponytail, I could not wear pretty headbands or clips. I disliked anyone touching my face or neck. Hugging would feel suffocating. Any wetness touching me would be too much. I would wipe kisses that left traces of wetness away. This would often offend and confuse the one who so lovingly planted it on my cheek. Washing dishes was doubly hard, I did not like the sensation of a wet sponge on my hand and the smell of the dishes or the residue smell on my hands would irritate me nonstop.
As an adult not much has changed. I cannot wear any woolen clothing and avoid most fabrics except for cotton. I don’t like clothing too tight, too loose or snug against me or that inhibit any movement. I cut control top stockings and the elastic around socks. I find it difficult to wear socks/kneehighs which make me appear to have a different religious standard than those I would choose for myself. Tags and seams are intolerable and they itch worse than poison ivy. No one notices me taking my boots on and off repeatedly to get my sock seam aligned up correctly. I still detest washing dishes, touching raw meat, fish or chicken. Wearing gloves really helps.
Covering my hair has been my biggest religious challenge. Although I think it’s the correct thing to do I get horrible discomfort and headaches from anything on my head. My thinking slows and it’s hindered my ability to be out the home for extensive periods. I tried OT to try desensitize me to this issue but have had no success. Sometimes I am slack with hair covering, I’ll let my pony hang out. People don’t realize that folding a pony up into a beret is painful for me. It’s hard for me to feel judged by others who have no idea what a challenge covering my hair is every single day. Wigs, forget about it. I’d go to work and go to the bathroom to remove my wig for 10 minutes or so, just so I could breathe.
I’m extremely sensitive to hot/cold. In winter I find it hard to stay warm and I am usually seen with bulky sweatshirts over my clothing and under my coat. I avoid going outside in really hot or cold weather. I tend to hold my breath extensively in extremes. I can hold my breath for a minute without a problem.
Smell is delightful but can get too much really quickly. People’s colognes, deodorant, breath, soap and sweat can get intense and intolerable. Lingering cigarette smoke causes me to cough and my eyes to water and sting. I hold my breath a lot.
Vision has been the toughest one of all. I’m extremely sensitive to light, especially artificial light like fluorescent. I’m unable to remain in a room where there’s a flickering fluorescent. My husband flipped the chandelier for me so that the bulbs faced up and were not exposed. Recently I got diagnosed with Irlen syndrome and wearing my teal colored glasses has made the world calm down for me in a way you can’t imagine. I can now handle the overwhelm of going to a supermarket. I still avoid warehouse type stores and shop a lot on amazon. My eyes have UV damage on them from not wearing sunglasses when I was younger. A few years ago I tried to do LASIK surgery and during the exam they were flashing lights into my eyes and I passed out. I was no longer a candidate for LASIK surgery.
I hear things other people do not. I hear my clients walking down the hallway 30 seconds before they arrive. I know every hum and buzz in my house. If there are 2 sounds going on at the same time I can’t process it. If a fan is running and you are having a conversation with me I may not be able to hear what you are saying. I avoid large groups where multiple conversations are going on at the same time. My kids know I don’t do state fairs, fairs or amusement parks. Haven’t been to a mall in years. Loud music makes me cringe and hold my breath. I still remember shuddering from all the ra ra ra screaming in school, camps and seminary. One bus ride I remember curling up in a ball, blocking my ears and crying hysterically from the continuously blaring music. I never even knew that other people process things differently.
Do I hear stars singing? Not yet…
My sensitivity allows me to internalized beauty differently too. The stark pink of a cherry blossom against a dark grey sky stuns me into silence. The trill of a bird can bring tears to my eyes. Friends have observed that I have a child like delight at the world. It is so true. Would I trade in my sensory sensitivity? Sometimes I would, but honestly I embrace them as they helped form me into who I am- A sensitive soul.