I’m adept at pretending that things don’t bother me. I want to be like everyone else. I don’t want to call attention to the ways that it seems like my brain works differently from other people’s brains. My whole life, I’ve faked it.
The #Quest2015 prompt today called this up for me. Called it up and called me on it. Challenged me to be honest about it. But I’m not just doing this for me. I’m doing this to try to give voice to anyone else who is like me. When I see my toddler niece pat her ears and cry at the exact moment that I’m cringing in over-stimulation, I feel like I owe these words to her. I have the vocabulary to try to explain to the world why she is wailing. She doesn’t quite yet.
My Ears Can’t Prioritize
At work yesterday, I had a moment where I could have patted my ears and wailed. To everyone else it was a normal workday in an open workspace. To everyone around me, it was no big deal.
The people in the cubicles on either side of me were on a conference call – and frequently muted their lines to speak over me about the call. The person across from me was engaged in a training session about software. The people behind me were talking about a special project due by the end of the day. None of this had to do with me. None of this was frivolous. It was work-related conversation.
The way I understand it, most people would find this a little difficult to concentrate in, but they would let the din sort of generalize and eventually be able to tune it out. They might not be able to finish a complex thought, but they would be able to finish reading or writing an email without much difficulty.
My mind doesn’t generalize din. I can’t filter or prioritize any of those conversations. I hear them all at once, at equal intensity. My mind tries to pay attention to every word being said in all of those conversations, because it’s not able to let any of them go. This, of course, is impossible. First of all, it takes all my concentration to perform such a task, so I’m reading and rereading the same sentence in an email and unable to understand it. Second, being unable to prioritize auditory input makes them all “urgent”, so this situation actually makes me feel anxious. In this case, the anxiety grew until I had to shove away from my desk and visit the break room. I made a cup of tea in spite of the fact that there was already a steaming mug on my desk. The point was to be in the relative silence of the kitchen, and not in the vortex of conversations.
No one near me knew that I was on the edge of a panic attack just because everyone was talking at the same time.
Think about how this same situation plays out in everyday life for a moment. The TV is on, and the volume is conversational, people are in the room with the TV, and having a conversation. If more than one conversation is going on, I’m again in a vortex of sound that I’m trying very hard to prioritize. I stare at the person I’m conversing with, trying to use my eyes to force my ears to focus. If this only lasts a moment or two, I’m okay. I can fake it. If it lasts for five or more minutes, I start to get stressed out and tired. Something as simple as a family dinner is exhausting. The simple act of listening to dinner conversation with a handful of people is a herculean effort.
No one around me seems to be exhausted by this. My niece is the first person I’ve seen respond to barrages of sounds quite the same way I do. She looks frightened, and then angry, and then cries. I used to respond to this stress with anger. It was easier to push people away than to try to explain.
When I was a kid, I’d hide, mostly. I would hide under a table with the dog and let the conversations go on around me. I wouldn’t have to interact, so it was less stressful. But I do know that on the primary school playground, I was known for having a temper. I have to wonder how much of my anger was because of this?
Right now, I’m trying to write this without going into the other room and beg Brett to run the TV down. I guarantee the volume is at about 9 out of 40 – it’s not unreasonable. There is a closed door between us. Because I have ridiculously acute hearing, I can clearly hear the dialogue in the show he’s watching. And I’ve had to delete the dialogue from this blog multiple times. The words in the dialogue tangle up in my head with my own inner words. I can’t effortlessly prioritize between what I’m trying to write and what’s coming in. This takes work. Work that will make me cranky and frustrated. work that will send me to bed in frustration.
I can’t listen to music with lyrics and do anything else except walk, jog or drive. Doing so – dividing my attention up – is just like the TV scenario I’ve described above. Dinner at a restaurant with music with lyrics? Not so relaxing. Parties? Egad.
If I listen to music at work, it’s instrumental only. More often than not, it’s a youtube track of “Ten Hours of Rain” that I use as a noise buffer between me and the rest of the office. I learned about other people who hear too much, and they say that the only thing that helps them is to listen to 30 minutes of pink noise each day. It’s the single most-played track in my iTunes library. It has staved off more tears and more anxiety attacks than I can count. The idea behind it is that it helps train the brain to generalize – it helps train your mind to prioritize and tune stuff out – meanwhile listening to it gives my attention a much-needed break. I have found that it helps to a certain extent. I have fewer problems now in my workplace than I used to. I am able to type this without earplugs.
Like I said, I’m an expert at coping.
Volume is Not My Friend
Loud sounds hurt everyone’s ears. I’m not unique in experiencing certain decibel levels as painful. My ears, apparently, just have that dial turned down extremely low. The surround-sound at the movies, for example, hurts. Not just explosions and space ships blasting off, I’m talking about basic dialogue in an animated film. I enjoy seeing movies, and I love to experience the big blockbuster CGI ones in the theater, but I will actually avoid certain theaters if they have their sound up too high.
In addition to volume, movies have layers of sounds. They have noises and effects, dialogue to pay attention to, and the score. I’m not aurally prioritizing any of those, either, so movies are just about as difficult as parties are. I usually have to budget my energy to be able to catch certain films in the theater.
Definition? Diagnosis? Does it Matter?
I have a few theories as to how a kid with my sensory processing differences would be diagnosed these days. I can take as many internet quizzes as I want, it’s not going to change how I interact with the world.
I need alone time, and silence, mostly to be able to complete a sentence. I am an introvert, which means that I’ve got daydreams and conversations to have inside my head. Without stepping away from sounds, I don’t get a chance to have those. I get overstimulated more quickly and more easily than most introverts I know, and I think it’s because of this sound processing difference.
Brett and Ethan are great about giving me the time and space I need. They are all too familiar with my sound-related foibles, and they are so utterly understanding. I can’t tell you how grateful I am for them.
I didn’t even have a word for “introvert” or “overstimulated” ten years ago. I’ve got pages of journal entries trying to explain how I felt with a barrage of input. The more words I can wrap around this, the better. It makes it easier for me to explain why I breathe a sigh of relief when the TV gets clicked off.