On Sensitivity

The last thing I remember before blacking out was taking a sip of water and thinking “huh, I’m glad it doesn’t usually hurt this much to drink water.” Next thing I knew I was flat on the floor, glasses askew, blood dripping from my temple. I didn’t know it at the time but I’d just slammed headfirst into a concussion.

It took me another 18 hours to figure out my brain was banged up. The tip-off was that I was even more sound sensitive than I usually am, and the bar was pretty high to begin with. When I finally saw a doctor, he began rubbing two fingers together close to one of my ears and moving them slowly away from me. “Stop me when you can’t hear the sound anymore,” he said. He kept rubbing his fingers together like the legs of a cricket as he moved further across the room. “You can still hear this?” he asked, now at the opposite wall. “Yes,” I said, “crystal clear.” “Huh,” he said.

As the fun repository of two chronic pain disorders (both well under control at the moment), I’m no stranger to doctor’s responding to my list of symptoms with “huh” but this one was unique in that it didn’t make me feel alone or scared. Instead, it validated in a lifetime of sound sensitivity. “Your hearing is excellent,” he said. “Thanks,” I replied.

This past summer, four years post-concussion, I was in my mom’s garden at the back of her house when I heard a high-pitched noise. “What is that awful sound?” I asked. I felt like my earbones were being assaulted with tiny mallets. My mom was bewildered. I took a step back from where I was standing and the sound stopped. “Huh,” I thought.

I took a step forward and the sound resumed. I took a step back again. Safety. I looked around the garden but there was nothing notable. I was standing parallel to a dark green box with a red light on it though. As I stepped in front of the box the sound re-emerged. “Mom, what is this?” I asked. She stopped looking around for the sound she couldn’t hear and locked eyes on the box. “Oh, that’s to keep rodents away. Squirrels keep attacking my plants.” She went on to explain that it emitted a high-pitched noise only small animals can hear and that the sound, inaudible to humans, was supposed to keep them away. “Yeah,” I said, “I can hear it.” “That’s what you’re hearing?” she sounded incredulous. I step forward from behind the box. “Definitely,” I said.

I put earplugs in and kept gardening, which is an easy thing to do because I carry them with me faithfully, the blanket to my Linus. Without earplugs the noises most people tune out in the course of everyday life get caught in my mind like fish in a net and I have to untangle them from the sounds I want to hear second by second. It is at best an excess expenditure of energy and at worst a painful and consistently taxing experience. I flinch at sudden and/or loud noises, am tense in loud spaces, and can’t focus on a task that requires my full attention unless I have somewhere between one and three sound barriers in place: ear plugs, noise-canceling over-ear headphones, and sometimes soft pink noise playing on top of all of that. It is only with this wall of sonic consistency in place that I can write and think at peak performance- something I learned far later in life than I am comfortable with.

I’ve been, generally speaking, sensitive for as long as I can remember. I didn’t realize that sound sensitivity, in particular, made me vulnerable until high school when every locker slam sent my heart racing and/or my mouth yelping. The latter, as you might imagine, drastically cut down on how much noise my lovely and supportive friends made around me because high schoolers are well known for restraint and generosity of spirit.

After graduating from college and moving to NYC, the urban equivalent of a high schooler, I slowly became desperate for quiet. It was only behind the thick walls of theaters that I felt calm, competent, and relaxed. I began to imagine silent theater pieces, immersive silent tours of the city, and playfulness through quietness. My brain was on vibrational overload. I sought out help for the first time – noise canceling headphones, ear plugs, even a stint in a sensory deprivation tank. The latter, unfortunately, alerted me to how bad my tinnitus is, which was… disheartening. Would I never find true quiet?

Sensitively tuning in to the world is a tough thing, but not an invaluable one. I’ve never been more relaxed in a group than I was at a ten-day silent meditation retreat; a retreat that changed my life. When we were allowed to speak again on the final day of the retreat I was heart heavy and reluctant to join in the chatter that erupted from the silence. For ten full and beautiful days I had managed to cut out a major source of stimulation in my life and found that I was all the more in balance for it. I would be more in tune with my own needs, what my body was speaking- sometimes screaming- at me that had been drowned out by the myriad stimuli of being a human in a city my whole adult life. I noticed the feel of breath beneath my nose when I exhaled and could tell exactly where in my body my tension refused to unknot. I knew with accuracy where that bird sound was coming from and could hear the faint whisper of the wind through the trees the moment I stepped outside.

The beauty of being sensitive is that you can notice things that others may not be drawn to and, if you’re an artist, point these things out for others. It opens up secret worlds. We all tune into the world in our own equally precise ways, often inviting specific forms of noticing, nuance, and rituals of self-care that allow us to hone these precisions. The ways we tune in are often a curse before they are a blessing because the power is great and our control over it is minimal, but when we figure out how to wield our eccentricities we are able to fulfill our own potential and share ourselves with the world.

In the same vein as sound sensitivity, I am often hyper-sensitive to caffeine (especially coffee). As with sound, a little bit goes a long way. The same is true for tactility. I could make a case that my imagination is no different- going off like a firework at the slightest provocation. I have yet to find a sensitivity mentor to teach me to wield this superpower but I find my way through creating art- through playful explorations of silence and inner dialogues, noticing of self and other, whispers in a crowd of rowdy thoughts and ideas. Last year I splurged on quality headphones that scale back my sonic consistency wall from three steps to one. I invest in my environment so I can do my best work. I wonder sometimes if others have strange rituals that they have to go through just to exist in this world and I am deeply curious about what you need, too. What are the rituals and gear you rely on to tap into your own superpowers? Drop me a line and we’ll be less alone together <3

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