– The feel of newspaper on my hands.
– The sound of car alarms going off. (Especially the ones that sound like horns beeping.)
– Dial tones. (They make me dizzy.)
– The loud, relentless dings and tones of people’s cell phones. (Put them on vibrate, people!)
– Any sustained, high-pitched tones.
– Whistling. (See above.)
– Vacuum cleaners.
– White noise machines.
– The sound of someone rubbing their hands on their pants.
– The feel of shoes on my feet. (It makes my skin crawl after a while.)
– Repetitive tapping or clicking noises (especially without identifiable reason).
– Dogs. (Dogs!)
– The feel of rough skin on someone’s hands or feet (or the sound of it catching on fabric).
– Seeing (or hearing) people fold paper. (Gives me chills just to write that out.)
– The sound and feel of a nail scraping against a wall. (Or the rubber on my steering wheel.)
– The feel of the upholstery that covers the underbelly of my favorite chair.
– Gum snapping.
– The sound of someone stepping on paper that’s been left on the floor (or running it over with their chair on wheels).
– Several dozen other things.
This is a running list of phenomena that are able to penetrate my skull so intensely as to drive me out of a space or, in more instances than I’d like to admit, bring me to tears. Literally. That’s especially true if my resilience is down because I’m over-tired, over-stressed, or sick. When they enter my world, it’s as if they are amplified especially for my benefit (or torture), clinging to the air above me and making it difficult to breathe. They’re more than ‘pet peeves.’ They cut through conversations, my ability to focus, and, sometimes, to speak. They send my emotions on wild, roller coaster rides – jumping from inexplicably infuriated to tearful and back again. In my more vulnerable moments, these sounds, sights and sensations can linger in my head in the form of intrusive images for hours after they’ve left my physical reality.
It may seem trivial or even melodramatic to bring up these sorts of sensitivities in a venue where we’re most often talking about serious psychiatric abuse, suicide, and so-called ‘psychosis.’ I’m not sure anyone but those who have had similar experiences (and I’m just trusting there are some of you out there) will understand how ‘big’ some of this can be – how difficult it can get to make it through a day in the face of such an onslaught. People (especially my annoyed family members who are tired of being shushed) have periodically suggested I “learn to deal with it.” They think I’m just being cranky.
But ‘dealing with it’ has proven to be very, very difficult most of the time. At best, it requires me to expend an exhausting amount of energy in order to not be thrown off course, and at worst, retaining any sense of peace and balance feels totally out of reach. Either way, it can make walking through this world an extremely hard thing and can sometimes make life feel altogether untenable.
But this isn’t just a self-indulgent post about my being particularly sensitive. Rather, I think it’s important that the potential for connection between high sensitivity, trauma and psychiatric diagnosis be explored (including what all that means in our grander scheme). Honestly, I’m not sure how what I shared above relates to my being a survivor of trauma (or if it even does). Is this sort of sensitivity somehow also a byproduct of traumatic experiences? Or is my being sensitive in this way actually a reason why I was impacted so intensely in the first place by the bad things that have happened to me (when some seem to much more effectively keep on trudging through terrible experiences)? Which came first: The chicken or the egg? (Or does that particular egg belong to a different animal entirely?) In the end, I really can’t say. I have no idea whether or not I was simply born ‘more sensitive’ than others in some way.
And, even if it could be proven that I were born more sensitive, I have no idea how the way in which I interact with my everyday world may or may not be interrelated to the shape of my reactions to trauma overall (the same reactions that have, for me, led to psychiatric diagnosis). However, inborn sensitivity is a possibility I’m willing to entertain (and if I’m honest, I’ve already begun to integrate it as some degree of ‘true’).
Inevitably, some will hear what I’m saying as some sort of euphemistic approach to ‘mental illness.’ But, I assure you, it’s not. I’m generally pretty vocal about not subscribing to the biomedical model of mental illness (especially when presented as some sort of unquestionable truth). However, I also do not believe that we are born blank slates. If we can look as physically diverse as we do and have that be rooted so substantially in biology, how can there not be at least some much deeper differences in our beings that are also so related? Regardless, the need to classify some of those differences as ‘illness’ or ‘problem’ is fundamentally off. Some of it is also inevitably connected to a racist, sexist, ableist culture where what’s healthy, beautiful and strong has been artificially defined by those in power and the measures they’ve set, while the rest has been left to sort itself out within the context of some fairly ruthless “survival of the fittest” attitudes.
In other words, individuals are the ones that get labeled as sick or bad while the environment gets a pass, and all the related disconnects in between go perpetually unreconciled. Ultimately, my talk of greater ‘sensitivities’ gets filtered into ‘illness’ language by many people on both ends of the psychiatry discussion spectrum because we’re still hopelessly trapped within that framework (whether fighting for or against it). It still seems a superhuman task for most people to understand that some of us may legitimately be more (or differently) sensitive (for whatever reason), but that that doesn’t mean that the inevitable course of action is to want or need to pinpoint, diagnose and correct those qualities. It doesn’t mean ‘sensitive’ is bad at all.
There’s lots that I don’t know. (And neither do you. Don’t pretend!) But, here’s what I do know: Being sensitive does not make me ‘mentally ill.’ It does not make diagnoses of clinical depression or anxiety, or bipolar, or borderline or anything else any more apt. It simply makes me sensitive. I don’t need exposure therapy flooding me with the things I currently have trouble tolerating. Because I may have a more palpable reaction to certain traumas than some – or to paper folding than the vast majority – does not make me somehow sick or in need of correction.
That I struggled with intrusive visions telling me to hurt my newborn baby girl as a result of the trauma of having had two miscarriages before she was born (see my blog,’Miscarried Life‘) when others seem to move through pregnancy loss with much less turbulence, doesn’t mean that my reaction was wrong or maladaptive. It still made sense, and with some time, I was able to uncover that meaning, be all the better for it and move on through. My reactions to the world are okay, whether or not they are always easily understood. And the fact that the differences in how we react to particular traumas is commonly used as some vague sort of ‘proof’ of the existence of ‘mental illness’ rather than an indication that we need to take more time to learn about each person’s unique life and personhood strikes me as pretty tragic.
I also don’t feel the need to medicate away my sensitivities anymore (though I suppose if anyone ever truly came up with a pill that toned that bit down without any other negative effect I might be willing to try it). The dart-throwing game that doctors play with these chemicals is terrifying to me, given that developing ‘good aim’ is an impossibility for total lack of anything concrete at which to throw. I understand that there are some who feel these drugs work or are even life-saving for them, but even that falls far short of having discovered a clear problem and identifying the mechanism of the solution.
That some people like coffee, for example, doesn’t mean that they have successfully identified a caffeine-deficiency within themselves. It simply means that they were tired and the effect of a particular drug is appealing to them for the moment (or at least worth the more negative aspects). Great for them, but I’m done playing that particular type of roulette myself. In fact, I’m pretty sure that I’m highly sensitive to psych drugs, too. One of the parts of my story that I don’t typically share (because it feels embarrassing, I guess) is how I used to go into fits of hitting myself in bed at night because it felt like my emotions were crawling around under my skin like bugs and I didn’t know what else to do…
Or how my ex-husband, who surely felt at least a little bit helpless and unsure how to respond, would try to hold me and get me to stop. I didn’t really connect the dots until much more recently, but that was actually a time when I was taking psych drugs, and I think there may be a connection there. Can’t say for sure, but the drugs certainly didn’t help. And that brings me back to my original point: Maybe I was just born more sensitive. And – for all that it makes harder (and easier) in life – that may just be okay. In this instance, maybe being ‘born sensitive’ kept me from a drug addled life of numbness? (No, I’m not saying that’s the life sentence of all who take psych drugs, but I’ve seen it be true for far too many who do.) Who knows. I can only walk the path that is my own.
– The ability to truly hear and synthesize several different points of view.
– The ability to sense the feelings of others (even those I don’t know that well).
– The ability to read the energy of an audience.
– Attention to minute detail.
– The ability to write and speak with clarity.
– My tolerance for silence.
– The ability to spend a lot of time alone.
– The ability to lose myself in fantasy.
– The ability to raise and lower my mood through music.
– The ability to turn abstract ideas into film.
– The cultivation of a deep sense of social justice.
– The willingness (or sense of being compelled) to speak up when something’s wrong (even in a room full of people in powerful positions).
– The ability to vision opportunity in difficult situations.
– The ability to cry and be deeply touched emotionally by a wide range of people and stories.
– My kids. (My kids!)
– The creativity to develop teaching tools that reach a variety of different perspectives.
– The ability to really see people, including their various strengths and weaknesses (no matter how I feel about them).
– The ability to see the deeper connections to things that seem unrelated on the surface.
– The ability to organize meaningful content out of so many seemingly disconnected ideas.
– Several dozen other things.
I’m fairly certain that many of these qualities also come from a similar place of sensitivity. I know a lot of people who are probably a lot more comfortable in this world than I am, but who lack some or all of these qualities.
– Which one of us is ‘healthier’?
– Who’s more likely to get diagnosed?
– Who gets to decide?
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.