Thursday, June 7, 2012

Sensory issues, or some of what it takes to walk down a city street

Walking down the street, you likely notice that cars are going by, the smells of the restaurants, the smell of cigarette smoke from the people smoking on the side walk. You likely see lights at things like crosswalks and on the cars. You likely are somewhat aware of what you're walking on. But its generally simple. There are things you like and things you don't like, and you will go towards things you prefer and away from things you prefer to avoid. When you can't avoid it, you'll likely be unhappy, but it won't be a big deal, you can get away soon enough. Things tend to be noticeable, but don't rule your life.

At least, this is what people tell me. Their descriptions vary, but generally it comes down to, there is a norm for sensory input, that involves all senses functioning, senses regulated, and the sensory input not needing to be the focus of something as simple as walking down the street.

I say "this is what people tell me", because this isn't what life is to me. This isn't what walking down the street is to me. I actually can't even imagine it. I can't imagine that little input noticed; I can't imagine things affecting me that little; I can't imagine it being that simple.

People notice the cars, the sirens when they go by, the noise of everyday city life. However, I don't just notice these. They completely overwhelm me. An ambulance going by will, at times, literally freeze me in my tracks. A car revving or a loud motorcycle will do the same. In order to keep walking, in order to not just get so overwhelmed I can't function, I'll dig my fingernails into my palms. I'll fidget with things, clench my hands, start signing things I want to say to people when I get to where I'm going. I'll wear earplugs (though not always, because they itch in my ears). When breaks screech its an attack on my ears. It physically hurts. My muscles tense up, headaches are worse, it just hurts. When I get to where I'm going I'm still on edge from the constant bombardment that is city life, and that's just the sounds.

The smells, those are so much worse. People who know me at all know this one at least. Those smells that are offensive to others are migraine triggers to me. Those smells that others dislike, I'm fighting to keep from vomiting from. Those smells that others don't even notice, they do the same. Walking down the street, you smell cigarette smoke as you pass someone smoking, but apparently most people don't smell it when they're half a block downwind from anyone smoking. I struggle to have people realize that my reactions aren't just psychosomatic, as they don't realize anyone can smell things the way I do. And the smells, they're too much too. The headaches, the nausea, the attempting to breath properly, that's normal. That's everyday. Being looked at strangely for wearing a mask when I'm walking down Main Street, or waiting for a bus; having parents pull their children away from me; having people randomly take pictures of me because they're not used to someone wearing a cloak and face mask walking around downtown - those vary in frequency, but only the random photograph is something that was so infrequent as to phase me. And that mask that people treat me differently when I'm wearing, its amazing. It lets me walk all the way to city hall without starting to get a migraine (though not all the way to the library across the park). It's amazing to have a full 15 minutes of walking down Main Street without beginning to develop a migraine. That's three times as long as I normally would get without the mask, and that's huge. People realize that dumpsters smell bad, and that sometimes people smell bad, and that tends to be something they understand can trigger the nausea, but walking quickly or on the other side of the street is (apparently) usually enough. The strange looks, the constant fighting of headaches, the planning my schedules around the smells, actively avoiding some buses and never going on those routes, planning when I walk and when I bus based off of how many people are riding vs walking vs taking smoke breaks, that's my life.

And those lights, those lights people see, those can be blinding. Those can make me unable to process what's around me until I've regained the ability to process. Those can make me, and often do make me, disassociate. All of the light, the sun, the headlights, the streetlights, everything, can make it so I can't even process the "walk" sign, especially when I'm being overloaded in other senses. Luckily I can function from 'don't walk when its orange' or 'walk when the sounds meant for blind people are chirping', but it still comes down to not being able to visually process certain details at times. When I say that I don't think it'll ever be safe for me to drive, people tend to underestimate what I'm saying. Walking down the street at night, if I was not terrified of cars, would likely be unsafe. People's descriptions of being blinded by the high beams on a car confuse me a lot. I don't understand what they mean by those being high beams, the lightest low beams are like that. What do they mean that the low beams give them light and the high beams are blinding? And that's before the disassociation. If its night time, I can rarely even walk home from the grocery store a quarter mile away without disassociating. It's like I split into multiple parts, and can't do more than execute the program of "walk home avoiding cars". I'm glad that other people on the sidewalk notice people, because I've almost walked into people often in this state (and only notice it after the fact). I already need to plan when I'm going to the grocery store around the smells, and now that we're adding lights in, walking home once its dark gets overwhelming. And yet, that's the easy option. For me its easier to deal with regular disassociation, to find ways to work around the fact that the lights are so bright that it hurts, that I can't see properly, and that I can't even be all together, than it is to deal with everything else if I avoided that. It'd be even easier to avoid the grocery store, but I need to eat somehow.

Now add on to all those sounds and smells and sights that you notice, noticing all those details (except, ironically, those that people expect you to notice on people.) That's not just a hand telling you to not walk, that's a lot of little lights, and they're not all working, some are out. The post is rusting and the trees behind it aren't just trees, they're full of leaves, which aren't all the same colors even within a leaf. And those disgusting smells, they're not just one smell, there are all these parts of various types of trash and various types of decomposition. And every little bump on the sidewalk is there, the new trash that you feel terrible walking by after people have thrown out of their vehicles, the dead animals at the side of the road. It's all there. You see it all, you hear it all, you smell it all. You don't see only a road scene, you see everything in that, and process it all.

And that's just being on the street. Not even walking yet. Because once you get to walking there's movement of your body. And because that body doesn't process everything normally, there's stumbling and being generally clumsy. I've mentioned before sensory issues to some degree, and mentioned this then. But that's not always acceptable. Sometimes people are expected to wear things other than shoes with toes (for some strange reason), and because trying to get a job is more important than a sprained ankle, shoes for interviews go ahead and cause walking down the street to cause sudden twisting of an ankle because of not being able to feel what's going on underfoot. I'm still dealing with my ankle being in pain after last Friday, and I've not even gotten to interview with anyone, just had to wear the silly shoes to prove to people I could dress professionally.

The sights, the smells, the sounds of the street. Walking and having to deal with processing information and not hurting yourself. If you ignore the weather, and assume everything on you is comfortable, despite even "comfortable" clothing being too much at times, then for the 5 senses people normally think of you can get from point A to point B (as taste is not very relevant for walking down a street).

But that's only the start of this. That's only the start of having unusual sensory processing in the ways that I do. Because that suggests once you're off the street that things are easier. That suggests that the vestibular and propioceptive senses don't exist. That suggests that only hypersensitivities exist, not hyposensitivities, not seeking this input to regulate oneself, not difficulty planning motor actions, or difficulty discriminating between different sensory inputs. That suggests that input can be dealt with and ignores it being overwhelming, breaking all ability to function, even after its gone. That suggests that removing input is all that's needed and ignores that even once the input is removed the recovery still takes time, and during all of that time there's extreme sensitivity to everything else, including non-sensory. Not to mention, while it certainly does a lot and certainly more is removable than people immediately think of, there's only so much input you can remove and still be able to get to a doctor when you need to and when you can't drive.

And this is my life. This constant overload. This constant bombardment of sensory inputs attacking me from all sides. My body not knowing how to habituate to anything going on, so hearing every tick that clock makes that others tune out. My body hyper-tasting and yet still craving strong foods (but only some, only my choice). My body having poor sense of where its joints are, and not being able to walk straight without vision. My mouth still at times having a hard time pronouncing words that I should know how to do, and my hands having such a horrible time at video games that people make drinking games over watching people like me play them. My body dealing with everything until it can't take any more, and it shuts down, doesn't let me speak, doesn't let me move, doesn't let me even get away from known migraine triggers at times. Or instead, losing control of my mind and snapping at people and sobbing, because the fire alarm has been beeping for a new battery longer than I can take.

Not only is this my life, this has always been my life, I didn't know some of this was abnormal until this past year, and this will likely always be my life, because while therapy helps and new coping mechanisms help, how I perceive the world is just different than normal people see it.

Simply dealing with what's around you, even ignoring the people, is so much, that I can't understand how people are surprised when a child throws themself to the ground screaming, unable to cope. Simply dealing with everything is so much, that I can't expect how people overlook it all. Simply dealing with everything is so much that I have no clue what its like for it to be simple.

They say it is. But its not for me.

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