Inside A Torture Chamber

I spent for too long at the hospital yesterday accompanying my wife as she went through a series of tests and scans. The X-Ray/Ultrasound department has recently moved to a refurbished suite and it’s all new and shiny.

Too shiny. The lighting makes its white walls harshly bright. It’s all straight lines and square corners with no relieving softness. I know hospitals are clinical – obviously – but do they really have to look so cold and unfriendly? I was feeling on edge when we got to the department reception desk. Luckily my wife dealt with the receptionist – with the bright lights, echoing footsteps and other voices all claiming my attention I couldn’t concentrate on what he was saying at all. We got directed to a small waiting area off one of the corridors – an alcove with a row of six chairs on each side, facing each other. About half the chairs were occupied; I took one at the end away from the corridor with my wife sitting next to me.

I feel uncomfortable in waiting rooms at the best of times; I get very anxious when people are sat looking at me. And I don’t like to feel I’m being overheard when I talk to somebody, so I was inhibited from speaking with my wife. I ended up just sitting there, stimming in a fairly subtle manner by tapping one thumb on the other with my hands together, fingers intertwined – trying to keep reasonably calm. However the pressure of having other people facing me in such a small space was making me increasingly anxious. (I have similar problems using public transport – that’s why I will walk miles rather than catch a bus.)

So there I am in this small waiting area with too many strangers looking at me, the harsh light making me feel even more exposed and uncomfortable. I can feel I’m getting close to a sensory overload. And then somebody goes through the door in the corridor just outside this alcove. How to describe the noise made by that door? If you’ve seen those old horror films where the castle door slowly closes to the accompaniment of a tortured squeal from its stiff, rusted hinges you’ll know exactly what this door sounded like. That did overload me. I had to shut my eyes every time that door opened or closed because it was as if somebody was shining a spotlight into them. It hurt. I was starting to ache from the tension across my shoulders and up my neck.

I thought to myself that they couldn’t have designed a more effective environment to torture somebody with sensory processing issues if they had tried. I just felt like curling up in a corner and shutting down but I had to keep myself going to keep my wife company. By the time we got out of there I was tense and exhausted and just wanted to rest. It took a massive effort to avoid shutting down and left me drained. I’m not sure how much support I gave to my wife but at least I was there and mostly responsive. I find it hard to believe that a hospital could get its design so wrong in terms of providing spaces for people that are comfortable and promote a calm state of mind.

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4 thoughts on “Inside A Torture Chamber

  1. Oh Ben,I couldn't agree more. Hospitals are the worst place to go to in so many ways, but just considering sensory overload, they are awful. Having just spent a few days in one, I really understand what you mean. The stark environment, the white walls and floors, the bright horrible lights, the beeps and squeaks and voices and the close proximity of people. It's horrible. Absolutely horrible. I was lucky enough to have my own room this time and kept the lights off except for one in the far corner and I kept the room drapes closed in front of it so it wouldn't bother me. I do not understand why they would make such a horrid environment for people who are sick or being treated and tested for ailments. It makes not sense. Why not natural calming earth tones, lower light in the halls and waiting areas, more room for people to move about or sit comfortably, and calming music piped in wouldn't be a bad idea either. It's hardly the place one goes to feel comforted, or at least, to not feel more stress over a very unpleasant situation to begin with.Sorry… I could really go on and on about this. I can't believe you didn't get horribly upset with that door opening and closing. I would have had to bolt out of the room and try to find a place of quiet somewhere. I realize you didn't want to leave your wife's side, but I don't know if I could even have held up like that. I hope you both get to be home this week and not have to go through that again.

  2. Yes, they are horrible places to spend any length of time, aren't they? Not conducive to rest at all. Even my wife, who doesn't have sensory problems, found the place uncomfortable.That door was a particular problem. I had visions of myself losing control, melting down, screaming and lashing out. I don't know whether it was my awareness of my state of mind or the stimming that enabled me to retain self-control. Perhaps it was elements of both. Perhaps it was an overriding concern for my wife. I tried other techniques – attempting to imagine myself in the woods of my mental world and block out the stimuli. But my mind was too noisy and distracted.It helped when the other people were called out as time passed until I was left alone waiting for my wife's return. That reduced my anxiety to a manageable level. I might have had to go for a walk if the waiting room had not emptied. But it did and I got through. It's as if something caused my situation to calm enough for me to handle. Even that door got latched open in the end. It might have been coincidence or it might have been some benevolent influence. I'm grateful either way.

  3. How awful. Thankyou for sharing your experience… Now maybe I know why the Children's Hospital here has curving hallways, wide open spaces, murals and so much art it looks like a museum?! Good for you for staying there for your wife even though it was so difficult…

  4. Julie – you're welcome. Interesting point about the Children's Hospital – does it show that the designers give a higher priority to the sensory environment for spaces where children will be spending time? Because it doesn't seem to be the case for "adult" spaces where function is prime and the impact on the senses comes way down their list.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

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