Hair-trigger Sensory Hell

I’m sat here writing this and my focus is everywhere, darting around the room like a frantic animal seeking escape. I’m twitching, every little sound makes me jump.

So many sounds. There’s no escape. All outside my door here. All threatening. I’m terrified. I hear a bang (something dropped?) and scream! I’m alternating between holding my head in my hands and sobbing, and the rapid breathing of a panic attack.

My headphones don’t help. They don’t cancel everything. And even if they did I still feel the vibrations.

Literally. Every. Sound. I’m a receiver with the gain turned up way past maximum. There is no escape. No way out. I’m flapping my hands, I’m repeating, over and over and over and over and over and over, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”

And it doesn’t stop. I know how this ends. I’ve been here before. This is overload. Population one. My needle is pushed against the stop and every tiny increment is testing the strength of the fuse. It will blow.

I don’t know when. Maybe not even today, but at some point it will go. And I will be in meltdown. I feel it: some elements are leaking past my barriers. I’m trying to suppress it because I have to keep functioning. I have to keep going at any cost.

And I know that’s foolish. I know that the longer I strain to delay the inevitable the bigger the crash. And I still do it.

I’ve reached a lull. A brief spell where I can let the tension I hadn’t even realised was in my body dissipate. When I can breathe slowly and deeply. When I can rebuild my strength ready for the next assault.

Sensory overload is not something you get to switch off when it’s inconvenient. It usually comes on with a vengeance at times of stress. Talk about kicking you when you’re down!

This one has been building for a long time. Over months. The stress is why I’ve referred myself for counselling. I can’t write about it, not now, not yet. I’m not able to face those demons today. But one day, hopefully, I will.

We Care A Lot

Being a carer is hard work at times. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not complaining. I do it through choice. But lately caring for Anne has become a whole lot harder. Her illnesses have gotten worse and she has become very depressed, frequently experiencing suicidal thoughts.

I can’t switch off from it. I’m receptive to her state of mind, and — believe me — when you’re prone to depression yourself it’s extremely stressful to feel the echoes of somebody else’s. It negatively affects my own emotional state and after a while, day after day, it builds up to the point at which I have to do my best to shut off. To lock myself away and wait for the overwhelming feelings to recede.

It is exhausting. I have found myself needing to take a break more and more often. And that is a cause of stress in itself because I feel guilty for failing to be there constantly. She relies on me, she needs my help, and I’m not always able to respond.

I’m aware that I’m not looking after myself as well as I would normally. I’m mostly subsisting on take-out food and candy. Things like washing are falling to a bare minimum. I’m becoming snappy far too often, my motivation is poor and I’m feeling low. Oh, and aspects of my gender dysphoria are increasingly intruding on my thoughts.

There is a feeling that I’m losing control, adrift and at the mercy of life’s currents. I know from past experience that this is a dangerous situation for me because it is a powerful trigger for self harm: cutting in my case. The thoughts and impulses are there, even as I write this. I sat for about an hour over the weekend holding a blade, just thinking about using it.

I haven’t yet because I do consider it something of a last resort. I’m just concerned that the time when I yield to my impulses is getting closer by the day: the time when I will regain the illusion of control over my life, at least for a while. The temptation is strong but so far my fear of falling into the cycle of dependency has stayed my hand.

Decompression and Recovery

It’s amazing how much difference a couple of days can make. On Sunday I was in such a dark place; my mind was in turmoil and I was suffering such fear that I could barely function.

I responded to a kind offer from friends to visit for a while, to get away – run away – to somewhere I could feel free of the pressure that was causing me such distress. By Monday evening I was over 100 miles away and beginning the process of recovery.

Unusually for me I wanted to talk, to share how I had been feeling: having an understanding audience is vital. And it can be cathartic to simply speak about your troubles. To put them into words, give them shape and gain a fresh perspective.

In this case talking about how I’d been feeling served to organize my feelings, put my thoughts into an order that allowed me to deal with them, to start to release the pain and fear. To take the first steps towards recovery.

My surroundings have been very conducive to that end: my friends have a comfortable house right near the coast in a quiet part of Dorset: peaceful, lovely scenery, plenty of fresh air and not many people around me. It has been as close to perfect as I could have wished for.

A number of people have contacted me, through email, SMS and social networks, to offer their support. It has been a revelation that I have so many people who care about me: I don’t have a lot of self-esteem and it can be hard to believe that anyone else would think much of me.

The friends I stayed with made me so welcome and didn’t put me under any pressure to explain what had happened or how I was feeling: they gave me the space I needed. I felt safe and was able to relax, and as I did so I started to talk. They listened and understood. They didn’t judge, didn’t tell me what I should do.

I left this morning feeling calm, and also a little embarrassed that I’m not able to thank them nearly enough for being there for me when I needed their support. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such kindness: I was close to tears — of happiness — as I drove away, and again now as I write this.

It is because of these friends, and others who have contacted me in one way or another over the past couple of days that I am starting to feel good about myself again. It feels as if the crisis is behind me and I’m moving on. I’ve got the time and support now to complete the healing process.

The Third Degree

Believe me, being in a non-verbal state is as frustrating for me as it must be for anybody trying to communicate with me. It is usually a symptom of stress, of emotional overload, so the worst way to react is in any fashion that increases my stress – becoming emotional, speaking louder or more insistently, coming too close and encroaching on my personal space. If you must try to interact with me at least speak quietly, unemotionally and without approaching too closely or making sudden movements.

Any hint of threat, whether it is a raised voice or unexpected proximity, only makes me feel more anxious and ensures that the episode will last longer. If I do manage to force some words out then don’t assume I’ve come out of it – this can be a delicate moment as I start to regain some control and pushing me – giving me the third degree – will only send me deep back down into my uncommunicative state.

Above all, don’t take my lack of responsiveness as a sign of indifference, ignorance or antipathy towards you: it is not. It is simply that my faculties are fully occupied dealing with my own mental turmoil and there is no spare capacity to handle interacting with people. I don’t enjoy being non-verbal: because of the continual commotion inside my head it is mentally exhausting, and the muscular tension that results also causes physical tiredness. It is absolutely draining and leaves me in need of peace and quiet to relax. The fact that I might have been sat there, hardly moving or uttering a word, for hours does mean that I am ready to jump back into “normal” activities from the get go. Without some down time to recuperate it is very likely that even a small trigger will push me back over the edge.

Recognition of the causes and effects involved coupled with a little understanding makes it quicker and easier for me to work through the effects of the stress overload, and that has to be a good thing all round, doesn’t it?

Breakdown Timebomb

Handling strong emotions is extraordinarily difficult. Trying to keep them under control – rein them in – is like trying to close a suitcase packed with so many clothes that they threaten to burst out from every side.

I am caught in the currents of my feelings, one minute floating calmly and the next being pulled under by the rip tide or whirled around in a maelstrom of despair before sinking down in darkness. The illusion of control lies shattered around me as I huddle fetus-like in the middle of an barren landscape, no feature to break the monotonous emptiness fading to the horizon in every direction. Out here there is only loneliness. No sound. No breeze. Nothing moves, not even me. Yet within my mind nothing is still: huge, demanding thoughts and emotions slug it out in a battle for my attention while I struggle to avoid being overwhelmed.

And then, as softly sudden as the bursting of a soap bubble, the turmoil subsides and I experience a period of relative calm.

I feel the need to escape – a basic animal instinct to flee from threat. But there is no path to the place that draws me because it exists only in my memories, in the past. An illusory golden history, a carefree time of happiness. An amalgam of times and places synthesized into idyllic fantasy. Such a temptation!… to slip away into this perfect dream world.

A number of factors have likely contributed to my current state of mind but they all boil down to one thing: change. Too much has changed and is changing in too short a space of time and it all pushes me out of my comfortable routine existence into an unstable, unpredictable, disorientating state of uncertainty and confusion. I’ve not been sleeping well as a result, compounding the problem with tiredness – I feel tattered, ragged, frayed, worn out.

Please, somebody stop the world. I want to get off – I’ve had enough of this ride.

Losing Patience

Several times, especially in recent weeks, I have been put in an awkward, discomfiting position when out socially. One minute I will be feeling at ease among friends and then one person will start behaving badly – disparaging and insulting others, being antagonistic, even spiteful, and completely shattering my sense of calm.

This person absolutely refuses to accept that they might be in the wrong, instead reacting angrily to criticism and blaming anyone and everyone around them; the phrase “chip on the shoulder” comes readily to mind. I’m starting to wonder if there’s some psychological problem behind these personality traits – the Wikipedia entry for narcissistic personality disorder includes the following:

Narcissists have such an elevated sense of self-worth that they value themselves as inherently better than others. Yet, they have a fragile self-esteem and cannot handle criticism, and will often try to compensate for this inner fragility by belittling or disparaging others in an attempt to validate their own self-worth. It is this sadistic tendency that is characteristic of narcissism…

But this speculation does not address the issue at hand, namely that this person is causing an increasing amount of ill-feeling and upset. I know that I’m reaching the limit of my patience in dealing with this person’s demands and prima donna antics, and I’m far from the only one feeling this way.

I find that I am dealing with the stress caused by this person’s behavior by switching off from these interactions – I have become increasingly emotionally detached as a form of self-defense. While I still care, I am no longer willing to be subjected to this kind of bullying behavior.

I Aten’t Dead

Still here. Just having trouble gathering my thoughts into a shape coherent enough to write lately; makes me wonder if the cracks are showing. Not enough hours in the day, nor enough days in the week to find time to undertake all the outstanding jobs. Ninety degrees weather and I’m snowed under!

There are times when the work piles up faster than I can manage – I’m working flat out and the backlog is growing by the hour. There’s a tipping point – a critical mass – beyond which I start to spend more time thinking about the sheer number of things to do than actually tackling them. I feel overwhelmed – under pressure – and start to panic.

I have found that I have a limit to the number of items I can maintain in my memory – my mental to-do list. If it grows beyond that limit then it is like adding too many apples to a fruit bowl: I put one in and it dislodges one or two that were precariously balanced, so I have to catch them and try to replace them into the bowl. (Akin to what I’d call thrashing in the day job.) My time and effort is spent trying to fit all my apples into my bowl, so to speak, rather than eating them.

Imagine opening a door – not a normal door but a portal to another place, more like Alice’s looking glass. It is door-sized and -shaped – about 2’6″ wide and 6’6″ high – but just stands there like a window hanging in space. All I have to do is walk through it to be instantly transported to a peaceful land of solitude. I stand on the lush green grass, feeling the breeze and listening to the birds, and look back through the portal at the world I have stepped out of. Hang up a “Do not disturb” sign and lock the door. If only it weren’t a fantasy…

An idealized past haunts my waking thoughts; I look back through the haze of distant time to halcyon days of childhood when the weight of responsibility lay less heavy upon my shoulders. But time flows ever on like a river to the sea, carrying me in its currents farther and farther from the tranquility of my source whence I sprang from the earth pure and untainted by the corruption and filth of this world above. Feels like I need a vacation.

PS: Thanks to Terry Pratchett for the title…

Still Young at Heart

Realization recently struck me like a slap in the face from a wet fish – I’ve been far too serious lately and it has been contributing to a morose malaise. The cure? Cast off all sense of grown-up responsibility for a while and just play.

Reveling in immaturity and freedom as I take a short vacation from the gravity of adulthood – it sure sounds attractive. I want to jump in a puddle to make the biggest splash, climb a tree and look out to the horizon, run around and laugh and play. I want to be Huck Finn and run away on an adventure…

Not that I will end up doing any of that – just dreaming. But the other day I did yield to the urge to get away for a spell – irresponsible perhaps, but necessary to restore some peace of mind. I walked along the river path, enjoying the stillness and solitude. It was enjoyable for a while…

..and then I started to encounter people and it spoiled the mood. Gone was my relaxed sense of ease to be replaced by a stiff uneasiness in the presence of strangers.

I took refuge in a place I feel comfortable but although it turned out to be an enjoyable day I couldn’t get time alone to restore some semblance of calm in my mind.

The Rage

Bright, flashing lights. Loud, high-pitched sounds. Rough, scratchy touches. I find all of these overstimulating, sometimes to the point where they overload my senses causing physical pain and stress. It’s a cumulative effect – as I experience the sensory input I first feel discomfort. This builds along with my stress level.

There are times when I just up and leave to escape from the sensations. This is effective from my point of view but not so good when I’m in company. Then there are times when I dissociate – withdraw into myself – and largely stop being consciously aware of my surroundings. Finally there are the times when I am not able to get away from the stimulation, when I am not in a calm enough frame of mind to withdraw.

In those situations the stress builds and builds like a lake filling behind a dam. Only instead of water it is an inner rage. From trying to block out the offending sensation, I now find myself fixated on it – tunnel vision where all I can see is the source of the anger and pain. My muscles tense, my blood pressure rises. Unbidden, dark thoughts of violence rise from the depths of my mind, hurling themselves against the walls of self-control that contain them. I am beset by images of the destruction of my nemesis; I picture myself wielding sledgehammer or wrecking bar and pounding the offending object into mute submission as I scream and howl, releasing the rage.

I am not a violent person by nature – people know me as laid-back and easy-going. It usually takes far more to rouse me to anger than most other people, and I very rarely feel anger towards a human or other animal. But when the pressure builds inside… I find it exhausting to hold it all in, and when the dam breaks open everything I had held back floods out in a meltdown.

Afterwards is emptiness and exhaustion. And then, later, comes the shame. Shame of failure because I lost control. Shame of drawing negative attention from those around me.

Two things prompted me to write on this subject today. The first was this blog post about misophonia. The second was a very unwelcome change in my local pub: a slot machine was moved to a new position right next to where I usually sit. Bright, flashing lights directly in front of me – need I say more.

Saying No

Saying “No” doesn’t come naturally to me. Whenever people come up to me and ask me to help them in some way my instinctive response is to go along with whatever they want. I actually feel anxious even thinking about refusing their requests – I worry that refusing will lead to argument or confrontation.

So I end up doing things for others – not that I mind most of the time – but it takes time and energy that I ought to be spending doing other things. It can be a problem for me at work when I get people coming up to me or phoning me to ask for technical assistance when I am in the middle of some other piece of work: I end up taking longer to complete my tasks because I’m spending time on unrelated issues. I even raised it as a problem at my recent annual performance review.

One of the biggest problems with interruptions at work is that it can take me out of a flow state which then means I spend fifteen minutes or so trying to get back into it. Just four interruptions over the course of a day can lose me about an hour of productive working time.

I guess that invariably saying “Yes” to people actually makes things worse for me because it encourages them to ask for favors more often. In contrast I very rarely ask anybody to do things for me – I feel uncomfortable imposing on them.

I need to learn how to say “No” without causing myself stress as I fret about the possible consequences. Experience tells me that a simple, blank refusal doesn’t work in most instances – particularly in a social situation. The person will just repeat the request, often with some attempt at emotional coercion – a deliberate attempt to engage my sympathy. And it works – I then feel that I would be letting them down by continuing to turn them down, which upsets me. It could be labelled emotional blackmail. I consider it a particularly devious, underhand means to get one’s own way, but it seems to be a depressingly common tactic.

Some people have suggested that I invent some prior commitment that would preclude my assistance at that time; however that would mean lying which makes me even more uncomfortable so it’s not a viable option. If only people would take a simple “No” as an answer and drop the matter there and then instead of arguing about it and trying to change my mind. I really need to find some stress-free way to refuse, because otherwise I will just continue to take the (for me) easy way out and assent to their wishes.