Coming to my Senses

It has taken 13 years and a veritable force of medical and mental health professionals, but at 27, I can finally say that I have come to my senses . . . or well, come to an understanding of my senses. For nearly a decade and a half, I have been operating under the naive assumption that I have Panic Disorder, a diagnosis that fit me not unlike a warped pot-lid. It's true, in certain situations, my palms sometimes get sweaty, my heart often races, and I am thrown into a tailspin of symptoms and reactions. These feelings have caused me to avoid similar places, and so a cycle of fear and avoidance had developed into an anxiety disorder.

The question no one ever stopped to ask, however, was "why?"

Why were these panic-related places always auditory and visual menageries of unfortunately massive proportions? Why would my auditory focus veer in and out of private conversation like a broken lens, fixating on the din of city buses/tourist-chatter/sirens/heels-on-sidewalk, and why did these sounds fight for the foreground in my head? Why did crowds of people in daylight seem to radiate as sharp outlines with millions of points of detail, and at night, why did their over-clarity feel like drilling behind my eyes? And why, after a day of "bombardment" - (of simple halogen office lights, crispy computer screens, and complex commuting) - did I feel internally shattered? Why did I crash-land under bizarre amounts of extra-soft blankets (5) in the depth of summer, the air conditioning cranked high, my pulsating body and mind unable to break free into rest? Why did I ask couchmates for sitcom punchlines, and accidentally bash my body into furniture, only to forget it all soon afterwards?

Simple, my new therapist said last week. Sensory Processing Disorder. SPD. Although nearly 50 years in the making, it's only a decade old in therapy circles, and is based upon the research of occupational therapist and developmental psychologist, A. Jean Ayres. In the 1960s, she described seemingly strange sensory "sensitivities" as an inefficient organization of sensory information within the nervous system, and she believed this inefficiency led to a multitude of symptoms. These symptoms oftentimes come with a host of secondary symptoms - one of them being anxiety, my old, dear friend.

As the disorder is young compared to most others (it is being petitioned for entrance into the next DSM in 2013), it often is applied to children who show tendencies to avoid or crave touch, movement, taste/smell, visual, or auditory stimui. I'm a child of the 80s, and we had no such explanation for the same tendencies. Only now, as SPD organizations are popping up, and mental health professionals are being trained on this disorder, are adults putting together their puzzle pieces and stepping forward.

I've started this blog to capture this experience as a very self-aware Master's student, from the psychologist's initial diagnosis to occupational therapy and beyond; it's an unexpeted plot-twist in my life. My hope is that it can be a companion to those of us adults who are playing catch-up with our sensory-selves, after many years of misdiagnosis, isolation, and confusion.


  1. Hey Rae, I had no idea you were dealing with this and for so long!! I think you will help a lot of people through sharing your experiences in this blog. A few questions came to mind as I read...
    -In trying to get SPD included in the DSM, is the condition being seen as more medical or more mental? The line seems blurry to me. I'm not necessarily saying that pharmaceuticals or surgery would correct the problem, but how is therapy supposed to address it?
    -I can understand the anxiety component being addressed by therapy, but what about the neurological side since this is "sensory processing"?
    -I'm also assuming that since you are going into occupational therapy, this will not be just talk-therapy, but will also include more practical components. What is occupational therapy like?

  2. Hey there Nii :-)

    I had no idea either! The SPD is totally new to me, although a therapist did suggest it years ago. She didn't push it, and I didn't ask.

    *The condition, as far as I understand, has both medical and mental components, but because it's "of the brain," it becomes an issue that would be handy to have in the DSM. I'll write a post on this topic soon. I first need to catch "everyone" (all two of you) up on my first OT session yesterday.

    *Also, as far as I understand, the neurological side self-corrects though a series of sensory-stimulating and inhibiting exercises. This will be the topic of the next posting. The brain is a pretty awesome thing.

    Stay tuned. Thanks for supporting me, fellow MAer :D


  3. I was diagnosed with SPD and ADD around the time I started first grade. I remember having OT during elementary school, spending time with the therapist during the school day, and one day a week going to an occupational therapist outside of school. My issues are loud noises, and I don't have full feeling in my fingers, so I'm hyper sensitive in regards to everything else. (Diagnosed around 1992)


Post a Comment

Popular Posts