Sunday, April 5, 2015
Words From Inside a Sensory Shutdown
Think of this as the equivalent of finding a message in a bottle from a solitary shipwrecked sailor. I am writing to you from the inside of a sensory shutdown. I can barely see the words I am typing against the dimly lit screen or feel my fingers against the keys, but I am writing nonetheless. One second, I was walking outdoors, respectful of my recent benzo-withdrawal-heightened sensitivities, the next I was cross-legged on the floor of my bedroom cleaning out my closet, and then I was devoid of my faculties. What was just a pile of old boots and bags became haphazard stacks of lines and textures. Reaching for an item from the heap made my palms sweat and my skin pulse with electricity, even as I was safe and in a familiar place. The light that poured in through the slats of the blinds became blinding. The sounds of my favorite acoustic/indie/folk bands became muffled, incoherent, somehow louder. I thrust my darkest pair of tinted blue glasses onto my face and stood, wobbling in front of the mess. The jumble of input made me feel anxious. I took to deep breathing, aware that this anxiety wasn't psychologically-based. I was not feeling emotional about spring cleaning my closet. I was not nervous to be sitting in the bedroom that my husband/handler and I have so lovingly decorated with deep, rich shades of chocolate brown, sand, and blue to match my favorite photograph of our favorite beach. The anxiety was there just the same, holding hands with that moment in time when my eyes went from processing to not processing, when my ears went from hearing to not hearing.
A sensory shutdown is the loneliest experience for me. Perhaps it's the loneliest moment for someone with sensory issues - actively present in the physical body, almost too present in the face of sensory input, and yet trapped inside this fortress of bone and sinew. It is an experience for a party of one only. I can share the play-by-play with someone present with me at the time, but no one else can join me in this inner sanctum, the raw feelings of confusion and detachment - of failing the most basic of tasks. If I can't use my senses, my only portals to the world outside of myself, then I am without a door, crouched inward, banging on the walls. Behind my failing eyes, hyperactive ears, and jerky, uncoordinated body movements, my brain is working just fine - the part that isn't differently wired, that is. I am able to put together these thoughts to write to you. I know who I am, what I stand for, who I love, and how I logically connect to the environment outside of the self. I can theorize, philosophize, find humor in absurdity. It is nearly impossible to read or write (nearly!) I took a shower by the very grace of the universe, trusting that what I thought was the shampoo was actually the shampoo, battling against my inability to understand where my body was in space to not trip over the lip of the tub. I'm unable to do the most basic things that human beings do, yet able to think abstractly - that is, when I am not distracted by how bright, loud, and shaky this apartment feels in this moment.
It is nearly impossible in a moment of shutdown to be a valuable, contributing member of the human race. It is hard to talk, uncomfortable to listen, impossible to process. Through the muck of my sensory portals, I know enough now to look for my tools, to develop new ones to support how I am feeling in this moment. Needing to hand-shred parmesan cheese for a dinner recipe and simultaneously too uncomfortable to stand in our sizable, open kitchen, my back to the room, I rigged a series of pans and bowls to allow me to grate cheese from the safety of our couch. I am sitting in near-darkness on what is the most gloriously blue spring day, because it means that I can process the most bare minimum of actions to survive, like preparing lunch, and even more basic actions, like washing my hands.
We must find a way to respect the person in sensory shutdown. It is the most private of battles, neatly tucked away in the depths of our neurology. It may not bleed like a gash, but it is no less painful. It may not smart like a break, but it is renders us no less incapable. It may seem like a person in shutdown is just being selfish, strange, sensitive, or unusual - unable and unwilling to participate, to engage, to immerse themselves fully in that moment in time. In reality, we are temporary prisoners rendered blind, deaf, and mute by a world beyond our control - and sometimes even beyond our abilities. As impermanent as these episodes are, we cannot gauge when we'll find ourselves detached, scared, immobile, and in the throes of such a personal skirmish again. How heavy is the head that wears the sensory crown.