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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.


10 comments:

  1. This is the first time I've seen my own experience described in words. I call it a sensory meltdown or sensory attack, but it's just the same. Thank you for sharing your experience. Solidarity to you.

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    1. Thanks for your comment, I'm so glad that this resonates with you! Sensory meltdowns exist too, but they're usually characterized by pervasive tears or anger instead of the detachment; like a turn externally versus internally. I've called them sensory attacks as well, it's hard to describe these experiences, isn't it?! At least we know we're all in the same sensory boat! Strength to you as well.

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  2. agian ypu were able to put feelings into words. i have tried to put words to these feelings for years. Thank you!!!

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    1. Thank you for such a great comment! Glad to be in good company :)

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  3. This completely explains how my world feels right now and much you describe it isn't "my normal life". It is difficult when you've built such a complex life and then go into sensory overload and feel you struggle performing basic every day functions! This is the part that confuses most people, because they see what you are capable of. They have difficulty understanding that when you reach overload, your "normal" no longer exists and you feel like you are screaming for help on the inside, yet your lips can't utter the words in any "normal" fashion. Thanks for making me feel like I'm not alone in this world that few understand!

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    1. Phrased so incredibly well, thank you for this wonderful comment!

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  4. Any tips to best help someone in a sensory shutdown? Thanks!

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    1. Great question! I think it depends on the person and the way they experience shutdown. I know many SPD adults who experience the anxiety-ridden, unable to escape feeling. For me, it was - and still is - important to get back home, engage in some quiet rest, use the tools that make me feel the most safe, and hear positive words from those who love me. It's easy to feel scared and concerned that the shutdown state is permanent, but it it's only temporary, even if it will and could always return. So quiet, rest, comfort, tools, reassurance. Keep me posted :)

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  5. Thank you for sharing. For those of us that do not have SPD, your words are a great insight to those that live with this disorder every day. I congratulate you for your amazing courage and strength. I have an 11 year old that was diagnosed since the age of 3. My world crumbled trying to grasp with the O.T. was trying to explain what my beautiful, little girl goes through. Could you please advise me how I can describe to my husband and her sisters, what she goes through and how can I help my SPD daughter understand? Thank you so much. Many blessing.

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    1. Hi there, thanks so much for the encouragement! I've written my blog to help others understand, so I hope you send your husband this way for some reading. SPD can be uncomfortable, confusing, frustrating, upsetting, and sometimes especially scary, and your daughter is so lucky to have had you on her side, as well as early treatment. I'd need to hear more about your daughter's particular sensitivities (you can always email me at coming2mysenses@gmail.com), but I'd say it's important for them to know that she's not making this up. Studies are starting to show what SPD looks like in the brain, and it's all about differences in wiring (google SPD USCF to find the best study). What she feels is 100% real - it's not her being spoiled or a princess, it's her trying to cope with a system that isn't the same as some, and sometimes she feels uncomfortable and has to do certain things to help her feel more comfortable. I hope this helps, again, totally email me if you want to chat more :) And hang in, your daughter is awesome. I am clearly biased, but it's also true!

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