Safety in a Sensory Body

I once saw a psychiatrist who said that I worried about the wrong things. Place me in a rundown, boarded-up neighborhood of pillagers, pirates, and thieves (incidentally Cher's next hit), and I would worry about the stillness of the air, the blaring and blinding light emanating from the Cash For Gold signs. Would I feel okay in my body as Blackbeard's great great great grandson carted me away through the unfamiliar streets with his noisy parrot squawking at me from atop his brawny shoulder?

The only pirate I actually fear . . . cause just look at him
(In other news, I think a hairy, misshapen octopus ate Johnny Depp. Just FYI.)

Would I feel okay in my body as The Artful Dodger himself tore down the crowded sidewalks with my wallet in tow - me, two steps behind (or more likely pressing myself up against an errant pillar just wanting to go home)? Give me your murderers, your pervs, your be-weaponed masses yearning to breathe free - just leave me feeling fully present in my bones for once. (Alright, maybe don't give me these people, but you get my point . . .)

All of the biggest anxiety-provoking fears in my life stem from my sensory issues. No surprise, really. I was an undiagnosed, free agent for nearly three decades of my life, writhing and spinning through a sensory sphere that I couldn't understand and didn't know to identify as problematic. Back then, everything scared me.  Things were a menagerie of blindingly bright, painfully loud, and scattered. I could sometimes see and hear and feel the ground under my feet, and sometimes I could not.

Not realizing what was at the root of my sensitivities, not understanding myself or my needs, and not being particularly embraced by others for my issues, I could not narrow down the source of my challenges. Because all people, places, and objects have sensory properties, I lived in fear of a wide, seemingly unrelated range of things.

In reality, there was a theme running along the length of my fears; something I wouldn't realize for quite a while:

I never felt safe . . . like, anywhere.

Well, let's say I rarely felt safe. By "safe," I mean "safe in my body out in the world." At home, tucked away in my soft, loose t-shirts and under the watchful eye of our family turtle, Cookie, I felt safe. But once I was outside, my pink sneakers pounding the pavement, walking in stride with literally anyone, the veil of safety lifted.

And again, it's not like I lived in a questionable neighborhood. I grew up in the middle of Manhattan. I went to a private school. We had a weekend home. I moved through a privileged, comfortable, and safe word. Yet inside, I couldn't trust - what? Myself? My brain? My body? Maybe all of these things. I knew I had incredibly good judgment and a talent - a sensitivity, even - that allowed me to read people's emotions and behaviors. I wanted to make people proud, and loved being smart and sensitive in equal measure. And still, I knew from experience that sometimes all of me, all of these values, would dissolve without warning. Something would click - or is it unclick - within me and I'd feel scared, stranded, and alone. I'd feel unsafe.

Sometime after I was evaluated for SPD, I began reassessing my relationship with safety. Was I really unsafe out there in the world? And when did I feel most unsafe? I realized that in the throes of a shutdown, when my eyes and ears abandoned their posts and proprioception further released its already tenuous grip, that I felt the most unsafe. Floating out there, like a slipped helium balloon, unable to process the very things that keep us tethered to our environment, it still feels as if my safety is compromised.

And yes, maybe it is. Although even after decades upon decades of having not a single clue what was going on inside of me, I was never injured in the line of a shutdown. Even without the proper avenues to process and make sense of my world, nearly blind and deaf and detached, I still managed to make the right string of decisions - call the right people, hop in the right cabs, march forcefully down the street toward home - to keep myself safe. As much as I punished myself for what I thought were my shortcomings (oh Rachel, how wrong you were), I was never ultimately unsafe - just temporarily uncomfortable. Momentarily out of commission.

Until recently, my (very new) belief that I was indeed safe allowed me to do new things with new people without feeling particularly challenged. I watched as my world expanded and marveled at all of the things I actually could handle in spite of my sensory sensitivities. In recent months though, the question of my safety has once again arisen and my world has gotten a bit smaller. I've worked tirelessly and have spent an incredible amount of energy on what seem to be the most mundane things: crossing an extra street. Making it to the mailbox. Waiting an extra minute on the line of a grocery store - all of these in an effort to rebuild my abilities after coming off of a powerful medication and re-learning how to operate as a delayed-diagnosis sensory adult in the world (remember this post?) Many mornings, as I take my daily walk, I find myself repeating over and over in my head: you are safe. You are safe. You are safe. It's a lesson that I've learned before and I suspect it's a lesson I will perpetually have the need to re-learn throughout the course of my sensory lifetime.

For me, safety lives in the knowing and thrives in the understanding. It lingers in the confidence that I'll survive and grows in someone else's compassion towards me and in the support of my challenges. And yes, maybe my old psychiatrist was right, to some degree. In the middle of a continent-swallowing earthquake, I'd probably worry that I'd lose my grip on sensory reality, not that I'd lose my home. You'd see me then as the rumbling subsided, laying prone in the dirt, clutching the corner of a landmass, my head dipping into the crevasse, dazed. I'd be the one muttering ahh, at least I can still see. At least I can still hear. At least I am safe. 

It'd be the end of the world as we know it
And assuming my senses were working, I'd probably feel fine


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