Notes On Navigating An Overwhelming World

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The developed world is harsh on people with hypersensitive senses. The screeching of brakes and tooting of car horns, dazzling and ultravivid colours in every direction, audiovisual assaults from televisions and speakers and screens, the constant demands for attention even as the world wears you down. It can’t kill you. It only makes you feel you’re losing your mind.

I grew up with hyperhearing, hypertactility and synesthesia. Sensory issues have haunted me for my entire life. Skin-on-skin contact has always been painful, especially if someone touches me without warning. Light exerts subtle pressures on my skin–dawn is gentle and soothing; afternoon carries the confidence of maturity; evening light is elderly but accepting; artificial white light is sterile–and when darkness falls it feels like a weight has lifted off me. When someone or something moves within my line of sight I feel a ghost of a sensation creeping across my face, as though my eyes are attempting to mirror the motion. I prefer the harsh but tough texture of 1000D cordura to slick but shallow PVC or plastics of pleather most commercial bags are made of. I have heard phones vibrating over the chatter of a noisy food court and heard the low-pitched rubbery tones emitted by a strand of hair being rubbed between my fingers.

As I grow older, my senses have grown more acute. When I took up kali, every clash of naked sticks was a blinding white blast that left a painful ringing in my ears. When shopping for winter clothing, I ran my finger across a down jacket, producing a high-pitched scratching that bit into my bones. Simply touching the material, much less wearing it, was unbearable. During infrequent trips to cities and malls, I have to brace myself for a constant sensory assault. Sitting in an empty train car offers temporary respite — until the inevitable metallic yellow screeching of metal on metal as the train pulls into a station. I can hear people perfectly well through noise cancelling headphones. My neighbour types on a mechanical keyboard every day, and the only reason I can tolerate it is because he lives a block away. I don’t watch English or other language dubs of movies or anime if I can; the dyssynchrony between words and lip movements is jarring, and many English voice actors are too high-pitched for my ears. I can’t stand ASMR performances; they trigger rage instead of euphoria. I barely even talk on the phone these days: when I do I need to process streams of colours and sounds flowing into complex textured shapes against a flat immobile wall of deepest black, and from this flood of sensory input identify words and phrases, reconstruct sentences, interpret meaning, and construct a reply within milliseconds.

The human brain can only absorb and process so much at a time. In my youth, prolonged exposure to loud noises and tactile sensation led to mental shutdowns and meltdowns.

A shutdown is like withdrawing into a shell and switching off all non-existence-critical life processes. Speech becomes meaningless babble. Emotions run wild, even if body language suggests placidness. Every remaining erg of energy is focused inward on maintaining the remnants of sanity; there is nothing left to frame a coherent thought, to speak a word, to voluntarily move a muscle.

A meltdown is the opposite. It is a lashing out at the world. It is pent-up frustration and dammed-up emotional and physical and psychic pain erupting at once. It is a physical expression of internal turmoil and sensory overload. A gentle breeze becomes a salted knife slicing off your skin; a caress transforms into acidic fire; a whispered word is a deep penetrating bomb delivering a payload of razors and chaff.

During especially stressful periods I logged an average of one meltdown a day, sometimes two. When I was younger I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe what I was feeling; later, when I did, only a handful of people believed me and even fewer respected it.

I will not spend my days fearful of the next meltdown. I will not be battered all my life. This world will not accommodate me — but I can adapt.

Life on a Wrong Planet

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Over the years I developed a number of adaptations to the modern world. To others it may seem eccentric, quirky or otherwise unusual. I don’t care — they help me survive, and that is the highest measure of an adaptation.

I keep my workspace quiet and tidy at all times. When working, the loudest sound I permit is the fan and music at low volume. Usually I work in silence. Spending hours on end without distractions sharpens the mind and concentration, allowing totality of focus on the task at hand.

When shopping for clothing and electronics, I check technical specifications online, create a shortlist of goods, and extensively test the shortlisted candidates in person. I handle them, weigh them, run my hands down them, paying careful attention to sensory input. A single failure in any category is an automatic disqualification. I shun noisy mechanical keyboards, cheap plasticky mice, clothes that offend my eyes, or anything that poses undue discomfort. Usually that means paying for high-end goods, but the price is always worth it.

I talk to people primarily by text message or in person. Phone calls are infrequent and usually to the point, and only if it’s worth the massive energy expenditure required. Long business calls are so draining that I usually have to take time off just to recover from them. I learned not to push myself if I don’t have to, instead taking the time to recover my energy.

When moving through a crowd I utilize footwork from martial arts. It’s more than just practice; it allows me to avoid touching people. Even the slightest brush against human skin is jarring. Timing, distance, weight transfer become extremely important when you have a powerful disincentive against touch. And when you can feel range and motion, integrating that sensation into your movements becomes an exercise in self-awareness and body dynamics.

When the little things define how well you get through the day, you pay attention to the things nobody else notices. I tape down my sticks to absorb sound. I walk on the balls of my feet because the Singaporean shuffle is rough and grating. I pick up and move stuff instead of dragging them and creating painful sound. I strive to speak clearly and use perfect English because Singlish is painful to process. I try to predict areas with loud noises and avoid them if I can.

This isn’t to say I spend my life evading sensory input altogether. The world won’t always respect my needs and desires. So I train myself to face up to it.

I enter arcades and will myself to linger, to function in spite of the razzle-dazzle. I don’t silence noisy children or screaming babies around me if they don’t pose a sanity risk. I attend conventions and conferences if I’m interested in them, and take measures to mitigate sensory input. And when things get unbearable, I break out my personal protective equipment.

ISOLATE