When my firstborn was 18 months old, I took her to a Gymboree Play & Music class. It will be fun, they said. Your child will be engaged, make friends while developing early skills, and you can relax and enjoy the time!
My daughter’s eyes widened when we walked into the brightly colored and well-lit room. Fast, upbeat children’s music played as we took our seats around the red and blue parachute. A robust, bubbly blonde woman led the group, singing cheerily and loudly. Babies bounced and laughed, crawling toward her, toward each other, toward the fun.
My baby girl clung to me and began to cry. The crying escalated to screaming. People stared. What is her problem? — their looks seemed to say. The bubbly lady looked surprised, annoyed even.
I picked up my daughter, looking for a quieter spot to soothe her. But I couldn’t settle her down. Every corner was filled with color, lights, and sound. It was supposed to be a blast! For most of the little people, it was. But for my baby, it was hell in living color. And I’m not gonna lie, it was rather over the top for me too.
Isn’t everything new for babies? Why do we need to create a world just to stimulate them when they are so easily stimulated already? But I was there to be social because a friend had asked me to come with her and her child. I handed over the money and my time so that my highly sensitive baby could be entertained. My mistake.
After her first day of preschool, my daughter’s teacher called to inform me that she had hidden under the table for the first half-hour and, after being coaxed out, did not utter a word the rest of the morning. This refusal to speak at school went on for weeks, maybe longer.
One evening my mother-in-law called to tell me to turn on the TV. Dateline was doing a segment on a little girl with selective mutism. She was an otherwise healthy child, but easily overwhelmed in new situations. Her parents brought her to a psychiatrist, and they treated her with Prozac. A 4-year-old on Prozac for using a defense mechanism when overwhelmed? Not my child. I would deal with this on my own, thank you.
I knew she was sensitive to stimuli, rather shy, and apprehensive about new situations. But she was full of joy in her comfort zone, playing with her baby sister or dancing around the living room, drawing and listening to stories. She also loved to play outdoors and was content to play games or color with a special friend, by herself, or with Mommy or Daddy.
She didn’t particularly like restaurants or movie theaters or the beach if there wasn’t any shade to be found. If she got too hot, she would break out in a rash. If she got too hungry, too tired, or overstimulated, she was very irritable. Nothing outrageous, just a highly sensitive kid.
I was happiest in a quiet, calm environment myself, being a writer and an introvert, so it wasn’t difficult for me to relate and accommodate, at least at home.
But at home wasn’t the problem. Everywhere else was.
Nothing was more difficult or heart-wrenching than trying to get my daughter on the school bus during the first week of kindergarten. She hid under her bed, in a closet, in the bathroom.
At this point, I had two smaller children at home and a husband who traveled. Putting all three of them in the car to drive her to school each day and walk her to her classroom would have been a logistical nightmare. But so was getting her on the bus.
One night when I was putting her to bed, she told me that she was afraid of being trampled at school. When I asked her to explain, she said that at the end of recess each day, a teacher blew a whistle (that alone was an assault to her senses), and all of the children came running from the playground to line up at the school building. This terrified her.
I wish I could say that her later school years were much easier, that she grew thicker skin and embraced the masses, the noise, the insensitivity of the world. But that isn’t true. Not only was she suffering from sensory overload, but she also picked up on every injustice, every irritated tone, and certainly every mistreatment, real or perceived, of another child.
She was a good girl though. She did what her teachers asked her to do and received As on all of her assignments. What I didn’t know then, but what she would tell me once she was grown, was how very difficult it had been to do this — to pay attention, to complete assignments that bored her, to toe the line in school. It took all of her energy and all of her focus.
She made a few friends along the way and threw herself passionately into her extracurricular dance classes. But by the time she was home, dutifully completing her homework while her younger sisters played, she would collapse into tears and anger.
“I’m not free,” she said once through sobs. “Is anyone really free?”
When I could not take watching my child suffer through the long weeks of school any longer, by the time she reached fourth grade, I allowed her to homeschool. But much of the damage had been done, and it would take years to undo.
The message she had gotten from the world was that something is wrong with her. She was too sensitive, too cautious, too quiet, too fragile. In later years, she told me that to get by at school, she’d had to try very hard not to be herself. And every step of the way, I wondered if I was failing as a mother.
It wasn’t until after college, and several attempts with counseling along the way and recommendations for various medications, that my daughter was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder.
She had never, not even in childhood, been hyperactive, loud, or particularly impulsive. I never knew. How could I not have known?
What if I had known? What would I have done differently? I’m not sure. And is attention deficit disorder simply the brain’s way of trying to cope with sensitivity in a less-than-sensitive world? To what extent do we control our environment, and to what extent do we accommodate it?
My daughter has tried medication in adulthood. She says it is highly effective in helping her focus, in getting things done, in being organized. I thought back to her childhood. She was definitely less organized than her sisters and my husband and me. I chalked it up to her artistic temperament. She was messy, creative, and a bit forgetful at times. But she was smart and talented and kind.
The medication has side effects. It dampens creativity. It leaves her sleepless, suppresses her appetite, and worst of all, triggers a brief depressive episode as she is coming down off of it. One day she called me during such an episode.
“I am too sensitive for this world,” she cried. My own tears flowed as I listened. If this is her reaction to it in adulthood, what would medication have done to her as a child?
Today my daughter manages her ADD with a very healthy diet, acupuncture, and consistent exercise. She rarely takes medication. She continues to create beautiful art and dance and love deeply. She shares her gifts with the world, and the world is just a little bit softer because of her.