When I was five, my mom threw me a big birthday party at a local skating rink, and she’s never let me live down the way I acted during that party. I was crying, acting annoyed, and making numerous complaints about my classmates crowding me. Looking back, I can see what I was experiencing as sensory processing difficulties. But to my mom, I was exhibiting “bratty” behavior.
What she didn’t understand was that the constant stream of voices, music, flashing lights, and many demands to “Open my present next!” left me feeling like I wanted to crawl out of my skin. I wanted to be there. I spent weeks looking forward to the birthday party like the one my mom had spent so much time and money planning, but the reality of it was too much for me.
My fifth birthday party fiasco wasn’t a one-off event for me, either. A constant, reoccurring memory from my childhood is the adults in my life looking at me like I’d lost my ever-loving mind while telling me to “calm down.” They couldn’t understand why I had such adverse reactions to situations that they felt didn’t warrant the response I displayed.
I’d say that I’m a kind person with a huge heart. Yet, I’ve spent most of my life feeling like I also portray the characteristics of a moody jerk because so many people treat me like I’m the devil himself when I’m overstimulated.
Even as an adult, I’ve been given the same crazed look I became so familiar with as a child and am told to “just calm down” when experiencing sensory overload. It’s funny, though, how those words aren’t magic and never seem to help anyone self-regulate. Instead, they always made me feel unseen, dramatic, and crazy.
What other excuses are there for feeling irritated when a few people are talking to you at once? Or feeling your agitation build the longer you’re in the refrigerated food aisles at the grocery store because the buzzing of the refrigerators and the cold temperatures makes your skin crawl?
It’s taken me 27 years to realize that there were no “excuses” for my behavior because my reactions to situations weren’t entirely in my control but the result of an undiagnosed condition known as Sensory Processing Disorder. You see, we all have aversions to particular tastes, smells, textures, and sounds, but for some, those reactions can feel unbearable.
I know that when I am experiencing sensory overload, sound and touch are my biggest triggers. So when I’m cleaning my house, and the TV is on, my kids have their iPad blaring, one of them is asking me a billion questions, my reactions are manageable until something minor adds to it — like, stepping on a juice spill while I’m wearing socks. People see this and think that little details can send me over the edge, but it’s not that simple. It’s usually multiple stressors combined, and what they are witnessing is the hair that broke the camel’s back.
It wasn’t until my 4-year-old daughter was diagnosed with Sensory Processing Disorder that I could recognize the stark similarities between her sensitivities to stimuli and my own. Of course, I don’t throw myself to the ground when I’m overwhelmed, and I don’t full-out scream or degrade people. But, when I’m triggered, it’s usually during those times when my daughter is experiencing sensory overload, too. So I can empathize with her, because in many ways, as a child, I was her.
Her diagnosis helped me recognize that, just like there is nothing inherently “wrong” with her, there is nothing wrong with me, either. Nobody realized that I had sensory sensitivities because adults reacted to my sensory meltdowns as if they were mere temper tantrums when the two were not the same. As a result, I suppressed my irritability, aversions, and rage because I didn’t have the tools in my toolbox to know how to work through them.
But now, I do. Whereas my daughter is a sensory seeker and craves deep pressure input, I am the complete opposite; I don’t like to feel snug as a bug in a rug — that sensation sends me over the edge. So I can’t do things like wear a shirt or pants to bed or use a weighted blanket because these things make me feel so constricted that I want to squirm and scream.
But when it comes to sound, she and I are one of the same. Loud noises are probably our biggest triggers. I can’t speak to what it feels like when my daughter is overstimulated, but for me, I get this sensation that makes me internally feel like the music is on full blast, the vacuum is running, ten people are squishing me, and my phone just started ringing. In reality, though, none of these things have to happen for me to experience these chaotic feelings.
I’ve always hated the way I react when I’m overstimulated. Because the second that I snap, I become self-aware of how I may have treated another person and how my reactions must have made them feel. Of course, I’m not belittling people or making their lives miserable, but sometimes I’m snappy, and the irritation I feel on the inside is written all over my face.
I don’t want to be that way, and I hope others know that my snippy behavior has nothing to do with them and everything to do with what’s happening on the inside that they can’t see. I didn’t know that sensory overload was a thing until I was in my 20s, and even then, I never thought that it applied to me.
Growing up, I learned how to suppress these feelings and shut down until I couldn’t hold them in any longer, and the result left me blowing up. Now, I’m 27 years old and just starting my journey of finding healthy ways to deal with overstimulation.
Placing a name on my reactions to particular situations was a stepping stone towards peeling back a lifetime of shame I’d built. I was never a bad mom, friend, employee, or a bad kid — I was a person with an undiagnosed Sensory Processing Disorder who didn’t know how to cope.