Thursday, June 5, 2014

I heart earplugs

Photo credit. I love this guy. What is happening with his metallic hair?

Something big has happened in my world. I haven't told you about it yet because it is still sort of tender and new.

Have you ever learned something major about yourself that was simultaneously surprising and totally obvious? And then spent two weeks re-evaluating your entire personal history in light of this new information?

Me too.

Hi, my name is Katherine. I am a successful, high-functioning adult with sensory processing disorder, clinical anxiety and a "sub-threshold" mood disorder. If we haven't met yet, start here.

I went to see a new psychiatrist two weeks ago, at the recommendation of a local therapist friend. I told her my story, presenting it in a slightly different light than in the past, partly thanks to the intervention of another good friend. This doctor listened and asked a ton of questions. And then she NAMED my problems and it made SO MUCH SENSE.

The most mind-blowing-yet-obvious piece is the sensory processing disorder. It explains so many things, from my childhood to my preferences and choices as an adult.
"Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD) is a neurologically-based condition that exists when the nervous system fails to properly receive and organize messages from the senses...[causing] confusion, distress, and discomfort. It is a physicalneurological condition that can have psychological ramifications in adulthood." --Rachel Schneider
SPD is a relatively new, somewhat controversial diagnosis that is most often applied to children, though there are many adults now realizing they have gone undiagnosed their entire lives.

As neuroscientist Dr. Jean Ayres puts it: “When the flow of sensations is disorganized, life can be like a rush hour traffic jam.” Does this sound fun? Because it isn't.

SPD is a spectrum, like everything else, and the symptoms and severity range widely. In my case the most obvious symptom is hyper-sensitivity to noise. Loud noises, and sometimes even background noises, make me jumpy, irritable and anxious. My brain hears normal sounds and misinterprets them as ALARM BELLS. So my body has been in high alert for much of my life, pumping stress hormones around and generally wreaking physical havoc.

How crazy is it, then, that I left the woods of my hometown for college in New York City? Is it a surprise that I never acclimated to the noise, smells and lights of this place? As much as I loved the excitement of the city and my friends there, it was hard for me to go back, every time. On graduation day I moved to Maine and never looked back.

Without knowing it, my hypersensitivity and need for certain kinds of stimulation guided me to my favorite pastimes. My three lifelong hobbies--swimming, singing and dancing--are apparently some of the best activities for helping to integrate sensory information. Scuba diving, my very favorite, provides additional sensory benefit due to the soothing pressure of deep water.

I will never get rid of sensory processing disorder. But I can learn to dampen my reactions. On top of psychiatric treatment and ongoing talk therapy I will shortly be starting occupational therapy with a local specialist. It would have been awesome to understand this sooner, but I am very relieved to understand it now.

You may see me doing strange things like taking random "sensory breaks" or wearing sunglasses inside or earplugs in public settings. Instead of looking at me sideways, it would be awesome if you would give me a "high-five." Because this is what progress looks like for me. And I am determined to show up and enjoy my life to the absolute fullest.


  1. 2 high-fives! (And thanks for the mention). I love your writing, KKH.

  2. This is such great post! Well done, and hooray for coming to your senses ;-) (P.S. honored to be included, so thank you)

    1. Thanks very much, Rachel! Glad to make your (virtual) acquaintance :-)

  3. I heart ear plugs and I would die without them. I have waxy ones rolling around in all the wrong places: my purse, my car, and the kitchen drawers. So glad you are getting some definition and validation. When we get to see each other one day, let's please wear earplugs the whole time.

    1. Yes! I have just started planning our reunion. It will involve a lot of 90s music and big old dance floor and a whole box of earplugs.

  4. I love earplugs. I am another woman who stashes them everywhere. I especially love to pop them in at that hungry, tired time of day when I am making dinner and Elsie's incessant babble (which I usually find delightful) is suddenly like nails on a chalk board to me. I warn her that I'm doing it, and she understands that I'll be taking an audial time-out because the noise is "making mom's head hurt" right now. I don't actually get headaches, but I do need the rest from noise.

    Good for you for finding a coping mechanism. I don't know if I have any sensory processing problems, but I do know that earplugs are my favorite item in my medicine cabinet.

    1. Isn't it amazing how our children's voices can sound either adorable or horrible depending on our mood and level of exhaustion?! Thanks for reading and commenting :-). High five for earplugs.

  5. Update: just got some new earplugs, and I think I'm in love. EarPeace ($12), skin-colored and discreet, relatively comfortable. Designed for musicians.