At the risk of sounding like I’m sitting around feeling sorry for myself, let me tell you about my physical experience. I don’t want pity, I don’t want clucking of tongues, I don’t want you to feel sorry for me. This is just my experience, and I’ve acclimated to it over the years. But I’d be lying, if I told you it’s easy…
To fully appreciate just how my risk-taking and danger-seeking constitute attempts to soothe my overworked physical/mental/emotional system, you’d have to understand just how anxious, sensorily overloaded, and painfully sensitive I tend to be. And you’d have to understand the impact that repeated injuries, including head injuries, have had on my everyday life. I have, in fact, sustained numerous mild traumatic brain injuries since age 7, the experience of which is consistent with my sensory and other physical issues. (See http://www.traumaticbraininjury.com/content/symptoms/mildtbisymptoms.html for a list of mild tbi symptoms.)
All my life, I have had issues with pain and handling sensory input. As a child, I had a hard time differentiating between different sounds, but at the same time, my hearing was very sensitive. I was very attuned to fine details, and I was highly distractable. I experienced touch as pain, which caused many forms of regular human contact to be uncomfortable, even painful for me. I was not very limber, I had trouble touching my toes, and doing exercises like somersaults was difficult. Cartwheels were out of the question. I was an active child, and I loved to climb and play and join in with games, but my coordination wasn’t always the best, and I was often picked last for team games in school.
I loved to play sports, but I didn’t have a very broad range of abilities. For example, I loved to play softball. I loved it so much, that I wanted to become a professional softball player, when I grew up. Baseball didn’t appeal to me, because having a small, white object hurled at me scared the bejesus out of me. I had a hard time judging distance and speed, and the larger, softer softball wasn’t nearly as frightening to me.
There were a couple of problems with my pro ballplayer aspirations, though. The first was, I had a hard time catching fly balls. When my dad would practice with me and hit flies to me, I couldn’t judge the distance to the ball, or I shrank away from it in fear. My preference was to let the ball drop and then pick it up and throw it to another player. But that kind of choice-making in a serious ball game would have cost my team dearly.
Playing the outfield was not an option for me.
Sliding was out of the question. I was to hesitant and too gawky to do it very well. And the pain that came afterwards was inhibitive, whenever I considered sliding.
I couldn’t react quickly enough on the spot to play shortstop.
My coordination issues kept me from being a very good baseman. My reaction time wasn’t consistent, and my ability to catch and tag wasn’t very good. I wanted to play shortstop, but it made me too nervous, and I couldn’t think and react quickly enough to make a very good player at that position.
I made up for all this by throwing myself wholeheartedly into the small range of activities I could do well. I had too much trouble with fielding and reacting quickly to be an all-round good player. What I could do, was play third base, hit, and be a good team captain. Third base was a kind of in-between position that was half-baseman and half shortstop, that let me be in the infield, but in a more marginal position. I was a pretty decent batter, and I also learned I could switch hit. I’m right-handed, so I always thought that I should bat right-handed. But I actually found that I was better able to bat left-handed. It just felt so much more natural to me. Most of all, I was a good team leader — a captain who led by the example of just throwing myself into the game and doing my best at any and all times, even if I messed up, now and then. I think, if anything, my spirit helped the team more than any amount of technical skill.
But still, it wasn’t easy to come to terms with the fact that I just didn’t have what it took to become a professional softball player.
When I was young, there wasn’t really anything like a diagnosis of sensory integration dysfunction or sensory perception disorders, and attentional challenges weren’t yet on the radar. All I know/knew was, I was immersed in a seething cauldron of sensory input and there was really no escape.
I’d like to say things got better when I grew up, but I can’t say that’s so. All I can say is, I’ve gotten used to these problems, which doesn’t make me very happy, actually. But there it is.
Below is a run-down of the persistent physical issues I’ve had to deal with most of my life, and that still plague me intermittently. I’ve tried to be as thorough as possible, so you can get an idea of the scope and intensity of my “sensory landscape.” These issues can range from mild to extreme, and they manifest with varying degrees of frequency. I do not experience all of them simultaneously, but many can appear concurrent with others.
Ringing in my ears (tinnitus)
I have a constant ringing in my ears. I’ve had this as long as I can remember. It used to drive me crazy as a teenager, but eventually I got used to it. It’s a high-pitched whine, not so much ringing — a very thin, reedy, penetrating whine “over” several other deeper tones. It rarely goes away. If there’s no ringing when I wake up, it usually starts by mid-morning. It’s worse when I’m tired and/or stressed and/or have allergies. It’s better when I’m rested.
Vertigo, Dizzy-ness, Light-headedness
I have occasional feelings of being “woozy” and/or losing my balance suddenly. Sometimes it can last for a day or more. Sometimes, when it’s really bad, it lasts for days — nearly a week, in the past. I have to be very careful that I don’t fall, when it’s particularly bad. Holding onto things, keeping myself rigidly upright and intently focusing my attention on something in front of me helps. Tactile activities help me focus — holding onto things, making contact with things around me, like fabrics and curtains, arms of chair, objects held in my hand. It’s much worse when I am tired, and when I have allergies, it’s worse. It gets better when I’m rested, but it usually takes at least a day or so to clear up, even when I am rested.
Balance (Vestibular) details (when they’re at their most extreme)
When I’m experiencing “vestibular challenges,” the whole world spins wildly around me… swaying and shifting. Every time I move, no matter how small the motion, I feel like I’m going to fall over. I cannot move my head without being overwhelmed by waves of nausea that wash over me in progressive swells. When I turn my head this way or that — I never know when, or which way — there is a swooshing sound in my ears that is sometimes accompanied by pressure and pain. My ears hurt me with a dull ache that’s sharp at the center… like thick sticks that have small points being pressed into my eardrums. My stomach lurches, and my head pounds with a sick headache. A whining, whistling, high-pitched roar fills my ears, and through the intense ringing, I hear muffled sounds that annoy me with distraction. Even when I stop and hold still, the sense of imbalance continues, like a bucket of water that’s been swung to and fro, sloshing back and forth for a while, even after it’s set down on a level surface.
Going about my everyday business, I sometimes have a sudden sense of falling that eclipses and overrides all other sensory input in my system. The room spins, my legs become weak, and my head swirls in sickening waves of disequilibrium. The walls seem to move before my very eyes, the floor rolls beneath me, and my body feels like it’s swaying. For as long as the feeling lasts, I cannot think, I cannot talk, I cannot react to anything around me. I cannot hear or see much of anything around me. I’m dimly aware that there are objects or people nearby, but they don’t register. I’m faintly aware that people are talking to me, but I cannot respond immediately. All I can do, is try to right myself, try not to fall, try to fight back the waves of sickening vertigo, and hang on, till the nausea passes.
My condition does not seem to respond to “standard treatments”. I’ve tried ear drops and anti-vertigo medications, and they did nothing for me. I also wish I could just write this off as a simple balance issue and have that suffice. But there’s a whole lot more to my situation, than being off-balance. Vestibular issues are just the beginning.
Coordinated Balance (“Proprioceptive?”) Issues
I also have issues with sensing where my body is in relation to the world around me (“proprioceptive” issues). These tend to kick in most intensely when I’m off-balance. I cannot feel where my body is in relation to things around me, and I bump into objects all the time — corners of tables, sides of counters, chairs I’m passing… I also knock things off flat surfaces, if they are too close to the edge. I have a hard time gauging how quickly my body is moving in any one direction, which can cause me to misjudge distances and be uncoordinated. I fumble at picking up objects, I drop things I’m holding, and I tend to have trouble judging distances between myself and others. I also inadvertently bump or hit people when I’m just trying to reach out to them or move past them. When I’m trying to keep my balance, I tend to (for lack of a better word) “proprioceptively overreact,” which makes me either bump into things and people around me or shy away from them abruptly, neither of which is interpersonally optimal.
My hearing is also affected by my simply not being able to pay attention to anything but staying upright and not running into things. I can be so intent on trying to stay balanced, that I don’t hear anything around me immediately. I’ll hear things, but they don’t immediately register. And when they do register, I’m often so far behind in figuring out what’s going on, I get the message turned around and am not successful in responding to what I’m hearing right away. When I’m really struggling to navigate contact with the world around me, it can take a few minutes for sounds to sink in and be processed in my brain. I hear them, but I don’t process them immediately. This can be a problem when someone is talking to me. I won’t hear them for a few seconds, and then when I do hear them, I am so busy trying to figure out what they just said to me that I miss what I am able to hear. This is less than optimal.
One of the most annoying and disorienting auditory aspects of my bad days is the whooshing sound, which comes and goes when I’m “off” — sometimes quickly, sometimes gradually. I can rarely predict when it’s going to happen (although during allergy season it is usually more pronounced). It often takes me by surprise and thoroughly distracts me from what I’m doing. I’m usually so caught up in going about my daily business, I don’t notice the dull roar or the achy pressure or even the whooshing sound until it’s unmistakable. And when I finally hear this whooshing sound, I tend to feel nauseous and dizzy. I seem to associate it with feeling lightheaded and sick on my stomach, and whenever I hear it — whether I’m nauseous and dizzy or not — I cringe. I freeze. My rest of body seems to remember what it feels like to hear that whooshing sound, and it reacts accordingly.
My vision can be affected, too. When I’m off-balance, and I’m not well in-touch with the world around me, my vision gets “re-assigned” to the task of helping me keep my balance. It’s hard to describe, but when I’m “off,” I can visually detect things around me, but I don’t readily process what that means. It’s like with my hearing — I know I’m seeing something, but my brain is too busy trying to figure out how to just keep steady and parse out all the input coming in, to interpret what that something I’m seeing is.
Probably the best quick example I can give of this, is from a time when I was driving through a parking lot, and I literally didn’t see another driver, who nearly hit me, and I didn’t hear him honking his horn at me, until I was nearly out of the parking lot. I was at an office supplies store, and I’d just bought myself a new headset for my cell phone, so I could drive hands-free and still talk on the phone. I try to avoid talking on the cell phone while I drive, but I was hoping that a headset might let me at least be able to accept incoming calls without being a hazard to other drivers.
I sat in my parked car for a few minutes, figuring out how to put the headset together, then I placed it on my head, positioned the mic in front of my mouth, and slowly pulled out into the parking lot. As I was rolling towards the exit, I noticed that a car was pulling out of a side lane just ahead of me. The headset felt like it was slipping off my head, and the microphone wasn’t staying in front of my mouth. My attention was focused intently on the feel of the headset on my head and the mic at my mouth.
As though in slow motion, I saw the front of the other car inch out into my path. I didn’t slow down, but continued to drive towards the exit. The headset felt strange on my head, and I could hardly think of anything but keeping my head straight. The front the other car was rapidly approaching the driver’s side front fender of my own vehicle, but I continued to drive on. I didn’t veer, I didn’t slow down, I didn’t speed up. I didn’t react at all — I just drove on. Only dimly was I aware that I had barely slipped past the front of the other car and avoided a collision. It never occurred to me that I should react in some way. It never occurred to me that I should interact with the other car.
As I continued to coast towards the exit, I could hear a beeping in the distance. The headset on my head continued to bother me with its pressure on my one ear and the feel of the microphone near the side of my cheek. The mic wasn’t pressing against my skin, but I was keenly aware of its proximity. I really felt like I was losing my balance, and I held my head absolutely still to keep the apparatus properly positioned. The beeping continued, and I wondered if someone’s car alarm had gone off. But the sound wasn’t rhythmic or regular, so it must have come from somewhere else.
I looked in my rear-view mirror, and I saw driver of the car I’d narrowly missed yelling and beeping his horn at me and wildly gesticulating, pointing at his head. At first, it didn’t sink in, that he was communicating with me, but when I looked up again, I realized that his behavior was directed at me. And he was furious. The headset kept slipping off the side of my head, ever so slightly, but enough to distract me.
Realizing what was going on around me, at last, I tore it off my head and threw it on the passenger seat beside me. When the headset was off, it was as though the lights went on in a dark room, and someone suddenly turned up the volume on life all around me. I could suddenly see. I could suddenly hear. Suddenly, I wasn’t sitting in an enclosed cell with a headset on, I was driving a car in a parking lot. I got out of the parking lot as quickly as I could, merged into traffic, and went back to work, shaken but grateful that I hadn’t done any damage.
I haven’t used that headset at all, since I bought it.
My vision and hearing aren’t the only senses that get “whacked” when I’m out of sync. My taste and smell do, too. My sense of smell tends to be either all-on, or all-off. It’s very rare that I smell something “normally” and can take deep breaths of scents, like perfumes or foods. If I get too strong a whiff of something, it makes my head spin and really overloads me. And if I’m already off balance, or I’m not connecting well with the world around me, my sense of smell sometimes completely turns off. My sense of taste is even less predictable. It’s muted and vague, and I often judge the foods I like more by their texture, than by their taste.
Touch – Pain
My sense of touch is quite variable — like my sense of smell, either it’s all-on, or it’s all-off. I can literally slam into things, and never feel the impact… sometimes I don’t know I slammed into something until I see the bruises on my leg the next day. But my sense of touch in my hands is very active. When I’m feeling nervous or agitated, running my hands over objects — like the interior upholstery and surfaces of my nephew’s new BMW — is very soothing for me. I’ve always loved satiny fabrics, and when I was a kid, I couldn’t fall asleep unless I rubbed the satin edge of my blanket. I rubbed that smooth, soothing edge so long and so often, I wore a hole in it!
On the other hand, I can experience a lot of tactile discomfort. A simple human touch can feel like a blow to me, and when people put their hand on my arm, sometimes it feels like they’re smacking me. Hard. It’s very strange and difficult to describe, and it makes me very uncomfortable to talk about it, but I experience pain and discomfort from things like clothing, hugs, harmless social touches, and jewelry. I don’t wear any bracelets or extra rings or necklaces, or even a watch, because the contact tends to be very uncomfortable — and distracting — for me.
There are a number of different kinds of tactile discomfort I experience. They are not like muscular pain, but are very much on the surface and localized in my skin surface. Here are some details and descriptions:
Burning – It feels like being burned with a hot coal(s), like embers are laid on top of my skin and are burning down through to the bone. This occurs often on my upper arms and across my shoulders and back. It’s usually worse when I’m tired or have a lot of stimuli coming in on me, and its origin is internal in nature (I’ll call it “autonomic”).
Twisting – It feels like I’m having my skin twisted by two hands having a firm grip on my skin, and twisting in opposite directions (like the “Indian burns” we kids used to give each other). It is mostly on my outer forearms and wrists, and it’s worse when I’m tired or stressed. (Autonomic)
Healing burn – It feels like having second-degree burns that are healing under my skin – not on the surface, not down at the bone, but just under the surface of my skin. This occurs mostly on my outer forearms and wrists, and it’s aggravated by having long sleeves. It’s usually worse when I’m tired or have a lot going on around me. (Autonomic)
Chafing – It feels like being rubbed by by a rough surface – either a piece of rough material, or in some cases, a surface that is a little sticky or ‘grippy’ and pulls my skin a little as it rubs. Some people talk about “sandpaper” type of pain, and this might be close to it, but it’s not exactly. It sometimes feels like a moist, tacky texture being rubbed across my skin. I experience this mostly on the tops of my thighs, aggravated by my slacks. Sometimes I feel it on my arms, and it’s aggravated by the touch of light clothing. (Autonomic)
Prickling – This feels like being jabbed with little tiny pins over an extended area. It’s somewhat similar to “sandpaper” type of pain, but not exactly. It sometimes feels like coarse sandpaper against my skin — not rubbed across it, but held in place, so it irritates me with its presence, but it doesn’t rake. I usually experience this when my clothing brushes my forearms and wrists, also happens without prompting on my upper arms and across my shoulders. (Autonomic)
Blistering – It feels like my skin is blistering and cracking, like paint cracking in the sun, or my lips cracking from being chapped. It usually happens when I am just lying still and trying to relax, like when I’m in bed and trying to sleep. The more I relax and just breathe, the more my skin feels like it’s blistering and cracking and peeling. It happens when my skin is exposed to the air and doesn’t have anything over top of it. It’s much worse when I am tired, but it can happen pretty much anytime. It often takes me by surprise. (Autonomic)
Brushing/Raking – This feels like having my skin brushed/raked/ stroked with a metal-bristle hair brush – the sharp ends pulled across my skin, not pressed in really deeply, but just on the surface, where it irritates and I can’t get away from it. I usually feel this on the tops of my thighs — when my pants brush against my skin lightly. It’s not startlingly painful, but it does hurt. (Autonomic)
Smacking – This feels like being hit hard with an open hand or broad surface – and then the pain scatters out across my skin, as though it were a campfire that had something land in it, and the coals and sparks scattered all around it. It usually happens when someone touches me for a few minutes (an short but extended period of time). Like when my partner put their hand on my forearm when we were driving down to visit family for Christmas. They just laid their hand on my forearm affectionately. It really hurt, and I could feel the pain spreading out around where their hand lay on my forearm. The pain continued, even after they took their hand away. (This is an interactive type of pain, brought on by human contact.)
Banging – This feels like being struck with a blunt instrument – and then the impact reverberates throughout my body. This usually occurs when someone touches me briefly without warning, often in casual conversation, like when my brother-in-law was talking to me at a restaurant one Christmas, and he was harmlessly touching my arm (in a friendly, appropriately affectionate way). This also happens when someone tries to hug me. I have also experienced this when my partner was checking me over for ticks, and they touched the backs of my legs, near my knees. The pressure was very light, but it felt like they were poking me very hard with a blunt object. (Interactive).
Please keep in mind that (thankfully) not all of these types of pain happen simultaneously, and they tend to vary. From one minute to the next, I can go from a relatively pain-free state, to waves of strong physical discomfort. I can be 75% fine one day, and be 15% fine, the next. One type of clothing can be unbearable for me, while others are benign, even pleasurable. And a person’s sudden touch can be excruciating one day, while the next, it can be welcome and enjoyable. “Pain” can also be relative, varying from mildly uncomfortable to downright agonizing. But I differentiate it from “discomfort” in that its degree is different.
Discomfort is something I can deal with, but pain is something that every fiber of my being seeks to escape. An itch is uncomfortable for me. Fabric sensitivity, even at its slightest, feels painful to me. It’s not just discomfort, which to me to me is just annoying and transitory. It’s pain.
My autonomic pain seems to be exacerbated by the qualities of the things I contact — the chemical makeup of fabrics, the quality of light and sound around me, the intensity of the sensation I have (such as the strength of pressure on my skin from the cell phone headset). It tends to get worse, also, when I’m over-tired or I’ve got a lot of different sensory input to process. I haven’t taken the time to figure out what kinds of textiles or materials give me the most trouble. Some days, everything gives me a lot of trouble. I just kind of go with it, and see how I’m doing, where I’m at, and I adjust accordingly.
My interactive pain tends to be exacerbated and complicated by my vestibular and proprioceptive issues. Being unable to gauge distances from people who are reaching out to touch me (no matter how appropriately), makes it difficult to A) prepare myself for their contact, or B) react appropriately. It is difficult for me to receive hugs from friends and loved-ones when my sensory issues are kicking in, and this contributes to my social awkwardness. I tend to stiffen and get tense, which actually makes the experience worse for everyone — for me, because it heightens my agitation, and for them, because they sense a reluctance from me that is physical rather than emotional or interpersonal, and their contact tends to become a bit more clumsy. Stress and strain tend to sharpen my pain, so when my vestibular and proprioceptive issues are acting up, the startling experience of a sudden physical contact can make even a simple touch extremely painful.
The different types of pain I experience can be helped by things like sleep, immobility, keeping away from the source of irritation, movement, stretching, steering clear of people and physical contact, preparing for physical contact with others, or just distracting myself from the sensation by some sort of activity. Analgesics like Advil are not very effective, although they do sometimes take the edge off things. A hot shower can be very relaxing, and swimming in a heated pool is probably the thing that helps me the most. Depending on the type of pain, and how well I’m rested, sometimes relaxing and being immobile makes it worse. Other times, it makes it better. It all depends how I’m feeling at the time, and how well I can redirect my attention to things other than the pain. I haven’t been able to figure out exactly how best to address this. I usually just think about something else and keep myself busy to keep my mind off it, as there’s really no escaping it, when the pain is in “full swing”.
Touch – Insensitivity
One of the other tactile issues I experience is on the extreme opposite end of the spectrum — lack of sensation. When I’m off balance, and my proprioceptive sense is diminished, I tend to run into things, but I often don’t feel it right away. I sometimes notice a sharp shooting pain when I bump into things, but the sensation disappears immediately, and I won’t know how badly I’ve bruised myself till later. I have also accidentally cut myself and not felt it until some time later. At times, when I have really cut myself deeply, or I’ve bumped myself hard enough to get a deep bruise, I’ve been so intensely focused on what I was doing at the time, I hardly noticed the pain and only realized I’d hurt myself when I felt the blood or saw the bruise later.
I suspect this may have something to do with adrenaline — my adrenaline is pumping so hard, at times, as I try to keep myself together, that it seems to numb me to the pain. I’m not a doctor and I don’t know nearly enough about human physiology, but my experience when I unwittingly injure myself is very similar to when I was injured while playing sports — I’d be so intent on the game and so “adrenalized” that I would hardly notice the pain. Again, I’m no doctor, but that’s how I experience it.
A Perilous Relief – Table of Contents