Day 38 - Sensory Processing Disorder
I knew quitting coffee was going to stir up stuff. I hadn’t even officially quit it yet last night as it was too late to drink it, and already I was learning new things. I was on the phone with my friend and he asked, Why really are you quitting it? You love coffee. I reminded him about pooping my pants, about saying I was doing this 93-day project to have good poops and yet, when I was faced with an acupuncturist who was trying to help me achieve my goal, I’d whispered to him that I thought coffee was the problem and yet I refused to give it up. I told my friend that on top of all that, for as much as I loved the high I got from coffee, I could not predict the anxiety that also often came along for the ride, and it made things like being in crowds or negotiating dreaded trips to the mall even more difficult. But why do you need to go to the mall?he asked. I told him I didn’t have to, but it was a skill I’d like to be able to manage. I didn’t want to be the one who time and time again folded after a few hours out in the world and wanted to get home because she felt overwhelmed by everything.
That’s called sensory processing disorder, he said. Both of his sons, adopted at birth, have it. One can’t get enough sensory input—he picks at his skin, for example, and one, like me, is easily overwhelmed by sensory stimulation: noise, lights, people. I’d heard my friend talk about his sons, heard him talk about this disorder, but I never thought about it in terms of my life, in terms of me. Why? It has the word disorder. And I am, of course, fine.
My second husband used to talk about getting surround sound for the TV. He’d get all excited about it and I’d get short of breath. Sitting on the couch in that small room surrounded by noise sounded like hell. I told him this, repeatedly, and he didn’t understand, so he kept planning for the noise to have a place in our house. I left before it moved in so I don’t know if my head would have exploded if I’d watched a Sharks game at home.
It’s a strange feeling to know things most people around you truly enjoy: crowds, noise, festivities, can make you want to hide. Can make you sick, headachy, anxious.
What is sensory processing disorder and why do many adopted people have it? If you’re interested, google will get you all sorts of information. I will tell you this. There is feeling or having sensations and then there is the ability to process this information in a way that helps you live your life. To get remedial: Stove, hot, don’t touch. Mother, soft, hug.
Here’s more explanation of how sensory deficits can come into being: Babies fine-tune their perception of sensory information primarily within the context of nurturing experiences with a loving caregiver. As a nursing child snuggles close to her mother's breast, looks up into her mother's eyes, and sees her own expression mirrored in her mother's face, her brain begins to form healthy neural and chemical connections that enable her to grasp the meaning of these sensory interactions with her environment. Early trauma of any kind can interrupt this natural developmental flow, causing sensory deficits which often surface later in the form of behavioral and learning difficulties (http://media.focusonthefamily.com/pastoral/pdf/Sensory_Deprivation_Booklet.pdf).
It’s easy to go to What’s Wrong With Me Camp and try to figure out how you can make yourself better when you see yourself react to things differently than most people around you. You can anesthetize yourself. You can drink. Take painkillers. Smoke weed. None of those things worked well for me, so I became an avoider. Since I’ve started going to adoption conferences, I’ve noticed I can last about an hour out in public and then I need to get out of the gathering and catch my breath. I never share a room. I always get a car. I need escape plans. I avoid getting cornered in conversations. I easily get to the point, again and again, where I feel that if I don’t escape, I might explode.
If I had to stay in a conference for three days and participate along with everyone else for the allotted time, chances are good I’d start crying, roll into a ball, and start sucking my thumb. Thank the lord for rental cars and hotel rooms.
Just a couple of weeks ago, I was with Haley Radke in San Francisco for a Write or Die class and then an Adoptees On meet up, and I started feeling like I was unravelling as we walked from one event to the next. It didn't matter how much I loved the people I was with or how excited I was to be there. This is the way I start to feel when I’ve been with people for too long. It’s not a good feeling. It’s like my ability to care about what I say and how I say it and my ability to think clearly about ideas all starts to slip away. It’s like being drunk, but drunk on fatigue, not a cool drunk, not a fun drunk. It takes a tremendous amount of energy to keep moving forward when your brain is sucking you down the hole of who gives a fuck I need a nap. I want to be different when I am in these situations. I want to be social. To be friendly. It is crazy-making to want to smile and chat about the menu while your brain is making you stare at the centerpiece like a dolt. I survive by getting up and leaving. I have to go. I have to go. I have to go. My children are starving. My house is on fire. I just remembered I have to drive someone to the airport. Love you. Love you. Bye.
If the medical community and adoption agencies studied more about the effects relinquishment had on babies and, as they grew, on children and then adults, maybe parents would not be scolding their wailing child in the middle of Target, the child who'd had a meltdown for no discernible reason. The uninformed parent comes to the conclusion there was something wrong with the child, with the child’s behavior, not knowing that the child’s brain is struggling to process the roiling world that to most other people just looks like a Friday night out buying stuff. Maybe adults would not silently be berating themselves as the walk with their children through Disney Land, all the time thinking the place might kill them. What kind of parent hates Disneyland? Ones who get easily overwhelmed by crowds, perhaps?
What I really want to tell you is that I am constantly trying to fix myself. To make myself better. I don’t even know why anymore. My mom is dead. I can’t impress her. My dating life is also dead. Can’t impress that. But I’m still the little kid who is secretly afraid she’s not good enough and, because she was adopted, chosen, she could also be un-adopted, un-chosen, and given back.
Being high on sugar or caffeine is a way of outracing the devil. You can’t get me if I’m high. But if I’m on the ground like a lump of Anne, anything is possible. Rejection City could be built all around me until I finally just disappear.
Yes, this is childish thinking. But it’s hard to become an adult and have adult thoughts when you didn’t have the skills or tools to move forward. One reason I’m becoming such an advocate for honesty and transparency in adoption is so that kids and parents will know what they are up against and will have better tools to make the experience as healthy and as nurturing as possible for all involved.
I’m still giving up coffee. But I’m going to be kinder to myself when it comes to throwing myself in into crowded, noisy situations. I’ll know to find quiet buffer zones. I’ll know that when I feel myself getting weak around the edges, it’s time to go, and that it’s okay to go even when everyone else is staying. Transitions can be rough for people with sensory processing disorder. After 53 years of feeling like crying pretty much every time I leave a house, hotel, or tent where I have been staying to go to another place, I understand myself better and I can plan better. I can give myself a processing day or couple of hours when I’m packing up from visiting friends or from a work trip. I can acknowledge the feelings leaving stirs up in me and instead of slamming a cup of coffee so I can rise above feeling, I’ll observe. Running from something hurts more than looking it in the face, generally, at least when it comes to feelings.
This morning, without coffee, I went for a walk. My abdomen was so happy. Nothing was screwing it up with acid from the inside. My brain was happy because no one had sent it into hyper overdrive with a frothy Bulletproof coffee. I could not believe how clear I felt, like a chip of light. Later, I went to get a cookie. I was dragging and tired and I had things to do. I was not going to get coffee, but I was going to get a “hippie cookie” from Icing on the Cake. No, my plan is not to replace coffee with cookies because I still don’t do well with sugar, but I’m not here to punish myself. I’m here to live as fully and as well as possible.
That baby step was delicious.
See you tomorrow.