Tuesday, October 13, 2015

HSP or 'Why Haunted Houses are No Good Very Bad Places' for me


When I was in the 8th grade, my dad took me, my sister, and her friends to a haunted house. I have no idea what possessed me to go along with this, but I think my sister really wanted to go and being the 'older sister' I figured I could 'handle' it. He parked the car, left us to our own devices and said he'd be back in an hour. I felt anxious, but thought it would all be good fun.

My whole life I've jumped at loud noises and been uncomfortable in dark, windowless, tight spaces. We paid our money and waited in line. The music coming from the house blasted rock concert loud. I found myself feeling disoriented. As we waited in line, haunted house actors dressed in costume jumped out at us - usually causing me to scream. My entire life I have hated being startled.  By the time we got near the door, my heart pushed against my rib cage. My sister and her friends were giggling and talking. I was the 'older' one - my sister used to call me "Miss Maturity". (I wish I could record for you the singsong way she'd say Miss Maturity. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a compliment.) But in my family, I felt like I had to be strong; I had to be 'in control' so I ignored the warning signs that going inside that haunted house was a no good, very bad idea.

We finally got to the front door. Once inside, we were plunged into complete darkness. That's when the strobe lights started. The music blared as someone jumped out of the darkness and reached for my face. The flashing lights and makeup distorted the figure and I screamed. From there, it only got worse. I started crying. Deep, ugly tears of absolute panic. Halfway through the the haunted house I curled up in a ball on the floor, sobbing and going through the first (and only) full-on panic attack I have ever had in my life. The only thing I remember after curling up on the floor was some guy finding me, getting me up, and leading me out the back door into the cold night air. I remember his disgusted look, as if I had somehow ruined his evening. Maybe he was angry that I held up the traffic through the house because of my fetal floor position. I don't know. The moment I felt the night air on my face, the noise seemed to lessen. I vaguely remember the beam of his flashlight and being led to the area where my sister and her friends would eventually exit, then watching him walk away. Somehow I made it home, but I have no solid memory of the night past being led out of the building by flashlight and blaming myself that my emotional state had upset another person.

I found this article today while researching anxiety for a health class with one of my students. It's not the first article I've read on the topic, but I thought presented good ideas:
Clicking on the photo of me will take you to a simple test to see if you are a Highly Sensitive Person

This photo of me at 20 months and 4 days old shows me reaching out and offering my dad a flower. I was a giving, loving, and joyful child. I believe, even as this age, I had some symptoms of HSP. As I aged, I remember crying. A lot. Struggling with loud noises, feeling overwhelmed with information, not knowing how to navigate complicated emotional situations were almost daily experiences. Kids teased me for crying all the time, and I learned to hate myself for being emotional. I remember how humiliated I felt because I cried when David Banner's wife died on The Hulk tv show and he walked away down the road, alone. He must have been so sad - and I felt every bit of it.

In fact, I still cry over books, tv shows, movies, commercials, music and love letters. And I struggle not to feel humiliated every time. Once, while watching a tv show with someone I love, I couldn't stop myself from crying. The person with me said, "Are you crying???" and I felt like a failure for not being able to hide it better and for being too emotional. I moved past feeling ashamed and I said to her, "It's not kind to make fun of someone for crying. It makes the other person feel bad. You may not understand why someone else is crying, but that doesn't make the other person a bad person for expressing how she is feeling." I probably could have handled it better, but at least I said something instead of holding it inside.

My whole life I've hated feeling sensitive and I've struggled to navigate my own intensity. I'm not sure I ever swam in the shallow end of the emotional swimming pool. I've spent most of my life trying to keep my head up in the deep end. The problem with being an emotional person in this society is that being emotional is not really considered 'okay' - especially in most relationships. I can't count how many times I've been told to just relax, calm down, stop over reacting, don't be so emotional about things... I had one partner tell me these sort of words, while patting my leg like a dog who needed training. The only worse time was when a guy patted me on the head and told me to just stop crying, it's all going to be okay.

Having researched HSP lately, I better understand my deep struggle making decisions - especially decisions involving people. Having to chose one person over another, having to make hard choices about what people are good to have in my life and what people are negative and toxic I find extremely difficult. I can see that toxic people are bad - people who yell, who rage, who drink too much or complain all the time. People who have no empathy, who have no idea how to be kind. People who use me for information or for... well... other things. I have a difficult time knowing when that is happening. Not too long ago, I found the term "beck and call girl" and realized that term described me within many of my relationships. In the past, I have dropped everything for someone else's life, even when it meant incredible discomfort and complications in my own. I worry all the time I will disappoint someone or hurt someone, and often I put the needs of others before my own health and happiness.

I also think HSP is part of the reason in my life I've struggled with food. First, I have a strong sense of taste. The sensory input of the taste of the food fills my whole body when I take my first bite of a meal. But that isn't the only issue. Food also numbs other sensory input and I am sure in my life I have often used food as a way to put space between me and overwhelming emotional input. I've felt tremendously stressed lately, and I've used food to escape feeling flooded by frustration and other emotions. Knowing more about HSP has helped me get back on track and better handle feeling emotionally flooded.

Lately, I find myself taking time to hang out in my bedroom more. I even close my bedroom door, something I have seldom done before. Owning that I am feeling flooded and taking care of my needs to (as I call it) 'defrag my hard drive' has helped me more than food ever has. I've taken up coloring and doing some meditation. Both have helped me focus my stress and anxiety in a more productive way. It's a process; getting healthy always is. In the past, I never would have admitted I have sensory issues. It would have made me seem imperfect and broken.

I'm neither. I'm just an emotional person in a world that doesn't always welcome emotional people. My goal at this point in my life is to worry less about how others react to me and instead, focus on not being so hard on myself when I feel emotional. Being emotional and sensitive isn't a fault, it's a blessing. In time, I hope to actually believe that.