The Wall: A Tale of Sensory Distress

The Wall: A Tale of Sensory Distress

Today I hit a wall.

Some days you keep going, push through, find your flow and coast home. Not today.

I woke sweating around 7am. The sun was up, the day warming. Warming my bedroom a little too much it would seem. I hate that clingy feeling as the sheets adhere to my damp skin where it’s not covered by my pyjamas. I kicked off the duvet–I especially hate this transitional period in the weather between comfortable and hot, when I awake early feeling too cold if I lie on top, and wake drenched as if I’ve come from the shower if I get under the covers–turned over and tried in vain to grasp the fading tendrils of sleep.

It wasn’t to be. Sleep, once departed from the stage, was unwilling to put in a curtain call, however brief.

I’d had about 6 hours sleep which sounds okay unless you–like me–are the kind of person who really needs her sleep if things aren’t going to go south at some point.

I could tell I wasn’t quite right after I got to work and needed to put my headphones on almost immediately to cope with the noise level from the air conditioning, computers and people. It’s a strange feeling: each of the noises is not particularly intrusive and I can usually filter them out. But when I can’t do that, often because of tiredness, they start clamouring for attention and my brain hops from one to another in a vain attempt to glean some meaning from the signal. They’re beaming in and my brain just shrugs, “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”

So I plug in my headphones, put them on, and first up on the Spotify playlist is Loose Fit by the Happy Mondays. Top, sorted tune: guaranteed not to twist my melon, know what I mean?

Things are feeling okay until we have our team meeting, where we stand around and tell each other how hard we worked yesterday. Well, there’s other people talking in far corners and my hearing starts going a bit “glitchy” where all the words pile in from every direction and jumble together.

By the time we get around to my turn I’ve had to sit down because I’m getting disoriented and slightly confused by all the sounds. I make it through and crawl back under my headphones to be soothed once more by the aural nectar of proper Manc voices singing the best that the 90s could produce in what was for a time the music capital of the known world. (Okay, I admit it: I’m into that whole Madchester sound. What can I say? I was born in Manchester and grew up with those bands.)

Fast forward a few hours and the magic of the noise-cancelling headphones is starting to wear off. Don’t get me wrong: they’re fantastic and I can get through a lot more with them, but they’re no substitute for an environment that’s sensory-friendly from the start. I’m at the point where my tiredness kicks in and my tinnitus starts to intrude. That’s something the headphones can’t help with; indeed, they often make it harder to ignore.

My tinnitus isn’t loud but it is constant. And it saps beneath the walls of my ability to bear it, gradually weakening them until at last they fall and I’m left with no defence against its assault on my senses.

So far I’ve only mentioned noise and hearing, but one of the effects of sensory overload is that it increases the responsiveness of some of my other senses, particularly my sight. In basic terms, light appears brighter.

Of course it’s not quite that simple because my vision gets “glitchy” in a way that kind of equivalent to my hearing, which I guess makes sense. As well as seeming brighter, everything gets a bit sparkly and where there’s contrast between lighter and darker–something like, say, text on a screen that I’m trying to read–it all gets a shimmery aura around the edges that is distracting as all hell.

So that’s what I was experiencing this afternoon when it finally reached the point where I couldn’t stand any more. Will power wasn’t going to overcome it no matter what: I’d run into the brick wall of my physical and mental limitations. So I did what any sensible person would do: I gave up and went home.

Er, no, I didn’t. That’s what a sensible person would do, but I think I’ve managed to demonstrate time and again that I’m not one of those. No, what I did was find a vacant meeting room and lie down on the floor with the lights off for a little while until my head stopped clamouring. And then I got up and went back to my desk and tried again.

This is far from the first time I’ve had sensory overload at work, and every time I keep trying and pushing myself in the hope that this time it’ll be different and I’ll be fine. And do you know what?

I wasn’t. I never am. This time was just like every other time: a failure.

Okay, perhaps failure is harsh but that’s how it feels, and every time I fail the cracks inside open up a little more: I become a little more broken. Because I ought to be able to handle it, or so the voice in my soul says. And it wouldn’t lie to me, would it?

10 thoughts on “The Wall: A Tale of Sensory Distress

  1. There must be something going on with the universe right now. You’re the second autistic blogger that I follow that has posted about sensory overload, plus my autistic grandson has been very edgy the past couple days. Maybe it’s just coincidence, but I don’t really believe in coincidence.
    Don’t beat yourself up over not being able to push through it. Everyone, and I mean EVERYONE, autistic or not has days where things are too bright, too loud, too…too! All it means is that you’re human.
    I hope you get better sleep!🍀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I wonder if you there is a way for you to keep contributing and sharing the work (which I believe or at least assume is of value to you and your colleagues), while keeping healthy. I’ve had about 3 days at work — ever –that were as bad as the one you describe, so I have almost no idea how I would have coped long term.

    Before I retired I reduced my hours and that helped a lot, and I was able to keep in a team who were sympathetic. I’ve also had helpful support from the NHS for visual / aural overload, and the love of close family.

    I hope you can find a way.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! That sounds like it might be something I could consider in the longer term but for now I need the income from working full time.

      The NHS continues to be helpful, up to a point: there’s not a lot of support for complex mental health issues beyond medication and a limited range of therapies that mostly revolve around CBT. I’m also in the process of assessments and therapy relating to my sensory processing, so it’s on-going.


  3. Not a failure. More sensitive than the majority. Conscientious, hard working, doesn’t give up. Fantastic person needing some time out from this difficult world.
    I repeat: fantastic person.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. Brilliant post (and a beautifully written blog, which I’ve only just followed). Glitchy senses are so relatable – along with the fact that noise-cancelling headphones just aren’t quite good enough sometimes. (I also have tinnitus waiting in the wings to get me when I think the external noises are under control!) Thank you for this. And take good care of yourself! x

    Liked by 2 people

I'd love to hear your thoughts on this.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.