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?

Hair-trigger Sensory Hell

Hair-trigger Sensory Hell

I’m sat here writing this and my focus is everywhere, darting around the room like a frantic animal seeking escape. I’m twitching, every little sound makes me jump.

So many sounds. There’s no escape. All outside my door here. All threatening. I’m terrified. I hear a bang (something dropped?) and scream! I’m alternating between holding my head in my hands and sobbing, and the rapid breathing of a panic attack.

My headphones don’t help. They don’t cancel everything. And even if they did I still feel the vibrations.

Literally. Every. Sound. I’m a receiver with the gain turned up way past maximum. There is no escape. No way out. I’m flapping my hands, I’m repeating, over and over and over and over and over and over, “Stop it! Stop it! Stop it!”

And it doesn’t stop. I know how this ends. I’ve been here before. This is overload. Population one. My needle is pushed against the stop and every tiny increment is testing the strength of the fuse. It will blow.

I don’t know when. Maybe not even today, but at some point it will go. And I will be in meltdown. I feel it: some elements are leaking past my barriers. I’m trying to suppress it because I have to keep functioning. I have to keep going at any cost.

And I know that’s foolish. I know that the longer I strain to delay the inevitable the bigger the crash. And I still do it.

I’ve reached a lull. A brief spell where I can let the tension I hadn’t even realised was in my body dissipate. When I can breathe slowly and deeply. When I can rebuild my strength ready for the next assault.

Sensory overload is not something you get to switch off when it’s inconvenient. It usually comes on with a vengeance at times of stress. Talk about kicking you when you’re down!

This one has been building for a long time. Over months. The stress is why I’ve referred myself for counselling. I can’t write about it, not now, not yet. I’m not able to face those demons today. But one day, hopefully, I will.

The Clarity of Pain

The Clarity of Pain


Loud. Bright. Voice. Touch.
Stress. Retreat. Stim.

People stare.
Eye pressure.



Loud. Bright. Voice. Touch.
All too much. Overload.

Wanting to scream,
But no sound comes.

Confusion. Ravenous fear. Feeding
On the mind’s elemental chaos.

One hope. One chance to escape.
One solution to calm the storm.

The clarity of pain washes through
Like a tsunami. Silent wreckage
In its wake. Peace has a price.

Decompression and Recovery

Decompression and Recovery

It’s amazing how much difference a couple of days can make. On Sunday I was in such a dark place; my mind was in turmoil and I was suffering such fear that I could barely function.

I responded to a kind offer from friends to visit for a while, to get away – run away – to somewhere I could feel free of the pressure that was causing me such distress. By Monday evening I was over 100 miles away and beginning the process of recovery.

Unusually for me I wanted to talk, to share how I had been feeling: having an understanding audience is vital. And it can be cathartic to simply speak about your troubles. To put them into words, give them shape and gain a fresh perspective.

In this case talking about how I’d been feeling served to organize my feelings, put my thoughts into an order that allowed me to deal with them, to start to release the pain and fear. To take the first steps towards recovery.

My surroundings have been very conducive to that end: my friends have a comfortable house right near the coast in a quiet part of Dorset: peaceful, lovely scenery, plenty of fresh air and not many people around me. It has been as close to perfect as I could have wished for.

A number of people have contacted me, through email, SMS and social networks, to offer their support. It has been a revelation that I have so many people who care about me: I don’t have a lot of self-esteem and it can be hard to believe that anyone else would think much of me.

The friends I stayed with made me so welcome and didn’t put me under any pressure to explain what had happened or how I was feeling: they gave me the space I needed. I felt safe and was able to relax, and as I did so I started to talk. They listened and understood. They didn’t judge, didn’t tell me what I should do.

I left this morning feeling calm, and also a little embarrassed that I’m not able to thank them nearly enough for being there for me when I needed their support. I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve such kindness: I was close to tears — of happiness — as I drove away, and again now as I write this.

It is because of these friends, and others who have contacted me in one way or another over the past couple of days that I am starting to feel good about myself again. It feels as if the crisis is behind me and I’m moving on. I’ve got the time and support now to complete the healing process.