In the previous post I shared how the sensory modulation side of my experience with Sensory Processing Disorder is still a problem. I explained a little bit of how previous efforts to address these problems were met with unhelpful advice, especially since I didn’t have a means of explaining why things bothered me.
Now as an adult, I do have more awareness of why a seemingly random noise can have such a strong impact on me. So why isn’t it easy to tell people?
There’s a threefold reason I have trouble addressing these problems. 1) I’m evaluating the seriousness of the current situation so I don’t always raise the issue in the moment. 2) I struggle with expressing myself in a calm and non-reactionary way that separates the person from the sensory issue. 3) I’m afraid that bringing up issues I haven’t addressed before will be viewed as me being controlling and demanding.
A personal example
It’s really hard, especially around my mom because we’ve been through so much together, for me to calmly explain what’s bothering me in the moment. My gut reaction is anger, and I’m trying to work on that. Yet while I wait for the anger to subside, she notices a grimace or something on my part. In turn she interprets that as me being angry at her on a personal level. In reality, though, it’s some sound or movement in my environment that registers negatively.
Maybe we’re in the car and the steering wheel rubs against her hands as she makes a turn and the contact produces a specific sound. She’s driving the car, she’s not doing anything to purposely annoy me, but for some reason this sound grates on my ears. The equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. I have to brace myself every time she drives knowing I’ll hear this sound and that it will upset me. I have an internal, physical reaction to this sound. But I’m afraid of raising awareness to the issue because it seems stupid. I feel angry at myself for getting upset by something so inconsequential. Why can’t I just ignore it?
And I honestly don’t have a solution to the problem. What am I supposed to do? Ask her to change the way she drives just for me? So it’s one of the sounds and one of many moments that I try to just absorb, but apparently my face betrays me. She notices something in my demeanor or facial expression or eyes. I don’t know what she sees but she notices something and asks what’s wrong. And I can’t allow the words to spill out of my mouth. The explanation doesn’t come. I just say “nothing” or I say “I’m tired, I’m still waking up” and hope for the best. But she doesn’t buy it and to some degree I think she feels there’s something more personal involved. Maybe she thinks I’m mad at her or disagree with whatever she’s just shared.
So, I encounter a sound that bothers me. I don’t address it. I hide and try to shrug it off. Mom interprets my reaction as anger directed at her. And there’s added tension to our relationship. Yes, this is a problem.
Sharing vs. controlling
Clearly the proper solution is that I need to raise awareness to what bothers me. The squeaky wheel is the one that gets the oil, after all. Nothing will be resolved if it’s not shared. Only after talking more openly about some of these problems will people become more aware and maybe more in tune with how I’m reacting. But until then, it’s pointless to think that any clues I offer (which I feel are obvious but are actually quite subtle) will be interpreted correctly.
I’m working to find a way to address problems calmly. Before writing this up, my efforts have included phrasing things like “I get annoyed when you do xyz”, although that’s much more eloquent than it comes off. It has actually been more like “Ugh! Stop doing xyz it’s driving me crazy!” Emotions are high in the delivery, and I’m reacting out of anger instead of explaining things in a calm, even voice. This approach sets things up as a personal attack. I don’t have a problem with the person specifically, but with a sound or movement or touch that was produced. There’s a difference.
My fear with starting to point out these situations is that I will be viewed as being controlling and demanding and seeking only to have people cater to my needs. And I don’t want that. Everyone experiences little things that are annoying or bothersome so what right do I have to demand people change their behavior?
It finally occurred to me that just because I identify a problem, identify that something specifically is bothering me, does not mean that I am demanding something to change. Rather, I’m sharing a problem. I’m sharing a problem and explaining how it is being received, how my senses are interpreting the sound or action. It only becomes a demand when I insist that something never be done again.
So the first goal of sharing the problem is to raise awareness to specific things that bother me. This will be a means of more fully sharing myself with family and friends. Of bringing problems into the light so it no longer has to remain a secret. To no longer have to keep these moments to myself, pretending that everything is fine while it eats away at me internally.
The secondary goal is to brainstorm ways to reduce the problem, if it’s possible. To find ways of making accommodations that are reasonable.
Sometimes a sensory problem is out of my control and the control of those I’m with. But by identifying that something is wrong, I can invite others to be involved simply by offering compassion, support or silent understanding. Sometimes it’s not about having a solution but being able to share the problem together. Like Nutmeg sitting near Martha while she’s hiding under the hammock.
Back to the car situation. The other day it occurred to me that I could suggest Mom use a steering wheel cover. It would be a small accommodation when I’m in the car, but not a drastic demand of changing the way she drives.
“Just speak up!”
I can’t always control the way things affect me or the way my body interprets my environment, but I can get better at the way I respond and react. And part of that means learning how to calmly explain what’s bothering me.
It’s scary to use my words in that way. There’s still fear for how I’ll be received.
And as I begin this venture of being more vocal, that filtering system I fight all the time with general verbal communication hits hard. Is this a small problem? Is this worth bringing up? Is this a solitary issue or likely to be ongoing? Will I be viewed as trying to be controlling or demanding? Is there an alternative I can suggest? Have I exceeded the “statute of limitations” for the amount of time that has passed before addressing the issue?
The confusing part is that these experiences may annoy me 8 out of 10 times. There’s still a possibility that one instance will go unnoticed or will not register as annoying. It could be my sensory tolerance is higher at that time and I can handle the sound or situation better. I don’t really understand how that works. But what I take from it is that specific sounds and triggers aren’t a guarantee. Which makes it harder to speak up. Just because it annoys me now, is it worth saying something? Is it something that can be or needs to be changed?
I put pressure on myself for how I verbally phrase things and timing that delivery. Some of that care and planning is important. But it can also be a means of avoiding to take action, looking for that perfect approach or opportunity that will never come. So I have to do better at sharing calmly while doing my best with the explanation I have at the time. I can always elaborate later. And part of the acknowledging process needs to include acceptance that I can be brief, offering something simple like: “Bear with me. I’m working through a sensory issue.”
Building on success
One major victory stands out to me. It happened about a year ago. I was walking with a friend on a nature trail. She randomly decided to pick up a large stick and drag it alongside her. For several minutes I evaluated this change in behavior. It made focusing on our conversation more challenging; the sound of the stick being dragged along the rocky ground was distracting.
Finally I asked “Why did you pick up the stick?” It was a passive approach, but it was delivered calmly. There was no anger or accusation in my voice. She said she liked the way it felt in her hand. Then not long after, she followed that with “Does it bother you?”
I felt silly for being bothered by the stick. But she knew of my sensory issues and having taught special needs children, I felt she was more inclined to understand. Maybe I actually said “yes” or maybe I just offered a nod, but to some degree the irritation was communicated.
She offered a compromise: she used it like a walking stick instead of dragging it. We continued on happily.
I was happier with how that problem was resolved. Because normally I would have waited much longer before speaking up, spending so much time weighing and considering if it was worth mentioning that it would no longer be relevant. Yes I waited some time after she picked up the stick, but we were still walking when I brought it up so it counts!
I proved to myself that I could calmly address a situation without being demanding and overly emotional. Being blunt has never been a strong suit for me. And I need to work on improving that. Not that my delivery needs to be callous, but I need to try to be more direct in my communication.
If you haven’t read my poem “Dispute,” now is a good time to check it out. Initially I thought it was just a good illustration of trying to defend myself in an argument, but another interpretation is showing a reaction to a sensory issue.
The poem shows the speaker turning inward, taking the offending words or sound or action personally. It doesn’t just roll off the back; the impact clings and lingers. It shows the person getting upset with the environment and turning inward, where anger builds but it becomes a challenge to express these emotions.
I do tend to freeze up more when these moments occur, trying to physically brace myself and figure out how to handle the situation. And as an adult I’m recognizing more and more this strong desire to lash out in anger, to allow my boiling thoughts to pour out. While I do end up holding my tongue more often instead of lashing out, which is good, it doesn’t change the fact that the problem remains unacknowledged.
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