Sensory overload is a condition often associated with forms of Autism. In recent years we’ve seen more ‘autism friendly’ movie screenings and shopping hours, as well as more children wearing ear protectors. As a symptom it is becoming more accepted but not necessarily more understood.
Many of us with fibromyalgia also suffer with sensory overload, ranging from a mild dislike of loud noises to be effectively isolated because of it. For me, the biggest issue is sound. It doesn’t affect me in the same way all the time. Some days I could enjoy busy bonfire night celebrations, the bang of fireworks, the smell of bonfire smoke and toasted marshmallows and people rushing around to find the best views. Other days however, I’m stuck in bed with the TV volume and brightness turned right down and hiding under the covers.
Earplugs are a staple in every bag I use. I buy them in big multipacks for when I inevitably lose one. I use them in every situation imaginable. In the cinema, at home, in a restaurant. I could be wearing an elegant ball gown (theoretically – can’t see that happening any time soon) and you’d still see the bright orange sponges sticking out of my ears.
It does embarrass me, having to use them, but I feel worse thinking other people will think I’m being rude. The sound of loud, shrill, crying children, is one of the worst I’ve encountered. It’s like it burrows into my head and consumes my thoughts. It is a sound I cannot ignore or tune out. I’ve tried. It’s like a pneumatic drill, hammering into my brain. Either I remove myself from the situation, which isn’t always possible or I put the earplugs in.
I always worry the child’s guardian will feel bad because they can’t stop their child’s crying and the practically luminous orange earplugs are hardly inconspicuous. They’re like bright traffic cones popping out of my ears, signalling that I am uncomfortable. I understand that the parent can’t always stop their child crying, it’s not their fault, and it’s not their child’s fault either, it’s just what children do. I would hate to think that they feel uncomfortable because I’ve had to put my earplugs in, but the sound is so uncomfortable for me that I have little other option.
My sensory overload symptoms ebb and flow in correlation to my anxiety levels. If I am calm and feel safe, I am much more able to deal with everything. If I’m having a panic attack or if my anxiety is bad, it is like the world has been turned up to 100. Whispers seem like screams, a sepia environment is as bright as children’s TV. Colours are garish and intense. Soft feels rough, cool feels like ice, and warmth is like fire. Sensory overload can be debilitating. Like living in a nightmare where everything is distorted and confusing and just too much.
Sometimes I have to wait it out. Sometimes I have to hide in a corner or under a duvet until it’s all okay. Sometimes I have to fight against the people telling me “it’s just a noise.” At that moment it is not just a noise. Not to me, not to millions of other people who deal with the symptom. It’s a sharp pain, it’s a gunshot, it’s a fire alarm, it’s an explosion in the ear – it’s only a creaky floorboard.