Dysfunction Junction

The problem with invisible illnesses is, they’re invisible.

If a person is in a cast or on crutches, it’s easy to empathize with their plight. A broken bone is a glaring deficit. But it’s hard to relate to disabilities we can’t see.

Most people don’t know what it’s like to feel assaulted by their environment. They don’t understand the nausea (or asthma attack, or migraine) that comes from walking past the perfume counters at Macy’s, the chatter-induced headaches from dining out at a favorite restaurant, or having to cut the tags out of their clothes because they’re not only scratchy, they cause their skin to break out.

Last week I went on a trip to Vegas. Between some pre-existing neck pain, the loud jet engines, and the overwhelming odors of cigarette smoke and vanilla air freshener when we reached the hotel, I was so miserable by the end of the first day, I was concerned my discomfort would affect the quality of my trip-mates’ vacation.

Though I managed to socialize well the next few days and took in two Cirque du Soleil shows (Ka and Zumanity, loved them both), I needed a full day of rest alone in my hotel room the day before we returned. (Of course, I woke up at 3:00 am on the morning of our departure, and was beyond exhausted by the time I walked through my own front door). Please don’t get me wrong, I had a wonderful time. But it was difficult and sometimes painful, and I’m still paying for it.

Since returning from Vegas, I’ve been ill: sinus congestion, headache, sore throat, and a cough that’s now moved into my chest. My body was so over-taxed by sensory stimuli, it literally crashed. These kinds of crashes have plagued me for as long as I remember. When my environment produces enough physical stress, I get sick. Yes, this happens to everyone at some point. My problem is my tolerance for such stress is significantly lower than most people’s.

Only in recent years has there been focused attention on neurodivergence. Researchers are beginning to connect positive innate traits and talents (e.g., ‘giftedness’) with sensory sensitivity. So, it is challenging to classify such sensitivity as a disorder, even when a person’s situational inability to cope with the world can be a hindrance. Like many others, I’ve endured a life that has felt perpetually harder than it should be, given my abilities, while being told that I’m ‘too sensitive to everything.’

I’ve talked a lot about self-care in the past; my own situation is the primary driver of my passion in this area. Roughly 20% of the population experiences atypical sensitivity to sensory stimulation. There is no weakness in that. And despite the sometimes frustrating effects of our sensitivities, there are upsides to our atypical wiring, too.

While it might be easy to dismiss all this as the self-aggrandizement of a Special Snowflake, I want to assure you that this sensory phenomenon is real. It’s just horribly misunderstood.

Is High Sensitivity simply an expression of neurological variability, or is it a disorder? Should the early assessment of sensory processing issues become a standard practice in pediatrics, to ensure neuroatypical children can be successful? Should HSPs expect employers to provide environmental accommodations to allow them to function at their best?

All we can do – as compassionate people, and members of the general public – is to be informed and aware; to recognize that some people’s challenges aren’t as easy to identify or relate to as others. But, if we are to be authentic in life, we need to both share these things about ourselves, and provide the space for others to share, as well.

I’ll show you mine if you show me yours…

Highly Sensitive Persons

The Debate Over Sensory Processing

DSM-V and Sensory Processing Disorder

Sensory Processing in People With Migraine

Migraine: Highly Sensitive People

Suicide and High Sensitivity


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