An Open Letter to My Highly Sensitive Senses
Dear Highly Sensitive Senses,
We’ve danced around this since the mid-eighties, so I’ll get right to the point.
Last night was the last straw. For the hundredth time, microfiber caught on my hands as I reached for the basket of clean laundry. I let out my usual whale groan before recalling a moment from the family’s home movies.
My baby sister and I are in the bathtub, and my dad asks me to hug her. I respond, “but... she’s wet.”
More images click through my mind without warning, convex pinhole photographs through an old View-Master. I’m pulling on gloves but checking the insides first—you know, for spiders. I’m running away from bees. I’m anticipating and predicting the beginnings, middles, and ends of conversations. I’m leaving a party early because I forgot chap stick. I’m gritting my way through a day at the water park because there’s nowhere in my bathing suit to keep lotion. My husband cracks his stupid, skinny ankles for the third time in ten minutes and I’m shouting from the other room, “I HOPE THAT FEELS REAL NICE.”
Then there’s the forever-nightmarish meaning of “down the hatch,” a silly phrase my dad used when it was time to take medicine. Pills hadn’t been a problem before, but this time it was strep throat. I couldn’t see this horse-pill muscling through my punching bag tonsils and uvula that dusted my tongue like a red, crusty curtain. Now I’d sooner chew my pills than hear “down the hatch” one more time.
You and I -- we've been at odds for too long.
Here I am in my early-thirties, scrambling for explanations and settling on the typical ones: I’m too sensitive, too picky, “need to get over it.” Though I love a good compartment, you know I’m not one for labels or diagnoses. I remember the proverb about words’ power to bring death or life; but the wave pool of personality assessments and TED Talks and symptom-checkers—the blessed interwebs—granted me at last a tidy label for this chaos. I’m a "highly-sensitive person."
You may fit under one label, yet because of you, I do not. I’m restless, tousled, and out of place 99% of the time. You are my thorn, the draft slicing between separated bang hairs, the tiny hair knots after a ride with the top down, the single drip of sweat down my back, the peppered corn in my teeth, the crumb stuck to my toe. I’ve punched someone in the face for startling me. I’ve caught frisbees and footballs with every other body part but my hands. You’ve given me hilariously sad stories to tell my children but led me through a life of quiet and caution, high highs and low lows, anti-dirt, anti-risk.
I’m done asking the world to meet me on my terms. I’m over it. I’m tired. In the words of Willie Dixon, “I can't quit you baby/ But I got to put you down a little while.”
It’s been a swift and bumpy ride these 31 years.
You forgot to mention the note you left your mom on her laundry pile, the one that said you’d started puberty. But I'm glad we’re finally being honest. What a good little student you’ve been, doing your research. And you’re right, you can’t quit me.
It hasn’t been all bad, right? You found writing at five, theater at 11, love for kids in your twenties. Your quirks put others at ease and invite them to be themselves. (Let’s not forget your niche in shameless public eating and food dares: cold cream of mushroom in junior high, pie-eating contest in college, and the Little Debbie and spam sandwich somewhere in between. I had to draw the line with the gefilte fish competition, though. Did you really think the mash-and-gulp would work? You could have taken bites like a normal person. Good thing the bucket was there.)
And remember yesterday at the end of your driveway? Your son bent to stir a thin, muddy mixture with a stick; dirt and water and tree cones and motor oil swirled together, reflecting some sky. You sang a made-up song, “Stir, stir, stir the soup!” He laughed, bravely stepping into the puddle and out again, his shoes slapping the surface and water splashing into his socks. Did you notice the cars passing? Did they stop to admire, or admonish? You’ll never know, because you didn't look up.
Then it was past nap time. You noticed his pants and socks and the mud grains and cold wind and hurried him inside and stuffed lunch in his mouth and fought him to change his diaper so he could go to sleep and you could be alone and breathe. I know.
When you notice, agitation closes in on all sides, insight is loud and heavy and hurts like fever. You’ve tried, but you can’t cherry-pick which subtleties meet you. But delete the chaos and you delete the beauty, too.
See the irritations as invitations to see something new. Persist to remain present. Let your restlessness drive you to questions and keep your ears pressed to the ground. Let your feeling out of place invite you to see others who feel the same.
The next 31 years can be better, if you go easier on yourself. Give it time and you’ll appreciate me more. I’ll agree with Paul Simon when he says, “You don’t feel you could love me/ but I feel you could.”
Still in this together,
You can call me Sensei