We’re standing on a train platform in the middle of nowhere – the kind that doesn’t even have a ticket office or a loo (and if you need to pee you have to just mindlessly panic, praying that the train will come any second now, while desperately considering squatting in the nearest bush).
I am buttoned up in my winter coat and balancing on one leg like a flamingo – hopping up and down in tune with the painted yellow line on the platform. The wind is shaking the leaves in the trees like some sort of improvised percussion instrument, and a few stray autumn leaves are chasing conker shells around the ankles of the oaks.
It’s that strange overcast kind of day that coats everything in a pasty white light – it could be 6pm or 6am and it’s difficult to tell which.
‘This is how the apocalypse would look’, I think to myself waiting for the familiar honk of the train approaching.
And then –
“Don’t you ever feel like there’s just too much sensory information?” says the person I’m waiting with, tilting her head slightly to the right as she looks at me, her hair half falling into her eyes.
I look up – genuine shock running through me.
“Holy shit, is that what that feeling is?” I think to myself.
I can’t remember what actually happened next. Logically we must have got the train and things must have continued as normal. I don’t think I made a big deal of what was for me, a life changing moment.
That small sentence, floated into the air without a care in the world, like a paper plane casually flung from a skyscraper – launched off into nothingness – has started a process in my mind that will hugely change the way I perceive the world.
I run through this piece of memory footage over and over – pausing and rewinding in my head. Like a key, this slither of information can be used to unlock and understand so many of my experiences. Being able to put into words what I was experiencing – even if the words were someone else’s – is one step closer to understanding.
This ‘sensory overload’ issue is something which affects me everyday but which I could never quite put my finger on before. It had never occurred to me that the way I experience the world could be more intensely than other people right from the get-go – good day or bad. It had never crossed my mind that sensory overload was possible.
I realise that when I’m walking to the post office or popping to the shops and that familiar dread fills my heart and the ache drops into my stomach – and my lungs – and my eyes – that feeling isn’t motion sickness or plain old anxiety at all. It is the very essence of ‘too much information’. And as I struggle to pick up each and every tiny detail, the world starts to spin a little, like a TV tuned into the wrong channel, the static cutting into the dark.
I realise that the feeling of utter dread that paralyses me in an office three days out of five, isn’t just fear – it’s a reaction to stimuli. The way I wince as people go about their working day unaware. The need to shut my eyes. That strange unsettling feeling that I can feel everyone’s emotions – that I can sense every single person in the room. It all comes back to the same thing.
The overwhelming desire to hide underneath my desk and cry? My predisposition for getting up from my desk 10+ times a day to briefly hide in the bathroom and just breathe? Whatever I thought this was before, it’s clear now that it’s actually all to do with this simple truth, humble and bold, which was disclosed almost carelessly by someone who probably doesn’t even remember saying it, but which changes everything:
There’s too much sensory information.
To this day I still run this memory over and over in my mind, studying its smooth texture, substituting this new clue into the equation of existence to get a new answer.
And now when I plug myself into headphones and pump up the volume – I live in my earbuds near constantly, a habit that I’ve always felt uneasy about but I’ve never known why – it is not to escape from the world but to survive it. Creating a forcefield of musical notes tucked around my mind like a blanket.
I realise that when I click to increase the volume I do this not to turn the music up, but to turn the world down. Or at least smother the noise, if only for a second.