Sometimes, when I get stressed, anxious or frustrated, I break down. The hard part is, it’s not just from things most people would find stressful. In fact, I deal pretty well with the big things: death, breakups, loss of a pet. I know these things are bad and I feel what I would consider “normal” emotions when they happen. Maybe that’s because I know everyone feels them and society accepts those emotions as valid.
The problem is, my emotions don’t just fire off from life-altering occurrences. My body and my brain can’t tell the difference between a life-or-death situation and a normal, everyday stressor. I have the same panicked reaction to misplacing my wedding ring as I might to misplacing my actual husband. My brain and body can go from zero to 100 in two seconds flat. I’m never truly calm: I might look like it on the outside but beneath the surface, there’s a trigger just waiting to flip and throw me into a full-on panic attack. What makes this even more fun is that I have learned to become anxious about the possibility of becoming anxious. If I start to worry that my emotions might get out of control, it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I’ve been this way my whole life but I never knew there was a name for it. When I “overreacted” as a kid, my parents thought I was just being melodramatic. Maybe they thought I just wanted attention and thought crying was the best way to get it. Nothing could be further from the truth. I want nothing more than to be happy. Because, you see, my “happy” is a million times more happy than anyone else’s. Because my emotions are so strong, I don’t need to take drugs to feel the world’s best high. I simply need to be happy for a few minutes and I feel amped up like I’m on drugs — I can write, I can create, I can do anything. Not in a reckless sense: I’ve never driven fast or thought I could fly. It’s just… when I feel good, I feel amazing. The same way that, when I feel bad, I feel like it’s going to kill me.
A couple of years ago, I learned this has a name: emotional intensity. I simply experience the world in levels of color and sound and touch that most people can’t imagine. And of course, levels of emotion. It’s not just emotion, though; I’m sensitive to everything. There are fabrics I can’t bear to touch, sounds I can’t bear to hear, smells that make me want to vomit. Everywhere I go, I have to try to shield myself against things no one ever thinks twice about. I take a dose of NyQuil and I’m hungover for 24 hours. I have to be careful about something as commonplace as a cold pill or the medication they use at the dentist. If I don’t remind a doctor about my overly sensitive nervous system, I can have a terrifying out-of-body experience from stimulants they put in common drugs, which cause me to lose sensation in my limbs and feel like I’m both floating and drowning at the same time.
Most people don’t know this about me and I think I do a pretty good job of hiding it, so maybe that’s part of the problem. When I’m under a lot of stress — say from work, school or other things — or if I’m abnormally tired or hungry, for example, my ability to stay in control goes down. I am at risk of falling to the floor and crying into my hands for as long as it takes to unravel myself from the mental obstacle course I’m jumping through.
So, several years ago, when I started seeking professional help, I learned one coping strategy — remove yourself from the situation. De-escalate. That’s what my doctor said. I started to learn to recognize the feelings of overwhelming emotion or sensation before they got too far and I could tell myself (and others) I needed a break. It’s not always convenient or polite, but it’s what I need to do to prevent losing myself into panic, crying, and if I’m being honest, depressive thoughts that spiral to the darkest places extremely fast.
I’ve gotten better at this over the past few years. I’ve become better at voicing what I need, even if I’m far from perfect. At least now, I can say it’s starting to get bad before I’m “there.” At least now, I can recognize when I can’t handle a single minute more before I’m lying on the floor, pounding my fists into my own body out of frustration and rage.
I’m still working, very hard in fact, to move beyond where I am now to a place where I can not only recognize but stop my emotions in their tracks and separate myself from their painful effects. I have a whole set of professionals, medications, and even an iPhone app (yes, there’s an app for that!) And I swear, I’m trying my damnedest to get through life in a way most people take for granted.
So please, have some understanding for me when I say I need some space. I often make the mistake of holding out too long, pushing myself too far and ending up over the emotional edge because I didn’t stop and recognize what my body and brain were trying to tell me before it was too late. If I get there, there’s not much I can do but go to a quiet place where I don’t have to see or talk or touch anyone and try to use any number of tools — from medication to breathing exercises — to bring myself back to normal.
If you’re going to be in my life, then you should know about this. But if respecting my different needs or believing me when I say I have a need makes you feel hurt, then it’s better we not be friends.