Thanks to my geeky father, I was exposed to personal computers earlier than most of my friends did. My dad set up his computer so that his five year old daughter could watch “stars” as if flying through the universe (which I later learned was a screen saver). When I was a couple years older, I had my own computer, a hand-me-down running on 286 processor, and I played games that came on floppy disks. I was the cool kid on the block.
By the time I was nine or ten, I had saved up enough allowance, and my dad built me a brand new computer with it. It was a great feat. It was running on Windows 95 and I was still the cool kid who could type up homework and use the Internet.
During the lifetime of my first computer, PCs became widespread and most of my friends had computers at home. Computer programs and operating systems became more and more sophisticated each year with the growing power of hardware. To help me keep up with constantly evolving softwares, my dad would update the OS, or upgrade pieces of hardware for me once in a while. I remember bragging to my friends when he bought me a 4.3GB hard drive when my friends only had 1.6GB. But those small upgrades could not hold up much longer. I didn’t have much understanding about computers, but I knew about Windows’ multi-tasking, unlike previous MS-DOS. I could launch multiple programs and go back and forth. As I got older, I learned to use more programs, and each program’s minimum system requirement grew more demanding. Towards the end of my first computer’s life, it would barely meet the system requirement for new games that I wanted to play. With all the applications open and my switching around, my computer would get sluggish, and sometimes it would completely freeze the operating system and crash. All those programs that I was demanding my computer to run were beyond its processing and memory capacity.
With my M.E. worsening, I feel like I’m that old computer, being overwhelmed by all the stimuli that my brain has to process. All the signals are amplified, requiring more brain power to sort through. But my brain is less capable than before, so when it’s inundated with everything that my sensory nerves are sending, it crashes, just like the old computer did.
We easily recognize conscious effort that we have to put in when we are walking around a shopping mall, or thinking hard about the math problem in front of us. At some point in our lives, we had to learn these activities. But using our basic senses – seeing the blue sky, hearing morning birds chirping, smelling fresh-baked bread, feeling warmth of a tea mug, tasting sweet and bitter chocolate – is something that feels innate to us. Just like breathing, we don’t have to be conscious about using our senses. It feels natural.
So explaining to others that these things that should be effortless are overwhelming is not easy. It’s not only the physical use of my body that has a toll, but also anything that makes our brain spin. When I am overloaded with senses, everything gets tangled up and making sense out of those senses require much more effort than sum of each individual stimulation. That’s why I don’t like to have more than one person in the room with me, because I cannot make anything out of two different voices without getting exhausted. I don’t listen to music although I love it very much – I was in choir in high school and one of classes I took during the first semester of college was music theory. I cringe when I sense fragrances and refuse to wear deodorant. I can’t kill time watching movies while resting in bed. Many things I loved or took for granted became a part of exertions that I am told to avoid if I want a chance for healing.
So I sometimes wear shades indoors to limit the amount of light that my optic nerves have to transmit. Or I close my eyes while listening to someone talking to me, so that my brain has one less sense to process. I don’t keep my shades on as a fashion statement, and I am not lacking social skills because I’m not making the eye contact. I don’t mean to be rude when I request someone with a perfume on to leave the room. I am not trying to be annoying when I ask people to speak softer and slower, one person at a time. I don’t want to hurt someone’s feeling when I refuse a hug or gentle strokes on my hands.
The thing is, when I am in those situations, I am most likely already overwhelmed. When I’m exhausted from flooding sensory stimuli, I don’t have energy to process anything and I get irritable. I just want some time to relax and avoid my body and/or brain shutting down. I am just trying to look after myself. But because I was trying to do what was best for me and M.E. didn’t spare me some energy to explain, phrases like “poor social skill”, “depressed”, and “flat affable” are permanently left in my medical record from my hospital stay when none of those words were true description of me during those moments.
When I am overwhelmed by my surroundings, a lot of times, I can’t even think properly about what I need to ask for some space. I get agitated that people cannot see I am clearly suffering. Or even if they notice I’m getting uncomfortable, but they don’t realize the offender is merely my existence in that specific place at that moment, and carry on. Or in some situations, I just end up swallowing all the entangled mess of signals going to my brain and face much worse PEM(post-exertional malaise) because I cannot explain my need to someone who is biased towards M.E.
Sensory overload is not unique to M.E. At least (when I am in a better condition) I can express what was amiss to others around me. But a child with a sensory processing or autistic spectrum disorder may not even know what upsets her and throw a tantrum. People who experience sensory overload are not trying to be annoying or oversensitive. It’s just how our brains are wired to our sensory nerves. So instead of passing quick judgement as poor, socially unacceptable behavior, please open your heart and show your patience and understanding when you encounter someone struggling with over-stimulation. We might be too overwhelmed at the moment to say thank you, and sometimes take a while to be able to even recognize your kindness (because our brains are too busy, not knowing what to do with all the stimuli), but we definitely will know and appreciate your thoughtfulness.