Sensory overload – trains, pains and exploding brains

Hell is a crowd of exceptionally loud drunk men clutching beer bottles on the 5pm train. They wear a uniform of (almost) matching shorts, polo shirts and cardigans draped round their shoulders; boat shoes without socks. They all talk at once, competing for attention; maniac laughter.

I picture grabbing a samurai sword like Mishone in The Walking Dead and silencing them. Ah intrusive thoughts – a gift from my OCD.

Their shouting vibrates in my chest and makes it hard to breath. I look into the faces of the people sitting around me. Impassive. If they are experiencing what I am, how are they hiding it so well? One comment ‘knee deep in rape’ makes me stand up in disgust, ready to challenge them. But I know my hearing can be unreliable and my interpretation too literal. So I sit down and breathe through it.

Their communal stench of beer, aftershave and cigarettes makes me want to scream. It floods my nose until I can taste it.

Sensory overload – fireworks flash in my head and my chest filling me with panic

This is the first train I’ve travelled on in maybe 2 years. It shouldn’t be this torturous, this intimidating.

It took all my willpower not to have a meltdown. A meltdown that would have burst open my verbal floodgates and seen me lecturing the lot of them on Autism and respect for other peoples differences. No doubt I’d have been labelled a nutter. It’s a fair label.

My husband and I joke that I don’t like humans. But it’s not really a joke.

I like children – playing eye spy on the train this morning with a melting down toddler whose mum needed a break was a highlight in my day. I understand children and they understand me.

I also like animals.

I like lovers of nature.

People who care about the planet.

I like people who understand Autism, who embrace our differences without judgement.

Passionate people who stand up for what they believe in – I like them.

The booming clamour of voices over voices starts to ease as we pull into a station and the badly dressed loud mouths disembark taking their stinky stench with them. I feel the oppression lift and my anger subside.

The irony is, I used to be one of those loud, obnoxious drunks on a train. Before my Autism diagnosis I was a regular social drinker, wearing my vodka jacket like a shield against stranger danger. I had a lot of fun in those alcohol fuelled years but also a lot of arguments, hangovers and mental health problems.

It’s almost 3 years since I stopped drinking, slowly cutting down to zero and I feel amazing for it. I feel calmer, happier, more authentic. But there are times when my sensory processing differences make living sober feel hard.

The men are gone now. And I don’t need a vodka jacket to block them out. I can write to offload my feelings; I can walk on the beach at low tide collecting shells; I can stand in my nightie in the rain collecting snails off of my beautiful plants and relocating them to the park. I can hide in the Snug at home and just. be. silent.

I have a whole toolkit of ways to manage my sensory needs now. I choose a lifestyle that helps keep me well. I avoid the things that trigger me. I am protective of my space and time.

But sometimes I find myself in a crowded place, somewhere too noisy, or too hot, too messy, too encroaching on my space. In those moments my strategies go out the window and anxiety rolls over me in angry waves.

If you’re neurodivergent like me, maybe what I’m describing sounds familiar. If you’re neurotypical, you might be moving seats on the train because the angry woman deep breathing and clenching her fists is freaking you out!

Regardless, you could help. Open a window to let some air in. Offer to swap seats. Start a conversation – empathise. Tell the loud, stinky men to shut the hell up!

Sensory overwhelm is not a choice, we don’t want to feel like this. It’s not stupid or immature or a lack of control. It’s not over reacting. If you help us remove or reduce the sensory triggers, you will set us back on the path to calm and balance. You may even restore this cranky old Autistic person’s faith in humans and save me from getting my samurai sword out!!

Alone time and the great outdoors – these are my recipe for a calm mind.

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