This story was originally published on Medium in March 2019
Ever heard the expression, “It’s so loud that I can’t hear myself think”?
I’ll set a scene for you.
It’s a birthday party, and we are celebrating at a popular seaside restaurant.
The sidewalk eatery is packed and very noisy. At least one other birthday party is occurring. Tables are close together. A lot of conversations are going on, not only at our table but at surrounding tables as well.
I’m sipping a beer and wishing I was somewhere else. I’m not contributing to conversations and I’m feeling increasingly anxious and isolated.
It’s the noise.
I’m drowning in a churning sea of human voices and guitar music and singing and clinking cutlery and crashing plates and people clapping and tapping and stomping and the canvas roof of the eatery slapping loudly against the poles. I can’t stop hearing the constant stream of traffic on the street a few meters away and distant sirens and the roar of jets sliding over the bay to the airport. Even the ordinarily soothing sound of waves breaking on the nearby beach seems loud and irritating.
I’m bombarded by a confusing cacophony of sounds. A mishmash of awful noise.
It hurts. It hurts my brain.
All of the conversations I’m hearing are blending into each other. I try to focus on what my family and friends are talking about. I want to contribute. But I can’t keep track of the conversations I care about because other conversations and sounds are encroaching and mingling and robbing all the words of meaning.
By the time I comprehend what a person said, the discussion has moved on and it’s too late for me to respond.
Nobody else is bothered by all the noise. Everyone is having a good time and talking excitedly. Nobody else seems to be having trouble contributing to conversations.
But, all of the conversations that I’m hearing, both at my table and from the strangers at surrounding tables, hold equal prominence to me.
My daughter talking about my precious baby grandson sits at the same level in my mind as the stranger at the next table telling his friend about his new car.
I’m profoundly interested in my baby grandson. I have no interest whatsoever in the stranger’s new car.
And I have no desire to eavesdrop.
But my mind struggles to give one conversation more importance than another.
And the guy gamely playing guitar in the corner? I hear every chord and riff and hammer-on and every thunderous beat of his drum machine.
He’s good. He is slumming it, doing simple country songs that fit the mood. My mind starts following along, wondering if I can work out the chord progression he’s using when I get home. The words of his song are another loud conversation in my head.
Against my will, my mind tries to give equal attention to all of the conversations and sounds I’m hearing.
What’s that about my baby grandson and the stranger’s new car?
Did Bobby McGee ever find the home she was looking for?
Why is the sneering man by the bar openly ridiculing the pretty girl with the downcast eyes?
Why is the self-important businesswoman loudly castigating the teenage waiter because her steak was medium instead of medium-rare?
That siren I hear coming closer? Who does it toll for tonight?
All of the sounds swim together until I have trouble focusing clearly on anything at all.
The event I describe above is a fairly extreme example of my experience with sensory overload.
But, I do have the problem to varying degrees whenever I’m mixing with a crowd of people who are all talking or where there is a lot of ambient noise. Even during social events at home.
And, the problem is not restricted to social occasions.
At home, if someone is watching TV with the volume up in another room, I hear every word of the dialogue. Even though I’m not interested and don’t want to follow the story, I find it almost impossible to push the sound into the background.
So, if I’m trying to write or do other tasks on my computer, I have trouble concentrating. Sometimes, I’ll inadvertently write words from the TV show I’m hearing rather than what I’m supposed to be writing.
I love music and often listen to my favourite artists while I’m cooking or working around the house. But, unless the volume is low, I find it difficult to have a conversation with other people at the same time because the music and the words of the song hold equal importance in my mind.
It’s also the reason I often find phone conversations challenging. Any noises in the surrounding room seem to be equal in volume and importance to the voice of the person on the phone. And there are no visual cues to help me fill in the blanks. So, I often have to ask the person to repeat themselves, sometimes several times, which is embarrassing.
It took me years to realize that “normal” people are able to filter the sounds that they are hearing into a hierarchy of importance. So that the sounds that they want to focus on are prominent while other sounds fade into the background and don’t have a negative impact.
At least, that’s how it’s been explained to me. I can’t say from personal experience.
When I was young, and still had a social need to venture out to noisy pubs and nightclubs, I used to drink a lot to try to quell the tsunami of sound.
It never worked. People just thought I was shy, stupid, or rude. But it was simply that I couldn’t make sense of the confused jumble of sounds all around me.
But, as afflictions go, it’s not so bad. I know that many people experience sensory overload at a much more debilitating level than I do.
Thankfully, I’ve learned to deal with the problem so that it no longer has a major impact on my life. (Occasional loud restaurants or parties aside).
If the noise is getting overwhelming, I extract myself from it for a few minutes. I might take a quick walk outside on my own during which I can give my mind a spell and calm my anxiety.
Or, if I’m at home, I might slip into my office, put on my headphones and listen to music.
Being able to focus on just one sound for a few minutes can give me respite and make me feel calmer.
If I have to make an important phone call, I try to schedule it for a time when I know that the house will be relatively quiet. Or, I use a mobile phone so that I can take myself off to a more peaceful location. And, of course, email and text messaging is a boon.
If the house is noisy and I need to concentrate, I close my office door and put on my headphones to muffle the sounds.
These days I do manage to hear myself think most of the time. So it’s all good
All Images courtesy of depositphotos.com. This story was originally published on Medium in March 2019