Writers are armchair psychologists. Novels are, after all, examinations of the minutiae of the human experience. I've always had an interest in psychology: I studied it at JHU, and my second book dealt with PTSD and the psychological fallout of war.
But I'm far from an expert. As with all armchair psychologists, my favorite client is myself, my own psyche.
Lately, after my mom became critically unwell (details of which can be found here) I have noticed some psychological symptoms in myself that had me worried.
After the trauma of her illness my anxiety started going through the roof. Anxiety that was haunting. Anxiety that was so acute that I no longer could look at the news (another child molestation story? No thanks). Hangovers and caffeine highs, or anything else that spikes anxiety, became unbearable. I worried about everything to do with my kids and myself. Things as small as crossing the road. Things as big as the meaning of life, and why is my mom suffering more physical torture when she has already been dealt so much in her life, when she's a person who went to church every Sunday. As I began to mourn my mother's life I realized there was a lot of anger, addiction and unhappiness in my childhood that I had largely (and quite happily) suppressed until the time I came to bring up kids of my own. I worried that now that I was forming kids in my own image the unhappy aspects of my childhood were catching up with me. Were they always going to haunt me? Were they enough to send me over the edge, make me lose my mind? I worried about all the things in between.
In addition to the worry (which I now realize is rumination, and I now have tactics to deal with it), I have noticed other symptoms. Not being an expert I did not see a link between things that were, indeed, linked. Until I stumbled upon something that changed my entire perspective.
A test for the highly sensitive person.
Have you heard of it? I hadn't. I wish I had. Most people who fall under the category of Highly Sensitive Person ruminate over why they are experiencing symptoms. They wonder what is wrong with them. They wonder if they are losing it. The authoring psychologist estimates that 20% of our population are highly sensitive. Highly sensitive people see, smell and experience the world more sharply, and these people are drawn to the arts as a result. I scored 25 out of 27 on her test.
Basically you could not describe me more accurately.
The first thing I noticed was lights. Ever since my late 20's I noticed bright lights drive me nuts. I despise overhead lights and often get up and walk out of a room because I didn't like the lighting. Nighttime soccer games were a no-go because the lights would give me migraines. I keep my Macbook on almost the dimmest setting because if it's too bright I won't be able to fall asleep at night. Sound is the exact same. If a TV or radio is too loud it drives me bonkers. I watch TV on a sound level that my husband can't even hear. The volume of his radio in the kitchen bothers me through the ceiling/floor into our bedroom. (As you can imagine this leads to a lot of compromise in my house). Smells are the same, everything is so intense. I can't breathe while I'm helping my kids in the toilet or changing their nappy. I can smell a bit of sewage or slurry from a mile off.
Fabrics are another of my things. I sew almost all of my own clothes now because clothes on the High Street are not comfortable and the cheap fabrics and tags irritate my skin.
Dealing with kids and the noise, neediness and smells associated with parenting often made me feel overwhelmed to the point I had to go in a room and sit quietly or stare out the window at the breeze blowing through the trees to collect myself. I always asked myself why other parents could seemingly deal with the constant chaos better than I could.
But on the flip side, as I noticed my senses sharpening I noticed I became far more interested in the arts. I was always into music but now, give me almost any art form and I'm fascinated by how it came to be, what it represents, and what emotions it stirs in me (apart from cinema because I can no longer go to the movies without having an uncontrollable urge to ask them to turn the volume down). The things I value most in life can be summed up in two words: nature and art.
I am blogging about this not because I love the idea of everyone knowing this stuff about me, but because I think other artists/writers might find some familiarity here. If this post helps one person, that's enough for me. It's not that I don't experience this stuff anymore, but now I know I'm not alone and that I'm not losing my mind. I have knowledge, and knowledge gives us power to cope.
There are far too many artists in this world who seem to lose it. Robin Williams and Philip Seymour Hoffman are two recent horrible losses. What fun, what drama, what brilliance we would have experienced with these men had they lived on. Our world is a sadder place when we lose talented artists to depression and addiction. The saddest thing about Robin Williams is that he never heard all the amazing things people said about him after he died, and he must have felt very alone to do what he did. Many famous writers are there too. Steven King and his cocaine addiction and Sylvia Plath and her suicide are two that come to mind.
Is it possible to lead an artist's life without losing your grasp of reality? Even though much beautiful art seems to come from people who are suffering, I firmly believe the answer is yes. I firmly believe that by understanding ourselves better we can find ways to cope. I firmly believe that when you know you're not the only one, it shows you there is nothing wrong with you, and that you can deal with your own intricacies, and make and enjoy art to express them.
I hope this blog post leads to at least one person understanding themselves better and knowing you are not alone. Feeling isolated is one of the quickest roads to depression. Do take the test, and leave a comment if you find you're a highly sensitive person. I bet at least 20% of you find that you are.