Sensory Overload in a Noisy, Apathetic World
Sensory overload is a symptom of MS as well as a number of other medical conditions. It can come on suddenly when we encounter a loud noise or a strong odor while we’re out in public, in situations we cannot control. While it is easier to control our environment at home, most people who are susceptible to sensory overload do leave the house. It is then that we might experience a double assault, first to our senses and then to our feelings.
I never thought I was a sufferer. Now, I wonder.
Here’s a recent experience that started me down the road of uncertainty.
The radio is too loud I can’t concentrate
Saturday morning/Monday afternoon, March 23/25, 2019 — Carter Rehab & Aquatic Center, Tecumseh, Michigan
“The radio is too loud,” I said to the fragile-looking elderly lady behind the desk, my pulse racing and face flushed with anger. It was talk radio, not music, and I can’t abide either one when I’m exercising. I’m of the mindset that if you want to listen to something, you bring it with you and wear earbuds so you don’t disturb the people near you. “I’m leaving ten minutes into my work out because I can’t concentrate,” I told her.
Visibly traumatized by my impassioned complaint, she shot back in a shaky voice: “Well, nobody else has complained.” I had expected her to apologize and turn down the volume, but I could see that wasn’t going to happen. I decided not to lean on her too hard, she seemed not to be able to handle much. It was Saturday morning and all they needed was a warm body behind the desk. That seemed to be all she had to offer, bless her sclerotic little heart, and it was cooling off fast. I didn’t want to scare her into rigor. I would wait until Monday to complain yet again, only this time it would be to the weekday staff. I was sure they’d help me.
Blood pounded in my face
Monday I donned my workout gloves and gym shoes and made my way to the Nustep to do my usual 40-minute workout. As soon as I settled in, music pounded my ears. I voiced my complaint to a friendly gal riding a Nustep next to me whom I had met before as we worked out side by side. “Now that you mention it, it is loud,” she said. “You should complain to them.” Yet again, some staffer had cranked up the volume. And once again, the blood pounded in my face and angry thoughts gathered like storm clouds. I was so spun up that the pulse rate on my smartwatch probably registered a stroke, but I didn’t want to look at it. I hobbled up to the front desk—again—to complain about the noise. There were two young women there who listened to me and made eye contact. I saw concern and thought I could get some results. Alas, no.
“We can’t turn it down, we’re not allowed to touch the volume control,” one of the gals told me. I felt my pulse quicken yet again. Deja f**king vu, I thought, they’re going to blow me off for the second time. Indignation and sarcasm crowded my thoughts. Let me get this straight, I thought to myself, you can turn it up, but you can’t turn it down? They’ve all lost their minds. I felt my face get hotter. My hands started shaking. Leave, I kept thinking. Kim, they don’t care. Just leave.
Something inside me exploded
I turned to walk out when the gal told me she’d get the director to talk to me. He’s the one that controls the volume. I should have kept going out the automatic doors and driven away.
He-who-controls-the-volume—Rehab Director Robert Leffler—listened to whatever I said to him, which is mostly a blur now, I was so angry. I was well beyond asking them to turn it down, now I wanted them to turn it off. He told me they can turn it down, but not off. Something inside me exploded. It wasn’t an artery, I could still speak and walk. I knew what would happen as surely as if I had a crystal ball. He’d turn it down today—but then tomorrow I’d come in and it would be loud again. I’d have to complain again—and again, I’d probably get the same runaround. I’m in hell. I do not have the temperament for this.
I’m certain my face changed from red to purple. My hands trembled worse than before. He had drawn a bead on my insistence that they turn it off, explaining that people would complain. They want the music. “But I’m complaining,” I spat defiantly. He ignored my remark. “I’m complaining,” I repeated. His response made it clear that the complaints of others trumped my own. He dug in his heels even more and mansplained that they invested a lot of money in the surround system and they were going to use it. The members wanted it. I wanted to throttle him. I hobbled out of the building propelled by rage.
For the next few days I screamed at the walls in my apartment, deeply hurt by the experience. They had no idea how happy I’d been there for the previous two months. For the first time in my life, I’d discovered the joy of exercising. For two months, the noise level was no more intrusive than average background noise, which didn’t bother me at all. Then they cranked up the volume, destroyed my bliss, and crapped on my dignity and value.
When this kind of thing happens—and it happens a lot more often than it should—it illuminates the gulf between my professional and personal lives. As a writer, I think deeply about the scarcity of quality social interactions, sharing my insights about the role compassion should play in both personal and professional contact. As a patient advocate, I interact with shattered, wounded MS patients who have been beaten down by the same kind of social encounters I’ve just described, and worse. The first thing I do is validate their feelings. When we have our feelings acknowledged, it has an instant calming effect and we trust that this person will try to help us. Such a simple gesture—and yet, so very elusive.
I found my happy ending
You might be thinking: Why don’t you just wear earplugs when you work out? I haven’t had to, but now I won’t do that for two reasons: 1) I stand on principle, I shouldn’t have to do that, and 2) I found another fitness place and asked the staffer about whether they tolerate noise in the gym, describing in great detail my experience at Carter Rehab. She told me I can turn the television and radio down myself if they bother me. She doesn’t like loud noise, either. I immediately signed up for a membership.
Don’t you love happy endings?
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