A woman deals with sensory overload progressively getting worse over 3 panels

Sensory Overload - Reload

Multiple sclerosis can evoke quite a collection of symptoms. One of them is sensory overload. Since we have five senses, we can get zapped in endless combinations by one or more of them.

How I have experienced sensory overload

Here’s an example. You walk into a fitness club. Suddenly you’re aware of the fluorescent lights glaring down from above, blurring your vision and causing your eyelids to involuntarily squeeze shut. Music is blaring over the loudspeaker, assaulting your peace of mind. Suddenly a big bruiser lets out a grunt during a deadlift, immediately followed by a deafening thud as he drops the barbell, startling the breath out of you.

The smell of athletic shoes, deodorant, and cheap cologne permeates the air, causing you to gag and your stomach to do a flip-flop. You approach a machine and see that somebody neglected to wipe it down after they were done, making you want to upchuck at the thought of touching it.

Rage and aggravation grip you. Because you can have no control in this environment. You may do one of two things: either tell the deadweight lifter to please be quieter, or turn tail, jump in the car, and race back to the comfort and control of your home.

This happened to me back in 2018. I handled the situation by first confronting several staff, then fleeing the scene. The staff, which included the director, treated me like a nut case and did nothing to help. I never went back to that facility. I had bouts of sensory overload prior to that, too.

It makes me feel like bolting

The earliest incident I can recall occurred when I was 8 or 9. I was in our backyard swimming pool, when I noticed the sun suddenly break through the clouds, scattering bright rays in the most unusual display I'd ever seen. A pious child, I took it as a sign from God to get out of the pool, so I did. My father questioned me about my sudden departure, and I explained it. That would have been mid-1960s.

Next was during high school, circa 1972. My friend’s mom took us to the Peristyle in Toledo to see a concert. As soon as I walked into the auditorium, I felt like bolting. I mentioned this feeling to my friend’s mom, and she dismissed it with some cynical retort.

Noise and crowds

Years later, when I was married to my first husband, we attended a July 4th fireworks display at a huge waterfront venue. The noise and the crowds immediately triggered some unease. My husband gave me a pair of ear plugs, and the silence it provided helped me stay calm and get through it.

Several years after that, we attended a rally for Bill Clinton on the University of Michigan campus. A male college student physically jostled me, and when I confronted him about it, he insulted me, triggering my already-growing worry. The crowd had grown so big that I couldn’t see an easy exit, which was a hazard, not only for me, but for everyone else, too. I begged my husband to leave, even though Clinton hadn’t made an appearance yet, and he agreed.

Thing is, I am calling all these incidents sensory overload in retrospect. I didn’t realize what was happening at the time. Which brings me to my latest experience.

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Overhead lights blur my vision

I live in a small senior community. We play blackjack every Friday night. We’ve done this for at least a year and I always look forward to it, staying until we stop, around 8:30. But ever since the time change in the fall, I have had to leave after an hour. The overhead lights start blurring my vision. The new dealer likes to go lightning fast, which never used to bother me before the time change. But now, the later it gets, the slower I can think and calculate the points in my hand.

When it’s time to decide whether I lost to the dealer or the dealer owes me, I miss the whole thing and just stare at the table. I asked if we could start at 6 instead of 6:30, thinking that the time change is responsible. But even though we start earlier now, I still can’t make it past an hour of play. I have always adjusted to time changes much faster. So I am going to call this sensory overload.

Looking back on my experiences

But here’s the most confounding part of it. I can’t seem to identify these incidents as sensory overload while they are happening. After decades of experience, I still only recognize them as such after the fact. Maybe it doesn’t matter. But, control freak that I am, it does matter!

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