Have you ever tried to explain sensory overload to your nearest and dearest? Yes, me too. And usually this conversation happens apart from the overload because, not surprisingly, when you are overwhelmed by sensory input and your body thinks it is being attacked by life itself, you aren't in a position to explain.
In fact, I would say that sensory overload is without words, a feeling, a condition, a point in time when you are purely a mind in flux, a body entrapped in experience, something which cannot be described at the time it is happening. Trying to describe sensory overload from inside the experience is like trying to explain logic to custard: the custard is susceptible to logic, like everything else in life, but it is unlikely to be listening.
So I want to let you into a secret room where you can see what sensory overload looks like, to me at least. We have to tread carefully here as it's all quiet at the moment and the last thing we want to do is set off any drama alarms.
It's a lovely room, full of colour and vibrancy. The walls are covered in heavy, rich wallpaper, the furniture is ornate, gilded, carved and upholstered in velvet. The curtains, heavy enough to block out natural light, nevertheless shine in the dazzling patterns thrown by the grand chandelier hanging from the ceiling.
The mirrors on the walls show your face if you look in them but are placed at angles where they also show each other. Try looking at yourself and you see a confusing array of selves, all at the wrong angle with one face repeated in many places. These mirrors reflect the light from the chandelier and it cascades around the room, following the vision of your face, becoming part of the air itself.
But no, I am letting my calm slide. I must not think of the mirrors or the light or the darkly-engrossing colours around me. I must focus on moving from the door to the window, from this point to that. This simple, small journey is what I can accomplish here and all my attention must belong to my travels, pulled away from the busy distractions littered around me.
I look down and concentrate on my feet, moving over the floor. The shining floor, wood polished to a sheen never intended by nature, whorled and swirled in patterns from trees meant to live in peaceful forests, now ripped into planks and screwed down into this tortured existence.
Across and move and don't look at the faces inherent in the knots of the floor or the movement of the shining wood as it too reflects light from that damned chandelier. My feet are small and shuffling, trying not to pick up too high in case I trip, not wanting to find myself down there with the wood, echoing the agonies of being formed and fixed into an unnatural use.
Beads of perspiration stand out on my forehead as I find myself by the window, at last able to reach out and touch the glass. The cold, welcoming glass with the view to an outside world so much more complex and frightening than this one room. But while I am in this room, I long to be out there, away from the concentrated, aggression-fuelled sensory experience of this place.
I let my hand drop. I see my hand drop in the mirrors either side, I feel it drop in the mirrors behind and beyond, the ones I cannot see but know are there. I see it drop in real-life, coming to rest at my side, afraid to move it or the whole room will start to swim and be mixed, pulled, drawn in around me by the very fact of my existence there.
My breathing sharpens and I see the colours of the curtains, the cushion on the day-bed nearby, the edge of a tasselled, embroidered rug slipping out from under a small table covered with intricately-carved chess pieces. I catch my breath and try to be calm as I become aware of the chandelier shaking in an unseen wind. But it does not shake, it is me who is moving, my body swaying backwards as the room becomes too much, the colours too rich, the place too far into my mind.
Backing away, I feel behind me as I go, desperate to find the door and, finally, after all my efforts I stumble, slide sideways and fall to the floor. There, where I have been so many times before, looking up at the lights from the chandelier as they sparkle viciously above me, casting the definite glare of accusation and reproach: I have failed again.
Mumbling, I shuffle over the smooth wood, my hands slipping on its surface until I reach the door. I am too low to turn the handle and have to stand, have to somehow be up on my feet again when the room is closing in around me, the colours blending, the lights spinning, the mirrors glittering with false and true images of me and my life. I have to breathe in all of this and still have enough fresh air left to help me see clearly, to turn the handle and open the door.
Gasping, dragging in laboured breaths still full of colour and light and the sound of my hammering heart, I collapse on the other side of the door, slamming it behind me to shut out the glare of the awful room. I am safe again, for now, though it will be a while before I feel this safety. I am outside of it all in the pale, grey, nondescript hallway where it is soothing and peaceful. I am free again.
And there you are, beside me all this time. I meant to show you the room, I meant to explain it to you so you would understand. I'm sorry, perhaps another time. I forgot you were there, I couldn't see you next to me. Forgive me, I'm sure if we try again sometime then it will work.
Someday I will be able to go through it and know where you are, understand you are still there when the lights dance and the mirrors swirl. Someday I'll see you there and still know who you are when it all begins. Until then, let's close the door and be somewhere shaded and calm, with quiet words and soft lights. Come now, another day.