HSP? Yeah, You Know Me.

I didn’t have a horrible childhood by any means, but the memories pertaining to that part of my life are pretty foggy. They sort of float around in my head like deflated pool toys. They’re still usable. You can probably still float on them. But why go through that effort? Just throw them out of the pool and get new ones.

This is most likely because the majority of the time, I was so worried about what could happen. That, then, turned into things what would happen, and then things that did happen. If it has already been proven that technology can implant false memories, of course our brains can too. Haven’t you seen Total Recall?

I think the one word I would use to describe my childhood is “blurry.” Not in the sense that it’s a blur to me, but because my mind was always seeing things as blurry or sometimes just threatening in a manner they clearly were not. Something I didn’t know about until a few years ago is the concept of an HSP, or “Highly Sensitive Person.” I thought that was someone insinuating that I was some sort of wimp. And I am. But that’s not what they meant. Here are the few questions you are first asked when you think you may be an HSP, taken from Dr. Elaine Aron. To my understanding, she basically coined the term:

  • Are you easily overwhelmed by such things as bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics, or sirens nearby?
  • Do you get rattled when you have a lot to do in a short amount of time?
  • Do you make a point of avoiding violent movies and TV shows?
  • Do you need to withdraw during busy days, into bed or a darkened room or some other place where you can have privacy and relief from the situation?
  • Do you make it a high priority to arrange your life to avoid upsetting or overwhelming situations?
  • Do you notice or enjoy delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds, or works of art?
  • Do you have a rich and complex inner life?
  • When you were a child, did your parents or teachers see you as sensitive or shy?

From all accounts, this is basically a list of every trait I had as a kid. Even the part about avoiding violent forms of media. I think I was afraid of gore until I started playing Mortal Kombat (it was just too damn fun). Bright things were brighter, scary things were scarier, and just about everything was pretty surreal. The HSP takes in more stimuli than the non HSP. This can be overwhelming, especially for those of us with anxiety disorders. As my friend once put it, I’m basically Wolverine.

I can smell the light, bub. No, I’m not high, bub. Snickt.

The overwhelming threat of being on my own, outside of my safe house in a big scary loud world made me vomit every single day before kindergarten. It was disgusting, humiliating, horrifying. I hated it. I would bring a bucket in the car with me because I was so scared. I remember always gripping onto something while the car was moving, even when it was just going a normal speed. Most doctors thought I had some separation anxiety at the time, like when your dog shits on the floor the minute you leave the house. It was bad, and because of how my memory of that period was so focused on what could and would happen to me, I have no idea what I did in school until around the 4th grade. I just remember not wanting to go, ever. When I got home, I rarely went back outside. Sometimes just walking onto the front steps would make me stop breathing and start gagging.

I often blamed myself for this. I thought I just wasn’t a strong enough person to deal with everyday life. My self-image was meek and pathetic, and my depression made sure I believed this for years. It lied to me long enough that I forgot they were self-deprecating and harming thoughts and just my reality.

My diagnosis (when we finally found someone who could give us one) was a cross between generalized anxiety disorder and panic disorder, with an unspecified depressive disorder. I also had signs of the aforementioned separation anxiety, agoraphobia (fear of places and situations that might cause me panic, embarrassment, etc.), and emetophobia (fear of vomiting, the anxiety pertaining to vomiting, the fear of seeing vomit or being nauseated). You can probably guess where that last one came from.

“ACK!,” he added. “Mondays!”

Things got better with time. A long time, yes, but it DID get better. I’ve been on over a dozen medications, many of which I started very young. I do think they help, and they help even more with a therapist to monitor your ups and downs. I saw so many child therapists and I don’t remember liking any of them, but I did find some great ones when I got older. One particularly upsetting experience was the first time I met the doctor who would go on to prescribe me way too many pills way too quickly. He asked me what I was afraid of happening to me when I left the house and was on my own. I couldn’t answer him, because I didn’t know. “Something bad” is what I think I said.

Which, again, is why waiting any longer to address these problems makes them seem trivial. “I’m afraid of something bad” sounds like a dumb fuckin’ problem, but if you look at the context I just gave it, it’s really all you can say. I think most problems look kind of dumb when you write them down, because then we see them as a sort of math problem we can just give the answer to. There’s an interview with David Foster Wallace where he talks about how Infinite Jest seemed be stating the obvious:

“A lot of the impetus for writing Infinite Jest was just the fact that I was about 30, and I had a lot of friends who were about 30, and we’d all, you know, been grotesquely over-educated and privileged our whole lives and had better health care and more money than our parents did, and we were all extraordinarily sad. And I think it has something to do with being raised in an era when really the ultimate value seems to be–I mean, a successful life, is, let’s see, you make a lot of money, and you have a really attractive spouse, or you get infamous or famous in some way, so that it’s a life where you basically experience as much pleasure as possible — which ends up being sort of empty and low calorie. But the reason I don’t like talking about it discursively is it sounds very banal and cliche, you know, when you say it out loud that way. Believe it or not, this came as something of an epiphany to us at around age 30, sitting around talking about why on earth we were so miserable when we’d been so lucky.”

It was an epiphany for me when I realized I could eventually get better. Sometimes our epiphanies are stupid. I was very lucky to have parents who wanted to understand this and make me better. I also made some good friends at a good school and was taken care of by some good teachers. My childhood wasn’t bad. It was scary, yes, but it wasn’t bad. Even while I don’t remember a lot of it, I have very clear recollections of the times I forgot I even had my weird anxiety disorder that I didn’t understand at the time. Those were the times I was having so much fun that it didn’t matter. Those are the times I choose to remember now that I no longer have something hovering over me trying to make all my memories seem bad. It’s quite liberating to decide to not feel a certain way anymore, and then to just, you know, not.