The Synesthete Sessions: Journeying to Acceptance
The bewilderment and adventure of living with mirror touch and other polysyns
After living over thirty years wondering why other people didn’t taste butterscotch when they said, heard, or read ‘interesting,’ learning about synesthesia was a welcome wave of awareness amidst the chaos.
I remember being in elementary school and watching a friend fall from the top of a structure we called the ‘Cheese,’ a molded concrete structure that only a 1980s playground could sustain due to its unmitigated risk of bodily harm. When he hit the ground, I couldn’t breathe. Grabbing at my chest and gasping for air, I paused feeling the tap on my back, followed by “you’re it!” Trying to maintain myself as part of the game of Tag, I took a few steps, but still out of breath couldn’t yet run. Mercifully, the bell rang and we had to adjourn inside for some Math Baseball. I didn’t have to interrupt Tag by disclosing that Craig falling from the Cheese had hurt my hip and made me lose my breath.
It would be twenty years later when I was reading an article on Richard Feynman, the scientist and futurist, in which he talked about how the colors of letters in equations created a particular organization or flow to the information. He learned that his colleagues didn’t have access to that level or that particular flavor, if you will, of guidance. That is when it clicked for me, that what I saw, felt, and tasted wasn’t accessible to everyone. In fact, I knew it wasn’t, but the idea that I experienced the world so fundamentally differently from my fellow humans felt oddly shameful and embarrassing.
Another flashback to high school, where I spent Saturday mornings with a merry band of robust nerds doing calculus at the local community college. I found myself at the chalk board “correcting” a classmate’s equation with the multicolored chalk. I had moved through his equation simply rewriting certain letters, numbers, and symbols in different colors, but not making mathematically significant changes. The professor was perplexed saying in front of the class, “Well, Krista, the equation looks prettier, but it’s still the same equation.” I was baffled. It was most definitely not the same equation. Nate’s monochromatic color scheme had been all wrong which made it not feel right on and around my body, but I was mortified by the correction and too embarrassed to carry on with trying to plead my case. And what would I have said in explanation anyway?
My impotent calculus correction always stuck with me into college where I learned I was a white-hot paper writer and editor because typos and misspellings looked like wiggly alive neon. Those letters were uncomfortable in the wrong place, not just for me, but for the letters themselves. Editing a paper was like rescuing letters and punctuation from suffocating. They can’t breathe well when they are out of place. When I shared that perspective once with a friend whose paper I was proofreading, she nodded and smiled with polite skepticism and said, “I suppose you could see it that way.” I didn’t know it was a choice. It was simply my reality, a reality I learned to stop sharing because every time I did it confirmed that what I experienced seemed to be at least odd, if not completely freakish.
Those letters were uncomfortable in the wrong place, not just for me, but for the letters themselves. Editing a paper was like rescuing letters and punctuation from suffocating. They can’t breathe well when they are out of place.
Life after college had its own momentum: marriage, multiple jobs, graduate school, a cross-country move to the East Coast. Not much time to get caught up in what words taste like or where I feel them, but this freakish perception of my world certainly helped with grad school statistics and papers. Where it didn’t seem to help was in my work at the day shelter for people who are homeless. I had always experienced moments of pain like when my friend fell from the Cheese. Over time, I learned to create a process to truncate those moments, make the pain more fleeting by chanting within, “That’s not mine. That’s not mine.”
Long hours in the day shelter were a constant barrage of not only seeing and sensing colors and, for lack of a more descriptive term, mists or transparencies over people’s heads and hovering around their discomforts, but also feeling others’ pain, addiction, and mental illness in my own body and mind. My That’s Not Mine mantra was no longer the mental-emotional armor it once was. Being steeped in such a dynamic community of humans seemed to undo me little by little. I was bereft of how to metabolize all of the information I was receiving through seeing, sensing, and feeling so much suffering despite how hard I worked to balance it with peace and joy.
Long hours in the day shelter were a constant barrage of not only seeing and sensing colors and, for lack of a more descriptive term, mists or transparencies over people’s heads and hovering around their discomforts, but also feeling others’ pain, addiction, and mental illness in my own body and mind.
The work was important and I had a deep affinity for those I worked with and for, but when I learned I was pregnant my last day of graduate school I couldn’t know I was about to level up again in the lucidity and intensity of what I still understood as just my own freakish relationship to my world.
While I was pregnant, tasting certain words made me sicker or more delighted than usual. Feeling certain phenomena in, on, or around my body became even more disconcerting or soothing. Ultimately, all of these sensations were heightened, but I was pregnant and bought into the notion that hormones will do that. Frankly, I was making a human and going to be momming for the better part of the next two decades, so my extraordinary perceptions took a back seat and I redoubled my efforts employing the That’s Not Mine mantra and mental-emotional armor. It was spectacularly unsuccessful.
I would learn over time that life-changing dynamics like childbirth, medical traumas, and family deaths are portals to even greater disruptions of my self-preservation strategies. Those kinds of emotional and physical vortices seemed to siphon away my ability to manage the intensity of the tasting/seeing/sensing/feeling for which I still had no scaffolding to comprehend.
Through parenting babies and toddlers and working multiple jobs, I found myself attempting to quell this other multiverse that materialized around me with meditation, triathlon training, and lots of wine. Focus on a singular immersive task seemed to keep some sensations at bay, while the wine just made me not sweat the weirdness of these experiences. But with all that was testing me at the time, the stress of momming, the pace of work, living far from family with a partner who traveled for his job, I considered earnestly whether I was losing my mind.
Attempts at distraction and self-medication found me alone at the computer one night after putting my boys to bed using the fresh new Google to search for “tasting words,” “seeing colors and sensing discomfort of the alphabet,” and “feeling other people’s pain.” A fair bit of what resulted alluded to the fact that I was in the middle of a psychotic break, but my whole existence couldn’t be one long psychosis, could it? I was seemingly flourishing as a mother, partner, professor, and therapist despite the colors and tastes and pains.
Attempts at distraction and self-medication found me alone at the computer one night after putting my boys to bed using the fresh new Google to search for “tasting words,” “seeing colors and sensing discomfort of the alphabet,” and “feeling other people’s pain.” A fair bit of what resulted alluded to the fact that I was in the middle of a psychotic break, but my whole existence couldn’t be one long psychosis, could it?
Feeling more unhinged than I was when I started searching, I decided to read a bit about Richard Feynman and his futurism instead to take my mind off whether or not my life was one enduring psychotic break. It is then I encountered the concept of synesthesia for the first time and my world did indeed break wide open.
The article I was reading described how Feynman saw letters and numbers in particular colors and how that perception shaped his scholarly work. Additionally, the article mentioned Kandinsky and Nabokov, but I assumed that was simply a sexist oversight and that more than men experienced what the author described as “automatic and involuntary perceptual experiences in another [sense], due to increased cross-talk between the sensory pathways in the brain.”
That was me. That was my world, my life. At least if it felt like one long psychotic break, it had a name: synesthesia. I became obsessed.
Through my research I discovered I am polysynesthetic, which means my neurological twisting includes multiple senses and stimuli. Specifically, I experience lexical-gustatory synesthesia (I taste some words), lexical-spatial synesthesia (I feel some words on my body and in space around me), and ordinal linguistic personification (I sense the discomfort of out of place letters and symbols). I also experience emotionally mediated synesthesia (I see colors and sense phenomena around people’s bodies related to their health or emotional state), as well as mirror touch synesthesia (I feel other’s pain and pleasure in my own body).
My research became the scaffolding I needed to at least know I wasn’t coming undone, but did little to provide me with the strategies and skills to cope with what felt like a constant bombardment of other people’s sensory data. It feels enough to be one human in one body, to live the experience of all those around me colluded with mine felt increasingly untenable. As my heart opened wider as a mother, I found that my mental-emotional armor was failing me. And I still hadn’t found precedent for what I now know is my mirror touch. I assumed it was connected, but it was so out there, so far beyond what seems a proper part of the human experience, that I held onto the same brand of bewilderment and shame I felt when I was a child.
It feels enough to be one human in one body, to live the experience of all those around me colluded with mine felt increasingly untenable.
As years passed, I became more open about my synesthesia with my partner. I wanted him to know me and the sensory landscape I had to contend with daily. He was and continues to be a singular and unwavering supportive presence for me. We carried on raising our boys, running a business in addition to our other jobs, and living well. I continued to wend my way through the synesthetic maze that is my life. Then in a span of three years, my mother passed away from breast cancer, I had a preventative double mastectomy and reconstruction, and my love had multiple strokes and corrective brain surgery unexpectedly due to a rare genetic disorder. That our existence was upended is an understatement.
While each of these experiences are a lifetime’s worth of spectacle unto themselves, we have emerged through the other side stronger and more committed to our fulfillment than ever. In the midst of the spectacle, I began to come undone again. The synesthetic blitz was unparalleled. I needed help.
With hope, I reached out to therapists and specialists in psychology and psychiatry to no avail. And all at once I found a Facebook group, the book Synesthesia by Richard E. Cytowic from The MIT Press, and my holy grail, the book Mirror Touch by Dr. Joel Salinas, a neurologist in Boston just down the coast.
Reading Dr. Salinas’s words changed my life. For the first time I had a comrade in mirror touch. I’m not a crier, but I cried and cried and read through teary eyes how he trained in the medical field even as he felt his patients’ pain and dying in his body. I invite you to pause for a moment and contemplate the unrelenting onslaught of human experience those with mirror touch must navigate to live with others, not even considering attempting to flourish in this existence. In his words, Dr. Salinas gave shape to my lived experience: “Rare or unexpected situations make it almost impossible to differentiate between objective physical reality and my own internal subjective reality.”
Uncomfortable letters and tasty words are novel, a mere sideshow compared to a mirror touch experience of tending your mother in dying of cancer or your love through brain surgery and stroke rehabilitation or mothering your children through those traumas. And yet, my experience is secondhand, its not the living of the actual pain and suffering, it is living the constant technicolor echo of the human experience in addition to one’s own.
And yet, my experience is secondhand, its not the living of the actual pain and suffering, it is living the constant technicolor echo of the human experience in addition to one’s own.
The last two years I have grown in acceptance of the data I can access that is different from others. That hasn’t fostered the total ease I seek, but I’m getting there. A spiritual teacher of mine listened compassionately as I shared examples from my daily internal circus. After I surrendered with her in vulnerability that my hold on reality was feeling progressively more tenuous, she invited me to cease from trying to categorize, label, or make cognitive sense of my perceptions. But rather that I view my vantage, my neurological entanglement, as a gift to use in service of those around me. The utilitarian in me found this to be the most consoling and inspiring interpretation yet.
But rather that I view my vantage, my neurological entanglement, as a gift to use in service of those around me. The utilitarian in me found this to be the most consoling and inspiring interpretation yet.
Embodying this frame and recontextualizing what can feel like a bizarre, isolating burden into a unique way to serve my fellow beings has cultivated a peace within me I have never felt before. I don’t hide my synesthesia or the mysterious intuitive wisdom it provides anymore. I still get twisted and spinning about trying not to look deranged or unhinged from reality. But then I remember we all live our own reality, synesthesia or not.
My highest and greatest calling is to guide others to their peace, ease, and fulfillment through their own inner wisdom. I am privileged and honored to do that work, which doesn’t feel at all like work, not one little bit. It is my wildest adventure to embody my synesthetic calling every day. And as the fanatical worshipper of Wonder Woman that I am, I have come to the stance that my polysyns are my superpowers gifted to me to support my fellow earthly travelers in their unique and exquisite journeys. I trust their journeys, so I here I am finally ready to trust mine.