What Gets In When the Skin Is Thin

My mother tells a story (the same one over and over for the last million years) about how, when I was little, I would play happily by myself for hours on end. Other people would remark on how happy I appeared to be and wanted to join me. Of course, someone else coming into my own private game – someone who didn’t know the rules (of which the primary rule is “I always win”), someone who wanted to do things like share (which means that everything isn’t mine all the time) and take turns (meaning that there’s some time when I don’t get to play) – inevitably spoiled it.

Decades after that, I had a little kid of my own. My second little kid. Entirely unlike the first one, the second one wasn’t a good sleeper. She startled at every noise. She hated all but the blandest foods. She screamed when I dressed her and was only content when naked and warm.

I didn’t think about how much alike she and I were until I heard about highly sensitive people. It got me to thinking about how sensitivity has shaped my life. Like my daughter, I’ve never been a good sleeper. For me, it’s because every little noise wakes me.

Sounds are my kryptonite. Some are worse than others. Sounds made by mouths are horrifying. Other people chewing, smacking their lips, the sounds animals make when they lick themselves – they are enough to cause an unpleasant physical sensation in me. Whistling is unbearable. Similarly, the sounds of certain kinds of keyboards are painful to me. It’s one of the reasons I hated working in an office all those years (sadly, a reason I never felt I could share with my boss). To this day, my husband and I share an office in our home, and when he’s working, I can’t work unless I’m wearing headphones. But at home, I can wear headphones without fear of being fired.

Noise-cancelling headphones and high-tech earplugs have been my salvation. The ability to keep those sounds that most hurt me at bay has been critical to keeping the little sanity I’ve managed to salvage. For my poor daughter, the one who can’t handle physical touch, the challenges are a little tougher. But the second they come up with touch-cancelling clothes, she’ll get the same benefits I have.

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