No Longer Half Sick of Shadows

‘I am half sick of shadows,’ said The Lady of Shalott. — Alfred, Lord Tennyson. [1]

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As I write this, I’m walking unsteadily because my balance is off and my head is still buzzing as if hung-over. I’m having the after-effects of a sensory meltdown and I’m still so happy.

My favorite poem growing up was Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “The Lady of Shallot.” I identified strongly with the heroine, living alone and safely isolated from the world. She had her tower, I had my attic and we both had the curse that kept us there.

For her, it was magic. For me, it was living life with sensory processing disorder, a condition that makes bright lights, loud noises and being touched tortuously painful to me. My peers were far too loud for me, normal activities were brutally painful and I knew I lived my life on a very tight budget of tolerance.

Should I go over my ever-shifting budget, I would pay for it dearly, with nerve-level physical pain, mental shut-down and temporary loss of basic skills like walking, talking and problem-solving, like I’m experiencing now.

Most of my life, I lived miserly, avoiding any situation that would be too expensive, sensory-wise. I missed out on the normal joys of parties and concerts because I knew exactly what painful price I would pay if I spent too much at these events. I remember arriving to events that I desperately wanted to attend, seeing the stimuli of lights and sounds and turning right back around. I would return to the shadows of my attic, to live painlessly in books instead of reality.

At times, it felt so unfair. I wanted more. Even hugs were too hard for me to endure from most people, basic human contact was often beyond me.

’I am half sick of shadows,’ said The Lady of Shalott. [2]

Me too, sister. Me too.

So in the last fourteen months, I went into the world. I escaped the terrible fate the Lady of Shallot endured, freezing to death on a boat, but I can’t say it was smooth sailing for me either.

I forced myself to endure the stimuli that tormented me, slowly inuring myself to the pain. I went to concerts and forced myself to breathe through the agony. I learned Krav Maga and allowed people to touch me repeatedly in chokes and bear hugs, and to force myself through meltdowns when the pain got too much. I had to work on myself, physically, emotionally, psychologically, socially, and I had to grow a lot in a very condensed amount of time.

It’s been an incredible journey, full of pain and joy and meaning. Every day is a journey to the edge of my comfort zone and beyond. I found a courage and a fortitude in myself that delights me.

Last night, I went to a bar for a party with my friends. I know, for most people, that’s rather banal, but for me, it was walking into the lion’s den. Lots of people talking, lots of noise, and television screams with lots of artificial light in a dark room. Plus, people were hugging each other. Dante’s Inferno could have hardly designed a better hell for sensory issues. I looked around and saw so many women who were what I wished I could be, confident, social and able to attend a party without requiring an escape plan, emergency medication and a rest day to recover.

And yet, when I got into the taxi, even as I was in agony and knew I had bankrupted myself sensory-wise, I was still happy. I got to spend time with my tribe, with people who have shown me love and acceptance, people who are brilliant and funny and affirming.

I received the gift of some great advice from a wonderful guest I met at the party. “You have a choice. You can think about the pain, or you can think about the value.”

It’s up on my wall now, with other quotes of advice I love. I made my choice and even knowing what I’m going through now, I would make it again. When I look back on that night, I won’t think about the pain and the headache, but the joy of time spent with incredible people, who inspire me.

So, with apologies to Tennyson, I will humbly rewrite the story.

With a steady, stone glance

She seized the day, she took her chance

And vowed her life she would advance

Without any fear, she took her stance

And sailed down to Camelot

Upon the dawning of the day

On her lips, the salty spray

She landed into the city’s bay

The Lady of Shallot

In my ending, the Lady of Shallot lived a long and adventurous life. She had good days and bad days. She fell in love and got her heart broken. She didn’t get the positions she wanted. She worked hard and tried new things. She made new friends. She lost some friends. She gained more. She failed at goals she set out and felt demoralized. Some days, she cried into the pillow because the pain of the world was too much, and then got up the next day to find the beauty in the world.

As I write this article, a treasured friend calls. She’s in the neighborhood, want to go for coffee and chat? My body reminds me that I’m already in severe sensory debt. I think of that incredible person I met last night. “You have a choice. You can think about the pain, or you can think about the value.”

When I look back, I will remember the amazing conversation, not the pain. “Let me get some shoes on, I’ll be right down,” I say happily.


[1] The Lady of Shalott (1832) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

[2] The Lady of Shalott (1832) by Alfred, Lord Tennyson

Writer, lawyer, Kravist, friend

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