The Darker Side of Synesthesia
I consider myself a synesthete. Sight, sound, and touch are a single, unified sense for me. Input from one triggers immediate, involuntary input from the other two, brings immediate emotional and physiological changes.
A window creaks: a flash of blue; parts of my body feel like they’re ballooning away; my usual tinnitus gets louder; my heart races; adrenaline pumps; my breathing becomes rapid and shallow. My reptilian brain takes over. In this moment, I’m in actual, physical danger.
A window creaks, and it’s fight or flight.
Along with this, the existence of a 94 percentile point gap between separate IQ scores brings me to consider myself as having a form of high-functioning autism: depending on what I’m having to process, I function either with absolute fluidity of thought, or from within the clinical Borderline range.
Though I wouldn’t be aware of either of these things until my late twenties, as far as I know, each of these have been with me since birth. But for a child, what you are is simply “what is”. For a child, there’s no reason to assume that it’s different for anyone else.
The first time I thought about suicide, I was five.
All I knew was that I wanted everything to go blank. I was overloaded constantly. I now understand these moments as the products of both my synesthesia and my wide oscillations in brain functioning, but at the time they were simply sudden, enveloping states of terror. My tantrums sometimes involved the throwing of objects or the brandishing of kitchen knives.
By the time I was socially aware enough to understand the concept of “suicide”, rare was the day where I didn’t find myself thinking of dozens of ways in which I could make this happen. By the time I was twelve, all manner of situations were being imagined by my young self. When my senses were being overloaded, when my mind was dropping to its base, these fantasies would pour into my head.
I began to spend energy in performing. I tempered my tantrums, worked to keep them from erupting. I learned to send the energy elsewhere: I’d spend everything I had in keeping myself absolutely still, in keeping myself quiet and unassuming.
I moved into puberty. The sensations of being overloaded greatly increased. I began to get more and more specific with my death fantasies. I found myself fighting sudden urges to hit people or lash out verbally; these scared me very much, especially when the averted targets were friends or loved ones. The energy needed to keep this all hidden increased exponentially.
By the end of my senior year of high school, I’d had enough. I was done.
A few months before graduating, I downed four times the lethal dose of an OTC medication. Then I went to bed.
Somehow, I woke up, vomiting. Hundreds of partially digested pills lay in the mess on my bedroom carpet. I stood. I tried to stand. My legs shook and gave out. I fell into the warm puddle at my feet. I slept there. I went to school the next day.
Years later, in college, I — for the first time — found actual delight in academic pursuits. I could finally work at my own pace, could finally harness the natural structure of my brain. When I was clear of mind, I worked. When I wasn’t, I didn’t. There was no plan in this. It naturally came to be. I’d have days and days of barely sleeping, of tearing through syllabi. I’d have days and days of nothing but sleeping in, of smoking pot and watching The X-Files.
I made dean’s list a few times in this way.
But even then, I continued to exist in a constant state of tension and fear and anxiety, of needing to spend, spend, spend energy in keeping up the practiced outward appearance of the most relaxed human one could ever hope to meet. This is how I survived as a social animal. It’s all I knew how to do.
Not one of my college friends ever saw me “break”, ever saw me truly lose my reins. By this time, I’d had almost two decades of practice, and I was very good at it. Once in a while, close friends would catch a glimpse of the currents running under the surface. I’d make simple excuses. I was “tired” a lot.
I graduated. I moved back home. I found sporadic seasonal and temp work.
But the hidden me was creeping up through the cracks again. To my horror, I found that my late-twenties self had much less energy to give toward my practiced, laid-back sheen. I almost “broke” at several workplaces, having sensory overloads and mental oscillations bring me to the verge of physically assaulting co-workers and clients alike. No matter how much I enjoyed a job, this tipping point would come. The temporary ones would usually run their course as I’d get to this place. In others, I simply walked away.
I began to think about those pills. It would happen again.
I was sure of it.
But this time was different. I’d had enough of quitting jobs I enjoyed. I’d had enough of keeping those I loved at a distance.
I entered into a local hospital’s outpatient psychiatric program.
For three years, I went to work on myself. I learned about my brain. I learned about the tactile, vestibular, and proprioceptive senses, about how to reduce my overloads by putting myself on “sensory diets”. I taught myself a non-verbal performance vocabulary, one to help me keep my mind active and fluid when I could feel it starting to go Borderline.
Slowly, the ever-present flood of fear and anxiety began to fade.
Now, two years out of the program, I feel as if I’m in a second childhood, relearning the basic skills of life with all this new knowledge at hand.
But it’s alright.
I get to try, try again.
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John Ambrose has a B.A. in Creative Writing from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design. He’s spent 17 seasons on staff with both high school marching bands and Drum Corps International ensembles, teaching spatial awareness and body technique for the moving musician. He lives in Maine.
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