Sensory Overload and Self-Diagnosis


by West Anderson, Content Writer


Source: Vimeo

[Image description: A close up drawing of a young boy’s face, colored orange with swirls or yellow, pink, green and blue over it. His eyes are screwed shut in pain and his hands are pressed over his ears.]

I’ve always been an introvert – someone who recharges by being alone rather than drawing energy from spending time with others. But in the past year, I’ve noticed a worrisome pattern in my life that, for a while, I couldn’t find the cause of. If I pushed myself past my limits, even a little bit – by agreeing to a babysitting job, or an outing with friends, or just going outside and dealing with the busy world when I didn’t really feel able – it would lead to an emotional and physical meltdown. And my limits were really low. It was incredibly frustrating to feel that I couldn’t do the average amount of things I saw other people accomplishing in their day-to-day lives. When I pushed myself to try to do the “normal” amount of things other people accomplish without issue – working a part-time job, seeing friends more than twice a month, going out for drinks or to complete much-needed errands – I would exhaust my body to the point where I could, without fail, predict getting a cold.

I felt lost and scared about my own body. My low threshold for activity didn’t seem normal, but I couldn’t find any words to describe it that made it seem valid. I told myself I must just be lazy and avoiding expanding my comfort zones. Maybe I just needed to try harder to be around people and wash my hands constantly to avoid catching colds? Finally, I brought up what I was feeling with my mom, and she suggested I could be dealing with sensory sensitivity issues, something she was diagnosed with herself. I took the sensory processing test that she got from an occupational therapist, and found that I scored as “more sensitive than most people” and “much more sensitive than most people” in every category.

Once I realized that I am indeed more sensitive to sensory input than average, I started writing down everything I could think of that I have trouble with. Putting together a picture of my various sensory issues was helpful in letting me see what specific things were driving me to such painful meltdowns.

I found that visual and auditory input were the most tiring, with touch being a challenge too.

When it comes to touch, I pull myself inward when I am in public to keep a large bubble of personal space around myself at all times. I have, since a young age, become anxious when walking around in public, avoiding entering people’s personal space by walking on the edge of the curb or in the road, pulling myself inward, tensing, and speedwalking or weaving through groups of people on a sidewalk in order to get away from them and the anxiety being near them causes me.

Visually, I get overwhelmed when there is too much input for me to handle. Being in a crowd of people is tiring because of the constantly changing visual stream, in addition to the auditory input from many conversations and trying to maintain the “proper” personal distance from others. Large stores are exhausting because I feel the need to look at everything in a given aisle or section, which often means I spend a long time cataloging everything I see in three of four large sections in a store. I don’t avoid large stores because I like shopping and I like looking at all the things, but I am exhausted after I leave them. Grocery stores take me a long time, even when I have a list of what I’m getting. If I don’t have a list, it takes me much longer to find what I want.

With auditory input, if there is more than one conversation going on at once, I can’t focus on one well enough to hear and understand everything that is said. It takes a lot of mental energy to listen and understand people fully. Often if I’m in an environment with multiple sources of noise or overlapping conversations, I have to either leave for somewhere quieter, ask the sources to be quieter, or close myself off and not respond to any of them. If I’ve been doing a lot of work hearing, I have to leave and seek out a quieter space or be alone to recover.

The worst situation I was in recently was going to the Santa Cruz Boardwalk on the Fourth of July. Five minutes after I got there, I had to leave. The crush of people, fireworks going off not a hundred feet away with no warning, the traffic, and the noise – I ended up tensed and crying and covering my ears all the way home in the car.



[Image description: An outline of a blue face in profile with a cloud where the brain would be. Tendrils are coming out to connect to pictures that surround the face of a hand for touch, an eye for sight, a mouth for sound, a nose for smelling, and an ear for hearing.]

Auditory and visual input are almost always occurring together, and depending on the amount of things going on visually (a group of people, items in a store, cars) and the accompanying audio (people talking all at once, me having to find the right words to say and appear focused and interested in the discussion with my eyes, a sudden bang from outside, road construction), it can quickly become exhausting and my ability to handle it all gets depleted.

If I have done too much in a given day or week, the result is often a meltdown that can sometimes feel like a panic attack. I have to rest and let my body recover by taking it easy and doing very little for the next few days. For a while this winter, if I did even one thing over my limit, I would get sick for a week.

I’m struggling to feel that these issues really do apply to me, and that it’s okay for me to take these terms and apply them to myself. I feel like I need a doctor to prove that I do indeed deserve to use these labels. But the process of being referred to a doctor who can help me is proving to be a very slow one. So until then, I feel trapped in a limbo between feeling that I shouldn’t apply these terms to myself until I get a professional diagnosis and needing these terms and ideas to help me get through my day-to-day life. It is a relief to find there is a way to describe what I am experiencing, and that it is okay to take care of myself and respect my limits. Searching for information about sensory overload led me to helpful information about how to deal with sensory meltdowns and avoid them. It also helped me to stop beating myself up about my different needs and limits and to start asking for support and accommodations when I needed them.

Recently, I was babysitting for a family. I was playing Monopoly with two eleven-year-old kids while a five-year-old tried to join in, while the mom was talking to a neighbor right next to us, while Spanish music was playing. Once the game was over, the kids headed outside to play tag. Knowing that I was about to push myself past my limits, I explained to the mom that I needed a break from all the input because I have problems with sensory overload. She was very understanding and gave me food and a quiet place to relax before I headed out to play with the kids again. It was one of the first times I didn’t push myself past my limits because of my desire to keep up with everyone else. And it was really amazing to have my needs heard and respected!

In addition to advocating for myself and resting when I need to, I also learned about joint traction and compression as ways to combat sensory overload. Now when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I can lift weights or have one of my partners pull on my arms and legs, which helps immensely. It’s a big relief to have concrete things I can do to lessen sensory overload.

I’m hoping that through therapy, I will be able to pinpoint what my limits are in my body so I can know when to stop doing something. It is difficult for me to know when I am past my limit for a given sense. I am getting better at it, but the pressure to push myself to go to a social event, to work, or to do an errand or chore is intense. Often, if I’m not already way past my limit, I think that it will be okay. But it never is, so I want to learn where my limits are better. I want to honor them and stop hurting my body.


Leaving the Land Called Girl: My Gender Journey


by West Anderson, Content Writer


[Image description: One of several symbols used to denote “transgender”. A solid black outline of the venus symbol for female, which is a circle with a cross coming out of the bottom. The arrow of the mars symbol for male is coming out of the top right of the circle, and an arrow with a perpendicular line running through it is coming out of the top left side of the circle.]

Hi. I’m West, and I’m non-binary. I also use the label transgender.

Transgender (trans): Identifying with a gender different than the one assigned to you at birth.

Cisgender (cis): Identifying with the gender you were assigned at birth.

Non-binary: Not identifying within the male/female gender binary.

I was introduced to the wide world of gender in my first year of college, thanks to my hallway’s Resident Assistant. Ze is bigender and uses ze/zir/zirs as pronouns. (So, instead of saying “I saw him,” or “I saw her,” I would say, “I saw zir.”) Meeting zir and learning about non-binary genders from zir was like a revelation. In the next few months, I learned all I could about the transgender community. I had always been very interested and involved in the LGBT community as an ally, but the more I learned, the more I started to wonder whether there was a reason I was so drawn to this community.

During that first year in college, I also began detoxing from high school, where I had been forcefully taught how to be properly feminine. By the end of high school, I had grown out my hair from the pixie cut I had loved as a fifteen-year-old, and I owned a wide array of women’s clothing I found incredibly uncomfortable to wear. After half a year at UC Santa Cruz, the hair was cut off. Clothes from the men’s section were bought, one T-shirt at a time. I very nervously began looking more androgynous, and when the world didn’t collapse – in fact, when no one seemed to mind at all – I started to realize how much better I felt presenting this way. And I began to wonder what it meant to be a girl.

I didn’t know I was trans from a young age. I played with Barbies and wore dresses. I also played with plastic dinosaurs and toy cars. But I spent the majority of my life firmly believing I was a straight cis girl. (Look at me now, mom!) It’s only when I started poking my history with a stick that things began to fall out.

When I look back at my childhood self, I see a kid who wasn’t concerned at all with gender or clothing. I wore baggy tie-dye shirts and colorful band-aids. I played around with makeup when my friend’s sister gave us makeovers. I ran around with my shirt off for as long as I possibly could, because I knew it wouldn’t last forever. Then I hit high school, and switched from being homeschooled to going to a small private school. For the first couple of years, I wore what I pleased, and there were some pretty wonderfully weird outfits involved. I cut my hair short because I had been wanting to since I was ten or eleven.

Then I became close friends with someone who “taught” me how to stop doing all the things I was doing “wrong” with my presentation and my gender. It wasn’t just her – the pressure to be feminine, and especially to be feminine in order to attract the attention of boys, came from all directions. But the worst of it was from her.

Over and over, she picked at things about my body and my presentation: my short hair, my tiny chest, my boyish face. I looked like a man or a lesbian, she said, and she let me know it wasn’t a good thing. She drilled into me that I didn’t know how to dress myself properly or do makeup properly, and that I had better let her teach me if I ever wanted to look good. To look good was the most important thing there was. So I grew my hair out, wore skirts and shirts that were really uncomfortable to me, and did my makeup every day.

When I got to college, I was still following these rules, even though the friendship had broken up. I was so afraid that people wouldn’t think I was pretty, and therefore wouldn’t like me, unless I was feminine. The decision to cut my hair short again took months and a good long talk from my now-partner Sequoia. I can’t believe how frightened I was that people would think I was ugly or dislike me if I looked masculine. The first time I bought a pair of boxers, it took me twenty minutes to work up the courage to go to the cash register. I thought for sure the cashier would say something or look at me funny. I had a line about how they were for a friend planned out in my head. The person said nothing, and I walked away unscathed.

It’s really shocking to me to look back on the fears I had as I began to change my presentation from more feminine to more masculine. On the whole, masculine people who were assigned female at birth don’t face as much backlash as feminine people who were assigned male at birth. Trans women, and especially trans women of color, face incredible violence for being who they are. As a white AFAB (Assigned Female at Birth) person, I encounter none of the violence and discrimination that I see trans women and AMAB (Assigned Male at Birth) trans people facing. I’m very privileged to not face the harassment and violence that are directed at trans women daily.

Yet I kept expecting something bad to happen as I began to transition. The message that I had to be feminine to be likable had been so cemented into my head in high school that I kept waiting for people to abandon me, to not like me anymore, to not want to associate with me. Thankfully, starting college at a school 3,000 miles away from my high school, I discovered that the things I had been taught as a teenager were not how most people thought. I met incredible, wonderful people who liked me just as I was, however I chose to be. It surprised me for months that people liked the way I was changing. It was a huge confidence booster, and a lot of growth that was halted in high school happened in a huge burst in the new supportive environment I was in.

Despite this support, the decision to come out as non-binary was terrifying. So far, people hadn’t turned their backs on me as I broke the rules of Girlhood I had been taught, but what would they think when I started asking for strange new terms to be applied to me? For weird new pronouns that didn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “him” or “her”? I felt like I wasn’t really trans, that my feelings weren’t real, that the terms I wanted used for me were fake and silly.


Source: Storenvy

[Image description: A set of six pronoun stickers in the style of red “Hello my name is” stickers. These particular stickers read “Hello address me as,” then contain a blank spot for a name to be written on, and on the bottom have different pronouns on each sticker. The red one says “Please use: They, Them, Theirs,” the orange one says “Please use: He, Him, His,” the yellow one has a blank spot to fill in one’s own pronouns, the green one has “Please use: She, Her, Hers,” the blue one has “Please use: Ze, Hir, Hirs,” and the purple one has “Please use, Xe, Xem, Xyrs”.]

But the need to be referred to and seen in a way that made me comfortable was stronger than my fears of what people would think. So I came out to my hallway, to my Facebook friends, and to my family. I got a lot of support, which was wonderful, but it wasn’t all smooth sailing. It was very difficult for my childhood friends to start referring to me by a different name and pronouns, and although most of them meant well, it felt like a punch to the gut every time they called me the wrong name or the wrong pronouns. Having to come out again and again is still something I struggle with. If I find the courage to tell someone new who I am, not knowing how they’ll react, I also have to find the courage to correct them every single time they get my pronouns wrong, which is usually many, many times per conversation. This was – and is – hugely anxiety inducing for me, and often the easiest route is to give up and let them misgender me. It makes it difficult to create new friendships or be myself in old ones.

After I came out, I began presenting as even more masculine. I knew then to some extent (and it’s obvious to me now) that it was an attempt to make my gender seem more valid to outsiders. It was hard for me to exist in a non-binary space that no one knew about, and so my solution was to at least try to get people to assume I was a boy, rather than a girl. But trying to pass as male was terribly stressful, and I didn’t enjoy it beyond the satisfaction that came from being a way that I had been taught I shouldn’t be. Being a boy was not my real desire, and it never fit well. I began to head towards a space that was neither boy or girl, but sometimes both masculine and feminine. However my presentation changes, I still find that I can’t connect my looks, my body, my brain, to a binary gender. So I live in an unnamed place, wearing what I like and looking good doing it.

My gender journey has not been a solid progression from a point A to a point B. It’s been a looping, curling journey with few sign posts and no GPS. If I had not heard of non-binary identities, I might still be comfortable in the land called Girl, although I probably would have moved towards a more butch girlness for my own mental health. Despite my moving away from the things I was taught I had to do in high school, I do still like being feminine, and I own a bunch of pretty dresses. But when I put them on and put makeup on, I do it the way I want to, for me. Not for anyone else’s approval or benefit. Not by anyone else’s definition of what I “must” do to be a certain gender. The great thing about learning about this stuff we call gender was that I found terms and identities and ways of being that made me feel more comfortable in my body. I’m a lot happier with myself today being non-binary then I ever was identifying as cisgender.


Coming to Terms with My Asexuality


By West Anderson, Content Writer


[Image description: The asexual pride flag, which is four horizontal stripes of color, going from black at the top, to gray, to white, to purple.]

I figured out that I was asexual in 2012. Two years later, I’m still working out how to navigate this new identity and what it means for me. I find it difficult to appreciate my asexuality at times; it has made me feel broken, incomplete, and worthless. But what I remind myself each time these feelings rear their heads is that I am not broken or worthless because I don’t want to have sex. It’s the people and cultural messages telling me that I should be having sex (and there is something wrong with me if I don’t) that make me feel less than whole.

Truly, figuring out I am asexual was the start to a path of healing and self-love for me.

When I began wandering into the dark woods of adolescent sexuality, I believed that eventually I would figure out how to have sex right, so that I would enjoy it. I believed (and had been taught) that everyone is sexual. To not be sexual was to not be a person. I comforted myself with the fact that I was a beginner, and I learned from many people, magazines, and websites that it takes everyone a while to have an enjoyable sexual experience.

But as I graduated high school and entered college, the fears that had been whispering in the back of my mind for years became louder. What if there was something wrong with me? I couldn’t seem to get anything out of sex. It wasn’t fun for me, and the only reason I sought it out was the hope that maybe this time, it would be better.

When my current two partners and I were starting to become close (they were already a couple, and I was spending more and more nights at their place rather than in my dorm), I began to worry about how I would navigate sex with them. I could tell they would be into it, if I wanted to. I liked them a lot, I wanted to be with them, so I figured the knot tangled in my belly was because this was my first time navigating this experience with two people. Because I thought if we all wanted to be together, that would by necessity include having sex.

But then a night came when we were hanging out in their bedroom, and my now-partner Sequoia started to give me a backrub. I felt tense because I knew that the evening could progress into something more. I was thinking about whether I wanted to do that, when I realized that the way their hands felt on my back was all I ever wanted to experience. It felt good, really good, and I didn’t want to do anything more. I started crying. I thought, if I’m asexual, how will I ever find someone who will want to be with me?

I had heard of asexuality a couple of months previous, but that was the first time I ever considered applying it to myself. That alone shows me how deep our culture’s focus on sex as a natural and necessary part of life goes. I was never able to even consider that I might just not want to have sex. And I never heard words to describe such a thing until I was nearly twenty.

Now, I have been dating those two people for two and half years, and I couldn’t be happier. They love me just the way I am, and I have discovered for myself that sex isn’t a necessary part of love and relationships. I feel more secure in who I am and how I present myself. Embracing my asexuality has made me feel stronger and more whole. I feel confident wearing what I like and acting how I please. The right to wear and do what one wants without owing someone sex is a right that belongs to people of all sexual orientations. For me, it was only through my exploration of my asexuality that I came to fully realize this. If someone thinks my clothes or my actions are an invitation to sex, they are wrong. I am not teasing anyone or leading anyone on. I can exercise my right to say no, and to set boundaries around what other people say and do to, with, and around me.

Even though I have embraced asexuality as an important and essential part of who I am, I still struggle with our culture’s focus on sex. I mean, it is everywhere. And I often still feel like I’m missing out on something that is really enjoyable. The pressure to have sex is not an easy thing to will away, but I am grateful to the ace community for speaking out against it, and to my partners and friends for their conversations about it and their reassurances.

Being asexual has taught me a lot. It has taught me how to hone and enforce my boundaries. It has taught me that I am lovely and worthwhile and whole even if I never have sex. It has taught me that if someone doesn’t respect me, my sexuality, or my boundaries, that is their problem and not mine. I appreciate those parts of myself that have strengthened, and look forward to continuing to learn and change my perspective until I never feel less than whole because of my asexuality again.