My Sensory Experience at a Sensory Conference
As I sat in the conference room for the second day, I was most likely dissociating to cope with the overwhelming intake of sensory stimuli: the fluorescent lights buzzing above, the smells in the air, the room full of people moving and talking unexpectedly.
I was unaware of my fatigue and hunger. Two things that, when I don’t notice and push through, make me crash hard, often resulting in a meltdown.
Then the speaker said that with interoception, the eighth sense, people with sensory processing disorder (SPD) don’t make connections to their body and thus aren’t sure how to carry through with a proper emotion or an action for their body.
Like if those with SPD are hungry, the speaker continued, they may not know it.
As soon as she said this, I realized I was starving and possibly had been for hours. That maybe that was why I wasn’t tolerating the people around me whispering or fixing their hair. Losing focus quickly. Constantly moving in my seat. Fidgeting. Not aware of my body’s needs.
I immediately reached into my purse for some almonds. As the protein entered my system, I felt calm. More connected. Able to be present.
The speaker had, unknowingly, saved me from a meltdown. Saved me from going back to my hotel room and trying to interact with my husband before realizing how low my blood sugar and glucose levels were. And inadvertently picking a fight with him over my own confusion.
Something that happens all too often.
The conference room was overwhelmingly large. Like the 300-seat lecture halls that used to overwhelm me during my undergraduate years.
Knowing about my neurodiversity now and looking back, so many things I didn’t know about myself are explained. Like getting overwhelmed in large crowds.
The walls were beige, making me think of the throw-up the color implied. I had been trying to push the smell of garbage out of my nose all morning, but it kept creeping back in. I could smell it as soon as I entered the basement level of the hotel the conference took place on. Probably from the staff waiting too long to take the garbage out. Or because we were too close to the hotel dumpsters. And now vomit.
It was a wonder I was able to concentrate at all.
Sitting in a room full of mostly occupational therapists, I felt like a lab rat. Surrounded by people who study people like me.
And I’m sure they could spot me. Distinguish me from the rest. I was the only person in the room wearing sunglasses and during the breaks when everyone else conversed, I put my headphones on. Not to be anti-social, but to take a moment to reset.
I even cried twice during the sessions from being overwhelmed. Not sobbing crying, but tears-running-down-my-face crying.
So basically, I stuck out.
The hotel itself was a sensory nightmare. Ironic considering it was a sensory conference, which made my husband and I chuckle.
The interior was circular in shape where you were surrounded by glass elevators and hallways that opened to the center of the circle all the way up the 30 plus floors. Not great for those of us who are easily overstimulated. The less moving parts I see, the better.
It smelled of dust and looked like it was built in the 70s and hadn’t been cleaned or updated since. With bland yellow, beige and brown colors and an occasional emerald green light.
Our hotel room appeared to be remodeled. A stark contrast to the outside hallways. But you could tell it too wasn’t cleaned well.
It felt as if there was a film over everything, making me hesitant about where I sat and where I set things down. What I touched.
Making my already rigid system even more rigid.
Even the fridge in our room contained leftover food from a previous guest. Complete with chopsticks covered in food stuck to the bottom.
Since my husband and I got into town, I hadn’t had a decent meal or adequate sleep. Two things that cause me to feel irregulated often.
When we arrived, went to a nearby restaurant. We were starving from our day of travel, but soon after eating, we felt terrible.
The food must have been highly-processed and since we are not used to eating highly-processed foods, our bodies have a strong reaction when we do.
We both swelled up inside from the sodium and other chemicals that laced our food. We were dehydrated not matter how much water we drank.
I got diarrhea.
My sleep was also compromised. Considering I hadn’t slept well for days leading up to the conference, I was hoping I would crash when I got there.
But I could hear the expressway even over my headphones. Even worse, I could feel it.
I tried to make the sound and vibration a pattern in my brain, to soothe myself, but it just made me too aroused. The opposite of inviting sleep.
I finally realized I could blast the fan in the hotel room to drown some of it out. Then my husband began snoring.
I was lucky I slept at all.
One of the nights we were there, we had dinner plans with friends who lived just outside the city.
After my session for the day, I exercised, providing the tension release necessary to keep my tactile system regulated. But as I got ready, I immediately became overwhelmed.
I couldn’t decide what to wear, which may seem normal, but for me, having a difficult time making a decision is a sign I’m starting to struggle.
I was pacing in the room, unable to think clearly. Trying on everything I brought. Starting to cry.
I decided on clothes, but as we headed out the door, I couldn't decide whether or not to go. I knew I was pushing myself.
My husband told me we didn’t have to go. That his friends would understand. I told him I didn’t want to stay in the hotel room alone all night, and if he stayed too, I knew he would be upset.
I got myself together by the time we got to their house, but by then, my blood sugar had dropped. I was thankful I remembered to bring a protein shake.
As we waited for our table at the restaurant, you could hear the band playing outside and the kids running around. And I felt my sensory ceiling rising.
We were seated at a table toward the back of the restaurant, which at first appeared ideal, but was in between two sides of the restaurant near the kitchen. So everyone needed to cross our path at some point. And every spot at the table was equally in jeopardy.
Not being comfortable with where my body is in space (my proprioceptive sense), it is difficult for me to have my back to movement. But I decided to push through. Which soon became too much.
I was distracted. I couldn’t finish my thoughts or concentrate on what others were saying. I was on edge and ready to blow.
I stood up.
I need to go somewhere else, I announced, grabbing my purse. I can’t sit here any longer.
One of our friends kindly went to the hostess to see if we could move to the table behind us, where we would be behind the pathway instead of in front of it. It took the hostess 30 minutes to move us.
I drank whiskey to compensate.
The waitress took forever to take our order, but there was at least one vegetarian dish available on the menu that sounded tasty. Thankfully.
When I am overstimulated, it’s sometimes difficult for me to eat, but I force myself to because I know I’ll get worse if I don’t. But if my food is either not what I was expecting or is unappetizing, I can no longer force myself.
I usually can’t even handle having the plate in front of me, so I’ll push it away with a disgusted look on my face. Like a child. I was relieved to not have this happen in front of our friends. Especially considering their young kids were eating their meals without hesitation.
We went back to their house after dinner. I was cold and tired and wanted to leave, but my husband was enjoying his time, so I pushed through.
Something I do when I try to give others what they need.
I had pushed myself so much during the trip that I’m lucky I didn’t have a meltdown on our way home.
It took days after to re-regulate myself.
My gut health was compromised taking away my ability to think straight. So I spent days in a fog.
I was so exhausted, I was sleeping 10 hours a night. Through my alarm every morning. Dragging my fatigued body through the day.
But three years ago, before I started learning about SPD, I wouldn’t have made it through the week without completely breaking down.
I would have had a leaky gut, preventing me from eating. I would have slept 14 hours a night.
I wouldn’t have been able to function during the day.
I would have continued pushing myself without resting and resetting. Causing me to be even further unregulated.
Disconnecting from loved ones.
Fighting with my husband.
So at least now I know I’m getting better.