Updated: Oct 26
“The noise rumbled and seemingly poked at my head as I tried to center my breathing deeply into my stomach. In waves, I seemed to become tense, as I scanned and assessed the room, trying to make sense of what was around me. I would repeatedly look to the floor as a subtle attempt at filtering at least something out. Every now and then, a loud laugh or raised voice would make me tense up more. The cloudy and confused feeling in my head also came in waves at first, as if there were many pins poking my head from the sides, then all around. I couldn’t think clearly, and I became increasingly disorientated as I looked around for something to focus on, so to orientate myself. I usually would find and count numbers, but I could see none.
But then I saw a sign which read, “Please do not start eating your food until you have paid for it”. I repeated the phrase multiple times as it took me a few attempts to make sense of what it meant at first, but this is where the disorientation and cloudy mind become quite a significant problem. I knew the right sounds to make in my mind for each word, but yet it all seemed meaningless and disconnected. Then I focused very hard on each letter, going through each letter in each word and sounding it out in my mind. Then I tried to do this with each word, which was much harder to do at first.
I persisted and then put emphasis in different places. Versions of this sentence which were of note were: “Please do not start EATING your food until you have paid for it”. Meaning that you shouldn’t eat your food, but you could play with it, throw it, mold it or any number of other things with it. “Please do not start eating YOUR food until you have paid for it”. Meaning you could eat someone else’s food before paying, just not your own. “Please do not start eating your FOOD until you have paid for it”. Meaning you shouldn’t eat your food, but you could eat something else.
“Please do not start eating your food until YOU have paid for it”. Meaning no one should buy you lunch, you must pay. I wasn’t sure which way the sign was intended to be read, so I kept re-reading it, trying different words of emphasis, before deciding that I probably shouldn’t do anything with my or anyone else’s food until I’d paid for it. My food that is. That’s if I even had any food, which I didn’t. I wasn’t even having food, but I’d kept re-reading the same words on the sign again and again. I felt myself become more orientated. Sometimes I can’t focus enough on anything at all and that’s when I get really tired out and drained really quickly, mostly because of the chatter, noise and lights, this depends also on what I'm wearing that day. Some clothes must be worn, but aren't nice to wear and some clothes are nicer to wear but can't be worn too much. I wasn’t sure if anyone had noticed me, but I wasn't able to put my headphones in; which I kept having to fight to urge to do, and I certainly couldn’t get away with telling everyone to shut up.
My focus must have come away from the words on the poster, as I could feel my heartbeat increase by a quarter as I looked around and noticed many tiny details: the electricity buzzing, the feel of my clothes on my skin, which is rarely ok as it is, the brightness of the lights which beat down upon me from above. I seemed trapped and unable to do anything about the ensuing neurodivergent overload. If it wasn’t the itch or relentless tickle of my clothing that made me tense, it was the apparent flood level lighting all around, or the seeming thousands of voices, which increasingly became a huge merged single thick droning noise which made me the tensest of all. I felt an overwhelming and heavy weight upon me, or a cloud that didn’t let me think or move properly. All of this, with a distinctly detailed awareness of my own ineptitude at dealing with everything. I became very aware of my heartbeat, my breathing, my stomach and my skin which seemed to be under assault by the very clothes I wore. I regretted eating breakfast, as it was as if it made me oddly bloated and as if I didn't quite fit into my own body, on top of everything else too now. I put all of my energy into not becoming noticeable. But everything continued relentlessly as I felt waves of overwhelm go through me. Every moment that passed, I felt more suffocated, trapped, and that there was not a lot that I could do about it. I would catch brief glimpses of clarity where I would hear in my mind, “I can’t do this”, all the while becoming increasingly irritated at why it was necessary to have the lights at such a brightness, why people had to talk so much and all at once and how any of this was in any way productive or getting to the point of why everyone was there. I remember feeling overwhelmed but mostly just irritated, but maybe this was how I dealt with overwhelm. I tapped each of my fingers to my thumb in a cycle: first the index, then the middle, then then the ring, then the pinky. I tensed my arms and fists as hard as I could, then released. Then tensed, then released; trying to be as subtle as I could of course. But each time, I needed to tense a bit longer. I then tensed my whole upper body. I wanted to walk away and leave but couldn’t, as I couldn’t clear the foggy thinking away in order to plan my exit. Then the mumbling voices started to go quiet, I looked up and noticed them all walking out of the room. I released my clenched body and took a deep breath. I felt very tired but also appreciated the quiet. I wanted to move and sit down but I still couldn’t orientate my thinking to run-through in my mind how it would go, prior to moving. I looked to the floor as I breathed in, then out. I shut my eyes as I felt a wave of something which made me feel like crying, but then dismissed it away again. I think I wanted to cry more from frustration than anything else. I think I get frustrated at everything around me in the first place, as its is rather relentless I must say. But most of all I get frustrated with myself for not being able to tolerate it all very well. I used to avoid such situations altogether as much as possible, but I realised that I had to endure some of them in order to get things done. It’s all a part of life I suppose but I haven’t gotten any better at tolerating any of it, apart from maybe hiding it all a bit better. I’m not really sure. I managed to look around and it seemed that no one had noticed me becoming overwhelmed, although I am never quite sure about this either. After a few assessments in my mind of going to sit down, I then sat and read the same poster again and again, “Please do not start eating your food until you have paid for it”. I again played around with the words, putting the emphasis in different places. The same sentences of note were again apparent.
It’s something I have learned to keep very secret: my struggles of being in a room with lots of people. But more so when more than one person talks at once, more so still if this is directed at me. This I find particularly awful.
Everyone had moved into another room, so I followed too, as wwas expected. I noticed that most people had sat down in chairs, waiting to begin. Then someone, sat a few chairs along, turned to me and asked me a question. I had hoped to be able to take at least a few minutes to compose myself properly, as I was still resetting myself from my experiences of the other room. I must have been slow to answer as a result of this, because the person restated their question, but with more urgency. I remember acting like some kind of drill sergeant toward myself in my own mind, as to why I hadn’t answered yet. This, and the person’s increased urgency made it much harder to say anything. I felt myself become tense again, but also with a foggy head. I still wasn’t quite sure what was being said, as I heard the words, but the same disconnect as earlier had returned again. I knew I couldn’t find the answer I needed in my mind, as I felt myself unable to think clear enough to do so. I looked down at a piece of paper I held in my hands on my lap, in an attempt to appear as if I was getting the information needed to respond, but none of it made sense. I saw words on the paper and heard words from the persons mouth, but I think my cogs must have gotten stuck again.
The person said the same thing again, or at least the same sequence of noises, twice more in quick succession, followed straight away by something else. I remember trying to force myself out of the fogginess, which was immediately very tiring. It worked for a moment or two within which I heard a comment that I don’t think was very kind toward me. I was slightly clearer in my mind, but still blank, which is quite a paralysing experience I must say. This got worse the more the person spoke to me as they spoke very fast and didn’t leave me time to process what had been said. They made another unkind comment about me, and I felt myself withdraw even more within myself. The thick, heavy cloud had come over me again and I felt a weird sense of paralysation. I wasn’t sure what it was that I felt but I think I seemed to become numb and confused. I knew that I wanted to talk, but I simply wasn’t able to.
Funnily enough, the realisation of my own failure in real-time, only added to the confusion and paralysation. But now, I felt heavy, drained, exhausted even, and my cogs had definitely nearly stopped. I remember thinking that I was a failure…a malfunction…a mess, some sort of out of place mistake who simply didn’t belong in the slightest. This is an underlying theme at the best of times, but in that moment, I felt it even more. I really felt it. I realised that I had unwittingly given up and I had no energy left to hide it.
I managed to mutter, “I don’t know”, which I really had to force myself to say, so in hindsight, I think it came out as very matter of fact and emotionless. The person said another unkind remark about my slowness in answering and then I found myself unable to talk at all.
I sank deeper into myself and felt the heavy weight fall upon my whole being, as if overtaking me. I didn’t want it to happen, but at this point I couldn’t stop it. The person then stopped talking to me. I wasn’t sure what had just happened. The heavy weight stayed with me as I sat in my chair, staring at the paper in my hand. I could read nothing, yet I needed something to focus on so as to appear as “ok” as possible. I felt drained and as if I had shut off, or on the brink of shutting down. I still couldn’t stop it. Everything became a huge struggle and I had to really force the cogs round to simply remain sat in the chair. The chair from which I could no longer move from that is.
I wanted to explain what had happened or was happening to me, but I couldn’t. So, I imagine that I must surely have appeared unresponsive, uncaring, disengaged and wholly without interest. All in hindsight again of course. I wish I could have said that it wasn’t a choice I had made, but rather, something that I must endure when I become overwhelmed. Something that when it happens, can become extremely challenging to function through. There comes a certain loneliness at times too, as a result of experiences such as these too. But I’m still undecided as to why this is.
After a while of remaining withdrawn, I waited until a breaktime had come and most of the people had left the room, before I managed to move and sit alone in the corner by myself. Upon their return I focused solely on a task, which I prolonged largely as I needed the predictability and separation from the rest of the room for a while longer. But I was still within myself and still found it hard to turn any of the cogs. I managed to go to the toilet and try and reset myself, but it didn’t work too well that day. You see, once I feel the heavy weight over me, I usually like to sit quietly somewhere for a while. But today, it seemed not possible. Nonetheless, I got to the end and later went home.
I laid down and fell almost straight to sleep for a while. This is part of the “aftermath” of neurodivergent overload and can last a long while sometimes. But more about this in another blog post perhaps.
Until next time.
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Liam The Teacher Neurodiversity Services