Recently I went to South Florida. The trip was originally scheduled for a work conference, but in looking at flights, it was much cheaper to fly down a few days in advance of the conference. I thought it might be nice to spend a little time exploring the coast, so we booked a flight for Friday. The conference would start Monday. I would spend the weekend in Miami, and then head up to Ft. Lauderdale Sunday night.
At first I thought maybe one of my sisters could join me, or perhaps my brother, or that my boyfriend could leave from his family vacation to meet me. Nobody’s schedule worked out, so I was to take the trip on my own.
No big deal, I reasoned. I’m a lone wolf. I got this. It’ll give me a chance to really roll up my sleeves and write, work on my tan, explore the local culture and relax on the beach, it’ll be amazing.
It was a poorly arranged plan, not even a plan at all, I did not give it nearly enough thought. I had a flight. I had a hotel. I had a rental car. That’s all a person really needs, isn’t it? Absolutely not. The answer to that question is an emphatic no.
Maybe that’s all a fully functional person needs. Sure, a healthy person who isn’t wracked with grief – who doesn’t have caustic depression coursing through their veins – that person could easily make a killer vacation out of two-and-a-half days of total freedom in a new place. I was near beaches! and sand! and sun! and nightlife! and culture! and world class food! and national parks!
The travel itself was fraught with difficulty, which was all the slight breeze that the precarious house of cards that is my mental state needed to crash in on itself. Almost missing my first flight, forgetting important documents, tearful early morning phone calls and text exchanges with friends and family, being trapped in the airport for an hour and a half after arriving to a dark and stormy Ft. Lauderdale: it was like the universe heard my innermost pessimist and did its best to help me create a self-fulfilling prophecy of misery.
When we began our descent into Ft. Lauderdale, I thought the trip might look up. After the difficulty of barely making my first flight and then having to rush to get my connecting flight; being yelled at by a woman in eighty dollar yoga pants on my second flight for inadvertently sitting in her seat and then having to sit next to her for more than three hours; banging my head and my elbows and my knees; being exhausted and emotionally tattered from the sensory overload of airports and airplanes and humans and luggage and too many clothes and uncooperative hair and popping ears despite chewing so.much.gum… I was ready for something positive. Anything.
My Real Housewives Wannabe seatmate slept with her head between her knees, her face planted nearly inside her ugly initials-covered handbag. The letters and design were unrecognizable to me, but likely indicated that the bag itself probably cost more than my entire wardrobe. I gingerly leaned across her seat and looked out the window at the blue of the water below. It was breathtaking, and I was hopeful.
I sat back for a moment and read my book, thinking maybe the depression, grief, and annoyance of traveling alone would melt away in the hot sun and I could enjoy a couple of days free of the lead shot that had settled in my limbs over the past few months. My hope mingled with self-satisfaction from having accidentally elbowed Yogapants McToo-tan in the spine as I settled back into my seat after snapping that photo.
I was hopeful. Except weather is weird. And the weather in South Florida is unpredictable in June, a fact that I would’ve known if I had mustered the energy to do any research at all before embarking on this trip. Within ten minutes, we were in the midst of thunderstorms, the plane bouncing and jerking, the captain asking us to please stay in our seats with our seat-belts securely fastened.
Strangely, the turbulence was not alarming, or even bothersome. For me, depression is odd that way: small obstacles are insurmountable, tiny everyday infractions threaten to rob me of my will to live. I panic over the enormity of going to the store, the pressure of deciding what to eat for dinner. But potentially life-threatening situations that should probably prompt some sort of emotional reaction rarely affect me. Oh the plane is crashing? Huh. Wonder if we’ll live.
We were finally able to land, and luckily were able to immediately disembark. But I had checked a bag, and luggage could not be removed from the plane due to lightning strikes. I would be stuck in the baggage claim area for another ninety minutes after we landed, waiting, uncomfortable. I found a space down a hallway where I could plug in my dying cell phone and lie on the floor, trying to recuperate in the quiet. My misery must have come across as boredom; a TSA agent gave me a paperback book that someone had left in the airport.
Late Friday afternoon, after starting my travels around five o’clock that morning, I sat crammed into an airport bus that would take me to the rental car station, my carry-on perched painfully on my lap, my legs awkwardly draped over the suitcase for which I had waited an additional hour and a half after my plane had landed. I stared out the window at the rain, thinking this was probably appropriate. In my two suitcases with too many clothes and too many toiletries, there were no closed-toe shoes aside from the heels that I would wear to the conference, as I had not even considered that it might rain.
The lounge pants I had worn to be comfortable on my flights were too long and had gotten wet in the rain as I struggled to find the correct standing area for the rental car shuttle. They stuck to my feet and screamed for my attention, fighting to be heard among the din of my frizzing hair, the cacophony of voices around me, the bright lights inside the bus, the sounds of talking and radio noise and overhead-speaker announcements. The layers of clothing I had donned to accommodate varying temperatures screeched at me, my purse strap clawed at my neck. I could feel every inch of my own skin – even the “bare” skin, exposed to ostensibly nothing besides the air.
The inability to quiet or even filter incoming sensory stimuli is a hallmark of Sensory Processing Disorder. Though I cannot say for certain with any level of scientific proof because I have not done the research, my personal experience is that this inability is severely exacerbated by sleep deprivation and wavering blood sugar. This sort of situation – where I am utterly overwhelmed and my coping mechanisms are depleted – has plagued me throughout my life, and I have cried silently in myriad public bathrooms and other private spaces where I could steal a few moments to myself to fall apart.
As a “high functioning” adult, I hold my breath until I can find a safe space, and there are times when that space is more private than others. Countless strangers have likely witnessed me tugging at my clothing, throwing bags or over-shirts away from me, kicking off shoes, yanking at my own hair, tears of frustration and extreme discomfort streaming down my face.
By the time I picked up my rental car, I was bursting at the seams with the agony of twelve hours of travel overload. I stopped in the bathroom between the counter and the garage to readjust my clothes, and perch on the edge of the toilet to sob for a moment as a brief release. I managed to pull out of the garage and get the car onto the highway before I fell apart totally, which is an accomplishment.
The twenty-six mile drive from the Ft. Lauderdale airport to the hotel in Miami was tears, yanking off clothes, and fiddling with the radio and the climate settings. Too cold. Too hot. Air blowing on the wrong parts of me. Air blowing in the wrong direction. A radio too loud. The silence too silent. The stations playing all incorrect music. Turn off the radio. Turn on the a/c. Turn the radio back on. Adjust the temperature to make it warmer. Move the vents up and to the right. Now back to the left. The rain pattered on the windshield and the sound of every drop was like a straight pin poking into my bare skin.
The only redeeming quality of moments like these is knowing that you are headed toward a goal, and focusing on that. I’ll be to the hotel soon. When I arrived to my room, I set down my bags, peeled off my clothes, and crawled into the king size bed. Describing the sensation of being at the height of meltdown, focusing on getting to a safe place, and the resultant flood of relief is challenging. You might liken it to burning yourself badly and rushing toward the kitchen sink to run cold water over the burn.
It is only as a thirty year old adult that I am able to articulate these feelings. Only as a fully grown adult can I recognize which noises, smells, and sights are most paralyzing and distressing for me. Sometimes I can push through, carefully masking my anguish. How do you explain to a group of people in a professional setting – or even a group of friends or extended family – that your own hair (the hair that is growing out of your head) is causing you to feel actual, palpable, physical pain? The answer is that you don’t, except maybe to your closest friends, your family, your spouse or significant other.
Even with a fully formed, educated and mature adult brain, tracing the line of your affliction to one specific cause is not easy. Am I actually too hot, or is it just that this shirt is too tight? Does my head hurt or is it too loud in this room? Am I exhausted or are my eyes fatigued from all the lights and TV screens and movement in here?
When I see a child screaming inconsolably, a frayed and bewildered parent nearby, while other adults shoot dirty looks, I can’t help but wonder if maybe the issue isn’t really behavioral. Certainly it’s a behavioral response, perhaps to intolerable stimuli, but I try to respond less with dirty looks of my own, and more with a heart of understanding. Being without the ability to parse emotions or form adequate language while facing the unpredictability of your own erratic neurological and physiological responses to the “normal” world is torture. And as a child, often the option does not exist to retreat somewhere to peel off your clothes and sit in the quiet semi-darkness for a while. What that we had recuperative spaces throughout our public sphere, or even in our homes.
This post was meant to convey some of my Florida trip, and I guess it probably did so even more accurately than I expected. The truth is, I’ve been spinning my wheels for months at the intersection of Grief, Depression, Sensory Issues, Anxiety, and Apathy. As it turns out, when you carry those bricks around on your back, they do not stay behind when you travel to a new place, no matter how exotic. Soon I will go into greater detail about the rest of the trip, including that one night when I might’ve hurled myself off a bridge if only I wasn’t incapacitated by indifference and unwilling to climb back into my itchy clothes.