How Do You Feel? SPD and Sensory Discrimination

Several years ago, I awoke with a slight but sharp pain in my chest. I went about my day, doing my best to ignore it. I thought it was one of those random, passing pains that bodies get sometimes. But the next day, it was much worse. Every time I inhaled, stabbing pain shot through my chest. I also was developing severe pain down my left shoulder blade and around my ribs. I debated going to the doctor for three days; meanwhile, I couldn’t sleep unless I was sitting up, and moving at a pace slightly faster than your local library’s Wi-Fi left me in breathless tears. It turned out that I had pneumonia, which was strange because I hadn’t been sick beforehand, nor was I obviously sick in any way other than having debilitating chest pain.

When I reflect on that experience, my first thought is “why did I not go to the doctor right away?” I’m certainly not a fan of going to the doctor, and I don’t like to draw attention to myself, even from concerned family and friends. But neither of those reasons fully explain why I waited.

I didn’t go right away because I didn’t know if the pain I was experiencing warranted a trip to the doctor. I distinctly remember thinking “am I imagining this?” Let’s let that sink in. I couldn’t get out of bed without first psyching myself up for several failed attempts and some tears, and I wasn’t sure if I was just~~imagining~~it.

My brain is always a little confused about the information it’s receiving because I have trouble with sensory discrimination. When someone asks me “how do you feel”, nine times out of ten I’ll go “I dunno”–because I really don’t. Especially when it’s something new, I don’t know what the heck I’m feeling from outside or inside my body. So, when I mysteriously developed pneumonia, my thought process went a little like this:

Hmm. This hurts. I think my chest definitely hurts. Should I go to the doctor? They’re gonna ask me what it feels like. Is it burning, or stabbing? What’s the difference? Maybe it’s not that bad. How bad is bad? Wait, which came first- the chest pain or the shoulder pain? Are they even the same kind of pain? Maybe I’m imagining it- if I ignore it, it might go away. Good gravy, putting on socks is really hard. I’m probably fine, though.

Because I know that sensory processing disorder (SPD) makes me sensitive to a lot of stimuli, this often leads me to understate how I feel, be it good or bad. I aim to be neutral in all aspects- I’m feeling sensations more intensely or in a mixed-up way, so it must be wrong, right? When you spend many years confused about how you feel, you get pretty good at hiding it. So, on the outside, I can appear relaxed and calm, but on the inside, I feel like that screaming bird meme. You know the one.

My nervous system 85% of the time

Anyway, do as I say, not as I do (did). The problem with approaching sensory discrimination this way is not just that you might neglect yourself when you have pneumonia, although that’s certainly not optimal. On an everyday level, taking this approach perpetuates the confusion and only makes things worse. It takes practice to start listening to your body, and it might take some serious courage to start advocating for yourself. I try to remember that the way I perceive things might be different from what other people feel, but that doesn’t mean it’s wrong.

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