I Went To A Music Festival & Cried In My Tent — But It Was One Of My Biggest Learning Experiences

For as long as I can remember, one of my favourite pastimes has been going to music festivals. I'll admit that it's not very original, but one of my first formative experiences came in the form of going to Soundwave Festival all by myself when I was 15 years old. Despite being alone (which, as an adult, I think is an odd parenting decision), I would happily stand outside in the heat and brave the crowds for hours if it meant that I could get a glimpse at Alexisonfire or The Offspring. As I entered my 20s, this didn't change — my yearly highlights were heading to Big Day Out (RIP), Laneway Music Festival, or even daring to spend four days caked in mud at Splendour in the Grass.
While I've taken a few years off thanks to 'ageing out' of the target age demographic and my inability to stand on my feet for more than five hours (thanks, 31-year-old body), I decided to re-enter my festival girl era when I received a media invite to the iconic three-day Victorian music festival, Meredith. The festival, which featured a phenomenal lineup this year — including Caroline Polachek, Kraftwerk, Alvvays, Sneaky Sound System and Alex G — isn't just loved by locals because of the music, but because of its emphasis on community, and the way it embraces everyone's unique quirks.
But what I hadn't realised during my time off was that I have not only aged, but there's also something bubbling beneath the surface that has, in all likelihood, been repressed for much of my youth — I think I might be neurodivergent.
I first need to mention that I haven't explored the beast that is receiving an official diagnosis yet, but throughout my life, I have struggled with sensory issues and overstimulation, and three out of six of my family members have been diagnosed as neurodivergent. Growing up, you'd never catch me at the beach, because the feeling of sand on my feet and hands made me want to cry. Every time I enter a shopping centre, I can feel rage bubbling up inside of me thanks to the crowds, fluorescent lights and noise. I can't wear jeans or clothing that feels rough or touches my body too closely. Sometimes I can't even pinpoint what's setting me off — I'm just angry and agitated and upset and overwhelmed until I manage to settle myself back at home with a cup of tea, soft music and a blanket I can run my fingers through. Often, it feels like the world is yelling at me until I fall into a heap.
With this in mind, I'll admit that it might be a bit of a weird decision for me to opt into going into the Victorian bush for a music festival, which is already pretty well-documented as one of the most overstimulating environments out there, especially for someone who has a hard time with sensory processing. But after moving down to Melbourne from Sydney only a month prior, the only two people I knew in the city — my new housemate and an old friend — had sung Meredith's praises extensively, and I was tempted.
Indeed, the festival wasn't like anything I've been to before. It honours First Nations people beyond a simple Acknowledgement of Country, spotlighting Indigenous artists as a key part of the line-up. It has an extensive focus on community, where the emphasis is placed on welfare and safety instead of policing. It has heart and is made for the locals, with quirky schticks laced throughout the festival, including giving your favourite band 'The Boot', which means taking your shoe off and holding it in the air for your favourite set of the day, or a timetabled event called 'The Gift', where you'd watch a bunch of people do a nudie run. It's an incredibly special event and in my personal opinion, the type of music festival there needs to be more of. But perhaps in my ignorant bliss and the weird in-between state I currently live in (after all, I haven't officially been diagnosed yet so maybe it's all just in my head), I thought I could handle it. Spoiler alert: I couldn't.
On the Friday, we had hot temperatures and 90km/hr winds (which is especially fun while you're trying to pitch a tent), while Saturday and Sunday brought non-stop torrential rain, flooding and mud. As someone who was woefully unprepared, only bringing a raincoat that wasn't even really rainproof, gumboots bought at the last minute from Bunnings and a silk blanket, I was doomed from the beginning.
Unsurprisingly, by Friday at 8pm, my body had called it. The winds and heat had taken it out of me, combined with the fact that I knew only one other person at this festival, having just moved down to Melbourne from Sydney. Before I could even register what was going on, my body was walking me back to my tent in search of water, a bit of quiet, and a nice little space to cry. As I sobbed into my blow-up mattress that was already sinking into the floor, I couldn't help but wonder what was wrong with me: how could all these people enjoy this festival and have it be the highlight of their year, while something so small — like dirt on my hands — would send me spiralling and unable to leave my tent?
Katrina Schwarz is a counsellor who specialises in helping those who are neurodivergent. As someone who is autistic and has ADHD herself, she says that music festivals are places where many neurodivergent people and people with sensory issues might struggle because of the greater stimuli they're exposed to.
While I may be chastising myself for never giving a band 'The Boot' simply because I was too preoccupied with crowds. Or for missing some phenomenal First Nations artists because the idea of stepping into mud was too much for my brain to handle. Or for listening to Caroline Polachek's distant set alone in my dark tent. Schwarz says that these might all be signs that my body has recognised when it's reached its limit.
"It's really important that when you're working out what your sensory needs are, you're also working out what you look like when you're overwhelmed," Schwarz tells Refinery29 Australia. "If you can start to feel yourself getting agitated, if you can start to feel yourself wanting to run away or go completely numb, that's your body's signal that you are overwhelmed."
While I have much to discover about my own mind, Schwarz tells me that the key to someone with sensory issues surviving — and thriving — in a music festival environment comes down to understanding their own triggers. "You need to know what your sensory triggers are and what your limits are," she explains. "That takes a lot of self-awareness and insight prior to going to those kinds of events. Because when you are aware of what you can tolerate and what you can't tolerate, it gives you the ability to then plan for it."
Schwarz is a fan of the "top-to-toe body approach", which requires neurodivergent people or those with sensory processing issues to scan their bodies for ways in which their senses might be negatively affected by external influences, like smells, sounds, or even heat from the sun. "The top-to-toe approach can be very helpful in terms of identifying all the senses that you may be overstimulated by and how to cater to your own needs and the event you're going to."
She recommends that you slowly scan down your body to figure out what issues you might encounter and what might help solve them: "If you get overheated easily, do you need to take an extra wide-brimmed hat?" she says. "Does the sun bother you? If so, do you need to make sure you have a spare pair of sunnies? Do you get affected by smells? Do you need to think about bringing a mask that you've specifically put on some perfume smells that you like? Are you easily affected by noise? Do you need to bring some Loop earplugs?"
"When you know what your triggers are and when you know what your sensory needs are, writing a list to cater for them — and making sure that you're completely prepared for them — is valuable," she says.
While I did find it difficult to leave my tent for much of the weekend and found myself overwhelmed by what seemed like everything, the fact that I could recognise when I had had enough is a big feat for me. It's also one of the things Schwarz recommends that anyone with sensory processing issues or neurodivergence taps into, especially as it can look different for every person. "For some people, they may get really mad and want to physically push people away because they can't stand being overheated," she says. "Other people may want to do recreational drugs because they can't handle being overwhelmed. Others may get drunk to numb the overwhelm."
She says that when we start to feel the overwhelm creep in, it's important to find healthier coping strategies, which might include sensory accommodations. In my case, my natural instinct was to reach for my silk blanket and run it between my fingers in an effort to calm myself down, but for other people, this might look like taking off a layer of clothes to regulate your temperature, sculling a litre of water, or another one of your accommodations.
While I'm often frustrated at myself as it feels like I'm out of sync with what my body needs, there are some signs that I'm slowly tapping into this, even in my limited packing list. I didn't pack waterproof pants but I did pack a silk blanket, with the knowledge that running my fingers through it helps me relax. I didn't pack a sleeping bag, but I did pack baby wipes with the knowledge that dirt on my hands agitates me.
As annoying as it might sound, there's no one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to dealing with sensory overload at a music festival — it all depend on your triggers. But there are some things that can help. First, we know that musical festivals can often be loud and busy, so consider setting your tent up as an emergency safe space if you need some time out. Try and pitch it in a quieter part of the campground — perhaps around families — and make sure you bring things that make it feel like a palace, even if you're in the middle of the bush. These could include an eye mask, plenty of pillows and blankets to relax in, emergency snacks, and a soft lamp. Make sure you get plenty of sleep and drink lots of water.
When it comes to going out and braving the stages, it could be a good idea to bring a bigger bag to fit all your extra accommodations in. These might include noise-cancelling headphones, earplugs, sunglasses, a hat, sunscreen, baby wipes for dirty hands, or stimming devices.
"That self-awareness and insight around your sensory issues can take a lot of trial and error. It requires quite a lot of self-compassion and sometimes third party help to break down any internalised ableism or societal norms around being able to give yourself the freedom to accommodate your needs."
While I know that my experience of Meredith Festival wasn't exactly what I had hoped it would be, I have hope that with a little bit of self-compassion, understanding, and yes, an official diagnosis, I'll hopefully be able to attend next year and feel the same happiness that soared through my veins when I first started going to shows at 15. Next year, I hope I get to give someone 'The Boot'. I hope I'm able to stay up until 7am, dancing away like so many other people I saw. I hope I'll come with my own sensory accommodation bag of tricks that I've worked carefully on curating. And hell, maybe I'll even rip my clothes off and take part in the nudie run.
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