Once, I threw a party, and no one showed up. No one except for my soon-to-be husband, whom I barely knew at the time. A music publication had just unceremoniously dumped me from my part-time job, and I decided to retaliate by having a series of parties on the same days as their festival. Problem was, I didn’t make it clear that I was throwing three parties, not just one (it maybe wasn’t the most effective form of retaliation, in hindsight). The first night, only he came, six-pack in hand. Mortified, I cracked open my door and told him no one was coming until tomorrow. He offered to have a beer on my porch. We sat in the humid twilight and watched planes fly overhead, and I told him he didn’t have to come the next night. But he did.
I was moving to New York a few weeks later. He helped me pack my truck. My parting words were a half-joking, half-hopeful, “Don’t forget me.”
True to his word, he didn’t.
As a highly sensitive person, things are often too loud, too bright — basically, too everything for me. My mom blames herself for raising me in the deep quiet of our two-acre plot, tucked under a green blanket of trees in Chicago’s suburbs. “If only it was louder, you would have gotten used to noise!” she likes to say. I spent my early childhood climbing apple trees and avoiding their rot in the fall. Our neighbors had horses. My friends likened me to flowers — to them, I was a nervous dandelion.
That didn’t feel unusual, though, because I figured everyone else felt the same way. Happiness favored the bold, or so I noticed both in life and in phrases printed on pillows. We also had social scripts to follow, and I was dutiful about highlighting my parts: study, serve volleyballs, scribble my crushes’ names on stuff, produce S-shaped poops, eventually succeed. If I was caught in a gust of emotional wind, I just had to gather my tufts and deal with it. That’s why I usually kept to myself, and why I went years without dating. When you’re fragile, you don’t want anyone to notice, in case they’re feeling blustery and end up pushing you over the edge.
Highly sensitive people are easily overwhelmed and tend to be conscientious because of it. About a fifth of humans, split equally between men and women, have the trait. It’s not exactly a choice, either: We’re wired to process things intensely, and we deplete faster than those who aren’t highly sensitive. I startle so easily, I tell people I was a spooked horse in a past life. But the good feels extra good, too — like noticing a slightly irregular beer bottle, or hearing a song that’s nothing short of euphoric. To recover, we slip into vacuums free of sensory input.
That’s not to say I can’t handle a Winnie the Pooh-caliber storm. Sensitivity can be hard to pry apart from the anxiety in my crockpot head of neuroses, because they meld together. But I found anything could be made tolerable with a little work: Glue headphones to your face, and an open office feels smaller. Ask a chain of questions, and you’re an extrovert for a night without having to talk about yourself. You could even muffle New York City if you lie in bed, put two speakers on either side of you, fill them with white noise, pop a Xanax, turn on a fan, jam in earplugs, and smother your head with a pillow.
We all have our shit. How I work with my limitations, though, was a struggle I kept private until I learned there were others like me. Any tears, invasive rumination or compulsions, and rage about small injustices were plucked out and canned behind closed doors. I never wanted to confess the stupor I felt after someone was mean to me, or that I well up with happy tears when I’m feeling earnest, which happens a lot with nice customer service representatives. When I saw people with a “fuck it” attitude, I was green with envy. It wasn’t until I was in a relationship that I wanted to work — really, wish-on-a-star work — that I knew I’d have to show-and-tell the jars I was squirreling away.
Years after my move, we started dating long-distance. During our short bursts together, I was finally the person I’d always wanted to be: cool, collected, energetic. The kind of girl who stands up through a sunroof (except I never have, because Six Feet Under’s opening deaths still haunt me). Then, I’d recover at home. I was terrified of revealing those putrid, bubbling things I’d stored over the years. A time came when I was itching to leave my noisy dystopia, so I obtained permission from my job to work remotely (after dry-heaving in the bathroom). He helped me pack my truck again, and I left for the Midwestern town where he was playing in an orchestra.
Until this point, I’d often cast myself as an extra, because life is a lot easier when it happens to other people. Now it was happening to me. I wanted it, and I was willing to make it happen, even if it meant taking a more prominent role instead of, say, flattening myself against walls anytime a spotlight rolled around, not unlike a cartoon character making a prison break. But this required a shift in the way I dealt with challenges and stressors. My oases have always been empty rooms and bathroom stalls, which offer their own Clorox-scented Narnia of solitude, but when you live with someone, your confidential grieving process is a little more out in the open. As in, it’s out in the open.
My most despised stimuli were the first to be uncovered. I live in the dark, which I revealed when I hissed anytime he turned an overhead light on. When we ate, I had to explain that something has to play in the background to muffle the thwacks of utensils and chewing or my head will spin exorcism-style. When he tooted the car closed with the key fob, I gently asked to please not do it when I’m close by, or I’ll use his DNA for potions.
Slowly, steadily, I divulged how sometimes, my brain works against me. And I noticed something surprising after each reveal: Nothing bad happened. He’d listen and say he understood where I was coming from, and that we’d figure it out. The safer I felt airing out those dusty foibles, the quicker the empty jars piled up. I even had an extra hand to help me gather myself up at the end of the day.
It wasn’t til this year that I realized the discrepancy between what I was and how I wanted to be could never be reconciled. I couldn’t change how I am, and there was no sense in pretending I could. And that meant (shudder) excavating my innermost hexes. Like the fact that I’m so good at being a Chatty Cathy when we’re out, he can’t tell I’m miserable until I send a pleading text from poopy Narnia. Or that the only things that can dull my senses are drinks and hits. Or that I get sick a lot — seriously, a lot — because even my physiology overreacts to tiny intrusions. He just saw them differently: They were parts of me, a person he loves, not problems that made me unloveable.
But we did make one painful discovery: Touch makes my energy dwindle the fastest. That means he can’t always rest his hand on me, and occasionally I’ll fold myself into bed and ask to be alone for a while. It took us eons to figure out the source, but it’s helped us develop strategic choreography to give us both what we want.
If I’m feeling aloof, he’ll tell me with words what he can’t do with actions. When I wilted into a crippling depression after being let go from that job I dry-heaved over, I told him how much I hated being consumed by my physiology, and he replied that he knew the sudden uptick in my daily agitation wasn’t me. Our mutual validation and perceptiveness has allowed us to make little adjustments to the point where we can understand each other without having to say much.
Ever since our first beer together, his words are something I hold onto. They’ve always been true, and I carry some of the ones he wrote down with me whenever I travel. After all, he came back. He’d promised not to forget me, and he didn’t. Marriage was always something that happened to others, but it’s actually about to happen to me.
In my mind, I was a weed. But to him, I’m dandelion wine.