Please Turn Down Your Radio

by Jonathan Frank

On the way to work, I ask a girl on the train to turn down her iPhone. Later, at a meeting, I ask a man to stop clicking his pen. Before the meeting ends, I’ve asked another person if he’d stop tapping his keys on the table. Next day, I’m browsing in a bookstore and find myself asking the manager if he’d please lower the music. That evening, I enter a restaurant with friends and ask for a table far away from waiters whizzing by. As I check the menu, I pray they won’t play music that throbs and pulsates and invades and dominates. That’s because I have a condition known as Sensory Over-Responsivity. I’ve had it all my life, and it’s complicated my relationship with nearly everyone—my siblings, my neighbors, my employers and my lovers.

Sensory Over-Reactivity is a syndrome defined as “having a tendency to react negatively, or with alarm, to sensory input which is generally considered harmless or non-irritating.” It’s a condition now recognized by therapists, but it’s not considered a disorder by the American Psychiatric Association. That leaves a person like me on shaky ground: my heightened sensitivities are classified sufficiently to warrant the title of “Sensory Over-Responsivity,” but they lack the dignity of a formal disorder. I’ll now abbreviate that title and refer to those affected by this condition as Sensory Over-Responders, or SORs.

This essay is my attempt to illustrate how I’ve gone through life dealing with my exaggerated reactions to light, sound, smell, taste and touch—reactions that other people regard as excessive, unreasonable, and even ridiculous. After all, real men are expected to tolerate minor irritations without complaining. So asking people not to whistle when I’m trying to read, or to stop cracking their gum, or to stop drumming their fingers on the table, or to please lower their voice, makes a SOR guy like me seem too demanding. Or too touchy. Or too fussy. Or too something. The heightened sensitivities that lead me to ask others to adjust their behavior strike them as unnecessary and even downright prissy. It’s no fun being a man who needs to ask another man to stop tapping his keys on the table. He’s probably never had someone ask that of him, so my request, no matter how courteously it’s expressed, seems odd and mildly annoying.

I want no reader feeling sorry for me—I’m essentially a very lucky person—but I’ll buy a new shirt and spend a good half hour trying to unravel the very tight stitching that binds the label to the neckline. I bought a special tool from a fabric store that can dig into the extraordinarily fierce threads to remove the damned thing. Otherwise, I’d feel that label torturing my neck anytime I wore that shirt; I wouldn’t be able to ignore the sensation of it against my skin.

How can I convey the intensity of feeling caused by that neck label? Here’s a way: imagine you’re working on a project when suddenly, somewhere in your neighborhood, a car horn gets stuck and keeps blaring. You can still do your work, but you’re so overwhelmed by the blare of the horn that your energies are now divided because your mind is also “working” to cope with the intrusive noise. You might even find yourself getting angry as the noise continues to wreck your concentration, and that anger usurps even more of your energy. SOR people like me just can’t ignore a neck label. Its intrusiveness is so annoying, its texture so abrasive, that I’d have to remove it to wear the new shirt.

When I was a kid at school, I’d place a wad of cotton between the label and my neck or else I couldn’t concentrate on my classwork. But boys in school avoid fussing openly about the abrasiveness of a mere neck label. Complaints of that sort strike other kids as ridiculous, and you’d likely get teased about your problem. Because boys of any age, properly headed toward manhood, are expected to endure minor irritations, and complaining suggests weakness.

Let’s stay in school a little longer. The classrooms of my suburban youth were lit with bright florescent bulbs, and occasionally one of those long, tubular bulbs would do something funny. When a connection was loose, they’d flicker and buzz, and the light would be uneven. Little eight-year-old me, undiagnosed with a super sensitivity I couldn’t understand, would cringe under those flickering lights and find myself unable to ignore the buzz or the flicker. And my classwork suffered from such distractions.

These sounds and motions grabbed my attention—overtaking it like a stormtrooper—leaving me very likely to lose my place, to forget, to not follow directions, and to then feel humiliated for failing to keep up with instruction, especially when my teacher scolded me in front of my classmates: Whaddya  mean  you  don’t  understand?  I  just  explained  that  to  the  class.  Weren’t  you  listening  again, Johnny?  Why  don’t  you  pay  attention?

Here’s another situation I encountered: the chairs in those schoolrooms had horizontal bars that held the back of the chair together. Now and then, some boy seated behind me would rest his feet against that horizontal bar and—you’ll find this hard to believe—I could “feel” his feet on my chair, as strongly as if his feet were exuding his very vitality, and that vitality was impossible to ignore. I felt invaded and imploded, and felt compelled to ask the boy to take his feet off my chair—a request that usually provoked a frown and a snarky reply.

I’ve never before revealed this problem to anyone, as I’m sure it must sound utterly silly. My feeling of being invaded by the very vitality of the boy behind me would be considered entirely imaginary. It might even suggest some underlying pathology. But if I avoid disclosing and describing the ferocious impact of other people’s closeness, I do myself and my readers the disservice of hiding an important component of SOR. Unwanted closeness—even the pressure of feet against a chair—can feel enormously invasive and very hard to ignore.

Here’s another way to suggest how it feels: imagine yourself reading something that engrosses you—this very essay, let’s say—and suddenly you become aware of a scream coming from somewhere, and that scream abruptly grabs your attention. It alarms you, expanding inside you like an airbag, blotting out everything else in your awareness. And even though you know the scream may be none of your business, the alarm you experience still rings inside you even after the scream has stopped.

Now imagine me in that classroom. The moment a boy would put his feet against my chair, my sense of alarm—my feeling of being invaded and overtaken—escalated inside me like a scream, a scream that functioned without sound but nevertheless felt as alarming and as impossible to ignore as the sound of a real scream.

That’s how vulnerable you feel when your sensory radar is stuck in high gear, when you live in the world out-foxed by the violence of your own nervous system. I was that boy in the classroom who forgot his assignments, lost his homework, misplaced his notebook, shielded his eyes from overhead lighting, and got distracted by the slightest irregular movement. It could have been a paper near an open window that fluttered from the breeze, or because the breeze made the window shade bang against the wall. I was that kid who always looked tense and confused, tired easily, and was always asking to use the bathroom.

You’d think the bathroom was a place I could finally relax and release. Yet with other boys milling around, and mirror reflections setting me crazy, I couldn’t stand at the urinal and hope to let go. I needed to be alone in a stall to release my water, but it had nothing to do with modesty, or with feeling squeamish about exposing my body part. I needed privacy not to avoid the eyes of others, but to shield myself from the overwhelming intrusiveness of kids moving around me, creating an awareness so vivid that I became paralyzed, like a deer on a country road at night stunned by the headlights of an oncoming car. So despite my uncomfortably full bladder, all the musculature associated with urination became blocked—an immediate muscular paralysis caused by feeling overwhelmed. It’s yet another instance of feeling defeated by—of being defeated by—a nervous system that’s tuned up way too high.

Touch is an especially complicated issue for SORs. I had a lover once who said that making love to me was like trying to play music on a fragile violin. I was jumpy, tense and demanding. Do  it  this  way;  not  that  way.  Do  that  slower, please—but  only  over here, never over there. Ow! That’s too strong! Excuse  me  a  minute, willya?  I gotta pee.  And  how  about  turning  up  the  heat  a  little.  Thanks.  I’ll  be  right  back.

My freezing hands and my freezing feet resulted from tension that constricted my bloodstream, making the tip of my nose and the edges of my ears feel like ice. So now, before I make love, I do a little run to warm up my body and get my senses relaxed. I run to heat up my cold skin, but I also do it for my partner because—let’s face it—it’s no fun making love to a polar bear.

Years ago, I went to a therapist who specialized in biofeedback. One day, the therapist blindfolded me and covered my ears to block out all visual and auditory stimuli while I was wired to a monitor. But before he began the procedure, Marvin, who sat way across the room, crossed his legs to be more comfortable—a gesture I could neither see nor hear. Yet nevertheless, the needle on the monitor jumped. He was astounded that I was so exquisitely sensitive to a movement so far away and so silent. However, the needle had jerked way up, so apparently my sensory radar could detect it. I recall that incident as remarkable because we couldn’t understand how it could happen. But I also consider it unremarkable—and even reassuring—because it provided a kind of “scientific evidence” for the exaggerated sensitivities that have plagued me all my life.

I was born in January, so for my tenth birthday, my mother gave me a ring featuring my birthstone, a garnet. But I wore it only two days. I loved the deep red of the stone, but I found myself unable to ignore the ring once placed on my finger. I was constantly touching it, rearranging it, fidgeting with it. I soon realized I just couldn’t tolerate the feel of it against my skin. So I took it off and never wore it again. To this day, I cannot stand jewelry against my skin.

I’ve discovered rings at flea markets that I’d love to wear, with designs that would truly express my personality. But when I’d put them on my finger, I knew it was hopeless.

When you’re a boy who gets shamed for reacting to sensations that adults believe are “wrong” for boys to gripe about, you grow up with two choices: you can either voice your complaints and deal with the negative reactions your provoke, or you can suffer silently, enduring the discomfort you’re not supposed to be experiencing. If you share your bedroom with a brother, and you grumble about his habit of whistling while you’re trying to study, (so you can barely concentrate), or if you’re unable to ignore it when your sister picks her cuticles at the dinner table, (a repetitive action that would drive me nuts), you irritate your siblings, and the bickering that ensues provokes your parents. You’re regarded as the one who’s created the friction. You’re considered the spoiled perfectionist with the ridiculous demands. Why are you so fussy? Why can’t you be more like your brother?

Later on in life, you’re the employee who’s upsetting office procedures by complaining about a radio you find distracting. I once worked in a setting where a bookkeeper liked to listen to “Talk Radio” when she worked. I couldn’t imagine how anyone could do accounting with non-stop chatter spewing from her radio. When I asked her if she’d consider using earphones, she claimed she couldn’t do her work that way. When I asked her to turn down the volume, she cooperated at first. But it wasn’t long before she sneaked the volume up higher. When I asked her to please turn it down lower, she responded with an answer I’ve heard many times in life: You’re the only one who’s complaining. Maybe so, but that remark implies a judgment that I have no right to ask for things that I—and I alone—might benefit from.

Because of that radio, and for other distracting sounds around my office, I applied for a # 504 Accommodation, a concession an employer can make for a worker who can provide evidence that he needs a specific work accommodation (and not merely that he wants that accommodation). To support my case, I had to submit substantial medical evidence of a neurological deficiency. It took weeks of effort, and considerable cost, to substantiate a case for consideration, and until I won my case, I had to endure that Talk Radio. They finally conceded to have my office door soundproofed at company expense.

But I’ve since come to learn that the very sounds and movements that tend to derail my concentration are, ironically, the very sounds and movements that other people seem to need to maintain their concentration. My high school students, living in homes where a television is constantly playing, said they needed the sound of the TV to do their homework. They got so used to background noise that they’d actually come to require it.

And during test time in the classroom, when strict silence must prevail, I noticed that some students twitched and jerked their bodies. I don’t believe it was the difficult test questions that provoked these behaviors. I imagine it was their bodies’ unconscious response to a silence and a stillness that might reign nowhere else in their lives. These boys bounced their legs or chewed gum or drummed pencils on their desks. Such repetitive movements apparently helped them achieve and maintain focus, but were the very motions that often derailed other students’ focus.

The same paradox exists in the workplace: one worker’s concentration can get disrupted by the very music that fortifies and maintains another worker’s concentration. And here’s where ethical issues show up. For whose preferences should be given priority when you want music and I want silence? Or perhaps we should ask, when you need music and I need silence? Unfortunately, even when ethics are considered, the needs of SOR people like me get an unfair assessment. Whether it’s siblings bickering in the home or adults bickering in the workplace, the preferences of someone whose requests are considered excessive are likely to get rejected. They’re judged as selfish, unreasonable demands that seem childish and outrageous. The solution for ending the bickering is that the majority get their way, especially when the complainer is unanimously overruled.

So you go through life uncertain of what you have a right to ask of others. What’s considered reasonable to ask of family members when they’ve already scolded you with When will you grow up and stop fussing? And what’s acceptable to ask of co-workers when your supervisor has already suggested that You’re the problem here, Mister. Last week it was the cold air coming through your vent, and today it’s the bookkeeper’s Talk Radio. This is an office, my friend. It’s not a hospital. Y’understand? And what’s okay to ask of passengers on public transportation when you ask them to lower their radios, when you were hoping to ride in enough quiet to read a magazine or do a crossword puzzle? Because the response you’re likely to hear is  What’s your problem, Man?  Chill out, willya?

I can’t offer an unbiased solution for these encounters, but I’ll reveal a crafty maneuver I’m a little reluctant to confess: I’ve sometimes pretended to be more handicapped than I really am.  I’ll put a quiver in my voice or a limp in my walk when I assume that’s the only way I’m likely to get the consideration I believe I’m entitled to. But—whoa, hold it—what right do I have to deceive people by pretending to be mildly impaired? Isn’t it unfair to manipulate people to try to get your way? Maybe so, but I pretend only at those times when I truly need to be accommodated, and only in those instances when I think I’ll be turned down unless I stir up “sympathy” for my condition.

It’s no fun paying an exorbitant price for a theatre ticket and then get distracted during the play by the light shining off someone’s cellphone. It’s also disconcerting to lose my focus because another audience member is “flipping” the pages of her program with her fingers, not realizing she’s teasing my attention away from the stage. Theatre folk who do these things aren’t inconsiderate bimbos. They may simply not realize how they’re distracting other people.

These days, it’s likely that before the curtain rises on a play, an announcement is made asking people to silence their cellphones, and even to open up their noisy candy wrappers right away, so the crinkle of candy wrapping doesn’t distract anyone later. I wish they’d also ask people not to light up the screens of their iPhones during the show. Any light, especially if it’s the only light in an otherwise dark theatre, will derail someone’s attention. I’ve spent the remainder of many a performance with one hand held against the side of my face to block out either the light from someone’s phone or the repetitive movements of someone’s arm or leg. I might ask them in a pleasant, courteous voice to turn off their screen or to stop fidgeting, but I’m not above pretending to be frail if that’s my best chance of getting cooperation. Unethical? Maybe so.

But consider this: when you see a man walking with a cane, or a woman in a wheelchair, or a person accompanied by a Seeing-Eye dog, their conditions—their limitations—are clearly visible. So your inclination to accommodate them is activated right away. However, while the limitations of SORs are far less severe, we go through life with no devices that would trigger the empathy of people we encounter. We cope with internal conditions. So when I find my capacity to concentrate disrupted by someone’s behavior, whether it’s a guy’s loud talking on a bus or an audience member’s unconscious flipping of her program, I believe I have a right to dramatize my discomfort or else I might not get the consideration I truly need. I cope with my condition the best I can, and if I discover I have to bend the rules a little to get through the day, I allow myself to bend those rules.

I offer two reasons. First, I’ve normally been a thoughtful, compassionate guy in my encounters with strangers—even in my childhood—so I feel I have the right to ask for what I need back from them. After all, they cannot “see” my hypersensitivities, so they cannot appreciate how much I need their cooperation. Second, if our roles in life were reversed—if they were persons with SOR issues and I were the stranger from whom they needed consideration—I’d sooner grant their requests than deny them, even if they seemed unnecessary. (I might regard them as unnecessary, and grumble about it privately, but I’d cooperate nevertheless).

SORs simply cannot ignore a repeating motion or sound. True, everyone’s concentration gets derailed by the incessant barking of a neighborhood dog. But even the drip, drip, drip, drip, drip of a bathroom faucet can rile me to the point that I’ll get out of bed to squeeze the faucets tighter. If that doesn’t stop the drip, I’ll get out of bed again to stuff a rag up the spout. In fact, whenever I hope to sleep, whether it’s an afternoon nap or when settling in for the night, I always turn on a big fan and twist the dial up to HIGH. It’s not the breeze I’m after; it’s the whirr of the fan that I need for sleeping. The sound of the whirring blocks out, or at least muffles, the household noises or outside sounds that would keep me awake, or that might awaken me after I’ve fallen asleep.

Some of us feel a need to sweet talk others into behaving in ways that are less strident to our senses. But you live and you learn. You compromise and you adapt. You ask for cooperation, and you learn which ways of asking work better than others. You learn never to have a scold in your voice when you hope to change what someone’s doing. You learn that just because someone stops tapping when you’ve asked him not to, you’ll return to your work with the lingering worry that he might eventually resume his tapping. You worry because you’ve learned that tapping, or drumming fingers, or clicking a pen, are unconscious habits that might resume whenever that person’s nervous system “needs” sound or movement to maintain his concentration. You learn ways to be patient with strangers and ways to accept that you’re not always going to get what you need. You learn to endure.

Because I’ve traveled through life jabbed by noise, jolted by light, sickened by smell and startled by touch, I carry around devices that help shield me from those frights—a blindfold to protect my eyes from the strident western light on a long train ride, a pair of gloves (even in summer) to protect my fingers from the frigid air conditioning on that train ride, and always a nail clipper so I can snip off a hangnail I just can’t ignore. I buy those foam things you can push in your ears to block out sound, but often they’re not strong enough to keep out louder noises that rankle me.

I found a great device in a rifle shop: big “earmuffs” that shooters wear when they hunt so their ears are protected against the loud blast of their rifle shots. Each ear gets covered with a cushioned plastic dome that effectively reduces both the volume and the impact of any sound. I carry a pair whenever I’m going to any theatrical performance where the accompanying music might be too loud or too shrill. Or whenever I plan to be riding on a bus or a train or a plane.

Why, though, are we so affected by sensations that others tolerate more easily? Try this: image yourself standing alone before a placid lake. You pick up a stone and toss it over the water. Then you hear that plop as it strikes the surface. The sound occurs, and then it ends. It’s over, and that’s that. But notice what happens after the stone strikes. You see concentric circles beginning to form, emanating outward from the point of impact. Watch as these circles continue—moment by moment—to affect the entire surface of the lake. One little stone, one little plop. And yet it can seem like minutes until the lake returns to its former stillness. As big a lake as it is, it can’t ignore the tiny plop, and it keeps on reacting with ever-expanding reverberations that reach far across its surface.

As these extended reflexes unfold in us, we’re inattentive, unable to listen, and confounded. Friends and lovers may find it too hard to tolerate our reactions and may eventually pull away, leaving us feeling friendless and hungry for affection. This is an ongoing challenge for SORsbalancing the give-and-take in friendships and close relationships while trying to get enough accommodation for our misunderstood needs without being too demanding.

Yet guys with my condition endure even greater discomforts than everyday neighborhood annoyances. Certainly, everyone gets distracted and irritated by unwanted music. But when you cope with SOR, you live in what one researcher calls a storm of sensation—an overwhelming influx of stimuli that utterly overtakes your consciousness. Your body tightens, your nerves freeze up, and your personality gets distorted by the invasion. Think of how a turtle behaves when he feels threatened: his head and his feet pull in under his shell, and then he looks like nothing more than a rock. SORs can feel their true selves disappear in the company of others when they get flooded with noise or overcome by frenetic activity. Their ability to stay focused and affable is severely compromised when so much of their personal energy is devoted to coping with sensations that overwhelm them.

And the cost is great: their very life space shrinks because they’ve become encased in defensive postures that make them feel numb. They’ve disappeared inside like frightened turtles. They’ve been jolted away from their here-and-now identity, so they end up feeling phony, like impersonations of themselves. Whenever their senses are freaked into panic, they’re wrenched away so fast they fracture, like trees cracked open by lightning.

What others behold is a personality that’s tight, plastic, and mechanical. We become caricatures of ourselves, feigning relaxation and spontaneity while trying to cope with anxiety. With so much going on internally, we’re usually wondering if we look stressed. So we try to hide our anxiety. But all these maneuvers eat up energy, and sustained contact with others quickly becomes exhausting.

Are there any advantages to being an SOR? Yes, for me and even for you. Because I’m the guy who understands why you’ve asked me not to wear that After Shave lotion. I know how smell can overwhelm and dominate a person. I’ll remember not to wear any lotion when I’m likely to see you, and I’ll even make a notation about it so I won’t forget. I’m also the kind of fellow who’ll readily accommodate you when you need me to stop doing something, or to stop doing it in a way that irks you. And the icing on that cake is that I won’t even zap you with the intrusive questions that normally get thrown my way: Why? You mean this annoys you? Really? How come?  My hypersensitivity has made me acutely aware of other people’s sensory needs, and I’m often able to anticipate those needs before they feel a need to speak of them.

I’m an extraordinary masseur who’s instinctively able to interpret your breathing and know what your body wants in the way of pressure and temperature and comfort. I’m the visitor in your home who can calm down an anxious child or comfort a crying baby. I was the twelve-year-old grandchild that grandparents chose to confide in because they appreciated my deep and immediate understanding of their problems with vision and hearing, and especially their need for people to speak slower and to enunciate carefully.

I’ll be forever grateful to the writers and counselors who’ve identified, classified, and carefully articulated the dynamics of SOR. Some counselors classify the spectrum of reactions I’ve described as a sub-type of Sensory Processing Disorder. For a rigorous discussion of these conditions, and ways of finding help for them, I recommend Dr. Sharon Heller’s ground-breaking book, Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight.

Yet I’m grateful to these professionals not merely for their ability to grapple with sensitivities that were formerly misunderstood, but for a personal reason as well. Because when any person lives with an ongoing series of yet-unclassified symptoms, and when their etiology hasn’t yet been discovered to have a valid neurological basis, that person tends to evaluate himself just as he’s been evaluated by those around him—specifically, as a weirdo with exaggerated reactions that seem ridiculous, imaginary, and not truly deserving of accommodation. However, because I now realize I’m wired differently than others, I’ve finally let go of the shaming labels that once affected my self-esteem.

Decades have passed since I was that eight-year-old kid confounded by unwanted sensations. I’ve now come to understand the dynamics of Sensory Over-Reactivity, and with the help of astute counselors who’ve recommended everything from Pressure Suits to Brushing My Skin, I’ve learned ways to palliate my discomfort. Living with nerves that operate uncomfortably close to my tolerance level requires me to be assertive about my needs while also considering the needs of others around me.

Today I see the bright side of my condition, for just as the deaf develop new ways of sensing the world, and the blind evolve an exquisite ability to hear, SORs inherit a gift from their over-sensitivities—an uncanny ability to fathom and accommodate other people’s sensory issues, and, in turn, to be forever appreciated for their understanding.

You see, we’ve always hungered to enjoy life the way our friends do, by living impulsively and exuberantly. We’d really prefer to sleep under the stars on a camping trip than stay home just because we anticipate being bothered by the cold night or the morning dew or the sound of a dog barking at the moon. And on Saturday nights, we’d much rather hang out and party with our friends than cringe under their boisterous laughter and thumping music.

Come to think of it, we’d love to dine with the gang at that trendy new Italian restaurant, especially if we get seated at a quiet corner table. And we’ll enjoy wearing our brand new shirts for the occasion.

As long as we’ve first remembered to rip out those damned labels.

Jonathan Frank:

I grew up in an affluent neighborhood enjoying tremendous advantages. But my parent sent me to a child psychiatrist because I was failing in school and avoided people unless they were gentle and considerate. I was tense, disorganized, and not-at-home in myself. I felt counterfeit around other kids-—confused, uncomfortable and plastic. Eleven years of therapy hardly helped me with issues of concentration, follow-through, or self-confidence, though I eventually completed two master’s degrees and held a professional teaching job for 33 years.  

When a friend loaned me a book entitled Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight, I highlighted many passages relating to my discomfort with noise and light and touch, and it opened my eyes to my underlying neurological condition. My essay reveals what I endure, and how I cope, with Sensory Over-Reactivity. Today—gratefully, I’m confident, happy and productive.