I grew up where young ladies were taught to be polite and quiet and not too needy. The expectations of the culture hung in the very air around us. We inhaled it until it permeated our beings.
I grew up in a family that didn’t understand or value high sensitivity. My grandmother once said that my father was her most sensitive child and that she knew she had to beat it out of him so that he could cope with life. That wasn’t an unusual concept. The tools for ridding sensitivity in my childhood weren’t fists but frequent dismissal and shame in response to my ‘too extreme’ emotions. I never stopped being sensitive, but for most of my life I struggled to value that aspect of myself. It wasn’t until I found Elaine Aron’s work on Highly Sensitive People that I began to see high sensitivity as a gift as well as a burden. People often tell me, for example, that I’ve written a blog post that speaks exactly to them, and I think that ability I sometimes possess comes out of a combination of a deep inner awareness and lengthy emotional processing combined with immense empathy.
I still struggle with a nasty voice in my core telling me not to have such strong feelings and needs.
A few days ago, I was shopping in Whole Foods, buying liquid soap in bulk from a squirting dispenser at face level, into a bottle. I felt like the soap (Dr. Bronner’s, which often dries in its spigot in my bottle at home) wasn’t coming out in the volume that I expected. I think I leaned forward slightly–I’m not even sure what happened. But as I pressed the handle for the next squirt of soap, the soap shot forward, into my face, rather than into the bottle. For maybe a second, I was amused at doing something so embarrassing to myself. The acrid taste of the soap filled my mouth. I turned to find someone to ask for help.
Then searing pain gripped my eyes, and I could no longer see. I realized that I had gotten ounces of soap in my eyes, and there was no way for me to get it out on my own. “Help, help!” I called out. There were several people shopping within a few feet of me. Couldn’t they see what happened? Why weren’t they responding? Somehow, despite my pain, a voice in my head told me, Stop making such a big deal about this. You’re making a scene. It’s just a little soap in your eyes. Just deal with it. I thought in response, You don’t understand–I can’t see. So instead of piping down, I got louder, much louder. “Someone help me! Someone, please help me! Get someone to help me! I sprayed soap on my face!” I was gesturing to my eyes. I was in so much pain. For a moment, I thought of the scenarios when desperate people call for help and no one comes. There was no way to move without sight. It felt like forever, but it must have been seconds, until an employee and a shopper came to help. I managed to communicate that the soap was in my eyes. “Just walk over here,” they said. “I can’t see! I can’t see!” I cried out. Were my eyes open? How could they not know? I don’t know. They took my arms and guided me to a large sink in the center of the body care section, and I began flushing my eyes with water. I continued flushing them for over ten minutes. When I would stop, my left eye would burn harder, and I would feel like I couldn’t keep it open. I flushed and flushed it. Finally, I felt like it was no longer doing any further good, and I stopped. I felt so worried about my left eye, so embarrassed about the situation, so upset overall. At this point someone whom I think was the store manager was standing beside me. I asked to go somewhere and sit down. I felt like I couldn’t see well out of my left eye. I started crying when I called my husband. The manager brought me a bottle of water and some Kleenex . . . and a mirror I asked for so that I could see my eye.
I decided I was worried enough that I wanted to go see my eye doctor. Dan suggested I had probably just irritated my eye a bit, and I heard that voice in my head again, telling me to stop making such a big damn deal. But I told Dan I was actually worried, so Dan called and got me an appointment right away. I didn’t feel great about driving myself, but Dan had been out sick the whole last week and had important meetings, so I didn’t want him to leave work, and in the moment, still overwhelmed, I couldn’t think of anyone else to call. I finally got up the nerve to get in the car and carefully drive myself to the doctor.
He checked my eyes thoroughly, and my right one didn’t have much damage. But my left eye had a pretty impressive chemical burn abrading the cornea. “You did just the right thing,” the doctor said. “Thank God you got to water so quickly. If you had waited much longer to flush your eyes out, we could be looking at permanent damage right now.” He gave me a topical antibiotic and drops to use for the next week, and he warned me not to use contacts for a while.
I had some spotty vision weirdness through the rest of that day, but it seems to be gone now. My eye still hurts, but it isn’t terrible now, and it doesn’t look bad. I was, and am, so relieved that the soap didn’t damage my eye worse than it did. It was a really scary experience that could have been worse in several ways. . . . I won’t be testing fate by buying bulk soap at face level again–that’s for sure.
But I keep thinking about that inner voice, that turned on me when I was trying to take care of myself in a desperate situation. I had to call for help, and there was a part of me that felt that making a scene for the help I needed was a fate worse than burning my eyes. That’s really saying something.
I wonder how much of that voice was because I’m a woman, how much was because I’m a Southern woman, and how much was because I grew up hearing that I just needed to take all my reactions down ‘about ten notches.’ I wonder if women I’ve known who’ve been raped or assaulted or abused have heard voices like that in those situations. I wonder how often Highly Sensitive People don’t demand what they need because of that same voice. I don’t know. I wish that voice just weren’t there; it’s a disturbing memory. But I’m glad my response after a moment was to yell louder. I don’t think I can rid myself entirely of that voice, but I can choose not to let it lead me. There’s a self-care part of myself, too, and I’m giving her the reigns as much as I can.