Taking the full measure of life

Being Loud and Demanding

March 6th, 2013 · 12 Comments

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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.


Tags: sturm and drang

12 responses so far ↓

  • 1 carrie @ gingerlemongirl.com // Mar 6, 2013 at 12:27 pm

    sometimes I hate that voice… other times it it is helpful… but like you I learned from a young age not to “make a fuss”… and I wonder how often it’s stopped me from asking for help when I needed it. I’m so glad you are okay and that you got the help you knew you needed. ((((((((((hugs))))))))))))) sally!

  • 2 Rachel S // Mar 6, 2013 at 1:08 pm

    I know it’s hard to talk about this sometimes. We were programmed to just “suck it up and deal with it.” And for the most part, that can work. But there are times when you just need to open up and admit to yourself and others that “sucking it up” just isn’t working.

    It is a shame that merely calling for help causes us to think, “Is this going to make me look stupid? Those people will look at me strangely. They’ll never think of me the same again.” Who cares? If you need help, as I’ve recently learned, just be honest and ask for it.

    I have never thought you were afraid to admit your fears, your weaknesses, your sensitivity. And that is one of the many reasons why I love you so much.

    I’m so sorry you had such a traumatic scare. It really would be terrifying. I’m hoping you continue to heal up nicely and buy pre-packaged soap from now on.

  • 3 pdw // Mar 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm

    Wow, good for you. I’m so glad that you were loud and demanding. I am by nature a quiet and sensitive person, and my husband, while sensitive, is outgoing, loud, and while not rudely demanding, certainly inspires others to help fill his needs. When I went to a Home Show this weekend, I quietly picked up flyers and avoided talking to the exhibitors hawking their wares, and left hubby to talk to those we needed more information from. I admit, he embarrasses me. I have to walk away rather than listen to him demand to be heard, because I can’t stand having that spotlight shining on me. He loves to talk to people, and talks through all of his problems, and seeks advice everywhere. I would rather do an internet search and not have to talk to anyone!

  • 4 Ginger // Mar 6, 2013 at 2:26 pm

    Maybe it’s my Northern half of the family but I rarely keep it in and don’t make a fuss! I can relate though as my Granny was a true Southerner and she was most likely to convey that message to me.
    I so hope your eye is feeling better and I’m glad you yelled louder. Our society has such a nature of turning the other way or ignoring what’s going on in front you. It’s very frustrating. You are a strong, beautiful, loved woman and you are to be proud of that!

  • 5 Cheryl // Mar 6, 2013 at 2:52 pm

    Sally, dear, how frightening not to be able to see. I’m so glad you got help quickly. It seems that especially for people who have had violence in their past, we’ve learned that attention is not always a good thing, and instead tried to become invisible. It takes real courage to find a more authentic voice.

  • 6 Jodi // Mar 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm

    Holy cow, really resonated with me.

    It is hard sometimes not to listen to that little voice, but I’m learning to trust my instincts. It sounds like have too.

  • 7 Quinn // Mar 6, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    So glad you will be okay!

    I have that voice as well, and I grew up in New England.

    Over the years I have become grateful for “near miss” experiences like the one you described, because they have taught me to take better care of myself. You mention rape; I had one experience in particular where things could have gone very badly and I came out of it very shaken (and nearly vomiting) but also knowing that if I found myself in a similar circumstance again I would get angry FASTER and defend myself physically SOONER.
    It’s progress.

  • 8 Nerija // Mar 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm

    I’ve feel like I’ve only recently realized this about myself, even though people have called me sensitive/shy/thin-skinned since I was little, and I’ve been diagnosed with depression/anxiety since high school. But it feels like only in the past year or so that I’ve realized how much I take things to heart…or maybe it’s the realization that I haven’t (and maybe will never) grown out of this sensitivity.

    If I read a story about a person who’s being belittled or shamed, or even if I read an article that presents attitudes on one of my hot-button topics, I feel like I’m being attacked. I read a short story two years ago and still have moments of self-doubt because of it.

    Or, as I mentioned on Facebook, I had to walk out of Silver Linings because I couldn’t handle watching people like Tiffany’s sister looking down their noses at the protagonist or treating him like a criminal instead of someone who’s suffering from bipolar disorder.

  • 9 Sharon Aiken // Mar 6, 2013 at 6:57 pm

    You only get one set of eyes; thankfully, as long as you care for yourself, as you did in this situation, that will be all you need. I’m very glad things turned out as well as they did. That’s quite a scare. whew! Ah . . . as for the rest . . . poor humanity–there are those to lack the ability to empathize and those who are highly sensitive. There is no seeming balance between the two and little understanding. Tolerance and acceptance, patience to understand what one has never experienced–those qualities are necessary for both. I live with both, and I think, more than anything, that that is what I’ve learned. Sometimes . . . people just don’t know how to do anything else or to respond any other way. Thank goodness there were people who could help you. — And give up that soap; good grief, if it burned your eye, it couldn’t be doing much for your skin. Use Dove.

  • 10 shirley // Mar 9, 2013 at 9:34 am

    Wow, Sally. Really glad your eye was not severely damaged and that you listened to your instincts, as difficult as that was, at points.

    One of our kids is highly sensitive and even though I am, too, *and I should know better*, I find myself challenged to accept the true communication of his actions and reactions sometimes.

    Your post helped, by allowing me to bear witness in a not emotionally/sensory charged moment. Thank you.

  • 11 Betsy // Mar 11, 2013 at 6:05 pm

    I had a hard time reading this, since two of my greatest fears are causing a scene and damaging my vision. Like you, I would have felt the impulse to talk myself out of seeking the help I needed. I’m glad you didn’t.

  • 12 Hannah S-Q // Mar 21, 2013 at 7:25 pm

    Thanks for writing this. I think I a very similar sensitivity level and comportment to you, and it is very challenging to live with, whether we yell for help or not. We may as well yell for help because as Ani DiFranco says, ‘Maybe the most that we can do is to see each other through it.’


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