I was that kid. You know, the one who watched and listened and stayed inside her head? I paid attention to things that shouldn’t have been on a 10-year-old’s worry list but were.
The sensitive child.
I fretted that the Russians would drop the atomic bomb and destroy all life on the planet, including our house on Wishkah Road. The world could end at any moment and people didn’t seem to care.
When I watched the evening news, the stories about the earthquake in Chile and the American U-2 spy plane shot down over Russia frightened me enough to keep me up at night.
I railed at life’s injustices—whether on the playground or in a Greensboro, North Carolina Woolworth’s. The night Walter Cronkite reported that four men who wanted to buy lunch were not allowed to sit at the lunch counter, I asked Daddy, “Why?” When I heard that it was because of the color of their skin, I swore that someday I would help right those wrongs.
As soon as I got big enough.
At church, Pastor Meek said that people who died without being “saved” would not go to heaven. So, what if a baby died before it had a chance to be saved? Was God that mean to send him to burn in hellfire forever?
“That is not for us to know right now,” Mama said to me. “God has a plan and don’t you go questioning it.”
But I wanted to know what the plan was.
My senses were on overload. I jumped at sudden noises. If Mama raised her voice, my ears would hurt and it felt to me like she was yelling.
At bath time, the water Mama filled the bathtub with scalded my skin, though I was told that it wasn’t that hot.
I sniffed out things sooner—and stronger—than other people did, like the funny smell when my jovial Uncle Les visited. It was kind of like the tree Daddy would cut down in the forest behind our house at Christmas. Much later I would recognize that smell as gin.
The curse of the sensitive child
It is the curse of the sensitive child, to feel everything at such deep levels. She leaves herself open to hurt and heartache. It’s better not to care so much, the adults around me seemed to be saying.
A woman down the road, Mama’s friend, just up and ran away one day. Who would leave her husband, kids, and a sink full of dirty dishes, I wondered.
But it wasn’t okay to talk about it in our house.
“It’s none of your business,” Mama said. “That’s private. Just stay out of it.”
Soon it was as if this woman had never existed. Her name was not spoken again.
Still, I wondered.
Why did she leave? Where did she go? And if it could happen to the kids down the road, what’s to say my own mother wouldn’t do it?
I was a curious child. I saw humor—in things, in people, in expressions—and loved to test boundaries.
“You didn’t touch your supper,” Mama said one night at the table.
So I touched my mashed potatoes with my finger. I got to spend the rest of the night in my room for that one.
I wanted to try things out just to see what would happen. Once, when I was seven, I came home from my friend Evie’s house, just up the road, and announced to Mama, “I just walked all the way home with my eyes closed!”
Mama did not share my pride.
Much later I learned there was a name for people like me
I wasn’t crazy after all. I was an HSP.
A Highly Sensitive Person.
Dr. Elaine Aron, clinical psychologist and author of The Highly Sensitive Person: How to Thrive When the World Overwhelms You, had my number. It was like she knew me.
HSP’s, she said, are:
• aware of subtleties in our environment
• affected by other people’s moods
• more likely to be perfectionists
• very sensitive to pain
• easily overwhelmed by bright lights, strong smells, coarse fabrics or sirens
• prone to having a rich, complex inner life
• uncomfortable with loud noises
• more likely to avoid violent movies and TV shows
• able to notice delicate or fine scents, tastes, sounds and works of art
• seen as sensitive or shy as a child by parents and/or teachers
• likely to take more time to ponder decisions and their consequences
What’s this got to do with writing—and living?
This, as they say, explained a lot. While not all artists and writers are HSP’s, we have a higher percentage in our ranks than the normal population.
We tend to spend a lot of time in our own heads. Our senses are finely tuned. For writers who are HSP’s, because we ponder decisions for a long time before making them, storytelling comes naturally. We have that cause-and-effect thing all figured out. It is like dominoes falling, with each decision a character in our story makes affecting the next one. And that is what plot really is: cause and effect.
If any of these symptoms are familiar to you, even if you are not a writer, you might have struggled with what you thought was a curse.
But guess what? Some of our most gifted people through history, like Albert Einstein, Charles Darwin, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., Jane Goodall, Thomas Alva Edison, John Lennon, Emily Dickinson, and others, were Highly Sensitive Persons.
Of course, all of them didn’t use their traits for the good of humanity—Ted Kaczynski (the Unabomber), Adolf Hitler and Osama bin Laden were also HSPs—but, still, the list is impressive.
So if you are an HSP, or are the parent of one (you can take the test here), take heart. Not only are you in good company, but, because you feel so deeply, you not only recognize the pain and sadness, you have those special qualities our world needs to heal itself.
You have empathy.
You can accept people in their imperfections because you understand that we are all flawed.
To the rest of the world you may be a time waster. A dreamer. A silly heart.
But just know this. You are appreciated and needed.
Now more than ever.