Yesterday, I was two things at once:
The CEO, “the talent”, the face of my brand.
I left just as dawn was breaking with my van piled high with outfits and props.
The light was golden, and as I pulled into Macca’s drive through for some rushed breakfast, I could see how it fell through the trees in shafts, lighting up each passing person. I became overcome with tears. How beautiful, gentle, tender we all are in those early hours just after waking. Babies re-emerging into the world anew, without the buildup and decay of a day’s dirt on us, tender from the embrace of sleep that has just released up.
Fronted up to the rented apartment, greet the team of lovely souls who will pull off today: my assistant/project manager/right hand girl Mel, the set designer, the hair and makeup artist, the producer, the camera guy, the sound guy, the autocue guy.
Got my face and makeup done, gave the makeup artist’s teenage daughter highly inappropriate advice, checked the set over, waited for “action” to be called, opened my eyes, did my job.
There in the spotlight, there are no nerves. There’s no nerves beforehand either.
There’s never any part of me that doesn’t believe I don’t belong there. I love this. I’ve loved this all my life, in all the plays and theatre and musicals and performing I’ve done. I imagine all of you behind the camera. I imagine what I’d say to you. I look inside me and let out all the joy and heart and connection and empathy I have inside me. Between takes, I tell the crew ridiculous stories, I make them pose for Awkward Group Prom Photos with me. I like people. I adore people. I love their stories and their gifts and their light and their sweetness. I could fall in love with every person I meet.
Then, as the set is broken down to be changed into something new, Mel takes me by the arm, and leads me to the bedroom.
“I want you in here for the next ten minutes Leonie. Lay down, take some time. Here’s your phone, water and snacks. I’ll come back for you when they are ready.”
I slip into the apartment’s bedroom, to meet the part of me that is waiting there:
The Aspie, the Highly Sensitive Person, the introvert.
I crawl into bed, place weighted blankets over me, take deeper breaths, will my heart to stop racing. I let the last couple of hours play through my head like a movie screen, each piece needing to be processed. I need to review what’s happened, the conversations I’ve had, if I need to action anything from it (usually either by doing more research on something or telling Chris about it), and how I feel about it all. If there’s anything that didn’t feel good to me, I have to untangle the threads to understand why, and what I need to do to change it. The processing from a big day of outside work like this will take up to a week. Still, I need to start on it now or it will become too big too soon.
Mel taps on my door again. She reviews the situation, urges me to eat more protein, drink more water. She is the ultimate stage mother.
I’ve given her the directions to do this. It’s in our Company Standard Operating Procedures called “The Care and Tending Of Leonie.”
I need the firm hand, the wisdom of Past Leonie guiding me, lovingly reinforced by my team.
On the day I get so dang excited that I want to do all things and connect with every person and help all people and be the sunniest, most helpful person around. I forget my own needs and focus on performing. I forget what I need – from time out to going to the toilet, to drinking and eating. I’ve learned the hard way however that if I negate my needs so wholly, that by the end of the day I’ll be in mini-burnout that will take a week to recover from.
So there is Mel, plying food and water into my hands, ushering me to the bathroom, sending me to my timeout zone. It works. It looks like assistant overkill, but its exactly what is needed.
After filming finishes, we race across town to the photo studio for three more hours.
It’s lovely and the people are lovely and this is my favourite thing to do, but I’ve made some miscalculations: I don’t have a separate room here, there are no timeouts, and I usually structure these days to have afternoons outside filming. For some reason, the outside piece is of critical importance… as soon as I’m out under the trees, in the grass, beneath the sky, I get more energy again. It’s my place, my joy, and it fuels me. The flashes and the cameras and all the people don’t seem as big there, not when there is that sky and that earth.
This time, we’re indoors and the flashes are going. Mel’s off on an errand to pick up prop boxes, and I’m wading through the overstimulation by myself, feeling like a diva for not being able to do more, engage more, connect more. I feel oddly selfish for having to stop for water or food, so I don’t.
When she’s back, I keep knuckling down, headstrong and adamant on working harder. I start getting tunnel vision. I’m overstimulated. I start disassociating because there’s too much sensory input.
Mel asks me what necklace I want to wear for the next shot. I look past her, grim. “I don’t care.”
She reads my face and knows instantly what’s going on… the gift of hiring an ex-school teacher who is well versed in the care and tending of Aspies. She guides me to a darker corner of the studio, plants me in a chair. “You’re not moving out of this chair for the next five minutes. Here: phone, water, snacks.” I disappear into my phone for a while, looking at pretty pictures on Instagram, editing photos, messaging with friends. It’s a little world of familiar, and it helps with the processing.
Once the well is topped up enough to keep going, we roll. As we set up scenes, I close my eyes and meditate, stationary in the middle of it all, breathing softly until the scene is set and the lights are fixed. I open my eyes, and smile. Pour all the love and joy inside me out. I love this. I love being on camera.
By the time the day ends, I’m now near on delirious from overstimulation. Mel drives my car home, me in the passenger seat, feet on the shelf, sunglasses on, devouring food. We talk quietly, processing the day. The video will be gorgeous, the photos will be stunning. I’m so glad we’ve done it, and also completely physically and emotionally wrecked.
“You know honey,” she tells me. “The things you love are also kind of a poison to you. You need them in your life, and you thrive on the excitement and the creativity and the performing and the spontaneity, but they also come at a cost to you.”
“I know,” I say. “I’m the performer and the HSP, the CEO and the Aspie.”
When I get home, I do my usual ritual:
I kiss my kids and my husband hello. I strip naked and throw every article of clothes from the day in the laundry. I wash away the makeup and the sweat and other people’s smells. Wash the day off me, my face, my hair, sit at the bottom of the shower as the words and the scenes and the people from the day flood past me.
I sit in a towel, drink a beer while staring mute. Eat dinner, then lay under my heaviest weighted blanket watching TV beside my love. He’ll ask me if the day went well, and I’ll nod. He knows he won’t get words out of me tonight. I’ve used them all up and I’m in deficit. But that’s okay. This is enough. To be still and to be quiet, beside my beloved, watching make believe worlds that make me laugh.
The day after, it is always the same.
I am two things at once:
wading through an overstimulated hangover,
newly fallen in love again with my home, how tender and soft and good it is to see the things and people so familiar to me, the art and the plants and the faces, and yes, even the mess.
How good it is to be back in my hermit’s shell.
This will last for a week now. I know this, finishing this writing a few days later.
My anxiety levels are humming, the strings of my nerves gently vibrating.
7am is the worst for me. It’s the hour of the day where breathing is harder, where my sensitive energy system compensates for all that sensory input by pumping out too much adrenaline.
I return to the things that work:
I cancel extra activities or am silently relieved when they have to be cancelled by someone else. I’ll stay close to home, stay close to a routine.
Protein, weighted blankets, practising the Xanax breath my doctor taught me, careful to take my medication at the same time each day. I create warm nooks in bed with an electric blanket, take warm baths with lavender. Sensory sweetnesses to remind my body: It’s okay, you’re okay. All is soft and gentle now.
I need to document it to process it. I need to write it out, so I write this. I journal. I’ll make art.
I have to turn all that sensory input into output.
And slowly, as I settle, my nervous system will too.
Each input comes at a cost, a processing time, a few days or a week where I’m recovering. Some inputs I’m willing to sacrifice the expenditure for. Some I can’t.
Some days I marvel at how much other people have boundless physical energy, how much they can socialise without falling apart, how the things that throw up waves inside me don’t seem to even ripple across their surface.
Some days I wonder if I am too much:
this highly sensitive soul who needs so much in order to be okay.
But then I think:
It is what it is. I cannot be anything but what I am.
I have weaknesses – some more than others, some less than others. I have strengths – some more than others, some less than others.
My nervous system is a Thoroughbred. It makes me more excitable than most. I find rapture in small things that aren’t seen by others. I see and feel the world in bright shards of colour. My heart feels great joys and great sadnesses. It allows me to be empathetic.
Years ago, I saw a bell curve of the excitement levels of introverts and extroverts.
Basically, introverts get excited by stimulation (i.e. books, movies, events, music, rollercoasters, sensory inputs etc) before extroverts do – extroverts are bored while introverts are having the time of their lives. By the time extroverts are excited, introverts are overstimulated and their enjoyment levels go WAY down.
It made sense to me in such a deep way. And I’ve added to that graph in my head… that if you are HSP (Highly Sensitive Person) or Aspie, you peak even faster and higher than even introverts. And by the time you are doing what an extrovert is getting excited by, you are so fucking overstimulated you want to curl up and die, or at least go home and write about your feelings for a week.
At least… that’s my experience.
And here’s the thing: that’s okay. That’s more than okay.
Because that ultra-sensitivity?
The raw-nerve-ending experiencing of all the beauty and joy and sadness and mess and confusion this life is made out of?
It is what my art, my writing, my creating is made out of.
And the only way out is through…
When I’ve received so much sensory input, I have a big compulsion/need to document that information through my creativity.
Alex Norris documents this so well:
It’s precisely the reason that I am so sensitive that I am able to create, and share, and empathise, and connect the way that I do. And those are my very favourite parts of myself, and of this whole life experience.
As Brené Brown talks about in Gifts of Imperfection: our strengths come paired with their own kryptonite. They are intrinsically intertwined and you can’t have a strength without having its shadow self as well.
And Glennon Doyle Melton shares so aptly that it us – the canaries – the ones that are wired so differently – we are the soothsayers, the healers, the canaries that are needed in this world.
I am the bright glow of joy beneath a spotlight, rejoicing.
I am the hermit who needs the respite of bed, silence, tender care to recover from that spotlight.
It’s all of me. I am not a contradiction. I am a jewel with different facets. I am a highly sensitive CEO.
What I need to be okay in the world is just that:
What this particular constellation of cells requires in order to do her work in the world and be okay.
May you know
just being you
you are perfect, just as you are
and exactly what is needed.
All my love,