Friday, October 9, 2015

Sensory Overload on Holidays like Thanksgiving/ Christmas/ Easter.

Welcome to the Sensory Blog Hop — a monthly gathering of posts from sensory bloggers hosted by The Sensory Spectrum and The Jenny Evolution. Click on the links below to read stories from other bloggers about what it’s like to have Sensory Processing Disorder and to raise a sensory kiddo!

Grandpa and I in the Autumn

Holidays and Sensory Overload:
This post was for the Sensory Link up. Canada was going into Thanksgiving weekend and this had me reflecting on holidays which are a particular minefield of social and sensory issues. Our family is mostly introverted. My husband is social but he needs a lot of down time. He works hard at home and at work, thus he values his rare chill time with us. We all are sensitive and also hate travel. We don't like to stay in environments we don't know well or that have sensory overloading factors. If the house has a smell, is set up differently, is unclean or involves pets or certain colours, we can be set into a tailspin. My husband has this sensory disposition in a couple factors but the kids and I have them in all senses. Some people view this as picky or snobbish. It's not.

We are aware of how we come across yet we can not help what triggers our brains into panic or wary regard. Most people are unaware of the sensory information during a typical day. These people would smell the stench of a skunk or notice if a dog was aggressively licking them, but would probably not notice the normal daily sensory information at stronger levels.

A sensory person may pick up on the way the dog stinks like wet poop which may trigger a vomit reaction or that the pup's tongue feels rough and sticky or the intrusive infringement on personal space. Perhaps if it's not animals that put the sensory person on high alert, it could be the way the fluorescent lights cause dizziness or potential migraines.

How do those with sensory overload do it? Why do we expect people who are different to behave in the same way as the rest of culture when the brain is set up so much differently? The same places in the brain that cause minor discomfort in a normal person can cause actual pain in someone who is sensitive and wired differently.

Food Intolerances that Affect Holidays:
Diet restrictions, food intolerance, severe allergies and dislikes all add to the holiday conundrum. Often people think of dislike as a preference but a dislike is not being intentionally difficult when it comes to food. Most people have at least one food that repulses so much it induces gagging or vomit. For a sensitive olfactory system, textures and tastes can do this on a constant basis.

Because in childhood we are chastised or forced to eat things that repulse us, most sensitive people have eating disorders or feel ashamed around food. Surprisingly we also have astounding self control so most of the time we don't vomit but it takes a lot not to gag. We were taught by default that food is for other people. We had to please others with our reactions and our tastes. We were not allowed to have strict preferences. Most of us do not have many good memories when it comes to mealtimes. Luckily, this was recognized for my children in recent years and they enjoy their food even though their diet would be considered strict by most. See THIS- CLICK- post.

It is so refreshing to have meals that sit well in the gut, taste and feel good to consume. There are only a few people in our lives who will understand or tolerate the long list of stuff we will not touch. It's easier to decline an invite then come across as high maintenance. We love to cook our own food because we know how it's done, is clean, is allergen free and is made up of textures and tastes we enjoy. To get around this with family sometimes we suggest a meal if they really want us to show up. Potlucks are the worst because of all the unknown factors. As a family we loathe the traditional Christmas/ Thanksgiving meals. Of course due to tradition family doesn't want to change the menu and that is understandable. It should also be understandable that we don't want to spend our holiday dreading the food and feeling sick later.

A traditional Canadian meal at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Easter often involves turkey or brazed chicken, mashed potatoes, corn, salad, buns and high sugar juice. Dessert is usually full of pecans, white sugar, nuts or some form of pie. Unfortunately, none of my immediate family can have bread, stuffing or pie due to Celiac and gluten intolerance. We love mashed potatoes but always pay for consuming them so we try not to eat them much either. Turkey and corn make us very sick. Broccoli causes a full attack in myself. Stuffing and pie involve sugar and gluten and processed ingredients. Salads often have nuts (allergy) or unknown dressings or ingredients. I am allergic to cucumbers and dislike many types of texture. My kids are very sensitive to textures too. In previous years we would join a meal, eat a little bit and feel unsatisfied and sick later. Often we would come home with huge headaches (all of us, including my husband) and diarrhoea. Not an ideal end to a holiday. Yet, family still expected it despite giving explanations. We used to bring our own food to varied events but gradually felt uncomfortable with that for big meals. We don’t want lingering resentment or judgment if everyone has to change their dinner plans for us. For small meals we don’t mind bringing a casserole we can eat as we have gotten quite adapt at that, but it feels exclusive and awkward if we are eating an entirely different meal at large functions with some who may not understand. If it was a meal we could entirely dictate and not prepare that would be awesome sometimes, but who really wants to do that? We prefer to eat at home and if we really want to spend time with someone we will have them over for dinner at our home or coffee/tea or show up after the eating is finished for tea/coffee. 

Odours that Affect Holidays:
Odour and smell memory have been researched and the brain's connection to this sensory factor is the strongest one, even for normally wired people. Smell can induce PTSD or warm childhood memories. Odour can cause severe aversion or chemical attraction. For those whose brains process sensory information at a stronger level this is one of the toughest sensory factors. For instance, the smell of my own laundry drives me crazy on a daily basis. I have switched detergents, bounces, changed my routine to wash more, and even bought new machines at one point. Nothing has alleviated the smell. Every day I get whiffs on our clothes of old water or mouldy stench. I had my friends smell our clothes to see if we were also consistently offending others. They sniffed and sniffed and finally announced that they could smell a light dirty water smell under the bounce but that they really had to take notice. They actually wondered if my water is softer or the pipes are carrying something. Regardless, I can't handle it. There have been many times I have pulled a shirt out of the laundry just to throw it back in with frustration. I have been hugging my kids when the overwhelming stench causes me to ask them to change. Many nights I ask my husband to take his PJ shirt off because I can't cuddle up if he is wearing it. Luckily this comes with other perks:)

 I got rid of all of our towels, bought new ones, and STILL it smells like stale armpits when I used my towels to dry off after a shower. It is such a relief to go to my mother's and smell the light scent of chlorine or cleanliness. This is just my own laundry in my own house. It affects me every day. Depending on the level it can induce crankiness and sometimes even depression. Can you imagine having to deal with someone's foreign scent and whatever issues their laundry, cleaning products, hygiene products, pets, and cooking odours their house contains?

I tried to cover this up with candles and perfumes but I can't find one that doesn't give me a headache, make me want to puke, or is simply not in my taste range. It is so rare for me to find a scent I love that when I DO smell something good I hound the area until I find out what it is. I have asked people what shampoo they are wearing or scent. Unfortunately, most of the time whatever I ended up purchasing wasn't the product I was smelling. The flip side of this is a good scent. Many scents are too strong but every once in awhile I will smell a memory or feel a moment of complete satisfaction induced by smell. I love my mom's laundry and my grandmother's cooking aromas. I love the way my husband's skin smells like sunshine. I love how my children often smell like flowers or how my cousin's perfume adds to her chemical balance to create a lovely waft of springtime. Unfortunately, her scent does not have the same affect on my chemical balance...I tried. Sometimes, I walk into a house and feel immediately at peace due to their aromas, but I try to recreate it at home and it does not work.

Smell and taste are the two areas I am rarely satisfied. They are also the two areas that can make me sick enough to feel the need to escape. It's like getting the flu and feeling the panic just before throwing up. I know my children have it in these areas and that that other highly sensitive people feel this in their own special ways. Often we don't have the words at the time to express what we are feeling. Most children can not explain that a smell is causing a meltdown. Nor will they understand that unless an adult picks up on it and explains it. In therapy I have realized many of my childhood illnesses and meltdowns were due to these sort of triggers.

Social Sensory Overload that Affects Holidays:
Often we all have a tougher time with larger gatherings in general. There are too many people talking, giving opinions and information and searching for validation. As a sensitive person I pick up on motivations, needs and energies and I can get sick from the overload. Even beautiful emotions like excitement can overload me. This is very hard for someone to understand who does not live this way. My husband and best friend are often in awe of how I can predict a person's behaviour, motivations and beliefs. I also pick up on hidden conditions, mental stability, menstrual cycles and pregnancies. This has to do with observation, a keen sense of understanding, personality and brain differences. In tiny amounts with small amounts of people it is a great gift, but at other times it is a curse. It's also plain freaky to people who don't have the gift.

Often those with sensory overload can feel the overwhelming amounts of visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory information that is coming from everyone in the room. Remember the last time you had a really bad flu? Picture yourself in your darkened room and suddenly someone turns on the light, another person comes in smelling like whatever you just threw up, someone else blasts some music that is high pitched, you hear talk of people who just died from the same flu you are fighting and you suddenly feel paranoid, your headache flares and someone decides that you will feel better if you are forced to walk around, finally someone comes and sits in your space and tries to talk to you while you are dealing with all of this. It sounds dramatic but that is often a typical moment for those of us who experience sensory overload in a large unfamiliar gathering with many factors involved.

Anxiety of Waiting and Dress codes Affecting Holidays:
When I was a child holidays meant dressing up in tight banded dresses, scratchy leotards or dry socks, itchy tags and clinking jewellery. Sometimes, if I liked something sparkly this would be worth it for a time but I always ended up sick. Every single holiday I was either wanting to go to the hospital or needing to retire early. It was exhausting and awful. My parents thought maybe I had a disease or some chronic condition. At the time I did not. It was simply high sensory overload putting my body into overdrive and causing excruciating symptoms. Over time these situations can lower the body's immunity. The cortisol in the body is constantly being released which is good in an emergency situation but for every day or holidays this adds up to an unwanted result.

Even as an adult, I have to remind myself to change out of clothes that are going to wear on me after a couple hours. Belts are usually not on my list unless they are cloth. I can't wear socks at anytime of year and I need to be especially resilient if I choose heavier make up and jewellery. For more on comfortable clothing tips click HERE (link). It's a tad awkward to show up in sweats when everyone else is dressed up.

The anxiety of waiting until an event is also a problem. Because of executive functioning issues I will get ready too late or too early. Usually too early. I wait around in uncomfortable clothes thinking of food I don't want to eat or could be dangerous to me, people who have been rude in the past or my mouth misfiring into unintentional insult in social situations. I have learned it's better to arrive late and get ready late. If I am still early I find an engaging show to watch while I wait or a book to read.

Chronic conditions and sickness that affect Holidays:
With Lyme, Anemia, PMDD, and Celiac my body suffers random symptoms. I like to be near a safe place if I need to lie down or feel I need to go to the hospital or calm down. Any place that involves travelling more then half an hour for a large period of the day is out. My kids are the same way. We are ok going with my husband for shopping trips to the city but we are never more than 5 hours including travel time. Our limit is short. If we do go for a longer time it means we all had an amazingly easy day and we celebrate and take advantage of that. But we can not plan for those days. Planning is awful because we have to worry about that day on our calendar. It is impossible to plan in most cases and if we do plan an event it has to be at our house, our parents, grandparents or environments we trust. The list is small.

This is what living a disabled life is like. While we are able in many ways, the world is not set up for chronically ill and sensitive people which translates into real impairments during every day moments.

We also often plan around my daughters cycle and my own. If its the week prior or first 4 days of our cycles we do not go anywhere. It is debilitating to live with such a painful, heavy, anxiety induced cycle. Google PMDD and Endo and you will get a glimpse of our monthly struggles. We also appreciate my husband at home for support during this time. Our boys bring us hot packs, food and water and take advantage of the fact that the girls are out for a few days. They play a lot of video games together and relax.We have our rhythm and it works for our family. However, if we happen to have a cycle that falls on a holiday it's an issue.

When we used to people please, my husband would show up with a few of the kids at his family's house. He claimed I was sick. Menstrual issues are not understood in our culture plus they are often hushed. On these badly timed holidays, I had to stay divided from the core loves of my life. In pain and at home alone on a family occasion. If it wasn't so bad that I could still walk and sit without gushing blood or being in extreme pain I would force myself to go. I imagine I looked even more anti social than typical. Most of the memories are a blur due to the pain. When we re-assessed we realized that it is perfectly fine to just let a "no" be a polite no without explanations. Give an explanation and people want to fix things, suggest alternatives or downplay an experience. We realized it was far more important to honour our bodies and teach our children to honour their bodies. We want our children to pick future situations and jobs that also honour the body. This is a tough situation to find in our current culture and we hope they can think outside the box of conformity to find lives that honour the journey of the body and mind.

Relationships that affect Holidays:
Relationships are probably the largest factor trumping all others when it comes to holidays. If the level of misunderstanding, previous judgment or blow ups are high, there is less of a chance we will show up. Why would we sacrifice our sensory needs for interactions that do not care to understand or do not offer some sort of love or genuine affection in return? There are about once a year exceptions but they are paid for by us and a sacrifice we make intentionally. Our sacrifice is not recognized because we still look like we are being difficult. With people we really love and have a relationship with it can be tough enough. When the people in our lives try for a small amount of understanding it's easy to make it short without insult or try a different way at involving them in our existence.

Often this means that instead of going out, we will have people to our home. We will go out to certain places. If there is a big event that matters to someone we will be supportive in alternative ways. For instance, my nephew's recent christening. We did not attend. We love our nephew and I support his mother's choice to christen him if that is what she wants to do. Our choice not to attend simply hinged on sensory and social anxiety needs and stress. Our therapist told us it was fine not to attend. Our culture puts way too much focus on big events, when the small things in life are what matter. We decided to show our support by purchasing a very thought out gift, sending our regards the day of, sharing photos on text, and making sure we got in a lot of extra snuggles the next time the baby was with us. It's not less- it's simply different.

We love my husband's parents due to a lot of conversations and understanding on BOTH our parts over the years. However, our relationship with most of his siblings is not very understanding. They are wonderful people but very different. We are also wonderful people but we are very different. Each family system has pre conceived notions of how things should go. See THIS (click) post.  We were invited to Thanksgiving Dinner at a home almost two hours away. Obviously, now the information shows why we did not attend but we made sure to send our well wishes and try to focus on my husband's relationship with this person. We understand how this could be perceived as insulting. In an ideal world, we would love to have them all over for a meal we can all enjoy like Shadasku (a Brazilian rice and beans and BBQ meat meal) at our home. Unfortunately, that is not as easy as it sounds because then it opens the door for scrutiny.

We look like hypocrites because we ask everyone to our home yet do not attend their functions. It is confusing because even parents who have children with sensory needs, have a tough time understanding if it is not in themselves. In the past, explanations led to further mess with a couple of people. Once we were even told that brain differences are no more than sin and selfishness and we are using our differences as an excuse to be difficult. Ironically this was not used on our niece with Down Syndrome yet with Autism or Aspergers, which can be perceived as simply personality quirks, it was an issue. While Down Syndrome and Autism are VERY different in many ways, sensory issues are often shared and understood by both sets of people. But with the mindset of sin or excuses, meeting in the middle is impossible. Who can argue with a set belief in God and sin in someone else?

With the rest of the siblings our plan was to try to work on each relationship one on one IF the person initiates and keeps it light.  If respect is in the works, maybe things will change. My husband has more of a right to respect then I do and we basically try to keep the focus on him. With all our religious, political and emotional differences it is tough enough but add all the above factors and even with respect we are all going to have a difficult time. We are polar opposites in most belief systems which makes even conversations about the sugar dish or upcoming elections explosive. It's sad and there may be exceptions, but life is perhaps better for all of us with distance. It's also wonderful that we can recognize this and have respect for the different ways they are in the world even if we may not want to participate at the same level. We love the thought put into invites if there is no pressure to attend. Sometimes, if all the factors are right, we may even be able to shock everyone and show up, but this is usually at a last minute level most do not appreciate.

Sensory Solutions on Holidays:
Sometimes, on big holidays we want to spend time with a group of people. Sometimes the sacrifices are worth it while other moments we make it a priority to have a stable, healthy time at home. When two factors are safe, it can be bearable. If the environment feels safe and cozy it's easier. If the bathroom is not way off from the main living area, the colours are calming or rich, and there are plenty of cozy corners to escape to, without any pets or weird smells, it can be fine for us to have to deal with a few harsher people or get through an exhausting gathering. But if the environment is bad, and we can't eat the food, and the number of people is more than five, and if most of them have misunderstood us in the past, it is not worth it on any level. It can also take a full week for us to recover or not suffer debilitating physical symptoms. Why would we want to choose this for a special occasion? If our family of five is enough for us to have a beautiful time with a few extra extended family thrown in for SHORT periods of understanding, why would we choose anything else? We realize we are viewed as selfish, but in order to be selfless in little ways everyday, and in order to be the best versions of our self, we need to protect our particular way of being.

Fear due to the world being perceived as threatening, because the brain interprets every detail differently, is painful. Getting through ONE day without any of this is a miracle. It is not fair to expect more then the daily brave. Sensory people are BRAVE. We sound high maintenance and like cowards, but nothing could be further from the truth. We show up for life everyday even though it scares us. We face tiny moments every day that induce pain. We are pressured to normalize and be anyone but ourselves. We are put to shame, blame and ostracism. It is not fair to put ourselves in situations that further complicate this.

I try to remember my children can have their own set of sensory issues. Children have more resilience in general. Sensory issues often become worse with age. I handled sensory best in my teens and was able to do a lot more than I can handle now. Childhood was tough because of the lack of understanding but I think if I would have had more breaks, understanding of myself and familial awareness I would have been less sick and would have had more memories not blurred by the sensory. With knowledge and awareness my children understand themselves and most of their triggers, thus their longevity and endurance is stretched beyond what my meltdown point was when I was a child. They also have time to dissect at home which means they do not have to dissect reasons with others.

Most healthy sensitive adults try to find the balance of slightly pushing ourselves in an inhospitable world yet also allowing peace and Being. If we begin to respect our differences, hopefully over time, our children will learn and maybe others who are in our lives will begin to respect us for who we are, instead of how we are supposed to be.

Thanksgiving can be terrifying for those with special needs or sensitivity. A little understanding can go a long way. Built in quiet time, a plate of a child's favourite comfort food at the main meal instead, or a light walk outside while everyone is visiting may be a simple way to at least cause the least damage. Regardless of where the holidays are spent, having ONE person share the perspective of the sensitive person, goes a long way.

Besides the differences in perceiving the world, sensitive people live full lives. There is the flip side of the coin where we experience beauty on an extreme basis in little things. The sound of music can strongly soothe or a visual experience can lift us to heights of appreciation. We experience transcendence in the daily. We have places we belong. We don't feel sorry for ourselves once we understand that these are simply facts that are part of our existence. Because I understand myself I no longer feel like a victim of the circumstances. There are times I feel more vulnerable but often with awareness I can keep my life empowered. I can also enhance the experience of others. There is beauty here too.

Wishing you a holiday of peace and understanding!

* An excellent book on sensory solutions is:

UPDATE: Nellies Laundry detergent from Costco online with the Lavender Eco Detergent from Costco Warehouse solved my laundry woes.:) YAY!

** I obviously do not agree with making a child or adult with sensory needs participate in "normal events" and I definitely do not believe in making those with differences assimilate into the majority but I do understand that sometimes we WANT to participate or the family has no current alternatives. Until you figure out alternatives to make all of your family comfortable on holidays, here are at least some tips to make the "normal" experience of Thanksgiving more comfortable for those with sensory needs:

*** If this post helped you I wrote a post about Sensory Sickness ( a more extreme version of sensory overload) and Halloween:

This song explains how I felt once I understood my sensory issues haunting me. The time period before I found out how I worked feels like a nightmare punctured by a few good times, where as now, I am not blind anymore and most of my life I spend in a beautiful reality because I am now wide awake:

If you need strong sass this is the song to fortify your decisions:


Kristin said...

I love when you write about sensory stuff!!! It is wonderful to hear a voice about it and just to reaffirm how we are helping guide D. through life and thinking about every aspect of sensory for him to help him feel comfortable and safe.

I think that is crazy to think that aspergers and differences are "sin and selfishness" such a load of BS and such a double standard to say that it is not true for Down syndrome. Ignorant people! To say that the way you where created is a sin. I would have little to no grace or patience for such people.

Anyway I also love how you sent a gift for your nephews crisitening... that is a great way to show support yet not put your family in an overwhelming situation.

Kmarie said...

That is such a relief...because sensory posts generally make me feel the most vulnerable due to the constant misunderstanding it caused as a child. Many Nts interpret talking about it as making excuses or being whiny or picky or high maintenance or a complete princes...labels I have worn to many and I dislike. Yes, there is a part of me that has higher end tastes but when one thinks about it- higher end taste is usually sensory appealing. It has nothing to do with image or wanting to be the boss:) I needed to take control in areas because all my control was taken away having to assimilate...anyway, rant over:) ha ha

Thanks for understanding! And I am glad it helps with D- that is always my biggest goal- to speak to help others who suffer with sensory issues!:)

Um yea...that was a blow I will never forget. I cried but of course after I cry i get really REALLY angry- nothing is quite like a Scorpio scorned... I can forgive the ignorance at a certain level, but I wont forget it nor quit using it as an example of what not to do. The one better point of ignorance is that it can be beautifully used to foster boundaries, examples and lessons- ha ha:) Then there are other times I look at this person and see their better points and try to remember them because they are human too...and I may not agree with most of their lifestyle choices but God knows they don't agree with that is how grace happens I suppose...but patience is another story...and honestly the grace is evolving:) I kind of go in and out of it...the cycle gets triggered and I get hurt and angry all over again and have to work through it...while other times I literally couldn't care less...while still others the only reason I care is because I know there are other worse attitudes out there like that which will affect my kids and other struggling souls... Its a cycle.

I loved buying the gift for my nephew! He is such a munchkin...and in the end, I had a lot of fun moments with him the next time they were out.:)

Thanks again for your validation and friendship:)

Kmarie said...

Lol I meant princess...but princes would work too:)

CalledtoQuestion said...

I love spending holidays with you, my love. I also love how you have come to understand the needs of our little family when it comes to these times of year. Your the best.

CalledtoQuestion said...

Also, you are so precious in that picture. :)

Kmarie said...

@c2q: and I you:) no you are the best ( ha ha) Maybe we are both pretty ourselves anyway! Sincerely though, thank you and I really am glad we have finally found our groove. Life isn't so painful anymore. I'm also glad you spent a lot of time listening to books, podcasts and in therapy understanding yourself, myself and the kids. Together we found our own places of belonging and though it came at a cost, I really feel it was worth the time, painful changes and misunderstood perceptions of others. Life is so beautiful with you by my side.

I'm glad you like the picture...I don't think you have ever seen that one...I found it buried in a bunch of photos...I don't even remember seeing it before:) I loved spending time with grandpa:)

Full Spectrum Mama said...

I actually feel kind of sick after reading this.
Sometimes just thinking about certain things (scented candles) can give me a migraine!!!! Plus the emotional stuff - holidays, and family not accepting you or yours as you/they are...
I relate to so much of what you wrote, and I feel like you really put your heart out there. Very brave.
Happy thanksgiving - *'I* am thankful for this post,

Unknown said...

This is my first time to your page and I'm blown away. The way you describe your aversions, and cycles, and all the social stresses of the holidays really clears it up for anyone who is confused about the challenges a family can face. That laundry smell must keep you up at night trying to find solutions! And I get being so sensitive to people's energy, although you sound much more intuitive than me. I can be drained in an instant by a toxic person, so if I get a room full, I'm in serious trouble!
Thank you for putting to words what a lot of people can not articulate. And what gorgeous pictures of your family:-)

Kmarie said...

Full spectrum Mamma: Thanks for your validation...I am glad you could relate...and at parts I felt sick writing it! I appreciate your heartfelt feedback so much:)

Jackie: I LOVE that it made you feel that way!

With the laundry- Yup...I am now going to try this stuff from costco called Nellies soda...but i do not trust to hope...:-)
Rooms full ARE a challenge! I think even most people feel that way- sensory or no- so it can get more difficult for those of us with!
I love articulating what can help explain for others:)
And thank you for the compliments on my photos...Its always fun to take them:)

S said...

Hey, I was reading some of your old posts and I found this photo of you and grandpa so adorable !

Kmarie said...

S: Aw thanks:)