George Eliot wrote these lines in Middlemarch about 135 years ago:
If we had a keen vision and feeling of all ordinary human life, it would be like hearing the grass grow and the squirrel’s heart beat, and we should die of that roar which lies on the other side of silence.
In the midst of severe anxiety or panic I have heard something like that roar and found there is a price to pay for such a heightened sense of ordinary life. I suppose the only way we can navigate a world of massive sensations is by screening out everything that distracts us from the single goal we have in mind at any moment. There are times when I am stopped completely by a roar that shakes me deeply, but I can’t be sure where it’s coming from. Is it only inside my mind or is it, as Eliot suggests, sounds of ordinary life we can’t bear to hear for long? I’ve written about one terrifying incident when a shrieking chorus of everyday sounds overwhelmed me. It was clear then that my mind had been consumed by a level of anxiety and panic more intense than any I had known to that time. It was all inside me, and I could even imagine ending my life just to stop that inner roar.
There was another incident, though, when I felt the impact of sound and even emotion that seemed to come from people and actions around me. I say “seemed” because it is so hard to understand what was happening. Something sharpened my nerves and perceptions, but I didn’t just hear the detail of the sounds. I sensed keenly what other people were feeling but not talking about. I’m not claiming any special powers here. It happened when I was recovering from a cancer operation. Everything was electric.
The impact of cancer changed everything and was decisive for me in many ways. I’ve written before about a breakthrough I achieved at that time. But there was, of course, a terrifying side to it. Knowing that I had this mess growing inside me and threatening my life threw me initially into a panic. Suddenly there was nothing normal left. My nerves boiled day and night, and all I could think about was the progress of cancer in my body. I studied everything I could find, as if that intense concentration could dissolve away the tumor. Gradually, though, I managed to blunt the worst anxiety and fear after some force in me rebelled at the thought of dying. I refused to think about that and became determined to survive. From then on, I had a surging energy to do the operation and have done with disease.
In the midst of all that, it isn’t surprising that strange things happened to my perception and feelings, but at the time I focused only on the drugs administered during the 5-hour surgery. That, I thought, was the cause.
It started when I was in the recovery room, slowly coming out of the effect of the anesthesia. The surgeon was telling me about the success of the operation. I know he was standing right next to me, but I couldn’t see him or anything but gray, indistinct shapes. Every noise was magnified, however, almost like a bus station or a factory. Despite that background clatter, his words and the tone of his voice were completely clear – “It went just about as well as it could possibly go.” I felt his voice coming out of a depth of sincerity and belief in the accuracy of what he was saying. “The margins were clean.” There was the magic phrase, clean margins. The edges of the tumor showed no sign of cancer cells. It hadn’t yet spread elsewhere. That was great news – but I was most aware of a kind of flow of that doctor’s feeling into me. The words were an accompaniment but not the main theme. I was in the most vulnerable and open state imaginable, and it seemed natural to be taking everything in with such intensity.
One night after coming home from the hospital, I suddenly had a total sensory recall of the operation. That seems so unlikely since I had been under anesthesia the whole time. But the recall hit me all at once – I was suddenly back there under benign knives cutting into me for my own good. The noise and the onrush of strange sensations almost starting me shaking. I was surrounded by a din of metallic sounds and flashes of feeling from the surgical team on all sides. There was a constant noise around us, things clattering, my mind confused by drugs and not able to focus well. It was almost like feeling hands reaching inside me, not the physical sensation of touching but the sharp impact of a suppressed tension, rivalry or some kind of conflict. The operation might have been cleanly, brilliantly done, but I felt immersed in an air of clashing wills. I would never know what that was about. Perhaps I was just tying into all the feelings this precise and dispassionate team had to keep in check, at least outwardly. In carrying out their carefully designed surgical strategy, they were, after all, doing something quietly violent, the way a pilot controls the forces that would ordinarily crash a plane into the ground. They could not let feelings interrupt them. I can’t be sure if all this was real or a dream, but the memory of those sounds and feelings have stayed with me ever since and become as real as anything else I know.
It didn’t end there. For a couple of weeks, I couldn’t walk into a room of people without this sense of being turned inside out – getting hit hard by the tension or anxiety of whoever was there, or by the excitement and good feeling that flowed out of them. It’s certainly not unusual to pick up the feelings of those around you in a room. It was the intensity of the experience that set this apart – like a fierce wave rushing through me. I was filled with these sensations to a point of losing track of who I was. It was too strange, soaking up all that feeling that did not seem to be my own. What usually happens in the midst of my own anxiety is that I project harsh judgments into others and feel them coming back at me. But this was so different. Those feelings I picked up weren’t aimed at me necessarily – they belonged to someone else and just filled the air. The experience had the effect of confusing me deeply, and I gradually realized that the energy and determination that had helped me through the operation were spent. My own focus was gone. The wild anxiety and fear I had managed to put aside for a time was coming back and with them the bouts of depression I thought I had gotten past.
Anxiety, with its shapeless energy flying in all directions without aim, and depression, with its dimming of all feeling and thought, seem like such opposites. Yet they sweep toward me together – two phases of a single storm. Whatever I was going through in that strange state after the operation, it ended with a hard fall. Having gotten through a physical recovery, I now had to get back to the long term problem of recovering from depression.
I have never figured out for sure if the fire of those perceptions were burning in me or if I was just standing too close to someone else’s flame. Does this experience of intensified perception resemble anything you’ve been through?
Image Credit: Some Rights Reserved by zoutedrop at Flickr
I’m glad you caught this experience in words for us, John. One of those times when truth is stranger than fiction. I experienced a totally sensory flood a few times. It used to happen in movie theaters. I felt as if each of my senses was a separate state of being — either all incoming sound, smell, taste, touch or sight, but none of them together. No wholeness of experience, which we take for granted. I remember sitting in movie theaters and experiencing only the dialogue or musical soundtrack, or only the colors on the screen, or only the smell of popcorn, or only the touch of cold pleather arms of the seat I was in against my arms, in a succession of waves. Each wave was overwhelming. It was all a crescendo, as if I was being hit over and over by lightning. And each strike was different and discrete sensory information. It only takes a few minutes of that to overload.
Although I have read and heard descriptions of LSD trips that sound similar, I had never taken any hard drugs and wasn’t drinking. I never knew why it happened. I had experienced “tricky” perception before when I couldn’t tell how fast I was driving on the freeway or how near or far other cars were and it all seemed suspended like puppet cars. Which is pretty dangerous, I know. And I heard voices for years, but just the garden variety hallucinations: the devil, the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, etc.. But nothing compared to those wild movies: they were more purely biological and not so much psychological.
Now, I see this as a way my mind rescued me from depression. I was so deep in the black quicksand of an annihilating depression, my brain/mind created a fantastic light-and-sound-and-other show that was a relief in comparison.
Hmmms. I never thought of that as anxiety. I’ve always felt that I truly felt people’s feelings on and off all my life. For a time I thought it was something psychic, then I came to think it’s hypervigilance picking up on cues far more rapidly than most would, and internalizing it. Come to think of it, that could easily be labeled anxiety. Interesting. Thanks.
I’ve never had something of this intensity. The closest for me is that with a little work I can pick up vibes about people’s feelings and experience by watching their face and how they walk.
John thank you for the review. Of course, I would be happy to reciprocate.
I’ve had these kinds of anxiety-fueled experiences (more like the post you linked to, in which sounds are heightened to the point of being overwhelming).
Experiencing the feelings of other people, the strange sensation of “knowing” the internal states of others on a deep level — it has happened occasionally, but not often. Usually these incidents feel more like the projecting and reflecting of my own worries.
John D says
Laine – That must be hard to live with – especially the perception of many innocent things as threats and hence triggers. My usual response to threats is always stress, sometimes anxiety but even worse is a purely paranoid reaction. I’d be interested to know if you’ve yet found a way to get some control over that kind of anxiety. Thanks for this comment.
John D says
Clueless – I wonder about that too, if the trauma was more than I imagined. It seemed far less so compared to what preceded and followed – but I guess the impact of many events can become cumulative.
Yes, I took care of the review of your blog. I’ve never thought to do that, but maybe you could reciprocate? Thanks.
You really hit on something here. My anxiety really does “fly about with with shapeless energy.” It strikes me at the most inopportune moments. For me, it flies about without such force that people and my surroundings become a blur.The trigger is usually a perception or some heightened response that I wrongly perceive as a threat. Any little thing that reminds me of past trauma can set it off.
I’ve had experiences like that I think where every sense is heighted. This is usually part of a panic attack where sometimes I can calm at that point or go into a full blown panic. I’m wondering it the surgery and the whole thing surrounding your cancer created more trauma that you know. I know mine did.
I know this seems out of place, but I did not know how else to get a message to you.
I was wondering if you would consider doing me a favor. I’m trying to raise my Blogger rating which is at a 6.3 as determined by Blogger. However, if I have 10 reviews from outside sources, I can request a review and revision. It is okay if you are not comfortable doing this. I will understand. If you do decide I have a link on the left side of my blog and there is something tricky about the end of the Blogger review as some people have had to do it twice, so be on the look out. Thanks for considering it and please it is okay to say “no.”
John D says
Immi – Yes, it is a form of anxiety for me. For one, the internalizing provokes my own anxious reaction. Then also I’m genuinely unclear if I’m projecting – or would it be introjecting when I’m getting the feelings back that I put on others – or if I’m just being supersensitive to what others are going through. In either case, my own anxiety gets going. I’m never in doubt about that!
Thanks for coming by – all my best to you for the New Year.
John D says
Evan – I tend to focus on faces for sensing what people are feeling – but walking is interesting. You make me realize how important one’s walk is in revealing a state of mind or feeling. I know that from acting and films – the physical stance and movement are so important. Once again, thanks for sharing your insights – Happy New Year!