Sensitive is not a bad word
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been what some might call an “empath” or a highly sensitive person. It’s not always easy feeling everything around you all the time: the emotions, both positive and negative, coming off of people around you, the “vibe” in the room, the social and political environment, locally and internationally. I can’t really tell you when I first realized this. I guess I was not able to verbalize what I was feeling until I was much older, but even then, I think I only realized recently that I experience things differently than a lot of people.
I didn’t know for the longest time, for instance, that crying over and thinking (slightly obsessively) for days, about a dead animal on the road, was not something that everyone did. Most people can drive by and have a simple thought “poor thing” and then go on with their day, but I carry it with me all day: the pang of sorrow, coupled with “How did this happen? Why did it happen? If only it could’ve been avoided. Poor thing, did it suffer? Was it a mother that left some poor tiny infant creatures behind that may also die now because she’s gone??” …and on and on.
I still have a very vivid memory from when I was a child, of getting off the school bus on my street and seeing a ginger cat, on the road, that had been hit by a car. I felt an acute sadness. I think it’s my first memory of actually seeing something lifeless. It stayed with me. And always there’s this feeling of wanting to remove the pain somehow. Restore life. Wanting to go back and change the outcome. Prevent it. Circumvent the tragedy. Of course, I can’t and so I’m just left with the sadness and the obsessive loops of “what ifs” and “whys”.
It’s not exclusive to events that end tragically. My little sister once forgot her lunch when we were in elementary school. Her teacher took her to my class where they knocked on the door. I’ll never forget her scared, sad face, or the awful feeling in my gut when her teacher called me over. It broke my heart to see her like that. It was more than a big sister’s love. I felt her sadness and that “end of the world” feeling only children get over little things like forgetting your lunch. It cut deep, and it stayed with me long after I had taken her to my locker and given her my lunch. It lingered. That sad feeling for her.
It’s always “on” or, more precisely, I’m always exposed, open to the elements. A wound that’s always receiving some kind of stimuli from everything and everyone around me. And, more than that, I’m stepping in and out of people’s shoes all the time. It’s not uncommon for me to be affected at the drop of a hat. I have cried in my car, many times, over things I come across while driving.
I make purchases based on how things feel, I have rented apartments and bought homes based on “a vibe” and, conversely, have walked right out of places that felt wrong.
Watching the news or reading articles about what’s going on in the world is, for me, painful and exhausting. In a way that not everyone understands. I have been told many times to just “let it go” or “it’s not happening TO you; you can’t take everything so personally!” I don’t know how to explain that this is just how I am built. I don’t know how to be any other way.
A few months ago, amidst all the anxiety of a raging pandemic and lockdowns, a most unlikely event happened in the St Lawrence river in Montreal: a whale haphazardly made her way too far up into the port of Montreal. A mistake. A bizarre phenomenon. No one could figure out why she had made her way here. And, for a moment, her presence was a beacon, a thing to make us smile in these strange, often sad, times. We took photos, we shared her majestic breaches with glee on social media. And I smiled too, for a day or two. I looked for her every chance I got, whenever I was walking along or driving by the port. But soon I began to feel anxious as I read more and more that she should not be here and that if she did not find her way back soon, the outcome would be grim.
I began searching and reading every day, everything I could about any news and I became obsessed with finding out if anyone was doing anything to help her. I feared the worst. And that pang was visceral for me. I cried when I read that they found her lifeless body later. I was beside myself. For a beautiful whale, that I had no connection to, other than the recent contact I had with it through photos and videos.
For a long time, I thought of this as something that made me weak somehow. This lack of a hard shell. This incapacity to be detached. To be “rational”. To just deal with things and get on with it. And this perception is often reinforced by some people’s attitudes and comments.
What I’ve learned instead is that this is my greatest strength. How can it be “weak” to walk around with a gash open to the elements and still keep moving regardless? My capacity for empathy helps me try to better understand those around me, and, in turn, better understand myself. It makes me want to help, whomever I can, wherever I can, whenever I can. And that is not weakness. It’s strength.
Keep your “hard shells” — mine is cracked open — and I’m ok with that. Like Leonard says:
“That’s how the light gets in”