"We are not measured by the trials we meet -- only by those we overcome."
- - Spencer W. Kimball
September 11, 2015
Sensory Processing Disorder and Mental Illness
by Sarah Hancock

My husband sits across the plastic folding table from me. The cultural hall teems with families and people of all ages, shapes and sizes, gathered for the ward chili cook-off. Laughter. Talk. Metal chairs scrape across the wooden floor. Banjo music and yodeling intertwine themselves with the children’s playful banter.

I sit staring at my husband. His lips move. He’s facing me. Noise comes from his mouth, mixing with the noise of each person seated near and far and those shuffling past with their plates overflowing with potluck tastiness. I sit staring at him, trying to understand what he’s saying. I can’t.

People behind me discuss chili options. People to my right discuss skin cancer treatments. The missionaries to my left discuss how long they’ve served in the ward. Across the table on my right, a sister chimes in with her own knowledge of skin cancer and to my left, my stepson chats about his upcoming dental appointment necessary to complete the missionary paperwork.

A man behind me discusses figuring out how to stop a perpetual cooler drip, concerned people may slip and fall. The child behind me is determined to have four helpings of cheese while his mother tries explaining that everyone behind them in line wants cheese, too.

My sweetheart still faces me, talking, looking straight into my eyes. I stare at him, attempting to sort the more than five conversations going on around me. I catch words and try to string them together, but cannot make sense of what he’s telling me. He raises his voice in an effort to be understood.

The problem is, I don’t need greater noise. I need a filter to sort all the noise into what I need to pay attention to and what can be ignored. I don’t possess that filter. The noise level builds in a cultural hall now doubling as an echo chamber. I want to clamp my hands over my ears and run screaming from the room — but screaming would only add to my problem. I have a Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).

Sensory processing disorders make it difficult for people to process information around them delivered by sensory input. Processing tactile, taste, visual (lights), smells, and sound is something which most people do effortlessly. Not so for people with sensory processing disorders.

Since there are five senses, there are multiple ways a person can experience a sensory processing disorder. Not everyone who has one will experience it the same way, nor will they experience their symptoms the same way each time they have them.

Stress and sleep are variables which alter how a person processes information. For example, if I have enough sleep Friday night, I can go to a party on Saturday and not have overwhelming difficulties processing all the stimuli around me, allowing me to stay late and enjoy the party.

But come Sunday, since I did not get a lot of sleep, I find myself listening to people turn the pages in their hymnal before sacrament meeting. Organ music is excruciating. Everything around me feels like I am in the focal point of a stellar Bose sound system with the volume on high. My brain just cannot filter out what it needs to pay attention to and what it can ignore.

I once explained this to a friend of mine who is profoundly hard of hearing. He can hear some noise (sirens, loud motor cycles, and so on), when he wears hearing aids. He chooses not to wear hearing aids because they amplify all noise, not just the important things. My brain acts as a hearing aid — a powerful and acutely tuned one.

I am not unique. Evidently many people who live with psychotic spectrum disorders have the same problem. In fact, there are so many of us who do have sensory processing disorders, that researchers are beginning to take notice.

Recently I participated in a neurological study based on this theory through University of California at San Diego. In this study, participants with psychotic spectrum disorders were hooked up to EEG machines to monitor the brain’s activity and measure the “startle reflex.”

I was handed a set of ear phones. For 20 minutes, I watched silent cartoons while exposed to random beeps. The hypothesis was that those without schizophrenia become accustomed to the beeps and can ignore them. When I took the test, I nearly jumped out of my chair at each beep for the entire 20 minutes. In short, I never became accustomed to the beeps.

By the time I finished with the exercise, I left frazzled. (Okay, so it’s not a technical word, but truly best described the feeling.) It’s important to note that when I participated in the research testing, my illness was in remission for three years, yet I still had the inability to sort, distinguish, dismiss and ignore stimuli.

When a person living with an auditory processing disorder’s stress level is abnormally high, his ability to filter and distinguish noise drastically reduces. Consequently, if a person doesn’t recognize the cause of the stress, he is powerless to remove it.

For twelve years I was the powerless one. I did not grow up with a sensory processing disorder. It came about after I had my first psychotic break. Consequently, I was not diagnosed as a child, nor had I ever learned any coping strategies to deal with it. I simply was unaware and it left me vulnerable.

During those twelve years, every single family trip resulted in dropping me off at the ER with a meltdown on the way home. It was something that just didn’t make sense. I loved my family. I loved vacations. I loved being around everyone and reveled in the laugher, late nights and joy of being surrounded by family who lived out of town.

Yet every single time we got together, I ended up in the hospital. One of my doctors even suggested that I divorce myself from my family because the pattern was so strong. I went to the family reunions excited to be with everyone and three days later I was fit to be tied — literally. I don’t know how my family survived. (I don’t know how I did either.)

In 2010, when I began graduate school, I worked in a department as a research assistant. It was a wonderful department to work in. Everyone got along really well. Laughter frequently echoed through the common areas. The problem was that I had to work in the common area. Focusing on my work was impossible.

One day I stepped over to the cubicle where an associate professor sat. He was always diligently working, buried in literature and analysis. I wanted to know his secret to focusing amidst the distractions.

“Mark?” He did not respond. I raised my voice, “Mark!” He looked up, removing an earplug.

“Hey Sarah, what’s up?”

There it was, the answer to my concentration problems. Ear plugs. It was so simple. I began using ear plugs that day. Later that month when I went to the family reunion, I brought my swimmer’s ear, wax earplugs. It was a fun-filled weekend of fun. When things got too loud, I just popped in my ear plugs.

On the ride home, as we approached San Diego, my dad asked me which hospital I wanted to be dropped off at. I was confused. I hadn’t had any symptoms, no outbursts, no voices, no tears. I didn’t understand why he was even asking. When I told him I was fine, he glanced at my mom over in the passenger seat and then back up at me in the rearview mirror.

“Sarah. We have a twelve-year tradition; just get it over with. Which hospital do you want to go to?”

In an instant I realized that we did indeed have a twelve-year tradition. I mentally did a vacation rewind and recognized that I did not have a single meltdown. I was not on edge. I was not hearing voices and I was not suicidal after a family vacation for the very first time since my first psychotic break.

I about laughed aloud with disbelief. “Seriously Dad, I’m fine.” My mom turned around in her chair and stared at me — hard. “Really Mom, I’m fine.”

“But—”

“I’m actually doing great and the reunion was a blast.” I grinned on the way home from a reunion for the first time in more than a decade.

“Are you sure?” My concerned father eyeballed me from the driver’s seat. “What changed?”

“I think it was these.” I reached up and pulled out my earplugs. Even though they are wax, I can still hear everything around me. It just isn’t at the level that pushes me over the top. The ear plugs act as filters for my brain that can’t.

I still use earplugs, some weeks more than others. There are days when I never take them out. My earplug use is directly correlated with the stress levels in my life.

But now, I know how to deal with that stress. I know what causes it and I know how to fix the symptoms. Sometimes I come home from a hard day and pop in those earplugs, turn off the lights and just let my brain unwind under a pile of heavy blankets. Oddly, the weight of the blankets calms me. Within thirty minutes, the stress pounding through my heart eases. Generally an hour later, I am back to normal again.

Sensory processing disorders are common in children with developmental disorders like autism. Parents of youngsters living with SPD are familiar with the meltdowns that overstimulation causes. Please understand a meltdown is completely different than a tantrum.

Since I had never experienced a sensory processing disorder as a youngster, I didn’t recognize what my problem was when it cropped up. I just thought that somehow my emotional fuse had shrunk to an extremely flammable millimeter after I began experiencing symptoms. Really, it was my brain’s newly acquired inability to filter external stimuli.

Through my course of study in the Rehabilitation Counseling program, I finally learned that what I experience has a name — Sensory Processing Disorder. What a relief! Once I learned to control the problem, it vanished — until the next time. But when the next time comes, I know now what to do.

For more information on Sensory Processing Disorders, check out the Sensory Processing Disorder Parent Support group.


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About Sarah Hancock

Sarah Price Hancock, a graduate of San Diego State University's rehabilitation counseling Masters of Science program with a certificate psychiatric rehabilitation.

Having embarked on her own journey with a mental health diagnosis, she is passionate about psychiatric recovery. She enjoys working as a lector for universities, training upcoming mental health professionals. Sarah also enjoys sharing insights with peers working to strengthen their "recovery toolbox." With proper support, Sarah knows psychiatric recovery isnít just possible ó itís probable.

Born and raised in San Diego, California, Sarah served a Spanish-speaking and ASL mission for the LDS Church in the Texas Dallas Mission. She was graduated from Ricks College and BYU. Sarah currently resides in San Diego and inherited four amazing children when she married the man of her dreams in 2011. She loves writing, public speaking, ceramics, jewelry-making and kite-flying ó not necessarily in that order.

NAMI San Diego's Fall Keynote Address: Living in Recovery with Schizoaffective Disorder

Having recently moved into a new ward, she currently serves as a visiting teacher.

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