An Uncomfortable Sensory Story

While I was opening my car door, I accidentally scraped my middle fingernail against the dirty car surface for a split second. I could feel in vivid, explosive detail each grain of grit shoving up under my already quite short nail. I’m gagging as I type this.

I wiped my hand on my trousers and got in the car. I wiped it again. I wiped it again. I got a napkin and wiped it against the napkin. I could still feel the sensory echo. Some people feel pain with overwhelming sensory stimuli. I tend to feel unbearable heat, visceral revulsion, or both. I have nail clippers in my car so I clipped the already short nail shorter. Clipping off about three days’ worth of growth since the last time I clipped it.

I drove home. I was still thinking about my fingernail. Not obsessing over germs or dirt, just trying to screen out the sensory feeling of how it felt to scraaaaape. Ugh. Ugh ugh ugh. I wondered if washing my hands at home would help.

I gently scratched skin, gently scratched fabric — two safe textures for scratching. It helped marginally. I took some deep breaths.

Three years ago this would have all been accompanied by overwhelming shame. Now it was accompanied by something like bemusement, like an adult humoring a child who needs something that doesn’t make logical sense. Like, “Hey, self. That was gross huh? You’re objectively okay. I’m glad you know that. Do whatever you need as long as you can drive safely. We’ll be home soon.”

When I got home, three things needed my attention immediately, and I forgot about my fingernail. Later, when I remembered, the echo was mercifully gone.

Sometimes this is what sensory processing differences feel like. I thought to myself while scrounging for nail clippers: how disabling to feel this way. How abling to have come to the point where I know myself, trust myself, don’t shame myself. How abling to have come to the point where I have nail clippers here just in case.

If I was a child, I wonder if I would’ve been afforded the same dignity of knowing what was wrong, problem-solving until it was fixed, coping with the pervasive discomfort in my own body.