I chose my first university based on which town was more beautiful: not the university with a thriving, brilliant English department, set in an arid landscape, but the one set in lush winelands, whose first language wasn't even English. It was a "bad" decision (I had to change university after my first year - but only for equally beautiful Cape Town), but I didn't regret it, though I couldn't explain why it made sense to me. I just... It had to be green.
"I can't work in an office!" I'd insist, though I couldn't even defend that to myself, much less to the mother who thought I was irrationally rejecting swathes of career options. From my first temp job at 18 years old, I couldn't stand being in an office. Something about it killed me. It wasn't the work itself, just... I jokingly put it down to the tight waist bands of office clothes. I remember teaching English as a Foreign Language one evening in London, looking through the window, through the dark, at the lit office opposite, at people fussing over machines and feeding faxes, and looking back to the contemplative calm concentration of my classroom, and being filled, for that moment, with utter peace. I pitied those office workers so much.
Yes, I lived in London - for two and a half years. For two and a half years, I couldn't write, despite swathes of abortive attempts and ferocious devotion. And yes, I did office work, often for years. At every job, I'd locate the nearest park, ideally one with a fountain. I'd sit cross-legged, crouching my body towards the running water, hungering for something unidentifiable, trying to pretend I wasn't surrounded by roaring traffic and concrete, concrete, iron and concrete, that sickened me like a bite to my soul. "The great grey toad-spirit of London," I called it, only half-jokingly. "It sits on you and squelches your will to live." When I did another brief stint of office work, after my Masters, I had to fight the urge each day to throw myself off bridges. I'd close the bathroom cubicle door and see my own corpse hanging from it, ribs cracked open and heart removed. I got used to peeing while staring through a vision of my own excavated torso. I couldn't leave the job for my own sake, but I could for my writing: "It just leaves too much to-do stuff in my head, it's anathemic to writing," I could say, and return to the lower pay and sweet calm of teaching English as a foreign language.
Every time we went househunting, I insisted it had to be near water, we had to have views of trees; every property, I'd beeline for the window and stare out at a doleful carpark, trying to train my eyes on the straggly birches beyond - would they be enough? Would they hold my soul together? Homes near water, with plenty of good-sized trees around, tend to be on the pricier side. Spoilt, indulgent, snobby little princess!
Despising my abominable preciousness, I nevertheless put together the life that I did, for whatever indefensible reasons, need, to be able to write. No offices. A home near water. (That, at least, is easy enough in Oxford.) Trees. Beautiful rooms. Immaculate tidiness, like cool water pouring over my soul. I'd steer visitors away from the crowded babble of Cornmarket Street: "Let me take you the scenic route!" I navigated the city by canal paths and parks and back roads. If I had to dip into London at all, I'd walk an hour or more rather than catch the Tube, navigating the quiet back streets, treating parks as oases. I sneered at my ridiculous requirements, but at least I could write.
Then, within months of each other, two good friends were signed off work with severe depression and stress. And both of them, independently, told me about this thing called "high sensitivity". You overstimulate easily, they both said. It's like everyone else has a shell but everything hits your raw flesh. Noises are louder. Colours brighter. Crowds overwhelm: you have no defences against all those people with their complex, humming lives, never mind the roar of a thousand conversations. It's all just so intense. "Water helps," said one. "Especially the sound of running water. Like a weir."
I flashed back to when I was teaching long days and loving it, returning to a shared house crowded with people I adored, and would stop each day by the canal, next to the weir, for half an hour, until I could cope with more people.
My two friends explained themselves, listing every single of the "ridiculous requirements" by which I had reluctantly and self-sneeringly lived.
As far as I know, high sensitivity is not a diagnostic term, though it is better known now, but it is an incredibly useful one. And of the two friends - well, one of them I saw as a bit fey, perhaps someone I could imagine going for a "special-snowflake" diagnosis (given that she's built most of her house with her own hands, she will rightly kill me for that description) but the other was blokey and pragmatic and "solid". Both worked for large international organisations in unforgiving fields - not exactly the kind of companies to shell out for years of sick leave without some solid proof. They'd worked in busy, noisy, open-plan offices, in demanding high-pressured jobs, relentlessly showing face. Both had always had the same "ridiculous needs" as I had, but without something like writing to cling to, had found no way to defend themselves. Both of them ended up being signed off for several years. It turned out that writing, instead of being this fragile tropical bloom I had to protect, had been protecting me, all this time.
As I said, I don't think it's a diagnostic term. One of the main websites dealing with it, The Highly Sensitive Person, has a quiz that is sort-of useful as a diagnostic, but can feel like a bit horoscope in its applicability - surely we're all like that, at times? Some of the questions seem outright special-snowflake: who wouldn't tick "I have a rich,complex inner life"? Similarly, the book I bought on it seemed to describe introversion rather than actual high sensitivity. It mentioned that maybe some people may be extrovert and highly sensitive, but then blithely dismissed that as rare and continued to talk about introverts and high sensitivity. They're not the same. I'm not an introvert. (Actually, on a good test, I register as an ambivert.) I found my friends' second-hand explanations, and first-hand descriptions of their own experience, more useful than the site or the book, which is why I've described some of my own experience in such personal detail. Wikipedia assures me there is a large body of research on HSP and it affects 15-20% of people, so it's not the latest-fad aren't-I-special thing to throw around. (You'll probably have noticed, by now, I have some minor reluctance towards special pleading...) But even without that, even though I'll be the first to yell "SHOW ME THE EVIDENCE BASE!" on any other subject, I would cling to it like a mast, because my friends were explaining to me the aspects of myself I had known, fought against, dismissed, and derided for years, and only agreed to for the sake of writing.
So: there is such a thing as high sensitivity. My name is Megan and I am a highly sensitive person. And writing, prioritising writing and what I needed in place for that, has quite likely protected me from the kind of collapse my two dear friends suffered. I wasn't being precious at all, but protecting my sanity. And the writing may not be entirely coincidental - there's some suggestion that creativity and high sensitivity often overlap. Being given a term, so I can say "This is a thing" helps me to allow for that, for the sake of writing, and also for myself. So I avoid crowded streets. I choose the quietest coffee shops. I navigate the city through parks, canal paths, and back streets. If I must go to London, I dip in and out like a bird grabbing a beakful of water, or arrange to meet people next to a park, or in an art gallery, or overlooking the Thames. I work from home. I make things beautiful, for myself and for my students. I limit my time on Twitter. And I seek out water: the canal, the river, the weirs. At the end of most days, I lean over a stone bridge, looking down at the weir water rushing, the ripples, the fish darting, and feel a world of peace return within a few minutes.
I always hesitate to advise straight-out on personal things. But if you do recognise your own experience in what I've described, I'd offer two thoughts. One, you're allowed to protect yourself. It doesn't make you a special snowflake and you don't have to sneer at yourself as a "special snowflake"; it's just how you are and other people are like that too. Two, seek out water. Especially running water. Whenever in doubt, overwhelm, or stress, go sit next to some water.
I have a tiny, quiet, and rather rarely updated blog, specifically for people like this, called Creative Pause. It's meant to be a quiet place on the internet. I post quiet, thoughtful beauties, from time to time. Lately, I've been collecting lots of three-minute videos of running water, most of them still to be posted. (I decided not to stress myself out with pressure to run something designed to reduce stress and pressure, so updates will come when they come.) My next post on this Writers' Greenhouse blog, or the one after, but certainly before FantasyCon, will be about survival strategies for conventions and high sensitivity. For now, though, here's a video from Creative Pause, of some water, with reflections, seen from a punt. Enjoy. And look after yourself.