My Sensory Hangover

It’s kind of like that saying, “you can’t un-ring a bell.”

Once you know you’re autistic, it’s nigh on impossible to go back to what your life was like before having that knowledge.

That is why it’s so easy for us to be gaslighted (gaslit? I’m still not sure what the right tense is…) by others when we have a difficult time with something that we seemingly had no difficulty with before.

I enjoy concerts of bands/musicians that I love. It’s a full sensory experience which makes me happy. However, more often than not, it’s the before and after that causes me the most trouble in terms of a sensory hangover the next day… and no, I hadn’t had a single alcoholic drink the night before.

Two days ago, my husband and I attended a concert in Birmingham for Manic Street Preachers – a band he has loved since adolescence and one I’ve come to love over the last eight or so years. Living in the reasonably small “city” of Gloucester (and I put city in quotes because it would be considered a large suburb in American terms), there can be sensory overwhelm when in the centre during peak times (e.g. festivals or just especially nice weather), but Birmingham is a much larger city with far more of a metropolitan feel. Stepping out of New Street Station (or, as it’s now known, Grand Central), the sensory overload was immediate:

Sounds: traffic, tram, people, construction, some unidentified high-pitched industrial noise that makes me need to cover my ears.

Smells: vehicle exhaust, cigarette smoke, rubbish bins, gutters.

Sights: cyclists, pedestrians, cars, electronic billboards, tall buildings, trying to figure out which way to go since everything has changed since we were last here.

Fast-forward to when we arrived to the concert venue. Thankfully, once we got on the right track, it was a straightforward walk without much to write home about. The doors had been open about ten minutes when we arrived and there weren’t massive queues, so we got through security without incident. We had a slice of pizza each before finding our seats and enjoying the opening set by The Coral.

By the time the Manics hit the stage, it was apparent they were in top form for the evening. Their set was energy-filled and fantastic. My only critique of the evening – which husband politely disagrees with – is that the lighting engineer was a bit liberal with his use of the strobe lights.

Now, one may read that sentence and think, “Really?! That’s all you can complain about?”

But hear me out.

When you’re emotionally and/or cognitively depleted, or “running low on spoons” as I like to call it (not sure what The Spoon Theory is? Check out my video about it here), your tolerance for certain sensory stimuli diminishes significantly. In my case on Friday, it was for painfully bright strobe lights.

I wear earplugs to concerts anyway to protect my hearing, so that was being managed as usual. I had my sunglasses on my head acting as a headband to keep my hair off my face, but I was thankful they were to hand so I could put them on and continue watching the show, rather than have to sit with my eyes shut and face turned away because the light was causing me pain. The strobe light was only really used during particularly fast-tempo songs, so there were some extended breaks where they weren’t used at all.

It’s funny because thinking back to when I was younger, I can’t necessarily remember being especially bothered by strobe lights… I mean, I would never say that I loved them, but I can’t recall feeling actual pain in my eyes from the brightness before.

Perhaps it’s a combination of factors (list not exhaustive):

  • Resilience of youthfulness
  • Blissful ignorance of my autism in my early years
  • A higher tolerance of sensory stimuli whilst still having sensitivities
  • Decreased ability to cope in adulthood due to stress and exhaustion

After the concert, we had a brisk walk back to catch the train. Anticipating the chaos of leaving the venue led me to keep my earplugs in, a decision I was glad I took. Not only were people staggering around and bumping into each other upon exiting the building, but there were men shouting, selling fake tour tees on the sidewalk (sorry, pavement!) and blocking everyone’s path, which was making me even more anxious. Once we got clear of that and on the main lit path back to the station, I was feeling a bit calmer, but I didn’t actually remove my earplugs until we were nearly at the platform for our train… I just needed that sonic isolation to keep myself in one piece.

The train did not have many carriages and there were many people crammed onto it, with several people standing as there were no seats left… including a group of lads whom I can only describe as football hooligans who started chanting a Wolverhampton song quite obnoxiously. Thankfully we were only on for three stops, as we had driven up to Droitwich and caught the train from there; otherwise, it would have been a very long and insufferable journey home.

I woke up about four hours after going to sleep with a stonking tension headache, which I knew absolutely was a result of all the sensory assault I endured over the course of the evening, and I hated myself for it. I lay in bed for about ten minutes before prising myself up to get a migraine tablet just feeling absolutely loathsome towards myself… why is it that I just can’t do “normal” stuff without having some sort of reaction, either getting angry or upset or waking up with a migraine? Why do even the smallest perceived things seem to be so bloody hard sometimes?

The best I can do is just try to budget myself in relation to my senses a bit better… and anticipate when the overload is going to happen. Maybe I do need to keep my ear defenders in my bag, as they’re a bit easier to grab and put on than my earplugs in a pinch, and I just need to not be self-conscious about them… with any luck, people will just think they’re wireless headphones rather than ear defenders anyway. 😉

There are some days that I just want to give up. Never leave the house again. Just become a recluse and say, “fuck everything.” But then I think, “what good has that done anyone?” and then I get up and I try again. And I fall down again. And I pick myself up, try to figure out what went wrong, and try again. Lather, rinse, repeat… the perpetual cycle of being an autistic woman.


2 thoughts on “My Sensory Hangover

  1. I really feel you with this – and it’s so hard to explain to people why some of these seemingly “normal” things can be such a problem at times.
    I avoid concerts because of a combination of the volume, flashing lights, and the PEOPLE – it’s an instant recipe for a migraine and accompanying 3-day hangover for me.


  2. This, and also executive functioning hangovers, I think are a thing. If I either have a REALLY productive, useful day in which I got a lot of things done for myself, or a long day at work in which, even if everything went well, I was having to CONSTANTLY make decisions and keep things on track, I will be wiped the next day.


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