I spent a recent morning telling one of my kids that his high sensitivity is a gift, one that thankfully includes a lot of creativity and fun and joy, but also, I know, a lot of pain. And of course my kid cried harder as he told me how much he hates it, how much he doesn’t want it, and that he feels like his insides are being torn apart when he feels things so deeply this way. He wailed as he told me how angry it makes him. I told him it’s ok to be angry and to hate it, that I still hate it sometimes too. He sat up and looked at me, absorbing the possibility that I might understand because in some ways, I share his experience. And then he asked me to pray for him and I did, while in the privacy of my mind, I also shook my fist at God a little. Because navigating this high sensitivity with my son – which, yes, translates into GIGANTIC PAIN IN THE ASS sometimes – and addressing his associated high needs has been a lot. And I had the audacity to believe we were past the a lot part after years of Early Intervention. But I guess we’re not.
The Early Intervention we bombarded him with was highly successful. Once teetering on the edge of an autism spectrum diagnosis, my son seemed to defy the odds stacked against him. His first few years of school were mostly uneventful, relatively easy, as he exceeded all expectations, both socially and academically. We thought we were out of the woods. And then he hit a wall. And the wall hit back. We’re still in the process of peeling back more of his layers, but most recently we learned that he is highly gifted with a learning disability, which necessitated a change of school program for him this year. New school, new labels, new kids, new everything, rough times for such a highly sensitive little boy.
Mothering my highly sensitive child has been a full-time gig for me. I’m relentless in my efforts to shore this kid – and myself – up because regardless of any other baggage you might be carrying, this world is a pretty tough place to be if you’re highly sensitive. My son’s high sensitivity is off the charts, and it’s especially tricky because he’s also an extreme extrovert. Maybe you can imagine a scenario in which every stimuli, every single piece of input that is encountered by your brain and body, no matter how subtle, has the capacity to impact you on the very deepest level. That’s how life is for my son, nothing gets by him. EVER. He seems to absorb and processes everything. He engages people and his surroundings in ways that are often profound. It can be exhausting, overwhelming. Our days are once again filled with tasks and situations that could be simple, but for him are often complex, frustrating. The trivial can become all-encompassing, the routine, a mystery to be solved. It’s not a choice, it’s how he’s wired. Delving into the world of “twice exceptionality” or “2e” has raised the stakes in ways I knew nothing about, and provided understanding where before there was confusion.
And while it’s the honor and joy of my life to guide this child on his journey, truthfully, sometimes, it also drives me to drink and swear like a sailor and fantasize about running for the hills or the beach or anywhere but here.
What was I saying? Oh yeah, I prayed. Dear God, how I prayed, because I want this kid to be able to embrace who he is, and I want him to believe that there is room for him and his differences in this world, that he won’t be wrecked by them.
And after I prayed, I told him that this gift, this talent, this high sensitivity, is actually more like a SUPER POWER, one he has to practice how to manage and how to use for good because with great power comes great responsibility – yes, I played the Spider-Man card – responsibility to himself, and to others. I told him that God wouldn’t have given it to him if He didn’t think he could learn to manage the hard parts and enjoy the good parts, and how to share it, and when not to, and maybe even to be grateful for it all someday. He cracked a cautious smile. He said he’d rather be a normal kid who is appreciated for being a good athlete or something instead of lying awake at night wondering about the meaning of life, and that he’s disappointed in our society for not appreciating gifts like his. He said he feels like he’s the only red sock in a sea of blue ones.
Somebody help me. My heart. The kid just turned 9 years old.
Anyway, I told him that some of his most amazing moments, both happy and sad, will only be experienced way deep down in his soul because of the condition of his tender, beautiful heart, and the way he processes those feelings in his incredible mind. I told him that those deep feelings and thoughts will continue to mold him into the brave, creative, sweet, funny, empathic and intuitive boy he already is. Athletic talent alone wouldn’t do that, neither would “normal”, I told him. He laughed. I went on to tell him that as he grows, he’ll understand that the world needs people with hearts and minds and wiring like his. “For what?”, he asked. “To create, for one thing, and to pay attention to stuff that really matters, to see things that others might not see, to share it, to put it into words”, I said. “Or comic books, or graphic novels?”, he asked. “Exactly”, I said. I could see his spark returning, flickering, ideas turning round and round in his head.
I told him that his SUPER POWER isn’t something he needs to fix, not at all, its more like a long, exciting, mysterious journey to collect and fit together pieces of a puzzle. He asked how long this journey will last…”HOW LONG, MOM?”
I didn’t want to tell him that it will likely be a large portion of his life’s work for as long as he’s here on this earth, work that will sometimes wear him out, discourage and overwhelm him. I didn’t want to tell him that he will need to be vigilant in that work and the resulting fatigue so as not to shut off parts of his heart like I sometimes do. No, instead I told him that while it took me well into my adulthood before I even began to identify and understand my own high sensitivity, his older sister has become a pro at managing hers, and using it for good too. She’s proud of it, even though it’s still really hard sometimes. And finally, I told him that because we know so much more about this high sensitivity thing now, I’m certain that with our support and the many tools available to him, he will put the puzzle pieces of his life together much faster and he’ll get to a comfortable, confident place much sooner. I told him that he’ll continue to learn to unleash and manage his increasingly deep and complicated energy – or “funky flow” as he calls it – in a beautiful way, energy he feels is sometimes frustratingly locked up inside him or misunderstood by people who don’t have the eyes to really see him, and who, even worse, don’t seem to care enough to try.
My story of mothering my son doesn’t have a neat and tidy beginning, middle or end. Its a continuously flowing river of little moments that fill our days, and as we do this life together – often joyfully, sometimes painfully – I realize more and more deeply who my son is in the world, beautifully different, but worthy, nonetheless. I’ll never stop learning to empower him. I’ll never stop praying that he will learn to enjoy and celebrate his gift and to use his SUPER POWER well, not try to escape it or hide it or interpret it as defective, even as he realizes that this world is not made for him. Amen.