It’s been five years since we found out our son was a highly sensitive child. Five years of learning. Five years of growth. Five years during which he has changed so drastically we can hardly remember what it was like to struggle with the trivial, every single minute of every single day.
I recently started doing something I’ve wanted to do for a long time—get parents of highly sensitive children together physically, and just talk. Talk about how they found out, when they found out, what led them to their discovery, how they felt about it, what the process has been like. Talk about how they’ve felt on this journey, how their lives have changed, how lonely they have been. Talk about it all. The big, the small, the ugly, the petty; all of it.
The experience has not only been very rewarding, but extremely humbling. The stories that were shared over coffee took me back to a time when we had to think about everything, and I mean everything, to make sure our child was happy and to avoid—or at least minimize—public scenes.
But the human memory is a funny thing, especially when it comes to children. It seems nature designed us to persevere and try again no matter what, and that can be easier when you don’t quite remember the difficulties that once left you paralyzed with hopelessness. But no matter how scary a birth story is, no matter how many years you survived on no more than a couple of hours of sleep a night, no matter how many parts of your body no longer function the way they should as a result, you do it again. It’s weird, and it’s magical. Our survival as a species depends on it.
I look at my son today and, after sitting through stories from parents who are just starting on their journey, stories that can easily be ours, I try and think about and appreciate where we are now, and what it took for us to get here.
And after all, how can I possibly forget a time when my husband and I would constantly whisper, whether our son was asleep or not, simply because we had gotten so used to being quiet. How can we possibly forget the nights when we put him in his stroller and walked laps around the house, singing and counting and praying, and begging the universe to have mercy on us and get him to sleep. And how can we forget the sound of creaking that came only minutes after he’d finally dozed off, alerting us to a baby who was ready for another hundred laps.
How can I forget the struggles that seemed to be ours and ours alone, like the unpredictable flush of a public bathroom and the anxiety it caused. Or the terrifying sound of the hand dryer. Or how nothing we did was enough to convince him that the slide at the playground and the coin-operated kiddie rides at the mall were safe.
How can I forget the tears and screams we had to endure and grew to expect at every birthday party, and every gathering, and every time someone walked up to us a little too enthusiastically to say hello. And the anger and resentment I felt in the moment, and the gut-wrenching guilt that followed when all was finally quiet.
There was a time, a very long time, when we couldn’t leave our son with anyone in the evening and go out. A time when we had to lay in a tiny bed waiting for a restless child to drift off to sleep, for as long as it took. A time when we had to turn down every invitation that came our way, until they just stopped coming. A time when going out for lunch on the weekend was such an impossible feat that it just wasn’t worth the effort.
A time when we worried about why it was that no one seemed to understand what we were going through. A time when we blamed ourselves for our situation. A time when we were desperate for answers that no one seemed to have.
But here we are today, still very much on a journey of discovery, learning, and growth, a journey still filled with challenges, but five years later, everything is different. Our son has transformed into someone more carefree, more adventurous, more daring. Someone sociable and confident and approachable. He can be loud, and wild, and absolutely hilarious.
People always ask what caused this transformation to take place, and I can never give one answer because there isn’t one answer. But things did start to improve significantly when we found out he was highly sensitive, and then again when we found others who understood. If I’m sure about anything, it’s that those two things changed our lives. I often wish I had stumbled on them sooner. What a difference it can make to know, to understand, and to be understood.
If I can offer other parents anything during those coffee morning chats, I want it to be just that. I’ve been where they are now and I know how grey the sky can seem. And if I can offer some kind of reassurance of a light at the end of the tunnel, through the sharing of our own stories of darker times, through a glimpse into a possible future; if I can give even a shred of comfort by showing them they are not alone, by listening to their worries and by nodding at their stories because they are also my stories, then I am happy. Then I know I am doing what I need to be doing.
Because there was a time when I would have done anything for just that.
For online support groups, I highly recommend you join these two:
– Happy Sensitive Kids (private Facebook group) run by Amanda van Mulligen
– Highly Sensitive Children – Closed Group for Parents (private Facebook group) run by Brenda Dronkers