On April 25, 2013, at 5 o’clock in the morning, I landed at JFK airport, having flown in on a red-eye from Salt Lake City, Utah. This would be my first time home in over a year. I’d spent the prior year trapped in the parallel universe of troubled teens, trying to figure out how I got there and how to get back out. It was only after my return that I learned about highly sensitive people, those with a biological temperament that makes them different, and more easily misdiagnosed than four-fifths of the population. I didn’t know this at the time, but I am a highly sensitive person.
Dr. Elaine Aron coined the phrase in her book, The Highly Sensitive Person, though others before her, and after, have come to the same conclusion: About one-fifth of the population has a biological temperament that makes them more sensitive to stimuli—lights, noise, sound, feelings—than the rest of the world. Highly Sensitive People (HSP) have a propensity to become overwhelmed by stimulation that non-highly sensitive people don’t seem to notice. We often withdraw from social settings because we need relief from what feels too intense. Highly sensitive people are often described as empathetic, though sometimes to their detriment. We are reported to be imaginative, deep thinkers; we tend to cry a lot. Dr. Aaron’s work shows that we often hear sounds louder, notice more details, and experience stronger emotions than those who are not highly sensitive. This biological trait renders us vulnerable to misdiagnosis because crying a lot looks like depression, which it may be. But hardly anyone in the medical establishment seems to know that highly sensitive people exist, and that perhaps our highly sensitive temperament should be factored in when assessing the situation.
When I was 14, I confided in my guidance counselor at school, telling her how much I hurt and how desperate I felt, which was all true. She responded to my pleas as most guidance counselors would: she called my mother and suggested therapy. And my mother, in turn, did what she was supposed to: She found a therapist. Then she found another therapist when the first one told them my problems were serious. The next therapist thought I should be on antidepressants, so my mother found a psychiatrist, and by the time I was 14, I’d been admitted to five psychiatric hospitals, three outpatient programs, one wilderness therapy program, one therapeutic boarding school, and one residential treatment center. I was diagnosed with ADHD, OCD, ODD, bipolar, an eating disorder, alcoholism, and cannabis abuse. Of the many doctors, therapists, and psychiatrists I saw that year, no one brought up “highly sensitive” as a possibility. By the end of that year, my “symptoms” ebbing and flowing, seemingly disconnected from the surfeit of diagnoses, my mother decided to pull me out, against medical advice. We decided to homeschool.
It was then that I realized my symptoms were not signs of a disorder, but rather traits of a biological temperament.
In a 2009 The Atlantic article, David Dobbs explained a groundbreaking scientific idea known as “the orchid hypothesis,” which posits that some of us have genes that make us as hardy as dandelions, while others have genes that make us more like an orchid, “fragile and fickle, but capable of blooming spectacularly if given greenhouse care…” (Dobbs 1). While it’s true that highly sensitive people are often misdiagnosed because their symptoms can look very much like a mental health issue, it’s also true that symptoms that might have begun as reactions due to high sensitivity can lead to legitimate problems. While life as an HSP can feel unfairly painful—the sound of car breaks pierces my ears, electrical shocks hurt so much that I cry, the emotions of friends can render me useless—I also deeply appreciate solitude, and the ease with which I can dip into introspection.
Surely I’m not the only teenager who fell into a rabbit hole of expert advice. Best case scenario—that only one in five children in treatment are highly sensitive—thousands of adolescents in psychiatric treatment centers are HSPs, most likely misunderstood by families and the medical establishment. Moreover, this treatment often includes therapies that can exacerbate distress in a highly sensitive child. And, when children are treated like patients, they act like patients.
The two greatest gifts a parent can give a child to blossom: the space to emotionally attach, and the freedom to individuate. A parent has to be a strong support and source of nurture for the highly emotional sensitive child, while at the same time fostering autonomy. Although the concept is the same—take the child out of a situation that creates too much anguish, while offering a safe space to heal—the execution is vastly different from the alternatives offered by the mental health establishment. This may look like extending an olive branch, whether it be putting into place neutral, light-hearted rituals like watching television together or taking time to cook your child’s favorite dish. Reestablish connection, and albeit, joy.
We live in an age where drug epidemics and suicides are commonplace, where children are sent to therapy to “fix” qualities that make them unique. Highly sensitive children are most susceptible to the pitfalls of believing that something is wrong with them rather than with our culture, which offers a narrow ideal of thick-skinned extroversion. We must look beyond remedying behavior through treatment and psychiatric drugs, and embrace the hearts of our highly sensitive children.
In our well-intentioned pursuit to spare sensitive children from the inevitable hurts of life, we rely on expert advice rather than trusting mother nature. And in doing so, we may be trying to fix something that is not a problem.
The year that followed my return was filled with many movies, quiet mornings, and long walks. Because of these newly established means of connection, I began to trust in the parameters of less Facebook and more alone time. Soon, I began to understand what it meant to foster autonomy as a sensitive, quiet child.
And I was loved for who I was.