I love our church – St Johns. The worship feels perfect, the music is sublime, the people are friendly, the preaching is excellent, the pastor is everything a pastor should be. It is the most welcoming, friendly place, full of loving kindness. A house of the peaceable kingdom.
That’s the context.
But if I go to worship on a typical Sunday morning, I’m okay for the first ten minutes. After that my energy steadily drains away, until I have to grit my teeth just to be able to stay there. I have to hold the Badger’s hand so I can use some of his energy. I’d like to walk there, but morning worship leaves me feeling like a gibbering wreck, far too exhausted to walk home.
I’m the PCC secretary and am supposed to check my intray each week, but it took me ages to find the vestry because by the end of worship I would just be focused on how quick I could get out. I'm all right if I go to the small, peaceful 8am service, because there are fewer stimuli and interactions.
Normal everyday things are difficult for me. Some days, I can make a phone call – most days not. Travelling by bus is difficult because the whole journey I am rehearsing and re-rehearsing getting off the bus: "Look that fat lady is overflowing into the aisle but if I have to say ‘Excuse me' and squeeze past it’ll make her feel dreadful about being fat . . . and that old lady has her shopping trolley blocking the door, but if I have to climb over it she might feel criticised . . . and now there are students getting on and oh my goodness they are going to stand in the aisle of the bus – how will I get off? What will I do? What if I ring the bell and the bus stops and someone else gets off and then the driver leaves because he doesn’t realise I’m trying to get by the fat lady and the trolley and the students? What will I do then? Everyone will see. I might have to shout for the driver to stop. No. I couldn’t shout. What will I do then? Oh dear . . .”
All the way home.
I just about managed being a minister. It felt quite safe inside the pulpit, a long way away from the people. And I had a role to be in. Though visiting was terrible. I spent my entire life dreading visiting. It was as bad as phone calls. Most of the time I couldn’t do it. And the expectations and the conflicts of any average church community felt beyond what I could cope with. It was such a relief to give it up.
But I can’t do a regular job either. On the occasions I have tried, I just fall very ill, of non-specific mystery diseases. I passed through school in a nightmare of terror and inadequacy, in the bottom class for everything.
When I went to college I missed my first tutorials because I couldn’t leave my room for three days.
I am okay in the supermarket if I have someone with me whose energy is sustaining. Otherwise it drains me impossibly.
Some of the time I can drive. Not always. And never on big roads – motorways I cannot do. My nervous system shuts down totally and I do extremely dangerous things.
Someone once asked me to pick up an acquaintance from the airport, and was bewildered by my point-blank refusal. I couldn’t drive into an airport.
I could regale you all day with stories of the things I can’t do – and it isn’t just me, several members of the family are severely like this, others mildly so. You wouldn’t know it if you met us, because we are (mostly) friendly and polite. But every social occasion is almost impossible, because after twenty minutes, exhaustion sets in. When we have guests at home (hardly ever) we do it in relays by agreement.
In my second marriage, I moved into my new husband’s cottage out in Beckley. But I had to drive ten miles back to my flat in Hastings every day to use the bathroom, because in the company of unfamiliar people my body systems close down completely. All of them.
At one time I used to go to an exercise class, that would begin with a relaxation. I dreaded it because each week the lady would tell us that every day we must each have some me-time - time just to relax and be quiet - even if it was only ten minutes. The very idea used to freak me out, I could hardly bear her to say it. Ten minutes? Ten minutes? I need hours and hours and hours alone every day! Just in silence. No music, just quietness.
Variously diagnosed as difficult, aloof, anti-social, shy – or, if it gets to the doctor stage, depressive and anxious, the members of my family make it through by relying on each other and learning to hide how things are with us.
But recently someone said to me: “You’re an HSP. Do the test online.”
I did the test (scored 24). I got the book. What a relief. There are other people like me. I have a category.