Degrees of quietude

I’m less than a week back home from the longest holiday I had had for three years; a trip that headed me off in the direction of the setting sun, away from the noisy, overstimulating Thames Valley and about as far as you can go before falling into the sea. What is it about “heading west”, because it seems to have been the long-running dream of my life and not mine alone.“Go west, young man!”, a concept often associated with the westward expansion of America but it holds true, to this day, as a feeling of liberation embodied in a phrase, like running away ahead of a tidal wave that is in hot pursuit. I guess western “civilisation” has indeed been in hot pursuit and on our tails for a considerably long time now and some of us keep on running.

So, what is it we expect to find at the end of a western-pointing rainbow that we don’t enjoy right where we are? Certainly, when it comes to the British Isles, you can expect a degree of spaciousness and relative quietude that is ever the harder to claim in the Home Counties pivoted upon London. It was for this reason that my dream of returning to Pembrokeshire hovered so close in my thoughts, as a near-constant daydream I would fall back on, throughout all the various lockdowns. Idyllic memories of wildflower strewn cliffs dappled in sunshine above a turquoise sea held me steady and constant through the worst barrages of what, for all of us, have been some pretty challenging and lifestyle-questioning times. Our goal, for a long while, has been to relocate west but, for now, we make-do with what we regard as recognisance trips to feed the soul and remind us why it feels so important to disengage ourselves from the ever-slurping whirlpool of London-centric life (which is really just a geographical manifestation of an AI dominated infrastructure that feels like it is spreading its net out of the commercial centre, hungrily eating its way into all the green corners of whatever’s left of the other life). West feels, for the moment, like a breath of fresh air in a world gone crazy.

So we headed west, over 4 degrees west to be precise, making our journey in two trips and I woke up early, on day one, in an Airbnb flat built as an extension to a large Victorian house in small Welsh town on the fringes of the Brecon Beacons. It was early, not for the usual reason of disturbed sleep from all the traffic noise and feeling ever too-hot (even when I’m cold…) in my urban bedroom but because it felt natural here to wake with the dawn. In fact, by 5.30am I had been awake for over an hour, my body lapping-up a degree of calm that’s quite alien to me back in the TV where, even with ear plugs wedged in, I feel the cacophony day and night. Here, I was starkly aware of the cacophony of…well…nothing; a deep stillness and quietude that slipped into my hungry cells with the softness of molten honey, like a balm to my rawest edges of overwhelm.

Yet “quiet” isn’t exactly true as the birds had begun their chorus about 45 minutes before and I could still pick out the almost subliminal hum of the nearest A-road through the open skylite; a continuous soft growl of traffic that had continued throughout the night, yet several degrees further away than it ever is in the TV, also buffered by the immense hills that rose all around our airy apartment, filling every large sash window with such a soothing shade of green, like having arrived in the Emerald City or the bottom of an exotic fish tank.

When we first arrived here, I was so struck by the relative quiet so unknown to my senses (even at night, in TV) that I didn’t pick out the traffic noise, at all, beyond the evening blackbird song but there it was, when I went to the bathroom in the middle of the night, taking me by surprise like a nocturnal lawn-mower humming away…out of place, unexpected. So, you really can’t get away from the pollution of traffic noise anywhere anymore, was my disappointed thought…yet, really, this was nothing to what I’m used to. I allowed myself a moment of sadness for all the quietude we have lost on this planet; the degree of tranquility we so easily traded in, this last 100 years, for the convenience, nay the “entitlement” of mobility and speed!

Really its not so much that I hear cacophony everywhere but that I feel it, with all my senses rolled together. Vibration converts to something more generalist, more seismic, than sound, rocking my cells to the core with overlappingly disharmonious rhythms that wear the biological system down with their attempts to entrain the unentrainable, since I won’t ever willingly submit! Constant noise certainly adds to the “soup” of my constant ringing tinnitus, which feels like my body’s attempt to compound these disharmonies and eject them out again, holding them at bay.

Other rhythms are more subtle, adding to the bone-quaking feeling that aches and fatigues body tissue, confounds body functions, trip-wires pulses, triggers nerves and randomly contracts and releases joints with chaotic effects that keep me on the constant edge of pain or breakdown in TV. There, I feel proximity of people like scratchy clothes on sunburnt skin yet, here, we were surrounded all about by houses, a neighbourhood of long cottage gardens and evident domesticity yet I felt none of that scratch as I do in the ever twitchy commuter belt urbanity of home. Here, the “air” was more paced, more engaged, more communal and grounded. When we walked about its streets, sharing a few friendly words with passers-by, walking past all the other houses with their little front gardens growing flowers and clipped hedges lively with loudly chirping sparrows, I felt as though I had dropped through a time portal and landed somewhere back in time, back in the neighbourhood of my 1970s childhood, pre cordless phones, pre smart tech, pre everything that invisibly harries modern life around the clock. Maybe that’s what I love about heading west…the feeling of winding back time to something simpler, more in touch with nature!

As I sat there with these thoughts, I realised a song was playing in my head…an oldie I happened to hear for the very first time in maybe 45 years just the other day. When I first heard it, I was impressed at how perfectly I knew every line, ever key change, every nuance of that song from childhood like I had last heard it just yesterday, and now it was playing on repeat in my head in this quiet Welsh town. This is what my “impressionable” body does…it constantly picks up impressions and stores them, playing them back on closely-mirrored repeat, sometimes with great accuracy and persistence. This can be a joy (as you can imagine) and it can also be agony, depending on the nature of the sensory impression, sometimes amping up the sensory effect to full pitch and refusing to drop it even when I try to negotiate. When my senses are overloaded, this effect can lead to overlapping tortures that affront my system day and night.

Here, I could feel myself unpack such effects to the point where I was able to guide my sensory replays towards those that I choose, those that enhance my day…a cheerful song, those vivid green hills filling all our windows with a shade of green that makes me feel calm, grounded and in control of my experiences, not assaulted by them. I made a mental note to bottle that colour and take it back home…

As I started to unpack my nervous system, a pleasant, vaguely familiar feeling that I realised I had not had since our last long holiday, to Shropshire in summer of ’19, had come over me. It was as though I was opening a waste disposal chute and letting things go out of it, as though nature’s refuse collector had finally arrived to carry it all away and I began to feel lighter. On that other trip, I made the tactical error of opening up all too quickly, too fully, only to experience a severe backlash on the second night there in that remote spot in the hills when (bizarrest of the bizarre) an unscheduled local car rally happened to go right past our cottage door overnight…dozens of fumey, revving, headlight blaring vehicles slamming up the steep hills and passing, one after another, just inches from our cottage wall for over four hours as I tried to sleep, after which my whole nervous system collapsed into a hypermobility and dysautonomic flare-up that left me hardly able to walk for the entire week we were there and beyond. It was the extreme unexpectedness of what happened that seemed to rock me whereas, at home, I’m always braced for the sensory onslaught!

In my other blog, I’ve just explored the theory that many if not all of our modern chronic health conditions, chronic fague and pain, PoTs, electrosensitivity, MCAS etc, are a version of extreme flight, flight or freeze triggered by the overstimulated thus highly defensive nervous systems we are starting to develop to cope with the sensory assaults of modern life. This time, I meant to open up slowly, cautiously and, besides, we had another day of travel yet before ultimate destination.

Our bodies have become mimics of all the dysfunctionality of modern life…because what goes in must come out; we can’t expect to consume so much and yet not even stop to consider how to recycle all the refuse of all that over-consumption, and the same goes for energy. In congested, urban environments, where our bodies are (increasingly) not our own and with ever-more “going on” visibly and invisibly around us 24/7, whether we consciously acquiesce with it or not, the mandate to cram ourselves with unwanted junk, to somehow cope with it, to squirrel it away to deal with “later”, is ever-more pressing so our bodies take the toll. The key, at both levels, is to assert our choice to take in far less in the first place, as in just enough for our genuine needs, and to simplify our lives (not follow the trend for “more”). Yet , oh how we still continue to gorge on overstimulation and accumulation these days, with no thought for how it must one day come out of us, making such a heinous mess as we spew the after-effects of our over-busy, over-stimulating, over-consuming, over-demanding lifestyles into our shared environment because, as we each reach overload point, we inevitably bounce all those effects off each other, turning our shared living spaces into a toxic landfill no one wants to take responsibility for.

So we walk past each other in the street without so much as a smile, we make noise and drop litter without consideration, we rage at each other over minor affronts and step over the needy as though they don’t exist, we rant at each other with the plaintive tone of our ever-more bloated sense of entitlement and we wonder why we are all cut down by illnesses before the mortgages for our excessive houses full of the meaningless trophies of hard-earned wealth are paid off. Our youth are sucked into this toxic cycle with grim inevitability unless they dare, somehow, to be different. Some of them head west, or whatever their version of “west” happens to be; I am still looking for mine.

In this place, half way to the edge of the most westernmost point we could get to on land, I could at least start to smell the sweet scent of liberation from all of that slurry. I felt, for the first time in a long while, more able to make choices as to what I took on.

Hard to do surrounded by human technological cacophony, which can follow us to places more “remote”. Last month, on a hoped-for retreat to the countryside for three days, we were tripped up by unexpected energetic neighbours when our “quiet spot” turned out to be very close indeed to a cellphone tower and also in far closer proximity with the Airbnb host’s main property than we had realised, a substantial house which overlooked ours and beamed undesirable images (a horror movie one evening!) from giant screen TVs in three of its rooms, directly into our space. A stern reminder that rural doesn’t have to mean natural. For all that place looked magazine-article pristine, it turned out to be a very hard place to find any peace, like I was shrinking into its corners looking for somewhere I could “be” like a discontented cat, so I struggled to sleep, rising daily feeling wired, tired and full of pain. There was also a noticeable absence of birds or birdsong in their carefully tended garden, which leant it such an eerie quality.

This place was starting to feel quite different to that one, even though it was plainer, less pretentious. I was quickly sloughing off layers of energetic static and beginning to feel clearer, lighter, hour by hour. I began to feel more like I could stay present with things as they happened, whether pleasant or not so pleasant, so I could deal with them, one by one as they arose without the constant sense of overwhelm. From today, I intended to explore what it feels like to be recoverable as things happen; not stashing effects up to deal with “at some other time” (which never seems to come…). When you are energetically sensitive, you can find yourself full to the brim before you ever start, some days. What would it be like to only have to deal with just enough to hold in the hand at any one time instead of way too much? I began to see this in action already…how quickly I recovered from our motorway journey without the usual day of crashing or enhanced sensory sensitivity that nearly always follows car-journeys. I could see it in my face, which had already taken on a much less gaunt, far softer, appearance and lost the slightly haunted look in the eyes it has had of late. I knew it from the state of calmness that began to inhabit me.

“The best things in life are qi. Qi is everywhere and its free. There is an unlimited abundance of energy in nature and in the universe. Qi animates your body and ignites your mind. Breathe it in to be inspired. Let go, relax, empty your cup to allow the boundless life-force energy to pour though you, let it flow”. (Lee Holden)

These timely words from came my morning qigong practice as I set myself up for my usual morning routine, this time, surrounded by vibrant green hills through windows on two sides. I realised, as I contemplated these words, that I had become accustomed to indiscriminately blocking energy, defaulting to self-protection mode, because my cup felt routinely rammed to the brink with mostly what I didn’t want. Or, sometimes I drank of it so thirstily that I gave myself indigestion, littering my system with unintended debris that I inadvertently sucked in as I tried to gulp down precious moments of nature and calm as they came along. Today, I was able to sip of everything and still be in flow, energy in and energy out, moving freely. I was also, noticeably, strong and steady in my legs as I did my squats and leg lifts. A hot air balloon floated over the skylight as I did my stretches; it amplified the way I felt.

As we head further west, I felt my cells untangle knots I didn’t even know I had. When we finally reached the part of the road that looked as though it might drive us straight into the sea, I felt a visceral unravelling and those cells began to sing. Tree-tunnelled roads and we were there, in the small hamlet with the unpronounceable name and standing outside our home for the week.

Our cottage, really an old chapel, was cool and light with passive stone walls made up of tweedy grey-hues, solid and dependable, squat to the ground, whitewashed on the outside to a snowy-white dazzle against the deep blue sky. This had a feeling of Cornwall only different, a softer feel, the hug of shadow-patterned Pembrokeshire hills all around and, in two directions, glimpses of the sea.

© Helen White

We weren’t disappointed in those wildflower strewn cliffs, the endless grassy headlands cupping turquoise and indigo water with pointed rocks like jagged teeth all around the cove edges and liberally scattered along the coastline, lapped by the soothing primal rhythm of the very edges of the Atlantic Ocean where it meets the Irish Sea. Blessed with unexpected sunshine, we lay down on those cliffs, our backs against the shelter of rock and earth, and soaked in this cleansing rhythm, and the dancing of flowers, and the wind on our faces. I knew I was soaking it all in to my visceral memory bank, bottling it up for other times, just as the last time’s stash had seen me through the pandemic….it really did!

Our days there were quiet, unhurried. I pulled up a rocking chair to the sash window and spent my mornings writing, drawing, embroidering, soaking in the sound and the feel of all the lively birds chattering and (so quiet we could hear the) wings flapping as they nimbly dove in to collect bugs off the uneven brickwork of ours and the two other facing cottages of our tiny hamlet. Chaffinches and goldfinches, robin, sparrows, thrush, blackbird, rooks and morning cuckoo, we have all but the latter back home but there was no other noise to contend with here so we dialled into it the-more, until birdsong became the soundtrack of our days from dawn until dusk. I realised I hadn’t had to use earplugs for days, didn’t want to use noise cancelling headphones or even listen to music…only to soak in these sounds and the the quietude, this healing balm to the senses. At times, flowing inspiration came in with such ease but, at others, I was able to sit there in my rocking chair and notice my thoughts were as muted as they had ever been.

I found only one foil to my peace; the heated floors in two bathrooms which created an electric field that, combined with our metal bedstead, overstimulated my nervous system hugely on the first night. After that, we ignored the owner’s instructions not to turn these devices off and an energetic stillness came over the house. At night, the room was so still, so dark I could lie there with my mind almost entirely still…rare for me…then wake to the first light of dawn through flimsy curtains yet still sated by my relatively brief sleep and eager to be up to begin my day. I dragged my husband from bed to walk the lanes and fields close to the house at dewy times of day when my muscles are usually seized-up and reluctant to work or when my head generally feels too fuzzy and disoriented to be balanced, back home, yet here I was eager to be upright and walking, tripping out of bed nimbly once we had been there for two or three days. We came back to hearty breakfasts and plenty of morning still left before the time we would normally “get going” with our days. Time seemed to expand across eventful yet deeply restful days and we chatted, on and off, about how we could live like this “forever” and never get bored or needy.

Although household electricals aren’t strictly a major aggravant to me, merely the last straw on the back of the camel when I am otherwise overstimulated, I’m still sensitive enough to notice how they keep a place from feeling truly passive. One day, there was a power cut for over four hours and my peace was complete; without so much as the hum of a fridge or the encroachment of neighbours’ wifi routers, we were at one with nature in the most natural place we could be for the longest time of my last few decades!

Noticeably absent was any sense of encroachment. We had two near-neighbours yet there was no feeling of overspill, not even from adjoining walls. The only “thing” to come over into our territory was a particularly beautiful cat that persisted in traumatising the blackbirds nesting in a nearby hedgerow for its own amusement. The garden felt neutral underfoot whereas our green-patch at home seems, for all our efforts at creating a haven, to pulse with rhythms from nearby road and wifi and mains pipes and ground current underfoot and has endless traffic noise (apart from, of course, those halcyon weeks of the first lockdown when all was transformed).

After a deliberately low sensory day following our journey there (even when I was itching to move…at last, I learn how to pace!), I felt so recovered I was able to fully engage with our loosely-knitted “schedule” and found I had, in general, far more stamina than at home. I climbed the headland and down to coves, on more than one day, and tackled small towns built on anything but evenness, their streets undulating up and down with steep pavements or dotted with rugged steps yet I managed it all with none of my usual hypermobility issues. Tired, yes…exhausted to the point of absolute fatigue or collapse, no!

Taking this much of a respite from my normal life, I could feel the potency of the opportunity this presented. There was as good a chance any any, I realised, being far outside of my usual paradigm, to surprise, as in, to attempt to somehow catch out, or catch a glimpse of myself around one of life’s quantum undulations, like a chance to see myself and my situation more fully, objectively, as in a polished mirror. So I spent countless hours writing, reading, considering, pondering deep topics of existential importance to myself, where others might have taken a complete holiday from all that and read fiction…a degree of reckless escapism that would have felt like a waste, or an avoidance, of opportunity to me. Instead, I became clear on some really important things, realisations that felt seismic, that I knew I could take back home with me and use to instigate changes from “within the system” when I got back. I felt daily shifts and new clarity emerging. I noticed new, broader, perspectives insinuating from the sidelines. Priorities began to crystallise. We alternated quiet time and, in both our cases, journal writing with periods of rambling conversation and all of this felt fresher for the change of scene.

I dived into a book I’d long been meaning to read on sensory defensiveness (Too Loud, Too Bright, Too Fast, Too Tight: What to Do If You Are Sensory Defensive in an Overstimulating World – Sharon Heller; see my other posts about this so-helpful book here and here ) and came to realise, more obviously than ever, the degree to which this lies at the very core of my issues, being as triggered as I am by so many aspects of modern urbanity. My innate sensitivity has become the peril of my life, in a profoundly overstimulating world and, as such, I need to learn to navigate it far far better than I have been doing. Far far better, and the book has methods!

I wasn’t immune to the effects of my hypersensitivity in this quiet place; far from it. One day, the sky became white with heavy cloud so that the light, bouncing off whitewashed walls and with that extra-charged quality it has near the coast, began to overstimulate my vision long before I realised it, turning towards pain, so I had to move from the window and close my eyes, using all my methods to decompress. My determination to soak up the silence had also allowed me to tune into my tinnitus more than usual, making it seem more dominant, so I came to realise the benefit of intermittent music on headphones to break up the fixation, even here where I wanted to lap up the quiet. I spent some evenings listening to an audio book or music when I noticed I was overstimulated from sheer tiredness and found that, by tuning out even the quiet of my environment for a while, I was able to rescue myself from further overwhelm, just as I would at home when its noisy. I listened to a lot of Irish harp music in the late evenings, the Celtic feel of it perfectly complementing the surroundings and soothing me for bedtime.

One day, we went to the beach, found a sheltered nook after our walk and lay down on the sand with our eyes closed, perhaps for rather too long. The immense roar of the sea “got into me” as did the intense UV beating down from the kind of light-dazzle, not necessarily sunny but nonetheless energy-charged as is typical of the seaside, leaving my head overstimulated with tingle and heat for hours. I felt as though I had a primal pulse running through me all of that day, and ached profoundly that evening, a stern reminder that unbridled nature can also be overwhelming and needs to be respected and even dosed appropriately (especially by the unaccustomed and highly-sensitive).

I didn’t forget (as I usually do in my enthusiasm) that being on holiday its own exhausting task because it forces my nervous system to change its patterns and routines, to tune into the new. I was patient with my own sensitivities and listened to what they had to say rather than riding roughshod over them. I made sure to do my qigong every morning, framed by the view of the Pembrokeshire hills and chaffinches in song sitting on the wire peering in at me.

More than once on this holiday, I had to stop myself from overdoing things, lest my enthusiasm should carry me away. What causes me to be carried off against my better judgement is two-pronged, I realised. First, there’s an inner nag to “achieve something”, to make hay while the sun shines, and then there’s a powerful dopamine-fuelled urge to take possession of the perfect moment/memory/photo opportunity etc. The first of those feels largely driven by cultural and familial training that cautions against idleness or lost opportunity, the second is strongly linked to my ADHD whereby I crave and gobble up thrilling experiences, all the more when I have surplus energy (compared to usual). It doesn’t take much, then, for me to severely overdo things. Is it possible to get drunk on high vibes? Oh yes it most certainly is and I noticed we both did it, one particular day on this trip, chasing after one dopamine high after another (all harmless!), bubbly and excitable, ending up by chatting so enthusiastically with a woman art gallery owner that she invited us into her lovely garden and we left all smiles from the impromptu interaction, some time after the gallery was meant to be shut. High vibes are contagious!

I suppose, inevitably, coming up to half way through the holiday, I had a meltdown of sorts. All my pent-up emotions about where and how we normally live, all my frustration of wanting a life more like this, shook up to the surface and expressed itself, unedited, unbridled, for once and there it all was, starkly infront of us, impossible to ignore. I try not to force this sensitive topic at home…we know we can’t leave TV yet, having business and responsibilities to attend for at least the next two to three years, but what if I NEED it to happen sooner, what if I can’t bear it, what if my health can’t cope any longer!? How many more times can I expect to force myself back into that uncomfortable box and for my body to keep on trucking with its chock-full of sensitivities to modern life that most other people don’t experience or understand? I know that if I lived on my own, if all choices were mine, I would leave all that behind and move somewhere else, any which way I could, just to be in a place of natural simplicity and quietude right now.

I realised, soberly, that I had come to think of my time left on this planet as something more like 15 to 20 years (I’m in my mid 50s now…). For years and years, I would always envision myself making it well into my eccentric 90s or beyond, but I’m not sure I could, or would want to feeling like this, or with the world like this either. What happened to me; my determination, my vision, my optimism? Would a move to somewhere peaceful, like this, add those years back onto my life-expectancy? I knew, without hesitation, the answer was yes. So, what if I make my health much worse by staying any longer where we are? Can my nerves take much more? Our nervous system, like a loyal dog, lives entirely in the present moment…you can’t talk in terms of “one day soon” to a dog, it only cares if you are taking it out for a walk right now (not sometime tomorrow) and, likewise, my nervous system can’t make do with endless promises of a quieter future, the assurance that one day I will make the changes it needs in order to thrive…it needs to be thrown a bone right now.

Once these emotions were out, chastened by the sad effect they had on my husband who feels responsible and can’t do anything about it just yet, I did my darnedest to turn my hopeless mood around so I could reap all the benefits of this week away from it all. I made sure to notice all the positive effects on my nervous system of being here, not to make myself worse when we got back but so I could come to better understand what effects most need my urgent attention when we got home. Also, to appreciate that my “system” isn’t broken, yet, and that it still recovers when I give it a break.

For one thing, I realised the essential tremor had gone out of me after a few days, and I was able to hold the camera rock steady (as one example) as I videoed a thrush in full song, whereas my videos normally sway and shake all over the place. I noticed an absence of inexplicable pain and rigidity in my limbs, improving day by day. I was able to sit upright for extremely long portions of time (in the lovely rocking chair) with no adverse effects whereas, at home, I have to elevate my legs to counterbalance dysautonomia effects such as blood pooling or feeing faint and get severe back and neck pain and severely tired from sitting up in a chair for long. My vision began to clear and my eyes to feel generally less sensitive to light. My trousers began to feel looser (though I’m sure I was eating more…), as though the perpetual bloat around my midriff was starting to reduce of its own accord. My stomach was more settled though we were eating exactly the same food as usual. My sleep was deeper, longer anto and from the bathroom without fully waking up. No supplements required to get me off to sleep, either.

I could tell I was feeling more like “me” than usual because I became sort of “bla” about doing anything that felt rushed, or like an imperative, or as though I was ticking things off a list, vehemently not wanting to do anything like that. At home, I get taken off track so easily, sucked into things that aren’t worthy of my consideration, paining over decisions whereas, here, I felt much clearer about what I want, what I consider important, as though intellect and instinct were working in perfect tandem. I became so content to go with the flow, able to enjoy doing nothing at all just as much as going out somewhere that was supposedly on some list.

What if I could use this week to recalibrate my nervous system, by beginning to develop stronger filters, instigating some of the many suggestions in my book for recovering my nervous system from habitual sensory defensiveness, in spite of where I live?

And then there was the returning ability to touch and be touched! When I’m home, I get so overwhelmed, just so sensitive, I rebuff contact most of the time. After a few days thawing, I began to crave strong hugs, being held, cuddling up in the morning, feeling my head against another heartbeat, noticing how one person’s heartrate recalibrates in sync with another (mine to his, steady and constant as a drumbeat…my flighty, highly-strung rhythms calming down to where my breath came in long, steady and consistent). It only added to my increasing sense of groundedness as the week progressed.

On our final evening, the sunset we had hoped for all week began to show itself through the clouds so we dashed to the beach for the most spectacular show I could have hoped for. I felt just so moved to watch the giant orange fireball sink into the sea as seagulls played in the gold tipped waves, like fire-birds in the flames; or, really it was the sea coming up to claim it. There were quite a number of people dotted on that beach, standing in quiet reverance at the sight of it. I felt just so somber seeing the sun go, knowing full well it would be quite some time before we saw it touch down on the open sea again and that tomorrow we were leaving.

On the way back home, stopping again at our half-way point overnight, it was obvious to me which place I preferred. This flat was certainly a lovely base for one night again, but where we had been was somewhere I could have moved into and never left. Here there was the factor of houses all around it and the ever present hum of traffic (more alien-sounding than ever). Pembrokeshire, in ways mostly impossible to describe, felt quite different to this…like another world. There, I felt rooted in natural things, blended into them in my low-slung stone cottage whilst, here in my third-floor flat with lovely views, nature felt like an ever-present embellishment yet this was still, primarily, the domain of people, fringed by hills.

I missed the sea breeze slipping into our window over night and happening to having gales around our roof that night didn’t compensate for the feeling of having left the western wilderness behind. For the first time in a week, I woke up after 8, having missed the dawn chorus, and in my discombobulation from that, felt subtly yet undeniably as though a disconnect was starting to happen as we moved further east again, like I was being uprooted and put back in a box, reconnected to the grid.

I was also so aware now how the brick and plasterboard construction of this building differed from the ancient cottage we had been in, where its stone walls and slate roof had seemed to breathe with me; this felt hermetically sealed, humming with electrical wiring, stifled by plasterboard, synthetic carpet and paints, air-freshener scents and PVU windows. In the night, the glow of several appliances left on perpetual standby, even the fixed radiators glowing bright halos of light, stole the blackness and filled the room with dots of coloured pigment that kept me from deepest sleep through my eyelids.

One thing I had really appreciated in Pembrokeshire was how the one streetlight was fixed at half-mast on its pole, its amber light no affront to the eyes like the blue light of most places and our bedroom thankfully on the other side of the building anyway. Here, I was astonished at the degree of light pollution from the windows, the entire town picked out in lights brightly shining their blue-white glow deep into the night though, I bet, half those rooms or places had no need of a light at such an hour (just as, at home, all our neighbours seem to be adding garden lights and security lights that nobody sees except those of us who are sensitive to the never darkened nights). Then, in the towns, all the lights are positioned so very high these days, as though not really there to serve the people who live under them so much as to light us up to something peering in at us, like we are subjects in some sort voyeurism exercise from above. I knew it would be some time before I enjoyed proper dark skies, with so many stars, again.

However, on the final journey home, I felt quite philosophical and more than a little determined to hold onto this improved stability of my nervous system; to maintain it using every means at my disposal. What if I could change my beliefs, not about where and how I would prefer to live but around how well I can withstand the temporary phase of how things are for the moment, my own ability to stay healthy regardless. Maybe the pandemic had done me a favour in this one sense that I had been stuck at home for so long that, now that I had been away, I could starkly observe how chalk and cheese my options were, how there really is a fork-in-the-road decision to be made about where and how I intend to live out the rest of my life, and not get swept along with the herd. Now to keep that realisation firmly within my sights, no long-term compromises.

As we wryly observed over 40 miles of near stationary traffic stuck on the motorway headed in the opposite direction across the Severn Bridge towards Wales (it was Friday), I wondered why people do it…living the abysmal work-life balance that we do with all of its compromises, then subjecting ourselves to the mass exodus, on highly congested roads, polluting the environment and bombarding the countryside at the weekends and holidays. Why not make life more balanced much more of the time; settling for having less in order to have the quality? On the upside, if all these people moved west, we likely wouldn’t want to move there ourselves after all. I felt quite overwhelmed to see all these people, sat in the exoskeleton of their cars, three lanes wide for mile after mile after mile after our week and a half of next to nobody…

When we got home, the house looked comforting but felt “busy”; it never feels anything but, however quiet we get or passive we try to make it. I was all-too aware of all our neighbours’ wifi routers (ours is kept off) the very moment I sat down. My neighbour popped round with a parcel; the noise of the four o’clock traffic as I opened the door meant we had to shout slightly. She complained of terrible hot flushes and brain fog theses days, feeling so dizzy and out of sorts she can hardly function, her husband think’s she is getting dementia. She asked if I had seen some program on the TV with Davina talking about the “evils” of menopause (like its some sort of disease, not a natural process). Her doorbell, when I had gone round earlier, connected me by voice to her mobile phone as she was out…everything in their house is smart tech. I advised her to spend some time with her router and phone off to see if she feels more grounded; she looked at me as though I was a bit ‘touched” for suggesting this and said there was no chance of that as her husband is a cable engineer, its all on all the time.

Since getting back home, I’ve tried to focus on the green haven of our garden, which had gone mad in our absence, and in which the arrival of a songthrush has added another melody to the already resident robin, blackbird and goldfinches. Yet I’ve hardly managed to spend any time out there, preferring to look at the view from the door, as it still feels “too much” compared to what I’ve become used to. I find I have to put on my noise cancelling headphones, even without music, to sit in the garden for even five minutes, to block out the endless traffic noise (I seem to be more sensitive to that than ever), but when the birds are in full song, I can bear it for a short while. I seem to get too hot all the time, even in the shade…not the usual kind of heat, more “cellular” and nights have been unbearable this week, though we have all our windows open to grasp at any possible through breeze (the weather isn’t that warm, this is more a feeling of being stifled I’m contending with). I’ve had to go straight back into using my computer a lot as I’ve been helping someone with a report layout for many hours this week, remotely. My stomach has developed a red reaction right across it that feels like intense skin burn, a histamine response, and is distended like a football again.

I notice the feeling of being more scattered in my thinking is back; forgetful as to what I’m meant to be doing, making silly mistakes. I’m having to push my thoughts through my head rather than them flowing so easily as they were, making tasks feel uphill. And I’m back to fixating on tasks, nearly always hyperfocused as some sort of buffer to the ever-present sensory feedback of the environment trying to distract me. My vision has become snowy again and I find myself leaning forwards to see, even with my glasses on. Toothpaste hurts my teeth on contact this week and all my clothes feel scratchy. I’ve had many more symptoms of dysautonomia and had to abort a walk the other day due to dizziness and feeling overstimulated. I’m waking up several times a night again and get up feeling hot-and-bothered, tired before I’ve started, not refreshed as I was.

I’ve started creating for myself a sensory diet for recovery purposes, as per the Heller book, and its helping me to make gradual increments in how well I cope with the barrage of sensory overwhelm that is normal here, or at least I think it is helping. The very fact of stopping what I’m doing to brush my skin and do some vestibular exercises every couple of hours feels grounding and focusses me on the sovereignty of self-care, above all else. Considering I’ve been away, which usually flattens me for a week, I feel pretty robust in myself and have regained some perspective and determination. I’ve got myself a rocking chair!

I have a project to paint our main living room a bold, verdant shade of green…something I mentally bottled and brought back from our holidays and I’m hopeful it will alter the dynamic of this room that I spend so much time in as I’ve realised its white neutrality, which I chose to complement my art and my textiles, isn’t opinionated enough to hold its own in this location. Neutrals can be calming where the energy is uncomplicated but my book has reminded me how colour is frequency (we can literally feel it, with our eyes closed!) and I need it to be more assertive, to make a statement in a frequency of greenness to bolster the effect of my garden and balance this urban setting. Using it to encourage me, I look forward, and remind myself often, that one day we will move westward and stay there.

About Helen White

Helen White is a professional artist and published writer with two primary blogs to her name. Her themes pivot around health and wellbeing, expanded consciousness and ways of noticing how life is a constant dance between the deeply subjective and the collective-universal, all of which she explores with a daily hunger to get to know herself better. Her blog Living Whole shines a light on living with high sensitivity, dealing with trauma and healing from chronic health issues. Spinning the Light is an extremely broad-based platform where she elucidates the everyday alchemy of relentless self-exploration. A lifetime of "feeling like an outsider" slowly emerged as neurodivergence (being a Highly Sensitive Person with ADHD, synaesthesia, sensory processing challenges and other defecits overlapping with giftedness). All of these topics are covered in her blogs, written from two distinct vantage points so, if you have enjoyed one of them, you may wish to explore the other for a different, yet entirely complimentary, perspective.
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1 Response to Degrees of quietude

  1. cathytea says:

    Sounds like a much needed vacation, and what a good plan to one day move west!

    Liked by 1 person

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