Y’all probably remember me saying on multiple occasions that when I read a book too fast, I feel really sick afterwards. I don’t suppose I’ve ever really elaborated on what “sick” means, because it’s not just a blah feeling. I feel literally sick, with symptoms similar to a head cold (swollen throat, stuffy nose, headache, sinus swelling, etc). This is a very mild version of something I experienced often in adolescence and my early twenties. I’ll give three examples of the worst times:
Early high school, the day before a swim meet, I played Super Mario all afternoon at a cousins’ house. My family didn’t have video games at home, so this was unfamiliar. I spent so many hours doing it that I began to get sick. That night, I dreamed of the video game in black and white all night (I only ever dream b&w when I’m ill) and the next morning I had the stomach flu and had to miss my swim meet. No one else in the family was sick or got sick afterwards, and the symptoms disappeared as soon as the video game kept racing through my head.
Sophomore year in high school, a friend gave me a cassette of U2’s Zooropa to listen to and copy. I listened to it on my walkman to see if I liked it, then used my dad’s reel-to-reel cassette recorder to transfer onto a blank tape. It was an old machine with only normal speed, so I listened to the album a second time as it recorded. Then I had to listen a third time to make sure it copied correctly. The album was vivid in both lyrics and music, and about halfway through the third listen, my ears and throat began to hurt. I got a fever, and my dad took me to Urgent Care. I’d developed ear infections in both ears and strep throat. I hadn’t been exposed to anyone with either.
When I was pregnant with Morrigan, Jason and I needed to replace our old computer. We did a lot of research to try to get the best product for our needs and for cost-effectiveness. I knew nothing about computers and hardware at the time, so my research lasted roughly 15 hours straight. I’d gone too far and I knew it too late. I had a fever and aches all over and spent the next day in bed with some kind of sinus infection/cold that disappeared as soon as all the specs and images from my research stopped racing through my mind.
Over the years, I’ve learned (mostly) to stop before whatever sensory information I’m taking in becomes too much and makes me physically ill. The read-certain-books-too-quickly-or-too-long is one time when I tend to fail at that. I don’t binge-watch TV or spend too much time on one activity or another. Even during events like Readathon (after making myself VERY sick the first time), I’ll break up the time with non-book activities and switching media often. Despite people telling me that those illnesses were purely coincidence and happenstance, the physical consequences of taking in too much information in a short time period, or spending far too long with a single focus, have been consistent for me since adolescence. I usually know my limits and try to respect them.
However, I’ve never, ever met another human being who also experiences this. I’ve never even heard of anyone experiencing it. Until this week. While reading Aspergirls – which I admit, I abandoned 75% of the way through after it began pushing the “vitamins are better than medicine for mental illness” myth – the author related a story. While she was visiting historic sites in Boston, she took in too much in one day. She says:
I had taken in too many things for my brain to process. I had unnecessary images and sounds in my head that needed releasing. As I tried to sleep, these pictures played in my mind like a kaleidoscope, each one appearing and then morphing into the next. … While it was happening, my temperature shot up to a fever. My body was frantically working to “rid” itself of this invasion as if it were a virus.
I admit it: I cried. Actually, reading that was extremely distressing and I’ve yet to pinpoint exactly why. But in spite of my distress, there was also a sense of reassurance that my experiences aren’t just imagined or coincidence or “in my head.” Someone else in the world has a body that reacts the same way as mine to too-much-stimuli. It wasn’t something I ever thought I’d find, and it was really strange to suddenly stumble on those experiences in someone else after decades of feeling isolated in this respect.