It’s been over 5 years now and there’s a recurring problem I deal with – I get overwhelmed when there are more than a couple people speaking to me at once, especially if it is animated conversation. It’s hard to follow simultaneous conversations at a dinner table at it is but if the volume is up, whether emotional or sonic, I just shut down. It’s like the narcolepsy episodes Mike [played by River Phoenix] has in My Own Private Idaho only I don’t unexpectedly fall asleep. Oh, and there isn’t any sex either but that’s in other parts of the movie. Anyway, it isn’t at all pleasant and I don’t like to go there. It’s almost involuntary but at least I can sense it coming so it doesn’t always take me by surprise.
Do you get a similar thing when you’re overloaded? I’ve been trying to put my finger on a good description for it and I remembered something from my past that really fits the bill. [I’ll get to telling that nightmare story later down this post.] I was talking with my therapist [of COURSE I’m seeing a counselor these days] about it and he had a good laugh. He recalled a few times he got a similar reaction to something he’d said when he was in school.
There was a robust conversation about race in one of my classes this week. And when I say robust I’m using one of my wife’s words she uses to serve as a euphemism for situations ranging from contentious to heated to pretty fekking crazy. This one was somewhere around the heated level and I started it with a comment I made about the notion of white guilt and white privilege. I mean come on, it’s a social work class, it wasn’t like it was some comment from out of the blue. It
might ( could have been) probably was stupid though. Here’s the pertinent part of the slide on the screen:
For the record, I know I’ve benefited from white privilege several times and often feel guilty about it. As soon as I said whatever it was several folks began commenting at once and while I cannot remember what all was said, I know it was directed at me and it just kept growing and I couldn’t answer. Truth be told it probably wasn’t as bad as I’m making it out to be – but that’s my point here. What looks regular to someone whose head hasn’t been bashed in can just make a TBI survivor freeze up. It’s similar to PTSD in the end result but PTSD is its own animal. Yes, sir. Yes, ma’am.
The professor stood back and just watched and that was okay. Tricky things need to be discussed and I think even some of the people who are quiet as a church mouse in class spoke up. Good for them actually. But me? I couldn’t keep track of it all and I just shut down, got all tense and wound up a shivering mess. SMDH! I’m 56 years old for Pete’s sake. Whatever. I don’t think I responded like that before my accident in those situations but it’s definitely one of my of options now. Maybe it’s even the default setting and that’s a bummer. Maybe I’ll build up tolerance to it some day. It can’t come soon enough. I’m going to say something about it to the class this week. Not an excuse or defensive gesture but just telling them about what happens to me. If it happens again it will be what it will be. I just won’t be able to respond in that conversation anymore.
Now I’ll tell you a story about that episode I remembered and it’s a pretty good representation of what I feel like when I get overloaded. TLDR: It’s like a madhouse with a large crazed beast banging around.
When I was in grad school I did research for my thesis that used the bovine adrenal chromaffin cell in primary culture as the experimental system. I was studying the mechanism by how those cells released adrenalin in response to a nerve impulse. Sometimes it is an all-out huge blast like with the fight or flight reflex but it can also be moderate and steady, like when you’re working out or really pumped about something. I was trying to determine one of the reasons for that difference. Getting only those live cells to put in the petri dishes for the experiments required separating them out from fresh whole adrenal glands as the source.
From cows. And it wasn’t like doing surgery on a live cow donating an adrenal gland for some other cow waiting in some other city for a transplant. You know, with the life flight helicopter and all that. No, this a bit grittier. Just skip on out here to some other post or website if you’re a bit squeamish. Now, please.
I would get up early and drive about an hour down to an abattoir in Perrysburg, Ohio where they started working on the first cow at 5:30 a.m. – in the dang morning. [I think that line is from M.A.S.H. in one early episode, btw.] The room where I did my thing was the one where they disassembled the cows. Just about the reverse of one of those Henry Ford assembly lines we all get taught about in American elementary schools. Let’s just say they don’t ever have Take your kid to work days there. It is really noisy. It gets really sloppy. And red in some areas. And I used to have nightmares about this one step with an amazingly sharp and powerful tool.
What I did there was wait at this part of the room where the half cow/steer would be put hanging on a hook and ready to go into the storage room. Yeah, like that scene in the first Rocky, the good one. They’d reach in and cut out the adrenal glands [a little smaller than a credit card] and hand them to me. I’d clean off the fat globs and put the glands in a container of cold buffer solution and take them back up to the lab. I usually needed around 20 glands to get all the cells the lab needed for that week’s planned experiments so I’d be standing around for quite a while. You get used to it after a while, just waiting over at the table with the FDA inspector for the next carcass to get over to us.
So, the cows are trapped standing in line outside the room where they can hear the noise and probably smell what is happening to their buddies. When the first step [Yes, that one] is done, they close up the now empty holding chamber and next one goes in and waits. It has a steeply slanted floor. That slant is there for when the cow is down so it can just roll out onto the floor. A worker stands over the chamber on a platform with a pellet gun and dispatches the cow with a shot to the head. [As an aside, sometimes a rabbi would be there to get some Kosher beef and that required killing the animal with a sword] That slanted chamber floor can get slippery, like if the waiting animal urinates or defecates. So one time after several animals had already been slaughtered the next cow [or steer, I can’t recall] in the chamber slipped and went down just as the man fired the pellet gun. Apparently he missed but the motion below him must have looked like what happens when his aim is true. The animal convulses a bit, rarely just falling down in a heap.
And remember it’s noisy in there. Things are moving around in this efficient process with probably 6 or 7 other workers at the different stages. That guy with the pellet gun was also probably used to the routine of it all. So, he pushes the button and the gate goes right up.
OH FUCK! … OH FUCK! … FUCK! FUCK! FUCK!
Suddenly there is a terrified animal up and bucking around in this room. Cows are big and strong. And big. [Oh, I said that already.] And surprisingly fast when they want to be. It was pandemonium with everyone trying to either climb up on something or get behind a table. Shouting. The cow is screaming and banging into things. Stuff goes flying off the tables when it hits them. Stuff like big sharp knives and tongs and hooks. And it’s sloppy too. Of course it felt like it was longer but it was probably only a couple minutes before the animal slowed down enough for someone to get up to it and put it down. It was actually kinda sad because it stopped in front of the pile of hides of the previous cows and was looking down at them. I thought I’d forgotten about it after all these years. Yeah, nope. I’m even tense right now after describing it here.
That’s what it feels like in my head when I’m in a place with lots of motion and voices going at the same time. It’s not so bad if it isn’t loud or emotionally charged but it sure can get chaotic in there. Definitely not my own private Idaho. A drug like Xanax would probably tone it down but I don’t want to be on a drug like that if I don’t need it all the time. I just hope it never happens while I’m driving. That’s for sure.