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Kansas writer

Debra Guiou Stufflebean

Sensory Overload

Since writing last, I've taken a road trip to Colorado on my own, and after successfully navigating that adventure, I received a shot of self-confidence. I feel like I'm running as fast as I can to keep a step ahead of Alzheimer's Disease. Everyone assumes that the FIRST thing you'll notice is forgetfulness, but in my self-analysis, the first difference I began noticing is anxiety. In fact, it has been going on for a few years and just keeps getting worse. Anxiety or panic attacks occur from over-stimulation of the senses. The nose doesn't actually smell; the nose is a stimulus intake area for the body but the BRAIN is what associates that stimulus as similar to something experienced before and files it away as a scent called "oranges." My friend, Marilyn, had a cochlear implant that bypasses the ears so that the brain can hear again. When the brain begins to malfunction, sorting stimuli can become overwhelming. The part of my trip that caused me the most anxiety was Denver. As I approached Denver from I-70, signs began directing TRAFFIC to the airport, bright orange cones were everywhere because of ROAD CONSTRUCTION, flashing lit signs were explaining DETOURS for connecting highways, road signs were revised with fluorescent tape, large box semi-trailer trucks were obstructing my view -- because of that, and an inability to get in the right lane, I missed my exit. I wasn't totally alone, I had taken my toy poodle, Doodle, with me and when I was finally able to take an exit ramp, I pulled into a gas station and sat there trembling and cuddling him like a child with a stuffed animal. Needless to say, I did not go home the same way, even if it did take a bit longer! I was doing fine on the trip until everything happened at once and it was more than I could sort out.

I've always loved to travel and have been to Europe a few times but a couple of years back, I was afraid to go alone. I wasn't afraid to be part of a tour group. I was afraid of the coming and going at airports. My daughter, Shelby, accompanied me and can attest to the role reversal, her the mother, me the child, in large airports. Part of me knew even then that something about me was different. And yet, just recently I've booked another flight for myself to Long Island, because I'll be damned if I'll let fear stop me from living this time to the fullest. 

Sensory overload and stress is leading the way to my demise at work. That's why people with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome have issues and I was surprised to find only a few articles that included this area as a prelude to Alzheimer's. https://best-alzheimers-products.com/alzheimers-affects-perception.html ; https://www.mentalhelp.net/depression/sensory-defensiveness-or-sensory-overload/ ; https://www.webmd.com/alzheimers/news/20150114/depression-anxiety-can-precede-memory-loss-in-alzheimers-study-finds#1 . For that reason, I think it is important to document this experience.

A really key component to directing a nonprofit is keeping all of the balls in the air. I've begun relying heavily on group coordinators to keep all of our activity groups running. I've always been the type of leader to give a great deal of autonomy to people to do their jobs anyway, because I thrive on autonomy, but I routinely gave oversight, even if it was just being present periodically to observe. I simply could not get my work done and keep doing that. Likewise, just answering the phone and trying to keep my mind on task after the interruption wasn't working. Handling money became a nightmare. At any given time, people may be registering for classes, trips, making donations to a charity for whom we're raising money, making an extra donation to Shepherd's Center, or paying their annual dues. Some people mail these funds, some pay online, some hand me an envelope when they see me out and about, some walk payments into the church building, some stick cash in my face and expect me to remember what it is for. And, of course, it is always accompanied with questions like, "Did I already pay for that trip?" or "Have I paid my dues this year?" In isolation, none of this would be difficult, and I did it for years, but what no one seemed to realize was when you take it times the number of people I encounter (active membership of 400 and 200 semi-active), I was overwhelmed! We created a bookkeeping position to work with the Board Treasurer and created a counter group to process registrations and finally I felt like I could breathe again. And then there was the trips -- oh the trips -- planning, promoting, registering, accompanying. This past year, we sub-contracted if you will, sort of, to get help with this, but my anxiety level is still through the roof, especially as a trip nears. I've had SEVEN cancellations before a trip this coming week (and, for legitimate health reasons) but the more anxious I get, the more agitated I become, so I know I'm not showing my best self. Yesterday the Board tweaked again the transfer of trip responsibilities to further create a buffer. But when I lay in bed at night, I ask myself, isn't this problem YOURS? I tell myself that some of these decisions have been responsible leadership due to growth, even if it was precipitated by my anxiety, but my inability to let loose of the stress really is MY problem. For example, I can give people the name and number of someone else to call regarding cancelling their space on a trip, but I can't seem to stop myself from getting worked up over the number of cancellations, and the number of people in health crisis that led to the cancellations, before hyperventilating. And so, my friends, the time is growing near for me to be able to walk away while I can still hold my head high.

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