Just over four years ago I attended a local performance of Les Mis. That was a few weeks following my injury which was eventually labelled as an ABI. (acquired brain injury). At the time I was struggling to hold onto my job trying to at least work half days and gradually failing at that.
I had no idea what effects a musical performance would have on my ABI condition. About 15 minutes into the Les Mis performance I was dealing with sensory overload but having no previous experience with it, had no idea what was happening. I was in highly unfamiliar territory.
I was seated a half dozen seats from the aisle. Since I couldn’t leave inconspicuously I decided it was best to wait till intermission. I did what I could to hold out till intermission. By then I had great difficulty with my balance. I couldn’t talk or even formulate my thoughts. I was in tears. In short my brain was so scrambled I could only manage a bit more than the basics, just keep breathing. (That night it took a long time to figure out how to breathe and sleep at the same time. When I fell asleep my breathing would stop. When I drew a breath it would wake me up.)
I had just come through my first and probably my worst of many experiences of sensory overload. I found out later that severe sensory overload can trigger some serious medical issues.
Four Years Later
I recently attended a showing of Come From Away, a moving story of 7000 people landing unexpectedly in Gander Newfoundland as a result of the 911 events happening in the United States. This time I attended a performance knowing what factors would put me into sensory overload.
The production on the day I attended the performance was billed for people with sensory issues. In general terms this would take in people who are neurologically atypical. This could include people on the autism spectrum as well as people with acquired brain injury.
There were several accommodations that the theatre staff had made for attendees. If a person was dealing with sensory overload there were lounges available to provide a quiet place. An usher would remain available in the lounge. The lounge was equipped with a large screen so one could still watch the performance.
A special area was set aside so a person could be readmitted to the theatre without disturbing people near their original seat.
Some things were not described but I made some assumptions. I imagined the lighting would be toned down or the sound would be somewhat muted. I was wrong.
Before leaving home
The day we were scheduled to attend the performance I was not at the top of my game. I spent an hour in the garden first thing in the morning but that didn’t seem to help much. I was feeling stressed, partly because of the number of things that had to be coordinated in course of the day in order to attend the performance.
We had decided to take a commuter train into the city to simplify the trip. We could avoid dealing with parking or the demands of driving in heavy city traffic. We did the 40 minute drive to the commuter train. The train took us to within a 10 minute walk of the theatre. It was a warm sunny spring day so that was also in our favour.
The Elgin Winter Garden Theatre
We arrived at the Elgin Theatre an hour before curtain time. This was part of the plan so as not to be rushed with any part of attending the event. We entered the theatre, had our tickets scanned and waited in the lobby near the snack bar.
From where I waited I could see people as they entered the theatre. I found it interesting to watch people entering the building. As they came in I couldn’t help wondering which people were there because they had sensory issues like myself. In many cases one could not tell whether the person was a caregiver or whether they had sensory issues. Or maybe some groups had no one with sensory challenges.
With many attendees there were indicators that the person was neurologically atypical. For some it’s the expression on their face. For others their gait as they walked gave some indication. With some there were indications in the way they were holding hands with an accompanying adult or two. For the most part these and other indicators tended to be subtle and rather inconspicuous.
With other attendees it was quite obvious that they were dealing with neurological issues. Seeing someone arrive with a caregiver pushing a wheel chair while making encouraging comments to the person being brought in. Another person was brought in by wheelchair having difficulty keeping their arms and legs calm. Others had difficulty walking. With some there was involuntary vocalizations.
Emotional sensory loading
Before the performance even began my sensory loading was ramping faster than I had hoped. Seeing the challenges that others are dealing with is hard to ignore. That combined with observing the dedication of the caregivers in making the effort to address their quality of life needs is emotionally overwhelming at times.
Had I attempted this a year ago the emotional loading would have put me into sensory overload and I would have had to remove myself from the theatre even before the performance began.
Once I was seated I realized the overt challenges that quite a number of attendees were dealing with would remain quite noticeable. The young man two seats in front of me would wave his hands over his head regularly. His two caregivers took turns helping him control his movements and reduce the distractions for the people seated near them. Another person a few rows ahead was noticeable moving up and down through the whole performance. There were a half dozen attendees within my line of sight that provided some level of distraction.
The theatre had made arrangements to have a prompter on the stage for the benefit of the audience. Just before the performance began he explained two signals that he would give at various times. If he put on his head phones that was a signal that the volume would increase noticeably. If he put his hands over his eyes that was a signal that there would be some lighting effects happening shortly.
It was at this point that I had an inkling that the performance was not modified to give a reduced sensory impact. Rather, the theatre staff was there to assist anyone who needed to remove themselves from the auditorium. Shortly after the introduction the performance was in full volume. The opening song coming through loud and clear.
I had come to the performance not realizing this was a musical. I thought it was a play. Not three minutes into the performance I was overwhelmed. I was in the red zone. I was in tears. My ears were ringing, and I was putting all my energy into focusing on calming my self down and reducing my anxiety. After about five minutes the intensity of the sensory experience became a bit easier to manage.
At times my sensory loading would increase to a point that I thought it best to leave the auditorium. I was only three seats from the aisle so that was not to big a hurdle. Also, the people next to me would not have been surprised if I needed to exit given the type of audience in attendance.
Through a concerted effort during the whole 100 minutes (without intermission) of the performance I was able to take in the whole story.
Having a snack before the performance and again during the performance was helpful. I needed all the energy available to focus on avoiding sensory overload. It was physically a very taxing experience.
The sensory loading was coming from two aspects of the performance. The volume of the singing and musical accompaniment and the emotional impact of the story line. I hadn’t realized before coming that this was a musical. Live music continues to be one of my toughest sensory challenges.
The story had a strong emotional impact on me because it was based on the lives of real people. People having experienced loss. People having experienced separation from family during a series of stressful events, unable to reach them even by phone. People experienced hospitality with wide open arms from people with big hearts.
Through the whole performance I was struggling between the emotional sensory loading and the auditory sensory loading. It was an ongoing struggle with no let up. By the end of the performance I could not participate in the standing ovation.
I did not even try to get up till the auditorium was empty. I then got up and managed to slowly make my way to the lobby. I wended my way through the crowded lobby looking for a quiet place.
I headed down the stairs to the art display . No one else was there. Time to look at the paintings of Newfoundland. After about twenty minutes I was ready to walk back to the train station. The longer I walked the better my momentum became.
By the time I boarded to commuter train I was dealing with a low grade headache. The other symptoms from attending the performance had mostly cleared up. By late evening my headache had cleared.
Next morning I was stiff. Every muscle in my body felt like it had gone through an intensive workout. Chest muscles, arms, legs, fingers, back. The challenge of dealing with sensory loading for the 100 minutes was like an intensive physical work out.
Attending what was billed as a performance for people with sensory challenges was helpful in some ways while at the same time adding to my challenges.
Seeing the challenges others have with their sensory and related issues contributed significantly to the emotional sensory loading. However, attending a musical and dealing with an emotional story line, I would have had similar sensory challenges at a regular performance.
What I appreciated most about attending the performance is that it put me at ease about my own sensory loading. I felt I was in a socially safe environment. That reduced my level of stress helping to reduce some of my sensory loading. Not feeling at risk of embarrassing myself was a value added feature.
A day after the performance I was wondering why I didn’t make use of one of the accommodations that Elgin Theatre staff had made. I had been so focused on making it through the performance that I didn’t even entertain the ‘problem solving’ of considering the benefits of walking out. Had I walked out I would have been able to see the performance on the lounge screen. Next time I might walk out and try the lounge with the TV screen. However, I didn’t come to watch the performance on a digital screen so that wasn’t my ‘go to’ solution. However, listening to the digital version of the music would have significantly reduced my sensory loading.
Listening to the story line was a vicarious emotional experience. As such most of my emotional sensory loading cleared in an hour or two. That is in sharp contrast to recovering from personal emotionally challenging situations in which it often takes me several days to have the sensory loading clear enough to taking on my daily tasks.
Preparations to consider
The event caught me off guard on some elements. Though I was prepared for others due to previous experiences. That made me consider what I could have done to further help mitigate the negative effects on me.
My preparedness kit now contains the following items.
- Snacks: to help maintain my level of energy
- Headphones: to mitigate the effects of unexpected noisy environments
- Note pad: to communicate when my sensory loading makes talking difficult or impossible.
- Travel Pillow: assist with immediate short term recovery
Over time I will likely add additional items to my kit.