Sunday, November 3, 2013

Tasting in Technicolor - A Story of Learning Differences from a Teen with Synesthesia

Guest post by Rylie VanOrsdol

When I was in early elementary school, I thought everyone experienced the world the way I did.  Then, in 5th grade while working with a group of kids on math at school, the answer to the problem was 30.  I commented, “Well that’s a nice red number.”  You can imagine the ridicule and chaos that ensued.  I decided to start keeping things to myself.  In retrospect I should have taken a hint from my third and fourth grade public school teachers, who chastised me for coloring around the numbers and letters I had written in pencil on my worksheets in “their” color, when I was finished early in class.  I was a well behaved student and didn’t understand why this angered them so much.  I didn’t want to be “bad”.

When I was being home schooled in 6th grade, I abruptly came to my mom crying and very upset.  It startled and scared her because I didn’t have outbursts like that.  She was worried something was seriously wrong.  I asked through my sobs, “If something was wrong with me, would you tell me?”.  My mom was so surprised by my questions because I was a “great student, well liked by my peers and an all around terrific kid”.  I continued, “Do I have a disability that you are hiding from me?”.  She reassured me that I was more than fine.  The conversation ended.

In 8th grade I began to mention occasionally things like Monday would be a good day because it was a “red day” or that I saw letters and numbers in color.  My parents didn’t think much of it and chalked it up to my being a creative, quirky teenager because they had never heard of synesthesia.  Then when I was supposed to be in 9th grade, I began college full time.  I was almost finished with my first semester and had a new confidence that allowed me to reveal more.  You see, when I was younger, I was convinced that if my “secret” got out, I would be locked away in a mental hospital.  I came to that conclusion because my mom had bipolar disorder and my half sister was dyslexic and had a learning disability.  This made me think I must have something like schizophrenia.  I was afraid if I told my mom that she, in turn, would tell her therapist and I would be escorted involuntarily to an asylum.

Because of my new found confidence, I began to talk about it much more frequently.  Things like “I can taste colors.”  “I hear color in music.”  “ I see some names in colors.”  “When I see someone get touched sometimes I feel it too.”  “I can smell feelings like sharp, soft, cold, hot, fuzzy, tingly, and more.” “I hear colors.”  These are just some examples.  I associate gender and personalities with everyday objects.  It is difficult for me to visually see someone be punched or kissed because I feel it too.

To me, chicken tastes like the color orange.  The color orange does not taste like an actual orange.  I don’t like the taste of the color orange, therefore, I don’t like to eat chicken.  I will, but really don’t care for it and will avoid it if possible.  An actual orange tastes red to me and I enjoy it.

When I was in school, I saw someone get tapped on the shoulder and it felt like I had been tapped.  I turned and said, “what” to the person behind me and they looked at me strangely and said, “What, I didn’t tap you.”  (With a bit of a scowl.)  It was all very quick and involuntary.  

I had two almost empty bottles of shower gel in my mom’s bathroom.  She wanted to mix them together and I emphatically  said “no”.  I revealed that one of scents was a sharp and tingly feeling (never painful) and the other scent was soft and fuzzy.  It is like a wave and doesn’t remain the entire time.  

In my world, people’s names give me a wave of color.  I don’t want anyone to read into their color and don’t want anyone to be offended.  Those are some of the things I fear.  When people seem irritated and say things like, “Why am I yellow? I want to be blue,” it is upsetting to me.  It just is what it is.  I don’t know why.

As much as other people are trying to understand my world, I am trying to understand theirs.  I can’t imagine a life without these abilities.  Some professionals refer to them as “gifts”, “abilities” or “powers”.  I don’t care for the terms disease, condition, afflicted with, etc.  I personally don’t mind the word “disorder”.  I feel like it describes what happens in my brain perfectly.  Everything is disorderly.  There is an overabundance of information.  

One of the reasons I enjoy Thanksgiving so much is because of the loud, red, yellow smell of the Turkey in the oven and all of the different colors of the smells mingling together.  I feel the same thing about the colors of the taste of Sushi.  I enjoy overwhelming colors with scents and flavors.  

When it comes to music, the type of music playing determines what I experience.  Live bands tend to have multiple colors, whereas a song on my iPhone tends to be one color only.  I can also sometimes feel sensations like tingly, warmth and fuzziness which come as a wave starting at the top of my body and moving down until it has left my feet and then goes away.  “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay is a yellow song.  Whereas “Paradise” has multiple colors throughout the song.  The same band doesn’t necessarily produce the same color songs.  Lana Del Rey’s “National Anthem” makes me physically feel explosions in my head.  They aren’t painful or unpleasant.  I enjoy them.  Whereas Lana Del Rey’s song “Radio” doesn’t make me feel anything physically, it is just a red song.  
Some synesthetes like me have difficulty describing a color and in the synesthesia community those colors are called “Martian colors”.

My mom and I were watching a movie and something triggered me to mention one of my experiences again.  My mom said, “You know what?  Let me just google it.”  She entered, “Can numbers have colors”.  This lead her to websites about synesthesia.  We didn’t finish the movie.  We were both staggered by the plethora of information we found.  We couldn’t read fast enough.  I was finally validated and felt so much relief that I wasn’t “crazy”.  I began to cry tears of joy.   

I have talked with Professor Carol Steen, the founder and president of the American Synesthesia Association and we discussed my experiences at length.  She said there are over 65 forms and I certainly have several.  I have taken a battery of tests and I’m in contact with Dr. Ed Hubbard from the University of Wisconsin, who wants to pursue the link between my synesthesia and advanced academic trajectory.

Professor Steen informed me, now that I can feel the freedom to explore, more powers will come to me in bits and pieces and over the years they may change.  She advised that synesthetes are seven times more likely to work in a creative capacity like art or music.  This may explain my love for writing poetry and fiction.

Several Universities in the UK are studying synesthesia.  American colleges including Yale, Harvard, University of Wisconsin and Baylor, have neuroscientists dedicated to the study of synesthesia.  Some think that by understanding synesthesia it may lead to more information about Autism, Schizophrenia and ADD.  

If you are interested in reading more about Synesthesia here is a list of books you may like to read.  Born on a Blue Day, Wednesday is Indigo Blue, Mango Shaped Space and the soon to be published Oxford Handbook of Synesthesia to which Professor Steen provided a chapter.

Synesthesia is thought to have a genetic component.  I haven’t found mine yet.  However, I don’t have access to my maternal grandfather’s side of the family.  There has recently been some speculation that families with a history of bipolar disorder may be a link.  Some synesthetes have heightened memory powers which is considered rare.  Others have eidetic memories.  This might explain my mother referring to me as a “sponge”.  I can hear or see things once and never forget them.  Professor Steen said the downside to this is not being able to forget painful experiences.

Speaking of painful experiences, having synesthesia isn’t always pleasant.  I will provide an example from my experiences.    Sometimes I get headaches because of the overwhelming senses all firing at once.  The other evening I was sitting on the college campus waiting for my mom to pick me up and the rubbery, yellow, neon green and orange sound of the choir of crickets chirping along with the trees rustling because it was really windy (which is a fuzzy sound) all together made my head throb.  To "fix" this, I sat and wrote poetry as I often do to distract my mind.  Once I got home I relaxed on my bed in my room for five or ten minutes and felt fine after that.  All that being said, I will take my daily headaches in lieu of losing my synesthetic experiences.  Synesthesia is the most amazing disorder I never knew I had.  It can be a curse as much as it is a gift, but I would never return it if given the opportunity to do so.

This is a poem I wrote to help people understand more.

About Rylie

I am very open to answering questions and being studied.  I am anxious to learn more about myself after years of feeling alone and scared.  I am happy to speak by email, phone, text or Skype appointment.  I am also eager to begin speaking publicly at conventions, conferences, education symposiums, etc.   

I am currently a sophomore in college with a 4.0  I will be entering my junior year of college at age 15. If I stay on track I will enter graduate school at age 17.  

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