Monday, March 21, 2011

Experience: I feel other people's pain

Fiona TorranceAs told to Gary Cansell - ..."mirror-touch" synesthesia, [is] a rare neurological condition that causes sufferers to hyper-empathise.

My earliest memory of mirror-touch is standing in my parents' garden in South Africa, aged six, watching butcher birds hang mice on the wire fence. I felt the tug on my neck and spine; it was as if I was being hanged. I remember crying to my mum, trying to explain what had happened. I wanted her to understand that I could see emotions as colours, and feel sounds; that someone else's anger felt like heat running between my chest and stomach. "You're just oversensitive, Fiona," she said.

... I ended up marrying the first man I went out with at 20, and moving to the UK. Sex was very difficult. I would experience the physical sensation of intercourse at random intervals for days after. I never tried to explain it to my first husband. He said the same as everybody else: I was "nervous", "anxious", "oversensitive". We broke up after two years.

... One day, on a shopping trip with my then-boyfriend Gary, I stayed in the car and saw someone get punched. Gary returned to find me unconscious. He told me I had to talk to a doctor about it, and I went to hospital for tests. Although they didn't diagnose me with mirror-touch, for the first time in my life people were taking my problems seriously.

Back in the UK, I began researching my symptoms. I found that feeling sounds and colours was known as synesthesia, and wondered whether my condition was connected. I tracked down a UK team of doctors specialising in the study of synesthetes, and in 2008 I was finally diagnosed with mirror-touch.

Neuroscientists think mirror-touch synesthesia is caused by over-activity in our mirror-touch system – a network of regions in the brain that become active when we see another person being touched. A normal person flinching when they see an accident is thought to be the normal work of this system. When I physically experience other people's pain, my system is in overdrive.

Getting a diagnosis was a huge relief. I have spent a lot of my life feeling like a freak, and now I know that it's not my fault. I have been given medication to decrease my sensitivity, and I'm sleeping better. I now live alone, but have lots of understanding friends and I'm ready to meet a new partner.

via Experience: I feel other people's pain | Life and style | The Guardian.

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