This piece is part of the #52essays2017 challenge where I will share one essay a week in 2017. To learn more about this challenge or to participate, check out writer Vanessa Martir’s website and post about it.
I had known I was a little different, but it was only when my parents took me to the university and adults set up “games” and “puzzles” and asked me questions and watched me play with other kids that I realized that they thought something was wrong with me. I asked my Mom if I was sick. I was reading Little Women at the time and I always picked Beth to be when I played pretend. My parents repeatedly told me I was not sick, and there weren’t any doctors in sight. The adults at the university asked me to listen to tapes and draw pictures, things that all seemed pretty normal to me. They asked a lot of questions and they showed me lots of words in books. Once, I fought with another girl over a coloring book. Mostly, I liked going to the sessions. I liked the attention.
I remember leaving one of the sessions and noticing that Mom seemed different. Her blue eyes seemed bright and shiny but her face was serious. The university guy gave me my five dollar bill -a reward for participating in the study – and I told my Mom she could have it if she wanted to buy groceries. I guess I thought maybe she was worried about money. She laughed and then became herself again. That night my parents talked at the kitchen table. I could see the shadows moving on the wall, my Dad’s hands like birds flying up and landing again. I spied on them from the upstairs balcony. They were talking about me.
I actually didn’t hear the word “synesthesia” until much later. I always assumed that everyone saw words in their heads when they heard people talking. I didn’t think it was strange that the words had colors and sometimes textures. I think it was in high school or even college when I learned the proper term. Weird, my Mom never actually told me what the university people had told her. I wish I had asked. I remember I knew enough that when I took a music history class and we studied Duke Ellington, that I recognized he was a synesthete. But mostly I didn’t think much about it. I rarely told people I had it.
I have told people that I have no memories prior to the age when I learned to read. To me this is true, though it could be argued I must remember something from the years of 1-4. I distinctly remember sitting with my Mom on the floor near a wood bookcase, when I first made the connection that the sound she was saying equaled the word on the page of the book I was holding. I felt an immediate jolt, like a key had unlocked a heavy door. I remember looking at the words on the page and asking her to say them over and over. And that was it. I don’t remember struggling with reading before that day, but I know I never had to consciously think about that connection ever again.
There was one reason they decided to start me in school despite my borderline birthday. I was reading so much. In fact, I preferred reading alone to talking to anyone. I think they hoped I would “socialize” better if I got into the classroom. Kindergarten seemed boring to me. We did a lot of activities that didn’t involve books. Numbers interested me very little; and to this day, I do not see them in colors the same way I see words.
Learning a foreign language was nearly impossible. I found that if I couldn’t spell a word, everything froze up. I needed to see words in my head in order to understand them. But all that French vocabulary was pronounced differently than it was spelled, and I had to go out of my “normal” mode of processing sounds, and go into this side area of my inner world where I would tell myself that the pronunciation matched the word and then memorize it by saying it over and over to myself until I could “hear/see” it when someone else spoke it. I don’t see the colors of words I am speaking myself.
Sometimes words change colors if the person speaking them is happy or sad, or especially when they are angry. I remember being dumped my sophomore year in college and all the words from the offending person turned violet. People ask if I am “seeing” the words on a screen or in the air or projected onto a background. It is hard to explain, but they aren’t outside – just there, inside. I just see them in a space above and slightly behind my head, but not out in the world, within myself.
When I am dreaming I see the words of people’s conversations floating through in my dreams.
Lately, I have become a bit more curious about what other people perceive. I’ve thought it could be interesting to try to represent certain words on paper in the colors that they appear in my head.
But, I am also cautious to share. This inner world is mine. It is also involuntary. It could be judged as something odd or wrong. Part of me is afraid that if I reveal too much to others that it might change or even disappear. Only recently, have I decided I wouldn’t want to lose it.
I don’t know in what way synesthesia has shaped my outlook or world view, but instinctually I know that it is important that we all acknowledge that information is processed in multiple ways and that we use the tools we are given to do the job. Even if I never find another human that agrees that coffee is a green word and dog is hazel, it’s okay. Some synesthetes smell or taste words. How incredible to imagine that not only are all synesthetes different, but that everyone is walking around perceiving the world in a myriad of unique ways. It reassures me that these little variations are infinite.
How reassuring to know that our individual weird and wonderful portals on the world will ensure that the basic human creative impulse can never be normalized, and therefore, never be extinguished.