Guest Writer Wednesday: Jody Rae's Synesthesia Story
Guest writer, Jody Rae, is my new favorite author! Today, she shares her unique story about synesthesia. As a speech language pathologist, her childhood experiences with this perceptual phenomenon fascinate me. Enjoy getting lost in Jody Rae’s vibrant descriptions of her internal world. (Cover photo credit: here)
Twenty-Six Imaginary Friends:
Recalling My Early Childhood Synesthesia
K is robin’s egg blue and acts older than she really is, a precocious kid who uses big words.
C is fuchsia and acts like a baby sometimes, sucking her thumb and still needing diapers.
Y is lemon-lime and happy all the time.
I don’t remember when I realized my friends and family couldn’t see the secret life of the alphabet. Was everyone refusing to play with me in the alphabet’s neighborhood? Had they all grown somehow tired of this neighborhood, where letters inhabited their own homes, and where colors lived in pairs? Or did they simply not know their way around the streets and backyards like I did?
My Synesthesia, the involuntary blending of senses at a neurological level, went undiagnosed because one thing I could sense clearly, early on, was that other people around me couldn’t taste colors or smell sounds; that what I experienced was not universal. Even my twin sister looked at me sideways when I insisted that every color is best friends, soul mates, with another color; that every color has a twin like she and I do. I knew this to be true like I knew the sky was blue.
Was everyone at my pre-school willfully ignoring what we surely experienced, en masse, when we sang our ABCs, and the room smelled like bubble gum? The frustration, failing to convince everyone else of the “facts” about colors and flavors and musical scents, was disheartening at times. “How would you like it if someone called you by the wrong name?” I huffed at a bewildered group of classmates.
Synesthesia was once considered rare. However, according to Psychology Today, “it is estimated that between 3 to 5 percent of the population has some form of synesthesia, and the condition can run in families.”
It might have been a very isolating experience for me, had it not been for the alphabet. Some children have an imaginary friend; I had twenty-six distinct companions that never left my side. Numbers also expressed themselves in specific colors, but they remained aloof toward me; a large group of older kids on the street who tolerated my presence, but were not overly inclusive.
L is pale yellow like lemon cake, and only plays in the sunshine.
M is a winter friend, warm and wrapped in wool.
N is chartreuse green and smells like cut grass.
G is metallic gold, and likes to climb trees.
I told all the letters that I loved them equally, but my favorite letter was E. He was an aqua/turquoise or teal blue. E got along well with everyone and I always aspired to be like him. E was male, undoubtedly, although sometimes he was mistaken for a girl, but he didn’t mind. He was mellow and calm. E was everybody’s best friend, if they stopped to think about it.
In Kindergarten, other kids would happily write letters and numbers in the “wrong” color, and since the letters weren’t screaming in pain or outrage, I started experimenting with different colors on them, too. It was a little like dressing them in costume, or switching outfits on paper dolls. But one rainy day our teacher asked us all to practice printing our favorite letter, so of course I wanted to choose E, but I didn’t want to hurt any other letter’s feelings.
While my classmates were busy printing their O’s and T’s and B’s, I sat frozen in my chair. I felt my wonderful E whisper that he didn’t mind if I chose someone else, which made me want to choose him even more. I began to cry at my table, and I when I told my teacher I didn’t want to choose just one letter, and why, she let me print the entire alphabet without leaving anyone out.
A is the line leader, always facing forward, and is sometimes red and sometimes black.
D is a muddy green and not particularly friendly or playful. D is the kid who always gets mad in the middle of playtime and takes his toys home. We all just shrug when he does that. He’ll be back the tomorrow.
V is a gray flock of birds high in the cold sky.
F is orange and very loud. He won’t sit still.
Learning to read with Synesthesia had its advantages and disadvantages. Because each letter appeared to me in its own color, words presented as color codes that I could easily decipher, even when they were clearly printed in black ink. This only posed a problem when a word contained the letter S. S is red, and it tended to overwhelm the other letters in a word, glowing bright enough to obscure the color code, causing me to stumble while I read. Otherwise, once I identified the unique color code for each word, reading came easily for me.
Q is silver and extremely sophisticated. He is knowledgeable about multiple subjects. Q doesn’t come out to play very often, but we like him anyway.
R is an elderly aunt, always generous and easy to be around, even though she is always wrapped in purple shawls and doesn’t goof off.
W is supposed to be royal blue and can be bossy but also funny.
I didn’t know there was a word for how I sensed the world until I was sixteen and my Psychology teacher assigned a research project on any topic of our choosing. While rifling through a milk crate of yellowed back issues of psychology journals in our high school library, I came across a front cover that read, “Can you taste or smell colors?” By then, most of my symptoms had faded, and were nearly forgotten like beloved old toys in an attic. But as I read through the article, the memories of those old toys came to life again and I chose Synesthesia as my research topic.
H is a lavender bike with a banana seat and handlebar streamers.
J is a pink lip-glossed crooked smile in a yellow tutu.
I is yellow and he lives in the nicest, biggest house of all the alphabet.
U is the color of black soil because it comes from a hole in the ground, where we buried our toys and made mud pies.
Synesthesia is a condition that cannot be conjured at will and, although I never felt like I was straight trippin’, it has been known to temporarily express itself for some people through the use of psychedelic drugs. In very rare cases, Synesthesia can be debilitating for a length of time.
In my case, while there are remnants of sensory blends, they are muted and difficult to recall by memory. However, I vividly remember my sensitivity to common textures and fabrics. I refused to wear denim for the first ten years of my life. Jeans rubbed like sandpaper; fleece like the soft side of velcro. Since I am also a Highly Sensitive Person, most of my sensory reactions were considered just that - sensitive.
O is a wise woman, watching us through her window, always ready with cookies and sheltered porch on stormy days.
P is copper with only the slightest green oxidation hue. P is a solid surface, a place to lean my weight into.
T is a chaperone, a babysitter, a white-shirted whistleblower.
As an adult, I don’t associate my early childhood Synesthesia with loneliness or alienation. I don’t mourn the forgotten toys in the attic. I now wear denim several times a week. As weird and goofy as I sometimes felt around other people, I wouldn’t give up those moments of frustration with my parents or my peers who couldn’t grasp my heightened emotional attachment to linguistic constructs. I wouldn’t take back one tear or the fierce sense of over-protection I felt for my imaginary friends. Because as fantastic and whimsical as it all may seem, the community of my alphabet was entirely real, absolutely present at all times, and a comfort to me whenever life became overwhelming.
X is black and tries to come out of order at the end of the line. X only speaks when spoken to.
B is cobalt blue and has a lot of confidence, never afraid of heights or speeding too fast, or speaking up.
Z is quietly assertive from behind her curtain of rainforest leaves and bamboo. She will never abdicate her place at the end of the line. She views it as a place of honor.
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Bio: Jody Rae is a poet and personal essayist living in Boulder, Colorado. She writes about faith, femininity, the Divine, and her own mortifications on www.criminysakesalive.com.
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