Confessing My Syns (Part 1)

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For several months, I’ve planned to pen a series of essays about specific incidents from my life that illustate the complexities of mirror-touch synesthesia. I’ve written and then obliterated multiple opening paragraphs, and I’ve left my computer untouched for weeks. I’ve told myself I just haven’t had time to write; my summer’s been occupied by holidays, and barbeques and all of those seemly excuses.

Honestly, I’ve been procrastinating like a connoiseur of the wasted hour. The fact is, I feel cagey about documenting my mirror-touch. It’s painful for me to contemplate this experience, and I mean painful in the synesthetic sense; I feel searing electricity shoot from my hips to my heels the instant I witness a moment of real or fabricated physical trauma. This anomaly, known as synesthesia-for-pain, is a form of mirror-touch. And it’s been my little secret for decades.

Today I’m feeling less plagued and more empowered by my synesthesia after reading Erika Hayasaki’s fascinating article in the July-August issue of Pacific Standard Magazine. Ms. Hayasaki profiles Dr. Joel Salinas, a physician and synesthete who experiences in his own body many of the sensations that his patients are feeling in their bodies. I’ve never met another mirror-touch synesthete; it’s a rare phenomenon. Learning about Dr. Salinas’ mirror-touch has me feeling much less isolated and more capable of conveying some of the daunting encounters I’ve had with my own synesthetic perceptions.

Mirror-touch synesthesia has been with me from my earliest memories. I have a clear recollection from the March just after I turned four. My German Shepherd puppy stumbled over a barrier that was meant to keep her contained; she fractured her leg in the fall. I saw the broken femur burst through her fur, I heard her baby dog whimpers. I can still feel the ripples of electricity that streaked down my legs when I saw that injured limb. The waves of pain returned any time I recalled the instant she was hurt, and they reverberated for weeks as I watched my dog hobble around our home, her cast clacking on the harvest gold linoleum.

I never told my parents what I felt when I saw our dog break her leg. In fact, I never told them about any of the synesthetic sensations I experienced throughout my childhood. Like most synesthetes, I didn’t undertand that my sensory world was atypical; I assumed that everyone’s perceptions were similar to my own. Even in my teenage years, when I began to suspect something was wrong with me, I never told my family or any of my friends.

Instead, I became evasive. I did my best to ditch situations that might trigger those painful sensations. I skipped a mandatory first aid class the entire spring semester of my freshman year of high school, avoiding the gory textbook meant to terrify teen drivers. I finally completed the course three years later, on the night before my graduation, passing a tamer version of first aid offered by the American Red Cross. I did go to slasher films with my girlfriends, eager to be included, yet kept my eyes shut through most of the movie. This is how I “watched” Children of the Corn, the classic horror flick familiar to Gen-Xer’s. I sat straight as a stalk, my eyes squeezed tight, my fingers tweaking the wales of my corduroy coat.

Distance and dissociation were my two favorite tools for coping with the sensory overload of mirror-touch synesthesia. But my denial couldn’t shield me from the feeling that I was somehow accountable for other people’s wounds. If my sister showed me her palm, rubbed raw by the monkey bars, and the sight of her blisters made me hurt, wasn’t it somehow my fault?

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