I recently moved to New York City. Like really recently – exactly 19 days ago. I think everyone who moves to NYC goes through some kind of sensory overload. And it takes some time to realize what it is, while you are living it. In the first few days I kept saying to myself – I’ve lived all over the world, what’s the big deal about NY, I can handle this, what’s so different about this? And in some sense, that’s how I still feel. But a brief rundown of my memories from the past few weeks helps me put things into perspective. Insane NY perspective:
- The day I moved to NY I arrived on a plane at 8pm. My boyfriend was going to be unexpectedly late getting home from work that day. That meant I was going to arrive at our new apartment in Nolita, for the first time, at 10pm, without keys (he had the keys), in the rain. It wasn’t ideal. I panic cried for the entire 40-minute taxi ride.
- Five days after I arrived we went out to dinner at an East Village favorite – Caracas. I had never been there before. It was so cool. It was tiny. There was no room for me. My backpack was in everyone’s way. I cried.
- One morning I walked by a young couple having a conversation on the street. She was saying: “Well, you said you didn’t love me, so what am I supposed to do with that?” It is still ringing in my ears.
Sometime around this point I started noticing that my sensory relationship with the people around me was getting weird. Every single person on the subway seemed to be sniffling and coughing. Loudly. Into my ear. Every time my office mate opened his mouth I could smell his coffee breath, like he was breathing it directly into my mouth. It was so intense that I had to go home. I woke up every night to the sound of the people upstairs. Walking around. Or getting home. Or talking. Or having sex. I felt tired all the time and I got a hangover after just one drink. I had a weird sore arm. And gas.
I recently had a great conversation with a friend of mine who is a neuroscientist. She said she has an armchair theory about this: when people move to NYC they get such intense sensory overload that they stop being able to regulate their sensory relationship with the world around them. I love this theory.
It’s like a blister: rubbed raw from poorly fitting shoes. Rubbed so raw that white blood cells pool under your skin to try to repair all of the damage. So sensitive to the touch that every time you put shoes on, the pain is unbearable. That area has been over stimulated for so long that it is damaged. You can’t manage the pain, you can’t even manage prolonged light contact. Every time that you brush it, it demands all of your attention. The pain is so much that you can’t focus on anything else.
Then, eventually, the area heals and grows a callous. Further contact is even less sensitive than before you got the blister. Now you have a new threshold. Now that you have a new barrier to protect your skin, it takes more to cause pain, more to draw your attention, more to distract you. The threshold is higher. It’s an adaptive mechanism, and it’s important.
It means I won’t always be tired, I won’t always have to leave work due to overwhelming coffee breath, I won’t always be so sensitive to the clothes and sounds and sites on the subway. Once I’ve been exposed for long enough I’ll develop a new threshold. And only the stimulus that stands out from the background noise will be worth my attention. I’ll be able to go back to focusing on the things that matter and the things that demand my attention at work and in my personal life. The point is, I’m really looking forward to the new threshold, to that calibration, to forming the sights/sounds/smells callous that you need to live in NYC.