My Synesthesia Experience: the World and the Page

Do you know what synesthesia is? It’s when your experiences feed to the wrong senses, such as color to taste or smell to touch.

I’m a synesthete. I’ve been told that the positive ways I experience the world are similar to what people search for when they get high. I imagine the negative ways must resemble a bad trip.

This looks a lot like what I see when I'm excited or when jazz trumpets play.

Late at Night No. 1 by Tien Linton–This looks a lot like what I see when I’m stressed, on the verge of angry or when jazz trumpets play.

Usually I don’t share this aspect of myself on the page, but since it affects my writing (and my everyday), I thought I’d try being open and see what happens. It’s not something I’m ashamed of, but I do get tired of people looking at me like I’m out of my mind when I slip up and express the world the way I see it. More of that in a second. First, here’s a little about what my world experience is like:

Music is often tactile and visual. I can “hold” it, and it occurs in moving colors and shapes, or often fireworks between my right ear and eye. Textures often create pain in areas of my body they aren’t touching, like newspaper and the joints of my right arm including knuckles. There is a class of sounds that makes my teeth feel explosive. Scents can cause me to lose my train of thought because they are visual, and shapes and letters are always the wrong color. I experience pain as humming or buzzing, often not processing it until I begin to gag because it’s too much. When I speak, I’m actually reading white, type-written words off a black space. When I backtrack, it’s because I missed a word and I need to retrieve it. If I get confused during conversation, it’s usually because your words and mine jumbled in the air and I can’t access mine correctly.

Those are just a sampling. If you could step inside my head and try to express what my brain throws at me, you would understand that it can be horribly frustrating to carry on a conversation when there is background chatter. If you have ADHD, you can probably grasp what I’m saying here. Instead of extra auditory noise, though, I “see” extra visual noise behind me. If I’m running on sensory overload, this is when I get the most irritated glances or snarky comments. Basically, I stumble and vocalize jumbled half-thoughts or simply go silent. I have also been known to make random statements such as, “But he is gray and his prickles are stab-like. I don’t trust him.” Those moments are the worst because I almost always blurt those statements out while interrupting someone else. *cringe* *facepalm*

I have trained myself to successfully translate my thoughts into acceptable conversation most of the time. This doesn’t mean I’m articulate, but it does mean I practice daily self-censorship. The result is that I have stopped even writing the way I think. Sometimes, I do drop the pretense. Especially when speaking to another synesthete. Here is a partially true-to-my-experience text to like-thinker:

“Long story short, I was bricked up and saw the red of myself like a big raging mouth waiting to vacuum me up. It made me sudden and flash orange on black like pulsing. But I did this thing where I went back into those moments where I was kicked or hurt or hated and remembered all the sad blues and pale yellows and came out with shapes and boxes and gem stones and a new life I chose each time until I could look at the big red mouth and see all the teeth and know it was me and that I wasn’t bad, just scared.”

I bet you can parse that, but most people don’t understand. So I might say something simpler:

“Long story short, I was really angry and it scared me until I did some regression therapy.”

I think of this as the “English” version, meaning I said/wrote it in plain English. I think of the other version as the “true” version since it more accurately reflects my inner world. Small confession: synesthesia is the reason I’m long-winded. I can’t “see” if you are understanding me so I keep making word circles until I used the right color and am sure I said what I was trying to say. You grok? (That’s honestly the best I explanation I can make.)

But back to English vs. true speech. Lately, I’ve been merging them in my work. Poetry, fiction and nonfiction all benefit from sensory immersion. My choice to use English to write robbed my work for years. When I stopped fighting my different senses is when my work began finding its place in publications. That led me to think about how the reason I teach Writing through Trauma is to help others on the road to accepting their full selves. The most truly beautiful writing I’ve been privy to are the pieces that stem from the true moments of fully honoring who we are in our experience regardless of grammar or punctuation.

Honestly, even though many aspects of synesthesia are uncomfortable for me (like all the colors of the eighties), I wouldn’t change the way I process. I love seeing the world the way I do. When I need a break from routine, I have an ongoing movie to watch in my own eyelids. Or I can ride classical music to the brightest yellow squiggle.

This isn’t as uncommon as it was once thought to be. There are many artists expressing their inner world in various mediums, like this painter. Are you a synesthete? Do you know one? Have you had a similar experience with social awkwardness or finding success with self-acceptance? It may not seem like it, but this is kind of sensitive for me, so don’t leave me alone here!

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

23 Discussion to this post

  1. Ula says:

    Amazing! I always wondered what it’d be like to have synesthesia. Being a writer could be so much more creative. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have your way of perceiving the world, but it sounds wonderful.
    I can’t imagine the sensory overload. But seeing music sounds wonderful. I already oftentimes imagine what music looks like. When I taught art therapy, I would often do exercises of illustrating the mood of a musical piece.
    But there are times I could imagine all the sensations could be overwhelming. When I write, for example, I limit the sensory impulses I receive. I write in complete silence (at least I try) with a steady temperature, often wrapped in my favorite blanket.
    I can imagine why you feel a need to censor yourself and be understood, but as a writer I hope you put your synesthesia to good use. I’d love to read poems written in your inner language, even if I end up having a hard time understanding them, I’d like to give it a shot.

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  2. fyrdraca says:

    I think we must be sensory opposites. When I am overwhelmed ,I just completely shut down. Nothing gets in or out. I move through life like a robot, fully functional (more or less), but just kind of dead inside. I’ve been surviving like that for years.

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  3. […] as a writer. My mother who catered to my curious gifts such as early reading, puzzling and later, synesthesia. She was my champion at every bend in the road, often appearing in my classroom to argue with […]

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  4. […] two pieces on this site: “Someday I Will Be Fearless” by Amy Gigi Alexander and “My Synesthesia Experience: The World and the Page.” You can connect with Tien and find more of his work […]

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  5. Really enjoyed this, I forgot to comment at the time. I have ticker-tape synesthesia, which sounds similar to some of what you describe. Basically I “read” all conversations around me as the ticker-tape at the bottom of a newscast (except for me it is in the top, left-hand corner of my view). The difficulty is that when more than one person speaks at the same time, the words will get mumbled on the ticker-tape, which can make it very difficult to stay focused when in loud environments.

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  6. Shareen says:

    Yet another thing we share in common

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  7. I never heard of Synesthesia, so this was enlightening. I guess I assumed people process things similarly, and I’m glad you shared this. Recognizing our differences really does help us cultivate compassion and appreciation for every person’s journey,

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  8. […] a year ago I read this post over on The Honeyed Quill. In the piece, Shawna talks about her experience of being an adult with ADHD. I was surprised as I […]

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  9. […] a year ago I read this post over on The Honeyed Quill. In the piece, Shawna talks about her experience of being an adult with ADHD. I was surprised as I […]

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