I wonder if a good proportion of people who work in the field of learning difficulties, start to look at their own peculiarities (and I mean the less common definition: ‘a characteristic that is distinctive of a particular person or place’, NOT the ‘oddity’ definition, in case anyone was about to take offence) and realise that they, too, have some issues going on that hitherto have not been acknowledged. The decision to have my nails done for a second time, was not taken without due consideration to the sensory issues that I realised belonged to me. To be fair, I imagine that more people have sensory issues to some degree, than have not. Singing Sister doesn’t like balloons getting close to her ears. I was fine with this phenomenon, until she pointed it out to me a few years ago and now I don’t like balloons getting close to my ears either. Coupled with my trypophobia, I didn’t need another sensory thing, but she was very apologetic for sharing her sensory issue with me. For those who don’t know, the afore-mentioned phobia is not officially recognised as a phobia, but is the (apparently) irrational fear/revulsion of some patterns of holes (and sometimes bumps). Triggers can pop up in everyday scenarios, like catching sight of a lotus seed pod or there are some more unusual triggers which, thankfully, do not pop up in everyday scenarios, like the Surinam toad giving birth. For me, the feeling is unique and cannot be gained from any other source. As a child, I remember saying that certain things ‘made my teeth go weak’. As an adult, having realised that this is a thing, I have read other people’s testimonies where they describe feeling sick, itchy, their hair hurting, or (my personal favourite) ‘it makes me want to curl up in a ball under my desk and quietly weep’. The common factor amongst everyone is a feeling of intense revulsion and discomfort.

The first experience I can recall is when I was very young and I’d been to a classmate’s house for tea. I thought we were leaving, and started walking down the road. I got as far as the house next door and stopped, realising that my mother was still chatting to Classmate’s Mum on the doorstep. I happened to stop next to a bush and leapt back at the sight of the big, ugly flowers poking out aggressively at me. Although I was repulsed at the pattern of holes on the flower, I was transfixed. My mother came along and I told her that the flowers gave me a funny feeling, but as someone who is unperturbed by such things, understandably, my discovery was probably unappreciated.

I can’t claim that this was some weighty burden I shouldered throughout my childhood, but I do recall odd instances of pointing out that something had ‘made my teeth go weak’. I remember going to Devon for a few days with my sister, with some of her children and both of mine and we’d gone walking in the woods near Lynton and Lynmouth. My sister’s 2nd son (a jockey, like all of her children) was working at a racing stables in Devon and he’d left his house available for guests, such as us, while he was on holiday.

“Lisa! Come here! There’s something amazing!” called out my sister from the top of a bank, of which I had found myself at the bottom, where there was a stream, and she at the top. I scrambled up the bank to join her; she was standing next to a tree, which, from my perspective, was innocent enough. She motioned towards her side of the tree and like a lamb to the slaughter, I followed her gaze to a sight that has a physical effect on my well-being to this day. It was a ‘money-tree’ with 100s of coins wedged into the trunk. Money-trees are a rare sight, but can be found anywhere in the country. Not sure why people do it, except to torture me and fellow trypophobics and if I Google it I run the risk of seeing pictures of the monstrosities, so I’d rather live in ignorant bliss, but the point is, I don’t think even Racing Sister realised how affected I was by this strange sensory issue until that day.

At a last-night party after a production of Burning Blue, several years ago, I found myself chatting to a co-actor. It was an unusual play, a bit like Top Gun on stage, only instead of the story being a love story, it was a ‘coming-out’ story. I played the part of the main character’s girlfriend, who had to cope with rejection by her boyfriend, as he came to terms with his homosexuality. I’d had to strip down to my underwear on stage, which I seemed to do a lot in plays, but that was nothing compared to one entire scene with most of the male cast completely naked. One often feels an emotional intimacy with fellow players during a play, but this was stepped up a little in this play, from most people having seen most of the cast naked or nearly naked. So, despite having a lovely chat with this particular thespian, I was standing opposite a floor-to-ceiling sculpture made completely of matchsticks. I was struggling to concentrate, so I asked him if we could swap places and to my surprise, his reply was, ‘God, no – why do you think I’ve got my back to it?!’ This was my first experience of meeting a fellow trypophobic and interestingly, this wasn’t the only common ground we shared. Whereas I seemed to be the only one in my family in possession of this strange fear, his brother had shared the ‘phobia’ with him in childhood. They named it ‘Armchairs and Matchsticks’ because with it, they also experienced polarised physical imaginings at times, usually on falling asleep, of feeling puffed out and surrounded by fluff or, conversely, feeling like a matchstick surrounded by awkward angularity (which, by the way, is not a problem – moreover, it’s a strangely comforting feeling and you can learn to control it). I had met my sensory soulmate! We remained friends for years and then his acting career took him abroad. Fast forward 10 years and on visiting Brighton about a month ago, we met up and the hour or two we spent together glugging coffee and gorging on cake, frankly, was not enough, so, Matchstick Man, if you do return to the UK, as you said you might, we need more coffee and cake time. Meanwhile, whereas Rhiannon is not a trypophobic, from recent conversations, I’m happy to report that it seems she’s inherited the Armchairs and Matchsticks gene too. Along with an involuntary designation of colours to days of the week and personalities to numbers (which Matchstick Man does too). As a child, I assumed everyone else did this, yet as an adult, I started to think that no-one else did this. Which is probably why I didn’t talk about it with my children, until I realised this weirdness had a name, when a colleague kindly lent me a book called ‘Born on a Blue Day’, after my bold admission on a dyslexia course that I did this. It never occurred to me that there was someone right under my nose with whom I could debate why Monday is red and 5 is bossy, so I’m glad I finally did chat to Rhiannon!

Back to the nails! Any words I choose at this point to describe how I feel about my nails being filed, will not do the feeling justice. I love my nails to look pretty, but the feel and the sound of them being filed is almost unbearable. The first time, I was not prepared for one and a half hours of filing. Well, it wasn’t all filing, but enough to make my breathing become shallow and my face become contorted into a permanent wince. I addressed the latter, as I didn’t want the technician to think (or know) that I was a weirdo. My temperature actually dropped, to the extent that I had to ask her to stop so I could put my coat on. My entire being was in a constant state of having goose-bumps, so you’d think my temperature would rise, but no. So I opted for just having my nails painted the second time, without extensions, as the filing would be reduced. It was still pretty cringe-worthy, but the fact that I’d lost £5 to the Rastafarian just beforehand, was almost enough to take my mind away from my sensory issues to concentrate on feeling intense frustration.

The filing ended, the painting began and I paid her.

“What are you doing now?”

The Rastafarian, all of a sudden, had popped up. I had some time to fill before putting my hair into The Italian’s hands, so I said I was going to grab a drink and some chips. I will come with you, he said. I admit I was baffled. It was scenarios such as this, that made me question his integrity, in a good way. He had nothing to gain by accompanying me. He never wanted food, unless it was late at night and he’d just returned home after drinking all evening. He loved cooking it, to feed me, but never ate much himself. Maybe he genuinely wanted my company. We went to Wetherspoons and I had a bowl of chips which was so massive that I made him eat some. I wanted to buy a Mothers’ Day present, so at some point after deciding that even between the two of us, we could not finish the chips, I announced my plan to wander down to North Laine and again, to my bafflement, he said he’d come. During our relationship, we’d never shopped together, which is a shame, because he turned out to be the most relaxing person with whom to browse. I found what I wanted and then it was time to see The Italian, so we said our goodbyes.

The Italian was always the same. Always larger than life, efficient, loud, chatty, wanting to know if his English had improved.

It hadn’t, as in it was pretty good anyway, but his accent had, which was a relief, as it was sometimes to hard to understand him with the noise of hairdryers and the noise of town coming in through the open door as if it was wanting a haircut.

“I will give you a free treatment,” he whispered as quietly as he could, but even his whisper was louder than some people’s normal voices.

“Thank-you,” I whispered back, in an actual whispered voice.

“Shall we go out for a drink sometime?”

Smooth . . .

“Of course,” I laughed in reply.

To be fair, he’d completely accepted my reluctance for a relationship and he was kinda fun.

The free treatment was a conditioning treatment and Indian head massage. Thank goodness I don’t have a sensory issue with my head being touched, because it was heavenly.



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