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When a Zoom Call With My Friends Led to Sensory Overload

I bailed on a Zoom call with a group of friends this week. We logged on at 7:15 p.m. like we do every Monday night, and 12 smiling faces filled my screen. I was happy to see everyone.

After five minutes, though, that joy turned into discomfort. Then anxiety. Then full-blown panic.

I turned my microphone off. Took a few deep breaths. But the feeling of overwhelm didn’t leave.

I slid out of view of the camera and rocked back and forth. Fidgeted. Screwed up my face in frustration.

I felt foolish. Angry. Why is this so hard for me?

It shouldn’t have been so hard. They were my closest friends. But I tried again, and I couldn’t do it. I quickly logged off.

Why did that Zoom call send me into a panic? Why couldn’t I smile and push through? I licked Nutella from the jar and stared at the ceiling, racking my brain to find the answers.

I knew it wasn’t just my general “awkwardness” that comes with most video calls. It was the overload. The sensory overload.

It was the sound of chip packets and swivel chairs and pens clicking and kids in the background. It was trying to process all the visuals: a brick-walled bedroom, a room filled with twinkle-lights, someone sitting in Parliament, another on a Hawaiian beach, someone in the middle of a Minecraft field…

It was the fact that I couldn’t process body language. I couldn’t predict who was about to speak. I tried to say something but it got lost in the chatter. I missed the jokes and couldn’t keep up with the conversation.

It was overwhelming, and it was hard. I wanted to be there. I wanted to connect with the people I love in that way. But sometimes, sensory overwhelm can be too much to bear.

In February of this year, I was assessed for a sensory processing disorder. It’s not something I’ve shared publicly until now because I’m often embarrassed to tell people that I find lots of simple things challenging.

But I am learning it’s OK to admit when I’m struggling. It’s OK to be the one who can’t cope.

If you also find group video calls and other “ordinary” things hard, remember this: You’re not alone. You aren’t silly, or overreacting. It’s OK to tell people when things are difficult. It doesn’t make you any less capable.

And if you thrive on video calls and can’t get enough of Zoom and House Party and FaceTime, that’s great. Celebrate it. Know that I do love connecting with you, and that my online discomfort isn’t a reflection of how I feel about you.

This week, I’m grateful for friends who understand. For people who say “hey, I get it,” even when they don’t.

I’m thankful that even though we all have different struggles, we don’t need to be separated by them.

You’re all wonderful. I love doing life (even online) with you.

Getty image by iNueng.