The Sound & The Fury: When PTSD Meets Synesthesia
I see sounds.
Music, voices, and ambient noises all manifest in vivid color for me, as though I were viewing them through literal rose-colored glasses. Oftentimes my synesthesia informs how I perceive those around me; for instance, voices that manifest in shades of green sometimes give me a feeling of unease and mistrust. Gold, blue, and purple voices are attractive to me; most of my romantic relationships have been with people whose voices are navy blue and purple.
While speaking to strangers and exchanging sweet nothings with lovers provides me a firework display of rainbow auras and dazzling hues, not every sound/color is as aesthetically digestible. As the proud owner of a brain riddled with C-PTSD, I’m constantly hyperaware of the noises around me. Triggering noises like loud bangs, slamming doors, and screaming are a vibrant shade of red, flashing like a massive STOP sign behind my eyes. Some of my less-common trigger noises (like the sound of a vacuum cleaner, the electronic pulsing of a walkie-talkie or AM radio, and even the sound of an old file cabinet closing) are a hideous shade of brown-gray, like a worn-out, soiled carpet in an abandoned building.
Perhaps the most frustrating consequence of having PTSD and synesthesia is also the most rewarding: my music-listening experiences are often so much richer. I feel the beat, the melody, the rhythm deep within my chest; the lyrics flow through my veins; the harmonies electrify my senses and pull me into waves of emotion and sensation. When I find a song that elicits that whole-body reaction, I play it again and again at eardrum-shattering volumes until the colors fade to the background. The Emotion by BØRNS, Particles by Nothing But Thieves, and The Village by Wrabel are all bone-penetrating songs that manifest to me as kaleidoscopes of light and glitter and texture. Meanwhile, some of the most universally beloved music has been forever marred by my miswired brain’s synthesized processes.
I joined the school band when I was in fifth grade. Trumpet didn’t work out, flute was a lost cause, and percussion was a disaster. Clarinet somehow became the perfect fit, and I eventually graduated to the far superior bass clarinet. Although I have always reveled in creating music with others (see: 20+ years of musical theatre and spontaneously breaking out into song with my mom in the kitchen), I found myself absolutely dreading Band practice. Marching and Pep Band were fine enough — most of our tunes were upbeat, contemporary hits, and I certainly enjoyed our Danny Elfman and John Williams units. But come Vivaldi, Mozart, Mendelssohn, and Bryant, my gut would suddenly twist and my skin would crawl.
I began to resent Band and Orchestra, especially during school concerts or competitions, where I would sit in the audience during the other grades’ performances and fidget in my seat, unable to understand how my peers could just sit there and either appreciate or completely ignore the music swelling around them. All I saw were floods of red and brown light, bright as the EXIT signs posted around the auditorium, and my ears prickled as rough, scaly, textured sounds swept across the stage and seeped into my now too-tight collar.
It wasn’t until a recent attempt to lull myself to sleep with an “easy listening” playlist that I realized certain music and its corresponding colors is an identical match for those that appear alongside my PTSD triggers. Other universally beloved songs that are inexplicably ruined for me are Yellow Submarine by the Beatles, Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen, and Beethoven’s Ninth. My profound dislike for these songs (and plenty of others) goes far beyond some mild annoyance at their over-popularity. When I hear a song that appears visually similar to a Trigger Noise, it’s as if the song itself becomes a trigger. Yellow Submarine may be an irritating, parasitic earworm to some, but for me, it creates a visceral reaction of disgust and even fear.
Gatekeeping is a chronic disease in the music community, particularly within the band/orchestra/choir communities. A firm appreciation of the classics is expected and often enforced, and an unironic adoration of Top 40 pop music is treated as a disability to one’s musical maturity. I often felt like an outsider during my 8+ years in Band (which I promptly quit as soon as I began college) because I couldn’t connect to the music in the same way that my extremely talented peers could. I didn’t understand why I couldn’t just hunker down and breathe with the music, listen to it and interpret it, let it flow through me the way I could with plenty of other compositions. Not every song was a challenge, of course, and in terms of technique I could keep up with what was expected of me at each advanced level, but when a song’s visual embodiment crept down the back of my neck and screamed danger in my ear, my passion for the piece was lost, replaced instead with palpable tension and resentment.
Synesthesia manifests differently in everyone, and I doubt I was the only person in my 400-person ensemble who was affected in this way. But without the ability to verbalize my discomfort and amidst the culture of “you’re only a serious musician if you love the classics,” I sank while everyone else appeared to effortlessly swim. At this time, my PTSD was still undiagnosed — all I knew was that trigger noises seemed to surround me, but I didn’t know why or how, and I certainly didn’t know how to cope with those triggers.
As I began to learn more about myself and my condition(s), I found workarounds and coping mechanisms. Most of the time I could easily avoid Red or Brown music by carefully curating more aesthetically pleasing playlists on Spotify or Pandora. When I worked at Toys R Us, the intercom radio would often play teenybopper hits that sparked yellow and pink, and the occasional Red song could be tuned out if I hung back in the inventory room for a couple of minutes or “accidentally” pressed a button on one of the singing Elsa dolls. I was, however, unimpressed by jarring “hold” music whenever I was on the phone with my bank or university. I knew logically that most people don’t suffer anxiety attacks from ABBA’s Dancing Queen, but I still felt frustrated that companies couldn’t just stick to some lo-fi royalty-free tunes, or even just raw silence.
None of this is to say that I expect precise catering to my extremely specific and relatively rare combination of disorders. Rather, I’ve found that the conversations surrounding artists and creatives with PTSD are almost always focused on heralding neurodivergents (“NDs”) as “brave” or “heroic” for pursuing a career despite their “disability”. This only serves to further alienate people with mental illnesses, as if they’re unable to contribute their art without it needing to be some kind of statement about resilience and strength. Ariana Grande, for example, can hardly publish a tweet without her words and actions being picked apart as those of a “true survivor”. Ariana’s PTSD is real and valid and life-altering, but that doesn’t mean that her art — and the perspective she brings as an artist with PTSD — should forever be labeled as a consequence of tragedy.
Given that psychologists and neurologists are noticing a link between graphene-color synesthesia and PTSD, doesn’t it follow that we should be having conversations surrounding music, art, and the neurodivergent community? Not just conversations about how ND artists are so brave for daring to continue making art in the face of adversity, but actual, productive discussions regarding innovative, technologically-focused ways to produce and distribute music that fosters feelings/colors/sensations of healing? We can use our synesthesia as a guide and study how the intersection of mental illness and sensual synthesis contributes to the experience of listening to and creating music. We can develop platforms and services specifically designed for those whose interactions with music can be far more intense and terrifying — but also far more beautiful and rewarding.
We can do better as consumers and creators of art and music. We can make room at the table for those with unique perspectives and stories, rather than placing them on the Tragedy Pedestal to ogle and pity but ultimately ignore when business decisions are being made. We can invest in music therapy programs, prioritize the arts in schools (particularly in low-income areas where vulnerable populations are often subjected to massive in-school police budgets rather than arts education), and take responsibility for our own self-education on mental health and how our ambient environments can affect our customers, students, and employees.
Friends, we can do better than Yellow Submarine.