I realized sometime in the middle of my college years that I’m weird. Up until then, I’d figured that everyone, when told tales of pain or illness, actually felt pain in sympathy. As it turns out, they don’t, at least not usually. As it turns out, only I get to be that lucky.
Today, for instance, a friend wrote that he was coming down with something, and that he’d shivered his way through a meeting. Reading this, the familiar twinge started up deep under my diaphragm and deep inside of the chest space nearest the my right shoulder, just as it always does. It feels like hot electricity, and the main part of it shoots at a slight diagonal between my lower ribs. And that was just for the flu! Things get a lot worse the more suffering is involved for the person who is actually afflicted.
And this works for emotional pain too. In fact, I can usually tell when people near me are upset or angry or stressed simply by paying attention to that line between my ribs, the hollow under my right shoulder, or a little space in the back of my throat that feels heavier the worse the other person’s pain. This unseen, unspoken version only works if people are physically near me, though.
I was just learning that this wasn’t exactly normal when I read a science fiction novel for a class. It was by Octavia Butler, and it involved a character who suffered from hyperempathy syndrome. If I remember right, this syndrome resulted from having a mother who was addicted to some futuristic recreational drug while pregnant. Kids suffering from this syndrome literally bleed if they saw others bleeding. I remember reading this and thinking, “Yes! I almost know what that’s like!” It felt so good to have it described that I later read the other books in that sci-fi series.
And yet, while it’s definitely uncomfortable, I wouldn’t give this internal sensor up if given the choice. I don’t know why, though. Maybe I’m just used to it.
[p.s. Comments are closed on this post and old comments are deleted because they had a tendency to get out of hand. Like nearly everything else in life, this is both a blessing and (occasionally) a hardship, so I’m not interested in bashing people who aren’t empathetic or in hearing about how empathy can be an utter curse. For me, this is just who I am, and I don’t know any other way to live. Usually I love it. Sometimes it hurts. Either way, this isn’t a manifesto.]