Thin Skin by Stephanie Wescott

My mum tells this story about taking me to see a Lassie film when I was in grade 1: we had to leave the cinema abruptly because I was hysterically crying. Inconsolable. My mum, when telling this story, frames it around her embarrassment. I of course have no recollection of it, but I suspect the moment when Lassie goes missing or runs away (the plot details are unclear to me) was unbearable to me. I’m still emotionally unable to cope with any instances (even in cartoons) of animals in distress. Fictional or not, I imagine myself as them, my empathy extends across the borders of our species, and I am overwhelmed by a shared grief. The sight of a truck of cows on the Monash heading to the slaughterhouse leaves me devastated for hours.

When I began teaching, a few colleagues told me that I was ‘too soft’, or ‘too nice’. I knew it, but I didn’t know how to change. I wondered if it made me unsuited to the job. My sensitivity wasn’t something that I could easily do away with. I felt ashamed to be a person who felt things so deeply. I wished I could move through the world differently, letting comments bounce off my skin; light, buoyant, meaningless. Inevitably, I toughened. Not by choice, but because you have to in that gig. And, working in student wellbeing increased my tolerance for sad stories until I no longer felt as deeply as I used to.  

I have written in a previous issue about my anxiety, which I see as the inevitable companion to hyper-sensitivity. This leads to a whole suite of other health issues, but at the beginning of this year, for the first time, I was suffering from excruciating, and (so I thought) unexplainable heartburn. At night, it felt like someone was holding two hot irons to my chest and back. It was searing and relentless and woke me with a jolt; my body was confused by the pain and ended my sleep to confront me with it. I went to my doctor early one morning and cried in pain and frustration. I begged for some relief. He agreed to prescribe me some medication, but also wanted to get to the cause. ‘In young people,’ he explained, ‘heartburn like this is usually caused by stress’. I was confused. It was January, I had enjoyed a long and restful summer. I had quit my stressful teaching job and had a year of study ahead of me. I was the happiest I had been in years. Defeated, I began taking the anxiety medication I thought I didn’t need anymore.

It took me a while to realise the cause of my stress. And, with this realisation came also an epiphany. Anxiety is funny, in that you don’t often realise how deep you are in its hold until you emerge from it. The relief from the heartburn also removed some of the associated anxiety, and I realised I was exiting a tightly-bound anxiety spiral. These come and go, often, and are as physically punishing as they are psychologically. But, the realisation: I had been doing a lot of reading on the post-truth phenomen for my PhD research. I had read books on Donald Trump, and, by curiosity and association, had begun to obsessively read about climate change. I realised I had been in great distress for weeks. I was thinking about Climate Change voraciously, and had begun to lose any rational hope for the future. I was waiting for the moment of implosion. Completely on edge and perpetually angry and without a source of hope to cling to.

As is common during anxiety spirals, I became obsessively fixated on a set of repetitive thoughts: How can everyone just carry out their lives as normal while we live on the verge of disaster? That person at the supermarket, trolley full of meat, don’t they know better? Should I have a baby? Why would I bring a child into a doomed world? Seems selfish. What kind of life would they have? What can I do so save every single animal in the world that is suffering right now? I’m not doing enough. I need to do more. But when? How? Adani. Fuck. The Murray Darling. Devastating. The drought. Animals being shot, need to block that one out. Scott fucking Morrison.

The heat waves over summer really got to me, too. Those days filled me with an impenetrable sense of foreboding.

Last year, I explained these patterns to my therapist, who diagnosed me with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Not so much the compulsive kind, though. Mostly the obsessive type—an obsessive fixation on dark and dire thoughts. This, like all mental illnesses, is usually a symptom of something else going on, like an anxiety spiral for example. And so the pattern goes. ‘The obsessiveness is a form of safety-seeking,’ my therapist said—an explanation which seems at odds with the experience of it. ‘By repeatedly fixating on dire thoughts, your mind is preparing you for the worst possible scenarios so that you are prepared when they occur.’ Okay, great. But, if the cure is to build a silo of denial and naivete around myself, so as not to ever entertain a troubling idea, I’m not interested.

Recently, a friend recommended I read about a new psychological phenomenon of Climate Change distress. The Australian Psychological Society writes that common feelings of this distress include ‘fear, guilt, shame, grief, loss, helplessness.’[1] The APS have published a guide on coping with this distress, centered around ‘balancing action with reflection’, ‘cultivating hope’ and taking care of our mental health. I have always been highly-attuned to the natural world, to the animals in it, the sounds and smells, and find aspects of the modern world suffocating and anxiety-inducing. As I learn more about myself, I understand the connection between my sensitivity, animals and the natural world, and do what I can to preserve my sensitivity, rather than stifle it.

I am not ashamed anymore about my sensitivity, or my empathy. I see being ‘too nice’ as a strength, one that has enabled me to work with young people, friends and family through moments of intense pain. To stay well in these current times involves an everyday dance of bits and pieces that need to work together for the right effect. The basics, like sleep, exercise, eating well, medication, and avoiding coffee and alcohol—usually a highly effective mix. Poetry, yoga and some time somewhere quiet helps, too.

I am going to finish this piece with an excerpt of a song by Clare Bowditch called Thin Skin. Clare also identifies as a highly sensitive person, and discovering this song helped me to understand myself, and to paraphrase her, to feel ‘lucky’ to ‘feel the world the way [I] do’.


Feel as if my heart is
Always always breaking
Every single bus trip and every single plane I
I fall in love
With a babe in arms with the driver of the bus
Or the boy with the green eyes
Who clearly needs a little loving

I wanna touch him
Born into this skin
That feels just a little too thin
Never sure if I belong here
Don’t need not to be afraid
Never to forget
We’re so lucky to
Feel the world the way we do

See a little boy fall upon the concrete
She was being mean
I feel it in my heart as though
As though I pushed him
Cannot watch the news
If I do I cannot sleep
With the pain and the stories of the people I’ll never meet
That doesn’t help them

Born into this skin
That feels just a little too thin
I’m never sure if I belong here
Tell me not to fret
Never have to forget
We’re so lucky to
Feel the world the way we do