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Finding My Own Tempo Amidst the Cacophony

The sensory onslaught of New York City was unnerving and unsettling at the onset of my college internship. By the end, my ADHD brain had learned to find its own groove — with a little guidance from the Central Park Zoo.

When I went to the Central Park Zoo this winter, the best part was seeing the sea lions speed around their glass-enclosed pool. Watching them was like looking through a window into my brain, where my thoughts race in concentric circles, barely missing collisions. Some of them climb to the top of the rocks and bark, but others are tame, rolling around and asking for treats. All these thoughts — the speed racers, the barking attention-seekers, and the belly-up docile ones — coexist simultaneously. I never know which one to pay attention to. I stared at the sea lions long after the other spectators left.

I wish the zoo had been my first interaction with the New York City. Instead, I had gone to a grocery store at rush hour. The sensory input overwhelmed me: different languages, bright labels, little children, and smells. The sea lions never collided, but this place was full of collisions: thought-collisions… and people-collisions, too.

In New York, sensory onslaught jams my mind, like rush hour traffic. Another back-logger is panic. I worry that this city’s stimuli will take over my mental real estate and upend my executive functions. How can I get my bearings in a new city when I’m surrounded by blinking lights?

I have to remember that my mind is not a grid system; my thoughts aren’t organized in simple layouts. My thoughts need room to sit, bark, and race around. I have resolved to practice being calm in new and uncomfortable places.

Now, I am patient with myself when I feel like my brain is listening to Times Square through a stethoscope. I like the chaos of this city, and I look forward to running errands. By persuading myself not to panic when I feel the overwhelm, I keep my own tempo in New York City.

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Updated on May 5, 2020

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