July 8, 2007

Being sensitive used to be a good thing. A sensitive person was kind, compassionate, insightful, sensitive to people's feelings. But the other day, someone described me as sensitive and I'm not sure it was a compliment.

I was in a chemist in Notting Hill, inquiring about a pair of earplugs. The pharmacist suggested I try the ones made from foam. When I told him I'd tried them and they didn't work he said: "My, you're a sensitive one, aren't you?"

I wasn't sure how to respond. When did "sensitive" become "difficult"? In an attempt to explain myself I told him I was living next door to a drummer, but I could tell he didn't care. I could have said I was a Buddhist monk travelling with Aerosmith and he would have had the same indifferent expression.

Growing up, I was sensitive in all the best ways. I was considerate of other children and did well in English and art. I was the friend who mediated fights between classmates. I was an only child, quiet, who read alone in my room, did origami and water-coloured. What could be more sensitive? Then, as I got older, I became sensitive to things like criticism and rejection, weather and germs. If someone said something nasty about me, my sensitivity levels were off the charts.

And the health issues. Everything about me is sensitive in that department. My eyes are sensitive to sunlight; my allergies make me sensitive to breathing because of hay fever; I have a sensitive stomach and a sensitive palate - if I eat anything spicy, it triggers a rash on my sensitive skin. My feet are sensitive - I get blisters from walking around the house in slippers. Essentially, from my toes to my nose, I'm a ticking time bomb. I should live in a bubble. Except I'm sensitive to confined spaces.

Then, two years ago, I had a hearing test and was told that I hear decibels very few humans hear. I have dog hearing. So now I'm super-sensitive. And my super-power is to hear things nobody else is aware of. How does this help? It doesn't. Maybe if I were a spy and had to eavesdrop through concrete walls I'd be a huge success in life.

But I've always wanted to be an aficionado of something and now I am: earplugs. I know more about them than most audiologists. I've learnt that London is a great place for earplug aficionados because everyone here has a complaint about a loud neighbour.

My friend Sam suggested I try a French brand of hypoallergenic wax plugs. She slipped me a box discreetly, like they were contraband. "They're being discontinued," she said, "so use sparingly."

Now I'm afraid to use them at all. What if they work? And I can never find them again? The guy upstairs can breed wildebeest and I'll stuff my ears with cotton before breaking into my stash. I'm waiting for London to be shelled before I crack open the box.

Another friend, Oliver, swears by his earplugs. They're industrial strength and he's offered to give me a box. It seems to be a "Welcome to London" custom I didn't know about: "Here's an A-to-Z and a box of earplugs."

The other day somebody mentioned that they had someone they wanted me to meet. Only they described him as "very sensitive". No thanks, I know what that means.