How I Metamorphosed Into a Dandelion-Orchid Hybrid at Age 17
As a gay teen, running to heartfelt mixtapes made me gutsier and more sensitive.
Posted Jun 28, 2020
A few days ago, I wrote a blog post, "Wonder If You're Highly Sensitive? Take a Sensitivity Test," that reported on the launch of a new, not-for-profit SensitivityResearch.com website. This online platform offers a smorgasbord of free sensitivity tests for adults (18+), a self-test for children and adolescents (8-18 years), and a sensitivity test for parents who are interested in identifying where their child lands on the "sensitivity continuum."
This morning, I went for a long jog and spent most of the time on my run thinking about sensitivity tests and wondering if I really am a so-called "tulip." According to my scores and the personalized feedback of my results, I'm a "tulip," which means that I have "medium sensitivity" on a continuum marked by "orchids" (high sensitivity) and "dandelions" (low sensitivity) on opposite ends of the spectrum. In this autobiographical post, I'm going to filter the latest 12-item sensitivity tests through my life experience during childhood and adolescence.
Music, Art, and Fragrance Defined My "Orchid-Like" Childhood
From a young age, it was clear to my parents and me that I was more sensitive than other boys in elementary school. I was passionate about music and art but showed little interest in roughhousing or sports. Luckily, my mother was an artist who regularly took me to museums and surrounded me with other art lovers. At the time, we were living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Mom arranged regular visits to MoMA and The Met, which were both within walking distance of our apartment.
Like lots of people who are higher on the environmental sensitivity scale, I'd completely lose myself in certain works of art. Even though it's kind of cliché to love universally adored paintings... "Starry Night" by Van Gogh (which is probably the most famous masterpiece in MoMA's collection) really knocked my socks off. Mom got a high-quality replica with visible brushstrokes for my bedroom wall; staring into the textured swirls of paint in the starry sky above the cozy village was a nightly ritual.
In 1975, when I was 9, my family took a summer vacation to Paris, and I got to visit the Louvre. Although I was completely unimpressed with how small the Mona Lisa appears in real life behind a bullet-proof glass case, I was blown away by the Winged Goddess of Victory (Samothrase). After being gobsmacked by this majestic statue, I nagged my parents to buy me an almost-life-size poster of "The Winged Nike" at the Louvre's gift shop.
The inconvenience of lugging around a humongous poster of "The Winged Victory" rolled up in a tube around with me for the rest of the trip was worth the reward of being able to look at this awe-inspiring work of art on my bedroom wall when we got back to the States. My obsession with this marble sculpture and the intense emotions that it evoked in me as a 9-year-old kid seems indicative of being an "orchid child" and suggests that high-sensitivity was hardwired into my DNA from the start. (See "Genetic Factors Make Some of Us More Sensitive Than Others")
I'd also lose myself in songs by really schmaltzy early-1970s music groups like The Carpenters—their songs seemed to hit a raw nerve and strike a deep emotional chord. As a kid, I'd position the stereo speakers about a foot apart and lie on the shag carpet in the living room with my head inches from the subwoofers. This created a surround-sound effect, which was a total immersion experience.
The opening of "We've Only Just Begun" (which begins with a snippet of "They Long to Be, Close to You" on The Singles 1969-1973 album version) never fails to send shivers down my spine and gives me goosebumps. Every time I listen to this song, I perk up my ears to hear the mastication-like sound of Karen Carpenter opening her mouth to start singing, which is clearly audible on the original, high-fidelity vinyl recording. If you listen closely, you can hear these nuanced sounds in the YouTube video above.
In addition to really loving art and music, I've always been very sensitive to smells and olfactory cues. Throughout my childhood and early adolescence, Mom's extensive fragrance collection unlocked something in my imagination and struck a deep emotional chord. When I was in eighth grade, my mom brought home a bottle of Annick Goutal's "Eau d'Hadrien parfum" from Bloomingdale's; this "unisex" cologne completely rocked my world.
To this day, I spritz myself with lots of Eau d'Hadrien any time I feel myself getting frazzled and need some aromatherapy. This is just one of many scents that I consciously use to make me feel calm, safe, and grounded on a neurobiological level and to promote a dandelion-orchid (sensitive but resolute) mindset. (See "Using the Power of Smell to Step Outside Your Comfort Zones")
During My Mid-Adolescence, Getting Bullied for Being "Too Sensitive" Triggered an Emotional Shutdown
For the record: I'm well aware that I was born into a privileged and affluent environment that made it easier for me to stay an "orchid child" who loved art, music, and pretty smells, without getting bullied or labeled "effeminate" throughout my childhood and early adolescence. Until high school, I lived in LGBTQ-friendly zip codes and attended progressive, open-minded private day schools; there was never any pressure to act "less gay" or pretend that I wasn't a highly sensitive person (HSP).
That being said, my blissful, orchid-like existence came to a screeching halt when my parents' marriage fell apart and my two sisters and I were shipped off to different New England boarding schools. I ended up in Wallingford, Connecticut, at a place called Choate Rosemary Hall. Although CRH was a notoriously abusive and homophobic boarding school in the 1980s (See "A Very Private School, Publicly Catalogs Its Sins") the current administration has made a tremendous effort to amend for the "sins of their past." The school has personally apologized to me for what happened in the '80s, and I accept their apology.
Nevertheless, the adverse childhood experiences I had at boarding school almost broke me. My dean equated being an "orchid child" with being a "sissy" and publicly humiliated me for being a "delicate flower." My response was to completely shut down and make myself "Comfortably Numb" by abusing drugs and alcohol. Suffice to say, Pink Floyd's album The Wall became my soundtrack and is Exhibit A of life imitating art.
Living in a toxic and oppressive boarding school environment temporarily squashed my sensitivity and killed the "orchid" inside me. Being devoid of sensitivity didn't make feel like a robust "dandelion child" who had grit and perseverance; I just felt hopeless, hollow, and dead inside.
As I've written about many times before, the invention of the Walkman (which was first sold on July 1, 1979) and having the ability to make mixtapes that I could jog to was a lifesaver for me. I started jogging in the summer of 1983; I was 17. Every homemade mixtape would be carefully curated to include a variety of heartfelt songs that fortified my dandelion-orchid mindset. Running to loud music makes me ecstatic. Breaking a sweat feels like joie de vivre oozing from my pores.
Aerobic exercise increases neurogenesis and makes the brain more plastic; I firmly believe that music and exercise are a potent combo that can rewire anyone's brain.
Pounding music that struck a deep emotional chord into my head during my daily jogs changed my brain in ways that made me more resilient and more sensitive to my environment at the same time. (See "How Being a Copycat Can Nudge You to Achieve a Goal") Although, I'm technically a "tulip," based on the latest sensitivity research (Pluess et al., 2018), I like to consider myself a dandelion-orchid hybrid.
Elham Assary, Helena M. S. Zavos, Eva Krapohl, Robert Keers, Michael Pluess. "Genetic Architecture of Environmental Sensitivity Reflects Multiple Heritable Components: A Twin Study With Adolescents." Molecular Psychiatry (First published: June 03, 2020) DOI: 10.1038/s41380-020-0783-8
Michael Pluess, Elham Assary, Francesca Lionetti, Elham Lester, Eva Krapohl, Elaine N. Aron, Arthur Aron. "Environmental Sensitivity in Children: Development of the Highly Sensitive Child Scale and Identification of Sensitivity Groups." Developmental Psychology (First published online: September 25, 2017) DOI: 10.1037/dev0000406
Francesca Lionetti, Arthur Aron, Elaine N. Aron, G. Leonard Burns, Jadzia Jagiellowicz & Michael Pluess. "Dandelions, Tulips, and Orchids: Evidence for the Existence of Low-Sensitive, Medium-Sensitive, and High-Sensitive Individuals." Translational Psychiatry (First published: January 22, 2018) DOI: 10.1038/s41398-017-0090-6