I stare up at Cinderella Castle. The glittery blue and gray monolith doesn't look as imposing as it once did — it's been nearly 20 years since I last saw Walt Disney World's most iconic structure in person. But even though it doesn't elicit the fear it used to, my heart is still pounding and my palms are sweaty, the byproduct of a childhood association few experience. It's not the reaction Disney World garners from most adults, but then again, I'm not most adults. I've spent decades living with severe sensory and anxiety disorders.
Sensory processing disorder manifests in different ways, but at its core the condition is essentially the same: The brain has trouble processing and responding to information received through any of the senses. In my case, that means I'm easily overwhelmed by sound, especially new and loud sounds. For instance, as a child, the popping of a balloon at a birthday party could send me to seek refuge in the bathroom, clinging to the stall for upward of 20 minutes before I could calm down. I've worked hard to overcome my proclivity to panic in most ordinary situations — be it crowded city streets or a summer thunderstorm. Disney, however, is anything but ordinary.
To many, Disney World is "The Most Magical Place on Earth," a well-deserved nickname when you think about how much joy the brand has brought to millions of people for nearly a century. This was the place Super Bowl–winning football players aspired to go! I was the apparent outlier. At 8 years old, it was my worst nightmare — a candy-coated sensory overload that left me dizzier and more terrified than Alice's trip down the rabbit hole.
During my first trip to the supposed Magic Kingdom 20 years ago, the shadow of the castle loomed inauspiciously as my family arrived at the park. It might as well have been the Haunted Mansion, given the fear it inspired. The clicks of the turnstiles, the carnival barks of concession stand vendors hawking giant Mickey Mouse–shaped lollipops, the whiz of the spinning teacups, the roar of Thunder Mountain — an all-out sonic assault rallied against me. I stared blankly at a Sleeping Beauty impersonator off in the distance in hopes that my parents wouldn't notice the moisture forming in my eyes. Mustering a facade of bravery, I desperately wanted to prove that I was normal. I still do.
After years of therapy, various medications and doctor visits, I am determined to reclaim the childhood moments my fear denied me. I owe it to the kid I never was and the person I am now. Through the difficult but shockingly effective use of exposure therapy methods, I've worked up the nerve to sit through previously unfathomable circumstances. With a combination of deep-breathing techniques and a prescription for a variety of benzodiazepines, I've attended major league sporting events in stadiums packed with thousands, and watched fireworks displays (albeit at safe indoor distances, like from a car or hotel window, sometimes with my therapist by my side). Elementary school accomplishments like learning to ride a bike or enjoying myself at an arena-sized concert have become my most bragworthy. It might sound trivial, but it remains a marvel that I am able to not only navigate these leisurely pursuits, but actually enjoy them.
Disney is the final goal.
As a child, I nervously huddled in the gift shop next to Splash Mountain with Mom, recovering from the cannonball blast of Pirates of the Caribbean that still rattled me 20 minutes after our ride. As my 5-year-old sister, Katherine, rode all of the roller coasters with my dad, Mom hoped the shelves of souvenirs would provide ample distraction until they came back. And for a while they did. Considering I have the most common name for girls born in 1985, there was tons of merch with my name on it — pencils and key chains and magnets for the millions of Jessicas who would actually want a physical reminder of their trip.
When my dad and sister returned, she wasted no time sharing her excitement. "Can we go on it again?" she beamed, still soaked to the bone from the log flume's precipitous 50-foot drop.
"Maybe later," mom replied. "Let's go on something your sister likes first."
That something would be probably be slow and steady, perhaps It's a Small World or Dumbo the Flying Elephant, the kiddiest of kiddie rides. I was nervous enough without the added shock of speed and splashes.
"Oh, okay," she said with considerable patience.
By this time my sister was accustomed to me steering the direction of family activities and my needs overshadowing her desires. I still think about all of the Fourth of July barbecues she never attended throughout elementary school. I monopolized parental attention, requiring constant soothing and reassurance, at her expense. She was content to remain quiet, in the shadows of my outbursts, or at least to appear content, perhaps as a coping mechanism or perhaps because she was used to it.
But we never did find out what ride I might like, because that's when gunfire broke out.
Three men in cowboy hats emerged out of nowhere and commenced a terrifying showdown right in front of the Country Bear Jamboree.
"Hey, we gotta rob that there bank," one cowboy declared. His glistening pistol, hovering in its holster, immediately caught my attention.
"But there's that ugly lawman standing over there," replied one of the others.
I clutched my mom's hand even tighter as we slowly tried to back away from the scene, only to let go when we had trouble fleeing. By this point a crowd had gathered to see what this commotion was all about. I could barely process what was happening. Who were these strange men with guns? And why were they wreaking havoc in this supposedly magical place?
"Well, we gotta shoot him!" the first cowboy declared, and a barrage of fake gunshots rang out. I bolted, weaving in and out of mobs of people in an attempt to seek refuge in the castle, while my family scrambled after me. The violent noise not only hurt my ears but also rattled my core. I was overwhelmed and physically shaken by the sudden booms. The unexpected loudness registered as a threat, one that didn't belong in what I believed to be a fairy-tale kingdom.
I needed to escape.
Read the rest of this story at Narratively.