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27 February 2016

Noise, PTSD, work

When did the world get so damn loud? It's not like my hearing is getting better-- I've poured enough heavy metal into my ears over the years that it should be getting worse. Yet, as time passes, I'm finding myself sitting or standing or walking with earplugs in my ears. The foam ones, the kind that you wear when you work in an environment that's so noisy there's potential for hearing damage.

I work in the call center portion of an IT help desk. Some of the time, I'm the quality assurance person, so I need to be able to talk to coworkers, and I need to listen to what said coworkers are saying to customers on the phone. I've been doing it long enough that I often know what question I'm going to be asked before I'm actually asked, just from hearing one half of the support call. It's also good to know when a support agent is going in circles (or doing something completely wrong) so I can step in and point things in the right direction.
There, in that role, I don't expect to be able to do any one thing for any length of time because handling interruptions is my job.

The rest of the time, I'm a software developer with PTSD. There are lots of developers who will tell you that they need quiet to work, meaning that they need quiet to concentrate on what they're doing. I'm one of those people, but with the added factor that I'm very hyper aware of what's going on around me, all the time. You walk across the room, I'll probably notice you. You talk, I'll hear you. You bang your chair into your desk, I'll hear you. All of these things, my brain needs to take in and evaluate-- is this a threat? Do I need to respond? This is exactly the same thing that happens in large lecture halls, where I find it so hard to concentrate that I have to record the lectures using a smart pen. (I don't actually learn anything during a lecture-- I transcribe, and the learning comes later.) As a developer, I'm taking things and processes and creating a mental image of them and converting it into instructions that a computer can understand. I need to be able to concentrate. Intensely. I need my entire brain, which isn't available if I have all of the noise of people moving and talking and banging things around to process.

I first tried earbuds that have soft silicone thingies that do a halfway decent job of blocking sound. There are still times when having those earbuds in my ears and music on (sometimes pretty loud) just isn't enough to block out all of the ambient sound-- and music can be a distraction on its own, because there are always songs or pieces of music that have memories and emotions attached to them. Sometimes, when things are settled down and people are doing quiet things, the combination of earbuds and the right music is enough.

If the earbuds and music don't block out enough-- which happens fairly often-- the remaining choices are ducking into the one office in the place that has a door that can be closed. It's definitely quieter, but it's also isolating. I don't really have anything against being in an open plan office other than the noise, and I actually like having people around if they're quiet people. So the other option is earplugs, which unfortunately no one ever notices I'm wearing. People will stand and talk to me for several minutes before realizing that I can barely hear them. This has negative effects, one of which is that people think I'm an asshole for ignoring them. Another negative effect is that they have to repeat whatever they've been saying for the past several minutes.

Between when I start work at 1700 and 1730ish when the retail/service desk side of work closes, they have music piped into several speakers that also cover the answering the phones section of the help desk. Who pipes music (distracting music, at that) into a call center? So the first half hour or so of my development hours are spent with earplugs in, doing small tasks that don't need a ton of concentration. Email, reading my notes from last shift, things like that. Then, hopefully, once the retail and service desk people are gone, things settle down a little and get a little more quiet and I can actually start getting something done. I usually keep the earplugs in for my entire shift.

Right now, it's the middle of the night (0200ish) and I'm sitting in a convenience store that has a seating area-- kind of a mini food court. There's no one else sitting here, although there are people coming in and out of the store and there are several people working here. I still have my earplugs in. There's music piped into the entirety of the convenience store, presumably to keep the staff awake and put customers in the mood to buy more stuff. They've also recently added a big screen TV mounted near the ceiling, that displays CNN with the volume loud enough to be heard over the actually quite loud ambient music. When two people sit down in the mini food court, they nearly have to shout at each other across a table. When one or two more people want to talk, everyone has to shout above everyone else and the music and the TV that no one's paying any attention to.

The more sources of noise, the higher the amplitude of the noise, the more my PTSD kicks in and the more uncomfortable and triggered I feel. The more uncomfortable and triggered I feel, the more irritable I get-- partly because being triggered doesn't feel good, and partly because I wish people would just shut the fuck up and stop trying to fill any available quiet space with noise. I wear earplugs in lots of places-- not just here in the convenience store, but the student union, the computer sciences building common areas, the libraries, and even sometimes at home in my apartment. Places that are not environments that are normally associated with hazardous noise levels. People see that I'm wearing earplugs and look at me funny-- like, what's wrong with this guy that he's wearing earplugs?

I honestly keep a pair of earplugs in my pocket all the time now. I just ordered an industrial size box of the highest rated "block all of the noise even voices" kind from Amazon-- I looked at reviews until I found the ones that seem most likely to block out the most sound, as it turns out that many earplugs are designed to reduce noise but still let voices through. I don't want to let voices through. I want silence.

My cell phone is always on vibrate; it's also always in Do Not Disturb mode, meaning that the only phone calls that will actually make my phone buzz are calls from people I've marked as favorites in my contacts list (there are four such people). I don't generally like noises that are alarms, because noises that are alarms have historically been (for me) associated with situations where it's a good chance that I'm about to die. I don't talk on my phone in public often, partly because I use chat and text messages far more, and partly because it just seems kind of rude. Somewhere it became okay for people to be in restaurants and airport terminals, and on buses and airplanes, and have their phone ding and bloop and beep out loud whenever a message or notification happens. (This is especially bad on airplanes that have just landed, where strings notifications happen all at once as a result of being without a network for several hours.) Perhaps people feel more important if their phone makes irritating noises often? They do this at work, too. (Okay, I'm ranting a little now, but it relates.)

Credit: Wikimedia
This matters a great deal, and I mention the situation both at work and in public places, because it can really make the difference between me having a day where I feel all right, and a day where I feel like hell. Even more important, the noise level where I am and my PTSD's reaction to it can have a huge affect on my productivity level when I'm on the clock. I want to be productive, and I want to earn my pay-- but I'm looking at the probable environment anywhere I'm going to be working next and it's likely to be an open plan office. A noisy, chaotic, insane hell for someone who's hypersensitive and hyper aware when it comes to noise and movement and things going on. Is it that bad everywhere? Likely not-- there are plenty of other people, especially people who write software for a living, who do value quiet and peace and do their best not to make unnecessary noise. (I'm doing the best I can to tell myself that.)

I'm more than a little afraid that I'm going to get an interview somewhere and take the obligatory walk through the place, which will probably be an open plan office, and want to scream reach for the earplugs that will be in my front right pants pocket and stuff them into my ears. Once they've expanded, if it's still noisy and I start feeling triggered, I'll have a choice. I can say "No thank you", knowing full well that the next place and the next place will have the same open plan office and the same noise level. Or, probably more difficult, I'll have to explain that I am a disabled veteran and that I will need accommodations that will include a quiet and somewhat but not completely isolated place where I can sit and work in peace.

I'm actually fine with admitting that I'm a veteran, and that I have a disability whose name is PTSD. (I don't like it, but I've slowly been making peace with it.)

It's illegal to not hire someone because they have a disability and ask for reasonable accommodations-- but be honest here, if you work in such an open plan office and one guy gets a cubicle with walls or an office to work in when no one else does, what are you going to think? If you're doing the hiring, are you going to be understanding, or are you going to find a reason not to hire the person who needs accommodations and hire the person who is perfectly fine working in an open and noisy environment? And even if the accommodations get made, what happens when it's explained that the new guy is a combat veteran with PTSD that needs to work quietly by himself most of the time?

Like I said, be honest when you answer.

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