12 March 2016

More about PTSD and environment

I've written before (in fact, quite recently) about noise and PTSD and work/school. A quick summary: noise and movement and activity can all be triggers, especially in places like large classrooms and open offices. I have a really hard time concentrating in lecture halls, where there's always someone moving around. Even when people are generally being quiet during a lecture, there's a lot of little noises and subtle movement going on. Same goes in an open office. Everyone hears these noises, and sees the movement, but for someone with PTSD these noises and movements all have to be processed. Evaluated. Assessed. This all takes energy, and since the brain can only do so many things at once, whatever you're supposed to be paying attention to, be it a lecture or work, suffers.

I had a computer engineering course once, that met three times a week. One was just a standard lecture, death by PowerPoint, in a room that held about 100 students. The other two meetings each week were on one floor of a library that had been converted from public study space into a "cooperative educational library", where you had 50 minutes to take an online quiz every class meeting. The professors and teaching assistants would hover around the room, and if you had a question they'd come to your station to help you. Stations were arranged in five-desk star-shaped cells, much like in some modern open offices.

I struggled in that class, because I couldn't concentrate. It wasn't that I didn't get the concepts; I'd look at a question, read it, look at the options, start thinking about them, and then there would be a TA at the next desk over explaining a different question. Or it would sometimes be the same question I was working on. Many times it wasn't a TA that was talking, but two or three other students collaborating. Many times it was two or three other students talking about where they were going out to get drunk that night. Whatever it was that people were talking about it was enough of a distraction that I'd lose whatever I had in my head about the question, and have to start the question again. I almost never finished a quiz completely, each time losing a ton of points.

I later learned from other students that that class in particular was a "weed out" class, made especially fast paced and hard to keep up with to weed out the computer engineering people who were "less serious". (That kind of class combined with a disability like PTSD equates to some of the survival stuff Bear Grylls does, but without your helicopter crew waiting to rescue you and take you back to the hotel with the buffet. The end isn't pretty.)

I've written about that class in particular too, and I keep coming back to that class because it was hailed as a Very Important Thing for the computer engineering department here. This type of class environment was the New Way to teach, it cost a crap ton of money to build (and probably costs quite a lot to maintain and operate), and the two professors who came up with it got a lot of good press about how it was a model for others to follow, and all of that.

Right now, I work in a campus office that's an open office, where a recent remodeling made an even more open, open office. I've actually worked in an open office for almost seven years, not to mention the computer science labs I've spent a lot of time working in and the common areas of the computer science building. I haunt several coffee houses. I'm actually very okay with open working space and being somewhat nomadic, having put my laptop and coffee down in all sorts of different and often non-optimal places to work. So I'm not against open offices and work environments. I'm just trying to find a way to be as productive as I can in these kinds of places, productive enough to actually earn a decent living even though PTSD can sometimes make it difficult.

All isn't lost, however. Facebook is one successful company that has a very large, very open office that other companies look at as a model of how to do things right. (Truthfully, a lot of different people and companies look to Facebook as an example of how to do many things right. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, after all.) Inc. Magazine posted an article about the things Facebook does to make their now quite famous open office work for its employees. Some of these things are things I do already; work nights when it's quieter, use headphones (I also use foam earplugs) to cut down noise, duck into a quieter place to work (I asked for permission to use one of the few offices where I work when it gets really noisy). One of the most important things is that if you're wearing headphones, it's a clue to others that you're busy working, need to concentrate, and should be left alone.

You'd be surprised how often, at the university campus office where I work now, people see that I'm wearing headphones and/or earplugs when I'm coding and insist on talking to me anyway. Which introduces a new problem, that if I do everything I can to block out ambient noise I don't hear people come up behind me-- trust me, you don't want to sneak up behind me (or, in general, any Veteran, especially those of us dealing with PTSD). I'm not a violent person at all, but you'll get snapped at. So I wish it were a universal thing, that if someone's sitting at a computer with headphones on at work, you either leave them alone or contact them via chat (or another less intrusive means). *sigh* It's encouraging that a company like Facebook has such a rule, because that means that other places hopefully will too.

All of which really helps alleviate some of the fear I have of how well I'll function in whatever environment I find myself in. Hopefully, as part of any interview process I'll get to see (and hear) my potential work environment-- I'm convinced that doing so needs to be a requirement. I'm probably going to have to ask for some kind of accommodations to make things work well, but maybe I'll be lucky fortunate and some of those things will exist already. If nothing else, thinking (and reading) about what actual companies are doing and comparing that with my experience is helping.

No comments:

Post a Comment

If you'd like your comment to stay private, please let me know in your comment. Anonymous comments are also allowed.