Taking up space – more musings on meetings

I wanted to start this blog post with a link, but I can’t, because there are just too many of them. So I’ll start in my own voice and leave you to Google the rest.

The reason I wanted the link is because I’m starting from a concept that I’d heard before today only once, uniquely voiced. It’s around the issue of taking up space. I can’t remember where I read it and I wish I could, because I would love to have shared that post. But as I found out when searching for that link, this is a pretty well established thing. The idea that a certain type of person – that strangely indefinable “normal” person – has the implicit right to take up space. They don’t even need to ask. They just know.

As a person who is definitely not “normal”, I don’t honestly know what this person looks like. I know they exist – I have seen them and heard them and felt their impacts in the world – but in many cases my experience is not of individuals but of the faceless roar of “public opinion”, a surge of formless consensus that flows like the oncoming tide and cannot be pinned down. Who are these people, so many people, blessed with the implicit right to exist and the privilege not to know it? Probably, they are neurotypical. Probably, they are male. Possibly – at least if living in the “Western World” – they are white. And almost certainly, they are not disabled.

That’s not exactly what I’m here to write about, but I think it’s where to start. It seems to fit.

As a not-normal person, I have not the right to take up space. I can know this, although I cannot define “normal”. Like many in minority groups, I have learned the need to ask, rather than to expect any given space to suit my needs. For most of my life, I didn’t even know that I could ask. Often, even now, I am astounded by the number of options available to me that I’d assumed were simply “not allowed”. It’s simultaneously frustrating and liberating. To know that I can ask – and thus to be forced to take responsibility, constantly, for things that so many others can take as read.

But I digress. It’s not actually space that I wanted to talk about today. It’s time.

I have a lot of respect for people’s time, particularly at work. Perhaps it’s because of the difficulties I have with executive function and time management that I hate to interrupt my colleagues. I set high standards for the level of effort and time I should invest in tackling a problem before enlisting another’s aid, because I know how much those tiny tasks can cost. And in this way I make myself small. As if I have no right to take up time.

I believe my learned understanding that I don’t have a right to take up space translated into trying to minimise the amount of others’ time I “wasted”, by strictly limiting the amount of time I inflicted my presence upon them. I’m only just learning how many ways in which that is wrong! Not only the excessive quantities of my own time I’ve spent over the years struggling with problems that could have been solved in minutes, but in a wider strategic context: of ever getting any useful work done at all.

Which is where meetings come in.

I don’t like meetings. They are confusing, difficult to navigate, and can even be dangerous. But surprisingly, they do have their uses.

Traditionally, in the spirit of taking up as little space-time as possible, I’ve diligently avoided extended workplace face time. I’ve limited meetings to trying to communicate necessary information only, being focused and concise in my interactions to the point of extreme. I’ve felt fear at the lack of an agenda and struggled with the wasted hours spent repeating in circles what’s been discussed and decided innumerable times, and it seems to me will go on forever being discussed, never reaching a logical conclusion. And yet, eventually, it does. Which is the point I’ve been missing.

By restricting myself in this way, holding back from encroaching onto this precious sphere of time, I’ve lost out on some vital moments I could have learned from. I’m starting to realise that this slow, incremental progress is what makes things happen. Decisions aren’t made on the basis of evidence, considered clearly and openly and presented without guile. Decisions are made in the gut, by the inch. Innovative intentions to action are aired early, months before they are expected to take fruit. Results are drip-fed, subtly, constantly; like water carving a path through rock they gradually make a place for themselves in the shared consensus. By the time the final report is complete, the decision has already been made.

I’ve learned that I have to be much slower, less “efficient” and more expansive. I have to introduce people to an idea early on, and keep plugging it so that it stays in their mind. Practically speaking, this means arranging lots of meetings, and wasting a lot of time. But it’s time that others don’t seem to see as wasted. It’s the way we get things done.

I’m also finding out how much I can learn from what seems at first like a very inefficient use of company time. Counterintuitively, as long as a meeting has a goal, it doesn’t matter if the event becomes unfocused or the conversation strays. When arranging meetings myself I’ve found it’s a good idea to book a long slot for a small goal, as sometimes we want to discuss details or get off track. The extra time, instead of frustrating people, tends to ignite our imaginations – with less time pressure and the freedom to explore, we cover more ground. For science meetings, now, I always book a room for longer than we’ll need. Because it won’t be a waste when we use it.

Reflecting back on my “meetings” series a year ago: I’m learning. While I still struggle in meetings organised by other people, having used them myself to get things done I can understand a bit better now how they are supposed to work. Things don’t seem so hopeless as they did back then. As long as I’m looking after myself properly and have some resilience, I can adapt to make these traditionally NT-friendly spaces work for me. Which I could never have learned until I realised I had the right to exist. To take up space, and time.

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Breathe

Time is contracting around me at the moment. To say I don’t know what prompted this would be a lie, but the suddenness and sheer intensity of the reaction never fail to catch me off guard. One moment I’m fine. The next I stall just trying to say the words: “I need to go home”.

Overload, stubbornly unremitting, has been the theme for this week. It started with a weekend all to myself, full of enthusiasm for clearing the inevitable backlog of mundane, everyday tasks. A whirlwind of activity, I almost succeeded. Then two nights I came home from work and I couldn’t stop. Sitting down quietly and clearing my head in time to sleep – just didn’t happen. So the next two days, in an office full of people? Crash and burn.

Experience tells me I need to try harder to slow down. A combination of really wanting to exploit the productivity (“aw, but I’m getting stuff done!”), along with something that lies partway between false confidence and wishful thinking (“I’ve learned to deal with this – it’ll be fine”), lead me time and again not to do what I know I need. It’s not easy to make that conscious decision to stop – stop making progress with this time and start to relax, right now. Because if you don’t, there will be no time tomorrow.

“No time” in this context seems like a strange way of putting it, particularly in a society where time is so fixedly absolute. Conventional wisdom – indeed, all reasonable logic – says that the more time I spend doing useful things tonight, the more time I will have tomorrow to spend as I please. But that is only true up to a certain point. Past that point, the more time I use today, the less is left over for tomorrow.

Like money, time in itself isn’t really important. What’s important is what it buys. Poverty and wealth aren’t defined by a simple threshold in annual income – however hard the media may try! The value of money is measured in the food it buys, the heating it pays for, and – when we are lucky – the opportunities it affords. In a suburb 50 miles from London, a 3 bedroom house can be bought for what it costs to rent a bedsit in the city. Money is relative. So is time.

My time isn’t measured in hours, minutes and seconds. It’s measured in fresh dinners cooked and casseroles bulk-frozen. It’s measured in shirts ironed. It’s measured in miles walked, cycled or driven to get to where I need to be. The units of time are activity. So for me, having “no time” literally means not being able to complete, between fixed commitments, the necessary activities to remain healthy and functional.

When I walk home overloaded, if I look up from the pavement, I will be lost. I know the route by heart, and must walk it as if in my sleep, because the conscious me does not know where I am. My mind overflows, making nonsense of the signs and signals around me. Just crossing the road is a dangerous adventure, and unreal – I could walk straight out into traffic that I hadn’t even seen. Bizarrely, these times when I run such concrete risks to my own physical safety are one of the very few times I do not feel fear. With such incredible volumes spilling over in my head, there is no abstract or spontaneous feeling. I feel everything that is real, from the visual and auditory and other sensory stimuli that I cannot at that moment process; and yet emotionally, I feel nothing.

When every step seems an age, and a half hour journey lasts a lifetime, the concept of time as an objective construct appears as it truly is: meaningless. When finally I arrive home, nothing will be done that night. In assembling dinner, I will sacrifice the next night – if I didn’t eat I might lose several more. On the third night, I will wake dimly from the haze with three nights worth of things to do. I will do two, in a panic, and cancel my weekend plans. Because although there was the same amount of time that week there always is, there wasn’t time.

Weeks are lost to these monstrous fluctuations, this constant uncertainty. Planning becomes impossible. Life becomes small, strung out and struggling. Isolation and focus become the only way to survive.

Of course, the flexibility of time has a flip side. The weekend hours are longer than those on weekday evenings. Freed of commitments, weekends can loosen the hours that have mercilessly constricted around my working days. Relaxing the schedule to drift between tasks, with no one to answer to, I can be safely and happily disoriented to focus on the important things at hand.

For now, another weekend has come. Precious time to spend reinflating the hours, so that next week, I can breathe.

Fear of time

When I was younger I had a recurring nightmare about being chased by clocks.

They weren’t real clocks. Not as such. I just never had the right words. I was walking down the corridors at school in the early morning, through the music department, where I used to go to practise before registration. There was always something behind me. I didn’t know what it was, but I started to walk faster. It didn’t go away. There were people and movements and abstract things that told me that time was running out of my control. I ran to class, but it didn’t make a difference. The day was over. The time was gone.

The dream went away, but the feeling stays with me. I can’t put a name to it. Reading tells me that this is what most people call “anxiety”. The word seems shallow compared to the depth of the emotion. It’s like seeing the tracing of a brilliant painting, the colours translucent shadows of reality. It doesn’t come close to describing what I feel.

I wonder about time. I wonder, as something to which society so rigidly clings, at how little it is absolute, and how much only perceived. A great rippling canvas stretching out into the distance: but coloured, folded, warped and stretched by each of our individual sensory perceptions. Some autistic people describe having no sense of objective time, hours passing without note – a luxury occasionally afforded by my beautiful empty days. There are those people who always seem to be lost, showing up late to everything or not at all. Sometimes I feel like one of them. But the virtues of punctuality in social settings, it seems, so inextricably linked to the dreadful sin of rule-breaking, were deeply ingrained in me.

I lived with the feeling for so long it all but faded into the background. Over the years, it became a part of me. It would build up inside me like the invisible coiling of a spring, tightening, squeezing into smaller and deeper spaces day by day as I held it at bay. As I balanced and juggled an ever more complex schedule, with dates and hours and deadlines and people, so many people; until I didn’t know where I was or what day it was or where I was supposed to be. Until I didn’t know who I was apart from this feeling.

And then one day it would release. Suddenly. Cathartically. I would be alone one night when it broke: a storm of crying, words and tears and noises spilling out of me like a forgotton stockpot bursting its lid off the boil. No one saw or heard those moments. Cradled carefully away from the world, they spilled out intermittently into those rare, precious, and ever-narrowing spaces where I was safe.

These days, I recognise the signs. I trained myself to see the slow changes in reaction and ability, responding to the quiet buildup of ever-suppressed anguish. I can predict, sometimes, when a situation will make things worse. And then time speeds up around me and I know that I am lost.

I can’t tap the feeling once it’s bottled. I can’t siphon it off. The tears won’t come. Sometimes I hear a song and it bubbles up, just for a moment, and I wish for that sweet relief – the still, deep sleep that follows hours of crying – but it won’t come. To keep something so deeply buried gives the illusion of power; as if I could possibly control something so primal, so powerful. So many years spent hiding this from everyone, bricking up every outlet, so afraid for this side of me to be seen, that now there is no outlet at all. Nothing but this violent breaking apart, spewing the poison from inside of me, leaving me empty and clean. The heartbreaking relief every time I don’t damage anything in this outpouring, that now I’m safe again. The hope that I can rebuild myself. Remember who I am. Who I was.

There are no more clocks, but the nightmare is here. It is me.