Spectrum: Immersion, Transitions, and Executive Function

“I wish I could feel that,” my mom said to me a few winters ago when I visited her in Florida. We were standing near a willow thicket by a marsh at the Gulf Coast’s edge, and my ears were alert to a flycatcher’s chatter. It was a common state for me–my senses keen and my attention focused on finding and identifying the bird. I didn’t know what my mom was referring to. But it was the joy in being connected and engaged with the world around me through the gift of immersion.

My New Year’s resolution this year is to give myself permission to experience immersion.

Part of this project in exploring, identifying, and embracing my neurodivergence includes incorporating the gifts, as well as the challenges.

I’m realizing now that the capacity for immersion is a gift.

For decades, I’ve felt that I couldn’t afford to become immersed in an activity or hobby because it seemed to interfere with daily life, and, I wrongly suspected, with my mental health.

My maternal grandmother experienced manic-depression, and at one point, when I’d been blissfully high after becoming immersed in watching the sky, I began to suspect that this high led into hypo-mania, and that, by indulging in it, I was wiring my brain in a way that might leave me susceptible to full-blown mania. I decided the smart thing, the responsible thing, to do would be to reel it in, play it low-key, and keep myself as balanced as possible.

I’m realizing now that that’s, likely, nonsense.

I also put reins on the experience of immersion because, when I was a young adult, it interfered with my ability to manage the daily tasks of running a household: getting supper made, doing the dishes, cleaning house, washing laundry. It was too easy to get lost in a novel, a movie, a video game, painting, writing, gardening, bird-watching, or playing the guitar and forget everything else.

I sometimes found that my immersion in a project, activity, or novel would make me late for work, miss a buss, or skip an appointment. And sometimes, I would not be able to fully transition out of the immersed state, so I would move through the day with 60-80% of my attention and focus still within that novel, painting, or piece of music. This made functioning challenging, and, when we lived in the bustling city of Seattle, potentially dangerous.

So, I limited my experience of immersion in exchange for learning to manage daily life.

And somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that immersion, in and of itself, was bad and dangerous and unhealthy: an indulgence I couldn’t afford.

I am now declaring that notion to have outlived its purpose!

Immersion has a place in my life, and it has the potential to bring joy, to facilitate the development of gifts, and to allow me to be fully, wholly, engagedly me.

For example: I’ve been playing cello for nearly nine years. This means that I can, sometimes, actually play in tune, and that I can play some pieces well enough that I can lose myself in them and allow the music itself to be expressed through me. Right now, I’m working through (for probably the fifth time) Bach’s first cello suite. There is something there! When I become immersed, it feels as if something external–this concept, this structure, this pattern that finds resonance within our own neurological patterns–enters through the music and I align with it. The intonation of my instrument becomes an intonation of myself. This experience is healthy, healing, invigorating, pure, and in alignment with something beyond the reaches of this universe. I would not trade this experience for anything. It is, to me, what life and what being a human being are all about.

I am learning that the way to handle immersion so that I can benefit from my gifts is to approach it, not in the hedonistic way I did as a young adult, but with maturity and planning.

The interference that my immersion caused in my daily life happened when I had trouble with the transition from the immersed experience into the next activity or when I became upset at interruptions.

So this year, I will approach transitions consciously and strategically. I am writing this half an hour before I need to head into the office. I know, then, that I will need to put a bookmark in these thoughts and ideas, especially if I don’t have time to complete this draft before I leave, so that my focus and attention is freed up to engage with (and immerse myself in) the projects I need to do at work today.

A few minutes before I leave, I’ll close out my browser, shut off my laptop, and fold down the lid, signalling to myself that this writing session is over. Then I have the routines of dressing in my office clothes, packing up my lunch, and saying goodbye to my boyfriend to close out those synapses that have been opened through this writing session.

On the drive into the office, I’ll listen to classical music to engage the busy part of my brain while immersing myself, with as much presence as I’m able to summon, in the act of driving, an activity which is challenging for me and my capacity for attention, information-processing, and physical coordination.

These transition activities, and the routines associated with them, should help me emerge from the immersion in writing so that I can engage fully with my responsibilities at the office.

With cello practice, it’s much simpler: The practice itself has clear boundaries. First, I take my cello out of its case and adjust the end-pin. Then, I rosin my bow. Next I sit with the cello, adjust my hold, and tune the instrument. By the time I begin scales, I am in it.

Practice sessions have a clear beginning and ending: When I complete what I’ve set out to play and practice that day, I’m done. And then, the closing process: Put in the end-pin, wipe the cello, put the cello in the case, loosen the bow, set aside the music. These simple actions pull me back so that I can attend to what comes next.

Interruptions are challenging. I often don’t hear–or can’t comprehend–what’s been said, if it’s a spoken interruption, which, it seems, most interruptions are. I find that putting my attention into my body helps. First, I feel the soles of my feet. Then, if I’m sitting, I feel where the chair presses against me. Then I breathe and tell my mind that it is time to be verbal–time to think in words again. It sometimes takes a few moments, and I usually need to ask the person to repeat themselves.

This is, generally, an uncomfortable process, and I think this may part of the reason that I decided, years ago, to forgo the immersive experience, at least if there were danger of being interrupted, and, since I live with someone else and work in a busy office, there is, nearly always, that possibility.

So now, I’m going to take a different approach: I’m going to attempt to approach my response to interruptions mindfully and with kindness, towards myself and the other. I will realize that the interruptions from a state of immersion are a bit painful–or, at the very least, uncomfortable–so I’ll be gentle with myself as I make the transition into a verbal state again. And I’ll be kind and understanding of the other person–the one who caused the interruption–realizing that they are simply interacting with me in a normal manner. It’s not their fault that I experience some discomfort as I move out of my immersed or focused state and back into a state that allows me to respond to them.

Along the way, I’ll be watching to see if mindful compassion is enough. I may need to develop or learn some specific strategies to help me with interruptions.

With some projects, I need to realize that I have to stop them before they are finished, and so I am the one interrupting my immersion. For example, it’s now time for me to head to the office. But I want to stay and finish this post, and I can feel that my brain is longing to complete these thoughts.

And yet. My goal in allowing myself to become immersed is to do so in a way that I can manage with my responsibilities and the tasks of daily living.

So I am going to tell myself that these ideas will still be there when I return. I can put those bookmarks in, I can let my attention shift to writing HTML code, and when I return to complete this post, I will be able to re-immerse myself. (I will let you know how this goes!)

It is the next morning. Yesterday’s practice of immersing myself in writing, emerging from that state, and completing a productive day at the office went well, in part because it was a very busy day at the office, so I was able to move from one immersed state to another.

Overall, I feel that if I trust the structure of my life, the routines of work schedules and my own schedules for tasks, I will be able to engage successfully with the immersive experience. Each morning, I review for myself the few things that must get done and the things that I want to do. I identify options and times where I have flexibility: for example, I don’t have to practice cello after I do the dishes; I can do it in the afternoon, if I prefer, or even skip the practice altogether, if yoga, spending time in the garden, or simply daydreaming better suit the needs of the day.

In other words, within structure, I can give myself the freedom to become immersed. It doesn’t have to be one or the other–I can live responsibly while still living rich.

Author’s note: Many of the ideas in and the inspiration for this post were spurred by an amazing series of articles I found on “Hacking Your Executive Function” by autofspoons, one of my new favorite bloggers.

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Spectrum: White Lines on the Meter

My boyfriend and I have crafted a rich, warm, healthy, fulfilled and fulfilling life. It’s taken (and takes) lots of hard work, lots of good fortune, and lots of privilege (yet what we call “privilege” in this society, and the “privileges” upon which our life rests, are things which we should extend to everyone–I tend to see access to water, food, health and dental care, shelter, music, education, art, dance, exercise, literature, and equity as basic human rights, not privilege. Is it “privilege” that I am able to experience these human rights? It’s a crime that not everyone is. This is a tangent to be explored elsewhere, not here. Back to the topic at hand!)

It took us a few decades to build this life. Our first fifteen years together, we lived below the poverty level, moving often (over 30 times during that epoch), making it (and usually just barely making it) month-to-month. This was a time in the U.S. of rising homelessness, and the fear of becoming homeless loomed. We had no savings, and we rested on good fortune to protect us from crisis.

We did have a safety net in my family, who would have taken us in, if needed. And we are white, educated, with no visible disabilities. We looked like hippies and lived a counter-culture lifestyle, so that kept us on the outs in some ways, but it was always seen as a choice, and we lived on the West Coast where there was comfort in tribe. We fit in, even when we didn’t fit.

Grad school was what changed things for us, allowing me to discover and create a career that worked for me, for maintaining our free and creative lifestyle, and to allow us to, finally, buy a home, plant a garden, and settle in.

Keeping this life going takes about 98% of my capacity. This isn’t unusual. When I think of all the working women I know, each seems to be using 90-110% of their capacity to keep their lives, their homes, and their careers going. This is especially true for women with children.

This doesn’t seem to be the case for men. The men I know at work seem to be using around 40-60% of their capacity in their careers and at home. While the women are on the edge, with the taut lines of stress around their mouths, the men, generally speaking, relax their bellies, walk more slowly, and take the time to, sometimes, simply stand and look out at the sky.

(Back to the topic of privilege, which seems to want to assert itself in this post: that relaxation and within-capacity-operation that men enjoy in the work place should not be a privilege. It should be a basic human right, extended to women, too. It’s not equitable that women have to work twice as hard, generally make 20-40% less, and generally receive fewer promotions. It’s not equitable that, in addition, 60-90% of the housework falls to women.)

What happens, then, for someone using 90% or more of their capacity to keep things going when something extra comes along? When children are sick, cars break down, dentists or doctors need to be seen, and the cable guy needs to come? At these times, unless we have extra help, we exceed our capacity.

I feel fortunate that my present career doesn’t require full capacity, or at least not most of the time. (I do have rare periods of special projects when it does take 100-110% capacity.) When I taught full-time at the college-level, my career demands exceeded my capacity. A few weeks into the term, I was stretched too thin. Weekends were spent trying to recover, when I wasn’t reading papers, and those long winter and summer breaks were devoted to recuperation.

When my current web-editing job was 40 hours a week, and I was teaching three courses a term online, too, career-demands were around 100%. But for the past decade, I’ve been working only six hours a day at my office job. This makes my two jobs sustainable. I have long hours every morning to relax and fill myself with the garden and the cello. Evenings have long hours for enjoyment and relaxation. And the work itself is engaging and often fun. Teaching tasks happen on weekend afternoons, online, in the comfort of my bright and sunny living room, with Beethoven quartets playing on the stereo. This works for me, for our life.

During these past two weeks, I’ve been home on winter break from both jobs. Life during these past two weeks has required 10-20% of my capacity. It’s felt unusual, and it’s only in the past few days that the gears have shifted and I’m feeling comfortable with these lower demands. On Monday, it’s back to the office, and I’m looking forward to it. I like that full-meter feeling.

Comparing the demands of these past few weeks to the demands of the normal work week has me evaluating what, specifically, it is that requires so much of me during the work week. At home, the daily tasks of preparing meals and caring for the garden and household aren’t draining–they’re fulfilling, contributing, rather than using up, my energy.

At the office, the tasks I complete (converting text to html, correcting html code, designing web graphics and web pages, writing and editing copy) also contribute to my energy. I love the attention to detail, the immersion of coding, the satisfaction of presenting information clearly, and the rewards of finishing tasks.

The demands seem to come in two main areas: executive function and social interactions. Much of my energy goes towards prioritizing projects, scheduling work, sorting demands, and all of the micro-details connected with that, in addition to the transitions of starting and stopping. It requires a lot of energy to handle the executive functioning aspects of multiple projects, responsibilities, and tasks.

The social interactions seem to draw considerable amounts of my energy. If I didn’t make a point to talk with others, I would probably quite happily simply walk directly into my office each day, communicate primarily through email, and only talk to those directly involved with the projects I was working on and only about these projects. This approach wouldn’t require extra energy on my part, and I’d feel quite satisfied with it. But I expect that I would experience negative consequences. It seems to be required to greet and chat with the receptionist, with the friendly person in the office off the hall, with my office-mates, the others in our department, and my supervisor. It takes so much effort to do this. Is it possible that 50% of my overall capacity goes towards these social interactions?

I think it’s likely. Fifty percent for non-task-specific social interactions; forty percent for executive function: that leaves 8% for the actual work, which seems about right! This may not be an accurate measurement of where my energy goes, but this is what it feels like to me.

I’ve often wondered how it is that my workmates are able to socialize in their time off. Most of the women I work with get together with friends after work and on the weekends. They look forward to this. I’m not able to do this. All of my social energy is used up during the workweek, and if I got together with friends during my time off, I would be running in deficit in no time at all.

I finally figured out that it’s a matter of where do we get energy and where do we get drained. For my workmates, socializing, at work and in their time off, does not drain them. It fills them. So for them, to get together with friends after hours brings enjoyment, fulfillment, and refreshment.

For me, the social interactions at the office are tasking. Social interactions outside of the office would be more than I could handle. In my hours away from the office, I like to walk, practice yoga, prepare meals, spend time in my garden, play my cello, daydream, write, play video games, read, and think.

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