Settled in for the day at my desk, I look around and feel a sense of calm grow within me and spread throughout my body. I am firmly seated, feet resting atop the rollers of my chair, back straight, hands on the computer keyboard. I don’t need to look around me to be soothed by the uniformity of my workspace. My cubicle is…. well… cubical. It’s square and oatmeal-colored, with all my papers neatly placed in even stacks on the desktop and papers evenly tacked to the walls, square with one another. Everything is in proper order, and it soothes me considerably. Some people would call my workspace “anal retentive”, but I call it relaxing. With everything lined up neatly around me in straight lines, I can literally focus better on my work.
I’ve read that vestibular function is closely connected with the eyes – that the eyes help keep the body upright and instinctively help people keep their balance. From my own experience, that seems about right. Sometimes, when I’m off balance and I walk into a new place, I literally don’t see things around me, perhaps because my eyes are working overtime keeping me from falling over. I will look at things, yes, and I will know they are there, on some level, but I don’t see them. When I leave, I’ll have no idea what things around me looked like, and I cannot remember what people looked like, either. Likewise, when I’m interacting with someone very intently, trying to decipher what they are saying to me or trying to communicate to me, I won’t “see” them. Their form will be visible to me, their features are discernible, and I’ll know they are there, but I will have no recollection after the fact of what they are wearing or how their hair is cut or whether they had glasses or not.
Do I miss a lot of social clues? Do I miss out on a lot of chances to interact more closely with others? Sure. But at least I’m able to focus on what’s in front of me. And I haven’t fallen over.
And just as that goes for social routines, it also holds true for the arrangement of my physical work space.
My cubicle is a humble little box. But it’s also a station in which I have total control over what is around me. I totally control my own work space, and I have everything spread out exactly the way I want it. I didn’t have to improvise on my space usage. I didn’t have to adjust to other people’s encroachment. I didn’t need to accommodate any preferences other than my own. I am really in bliss when I’m in my cubicle, because of the very reasons that turn a lot of other people off. It’s square. It’s orderly. It’s about as unsurprising as a work space can be.
All my papers and folders are neatly placed in even stacks at regular intervals across my work surface, covering nearly all the available space with rectangles of neatly ordered white. Like so, roughly:
Some of the papers are current, and some are old and I could easily get rid of them. Some of the papers are just getting in the way and distracting me from the work I really need to get done. But I keep them all around me, stacked in neat piles all across my workspace. Occasionally, I’ll go through and rearrange them, or put some papers in folders and stash them in a nearby drawer. But I prefer to have all my papers out in the open, where I can see them. If I can’t see them, I sometimes forget they exist.
Everything on my work surface is in proper order, and it is supremely satisfying and comforting for me to flop down in my chair and lean forward, fingers on the keys, tap-tap-tapping away at the keyboard.
In front of me, I have papers tacked to the walls – precisely square with one another and spaced at regular intervals. They frame the wall space above my laptop computer nicely, in a comforting array of balanced white-and-oatmeal. They contain detailed instructions for performing common but complex tasks. They have reminders about when and how to execute certain procedures. They take the pressure off me, as I can always look up and remind myself how to do things my job requires. And they remind me that those things need doing, in the first place.
Having my papers lined up straight in front of me has the same effect on me as the lines of the tiles in my shower. It helps stabilize me and give me a series of straight lines to orient to. Whenever I start to spin and my head gets fuzzy, I just look around at the horizontal lines in my workspace, and I’m able to “right” myself again. What seems like an arbitrary, inexplicable (and more than a little OCD) way of organizing myself serves a vital visual purpose.
If I am surrounded by straight lines, horizontal and vertical, I feel like I can stay upright. I can actually think.
On the other hand, if things are out of order on my desk or the lines of the papers tacked to my walls are not straight, I feel dizzy and nauseous. I cannot easily let my eyes follow curves and swirls and inconsistencies in my visual field. Shifting objects in front of me make me dizzy, and when things move, I’m overcome with a wave of nausea that almost blinds me. A creamy whiteness clouds my vision, and my eyesight sometimes “turns off” – possibly to help me regain my balance. I’ve also gone temporarily deaf (and blind), when I was too overwhelmed by too much activity around me. My hearing and eyesight returned after I stepped away and took a sensory break, but for a few minutes, I was essentially deaf and blind. Truth to tell, I didn’t mind it at all. It was a welcome relief.
Going deaf and blind at work is not my idea of a good way to spend my time. So, the papers on the wall of my cubicle must be placed in straight lines, the papers on my desk have to be stacked neatly, and my other implements, like my stapler and three-hole-punch, need to be lined up with one another. Everything has its place. What might seem like a small thing for some – having everything organized in straight lines – is essential to me. I like my work. I like to function.
Working on my computer with the lines and square angles all around me, all the visually predictable grids and blocks and straight lines of my space calm my system down. Whenever I start to feel overwhelmed by a barrage of emails or a sudden change in my workflow or a steady stream of visitors stopping by in a short period of time, I hold absolutely still and fix my attention on a still object in front of me. The nausea that welled up in me a few minutes before subsides. I’m able to think. I am surrounded by the comforting right angles of my computer and my papers and my folders and the various tools of my trade. I can get my balance and start to notice the world around me.
I start to feel human again.