Me and Owl

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Lunchtime in the Loo

Lunchtime in the Loo

For those of you coming to this post hoping for an amusing scatological tale, I'm sorry to disappoint. I originally titled it 'Finding Quiet Spaces' but I liked 'Lunchtime in the Loo' better and it's arguably more accurate.

As anyone who knows me well will confirm, I need a lot of alone time. A lot of time to process and decompress without the stimulation of other people around me. I'm sure this is largely due to my autism which means that life is a NOISY COLOURFUL CRAZY CIRCUS WITH NO PUNCTUATIONANDSOMETIMESNOSPACES!!$£$%&$^%&!!@$%*(R^&)!

It's a lot for my brain to handle.

When I'm at home it's generally okay. We have noisy neighbours and sometimes simply the doorbell going or the dishwasher beeping will put me on edge. But most of the time I can control my environment and I don't have to 'mask'. When I'm out, it's a different matter. There's so much bombarding my senses and I use a lot of energy dealing with that and trying to 'be normal'. Usually, when you're out and about or at work or uni, there's no private space. In fact, there are very few spaces that are simply quiet and warm, let alone private.

During my postgrad course I lived at home so I didn't have halls to retreat to and lectures were 9-5 every day. To the amusement of some of my course-mates, I would take a daily walk alone after eating lunch. I say 'take a walk' but I wasn't actually walking. That's just a habit from trying to find a way to explain my need for alone time in a way that people would understand. The reality was that I would go outside and find a corner in the grounds where I could hide from view, and just sit. But to my friends, it was my lunchtime walk.

At first they tried to join me but after I awkwardly muttered about being an introvert it became know as 'Emma's Alone Time'. I found it easier once I had established this routine to simply announce cheerfully that I was going for my solitary walk and then scarper. They would smile at each other in, not unkind, bemusement. My friends, who didn't seem to notice, much less mind, the noise and smell of the vast canteen, would happily spend the whole lunch hour in there, chatting and laughing. In contrast, I would gulp down my lunch and promptly vanish into the grounds.

'Do you meditate on these walks?' someone asked one day.
'Maybe alone time would make me wise and mysterious like you,' mused another.
'What do you do?' they badgered me.

I shrugged, smiling. I didn't have an answer. The purpose wasn't to do anything. It was the not doing that was the point. But I couldn't find the words to explain. Or rather, I didn't want to. They already thought a solitary walk was weird. So I said nothing and became something of a mystical being in their eyes. They didn't know that I'd already hidden behind corners in order to have some solitude on the walk from the station or lied about going to the library because I was too exhausted to talk after class.

I was so desperate for time to decompress during the day that when it was raining or became to cold to go outside for any length of time, I would sometimes sit in the toilets. 'Lunchtime in the Loo'. And on the days that I brought a packed lunch, sometimes it would literally be lunchtime in the loo. I did this until I told my therapist and, sounding concerned, she asked whether there was somewhere else I could go. So a few times I sat in the waiting room of the student services building, which was very pleasant apart from the strange looks I got when I said I wasn't waiting for an appointment.

Overall, the number of hours I've spent sitting in toilets or hiding in the corner of a library or bookshop is high. If I didn't feel so beholden to my classmates or colleagues, it would be higher. Obviously I don't want to hide in the loo. I'd much rather have a nice little room to myself. But a toilet cubicle is usually what I have to work with. 

When I think of my ideal quiet space (or decompression room as I like to think of it) I think of somewhere small. Only a few people can comfortably fit in there at one time. It's insulated from the outside world so it's silent. It's warm and comfy with nice chairs and tea making facilities and a table to put your sandwich on. And maybe a sofa or some cushions on the floor where you can have a nap. And that's it.

In the end, I only spent half a term telling my course-mates that I was 'going for a walk' because even with my grasped moments of solitude at lunchtimes, it was too much. I had to quit the course entirely. That's a story for another day, but suffice to say that this stuff is important. I'm not saying a private room for lunchtimes would have meant I could have completed the course, but it would've been a very helpful start.

I've heard that some schools are introducing rooms like this for children to calm down in if they're finding the classroom too much, but I imagine they're few and far between. But why? Increasingly educational establishments and workplaces are catering for an extroverted world, with hot-desking and group tables and team activities. But some of us are introverts. And some of us are autistic introverts, which is different again.

Time to be alone and to decompress is absolutely vital to my health and wellbeing. It has been a lack of this in the past that has strongly contributed to periods of burnout and depression where I couldn't manage to make a cup of tea for myself, let alone go to a lecture or meeting. I don't want another lunchtime in the loo. I want more quiet spaces.

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