Having Complex PTSD is an interesting experience. The disorder mimics its cousins ADHD and autism, and presentation of its symptoms varies drastically from one person to the next. In my case, I am hypervigilant of sounds, easily overwhelmed by raucous environments like festivals and concerts, have certain sensory sensitivities like light or textures, have memory issues, and can get taken hostage by tasks that I find interesting, aka hyperfocus. Corralling these symptoms into habits that work for me rather than against me is difficult at times, but the one that takes my executive functioning abilities for a ride is hyperfocus.
Ashinoff and Abu-Akel define hyperfocus as “a phenomenon that reflects one’s complete absorption in a task, to a point where a person appears to completely ignore or ‘tune out’ everything else.”1 It is inherently dissociative, which makes it very difficult to muster the presence of mind needed to snap out of a task and back into reality; you know, the place where time exists? I’m most likely to lose time to a project while at home. There have been more than a few occasions when I was oblivious to my husband’s absence while I was playing a video game or working on a sewing project; he’d kiss me goodbye, but I wouldn’t have noticed that he was gone until he came back a couple hours later, encouraging me to drink water and stretch my legs.
Work, however, is a wildly different story. I can’t seem to focus on any task for longer than a few minutes without lifting my eyes from the computer screen to scan the library floor for a potential patron in need. The smallest whisper snaps my focus like a dry twig under a clumsy boot.
While it is inconvenient to be in a constant battle with myself to devote my full attention to a task, it isn’t a complete curse (most of the time). Yes, a patron’s existence can momentarily distract my attention but, when combined with my hypervigilance, my specific cocktail of symptoms transforms into a honed skill set: I become acutely aware of the disposition of every patron in the building. Do they look confused or lost? Did they grab a particular book that made them smile and wander toward the quiet area to take it for a test drive? Have they picked up the same material multiple times, undecided about whether or not they want it? Is the piece of tech they’re using confusing them? Are they glancing in my direction every so often, hopeful to make eye contact so that I can start the dialogue they desperately wish to have but are too anxious or shy to start themselves?
While in the library, the patrons are my hyperfocus. I’m deeply interested in how I can help them achieve their goals, so my brain tunes in to the unique complexity of each patron like it does a fascinating video game. Even while I’m working diligently at the desk, I’m taking in every movement, sound, shift of air around me because the patrons are what intrigue my mind. Is their presence a disruption to my focus on the work directly in front of me? Absolutely, it is! It’s highly inconvenient and, frankly, my work day would progress so much more smoothly if patrons didn’t exist; materials would never be out of place, tech would never break, books would never be challenged, printers would never run out of ink or paper—it’d be bliss! But patrons are the reason I’m in this industry; they’re why I love libraries so much. Their interests, their goals, their desire to become lost in written or spoken words are why I want to be at that desk. So, while patrons are by far the biggest disrupter (my neurodivergence coming in second by a nose), the library wouldn’t be the beautiful place it is without them.