Twice this week, I surpassed my daily limit of 5 consecutive hours of screen time. This limit is one imposed by sensory processing disorder, and if I fail to adhere to the rules, there are unpleasant consequences. These include nausea, vertigo, and intense anxiety bordering on sudden panic.
My job as an editor is done entirely on the computer, and it’s very detail-oriented work. I have to focus intently on the screen in order to catch typos and fix grammar and punctuation mistakes. I also have to do a lot of tab switching and scrolling up and down as I add words and change headers. Some sensory stimuli, like bright lights and visual movement, bother me more than they might bother someone who doesn’t have sensory processing disorder. Taking long breaks – an hour or more – helps stave off the effects of digital screens, but when I spend too much uninterrupted or eventually, cumulative time looking at my laptop or phone, something gets mixed up in my brain. As a non-expert, I don’t know the precise details of what happens, but I do know that it feels TERRIBLE.
I start feeling some vague nausea around hour 4 of mostly continuous work. It spikes when I switch tabs or close windows- the little “whoosh” of a window disappearing into one corner is not something I notice at other times, but when I’m getting overstimulated, it makes my stomach turn. The light of my screen is physically painful to look at, so I turn it progressively lower as I go on. Scrolling is the worst; short vs. long makes a big difference, but they’re both bad. A long scroll makes the nausea much more severe and gives me an indescribably strange pulling sensation in my sternum. It’s something like how I imagine having a long, wet string pulled slowly up and out of your chest would feel. It creates an intense feeling of horror and high anxiety distilled down into the 1.5 seconds it takes to scroll from the top of a page to the bottom. Short-term panic. Something about the movement on my screen is powerfully repelling. The longer I push on past my limit, the more the panic sensation bleeds into the time around the scrolling.
For a little while, turning the brightness down low and wearing sunglasses helps, but eventually, even that doesn’t work. I take short breaks to press my feet into the floor and look at something stationary in the middle distance. I often close my eyes while scrolling, but this just prolongs the experience because I never scroll to exactly the right spot. If I’m typing anything, I look away from the screen. As the anxiety gets worse, I take deep breaths and pause to look elsewhere. My 5 to 10-minute breaks become time for me to lie on my back on the floor and squeeze my knees to my chest – trying to ground my frazzled nervous system.
It became the worst it’s ever been this week when I carried on to about 7 hours of editing. The two hours leading up to the end were miserable. I was doing everything I could to make it through my remaining work, to the complete detriment of my body. I found myself involuntarily rocking back and forth after particularly awful scrolls, just trying to keep it together while my nervous system went haywire. My body was screaming, “HEY. DUMMY. JUST TELL YOUR BOSS YOU’RE SICK.” But I’m perfectionistic and had decided that it was my un-shirkable responsibility to finish all of it myself. When I did finally finish it, I barely held down vomit after booking it to the bathroom. I’m a dummy.
I wonder if it has to do with the blue light (I plan on trying some blue light-blocking glasses) or the frame rate of my screen. I haven’t been sleeping well lately, and I suspect that my sensitivity is heightened when I’m not well rested. Sensory processing disorder does weird things to my ability to handle multiple types of stimuli at once, and being tired just exacerbates it. In the same way that an escalator on its own is fine but an escalator after a busy day in an airport filled with noise and movement gives me vertigo, being tired makes handling the imperceptibly flickering light and movement of a laptop screen way harder.
I spent many years not paying attention at all to the way my sensory processing disorder impacts me. I knew I had it, but I told myself that I should be able to do all of the things that other people can do. So I minimized it in my mind. Despite having learned more about sensory processing disorder and having gotten some treatment in the form of occupational therapy in the recent past, acceptance is something I still need to work on. When simply looking at my laptop screen for too long has such debilitating results, SPD is something I should be considering more carefully. Pushing myself to the point of throwing up was extremely unwise and points to a general disregard for my own wellbeing. I didn’t want to inconvenience other people by being late with my work or shuffling it off onto someone else. And ultimately, I just did not want to admit defeat when it came to something as innocuous as looking at a screen.
I think I’ll try to reframe “admitting defeat” as “taking a really big hint from my body.” If it means living in a way that doesn’t leave me green with nausea and crying, that seems more like winning to me.