Reinventing my personal blog

23 Feb 2023

I Now Have an Attention Span

Various things in the last few years have alerted me to the terrifying fact: I don’t think I had an attention span at all until, well, now.

That I was able to graduate from college, get married, hold down jobs… privilege, and opportunity.

Most of the time, I was told that I was that way because I was simply careless, lacked attention to detail, and that was just who I was.

Deep down, I disagreed, but I did not have any other data points that would show that all of those terms were incorrect.

My first inkling that something might be wrong was when I found myself utterly insomniac and unable to sleep for months at a a time. That was about a decade ago. The feeling I most remember was, “It feels like I have a million ants under the skin of my body!” But no one believed me. That was probably the precursor to a lifelong struggle with thyroid diseases, that was to come.

Then, I realized that I probably haven’t ever had a good night’s sleep. Every photograph of me as a baby has my mouth open, as if gasping for breath. I took it to an experienced doctor in the US, who told me I most definitely have had sleep apnea since I was an infant, and that if we were to do a sleep test today he would be surprised if I wasn’t in the high moderate or extreme range. He was correct.

Eventually, I got both issues looked at, and mostly sorted. (These things don’t fully go away, but can be managed.)

Putting aside the issues of not being heard or believed as a young woman in medical system (something that all minorities face, all over the world), I’m pretty pissed. How was I allowed to live through most of my life in such suboptimal conditions?

Why is it that people were happy to just say ‘oh, that person has the attention span of a gnat’, but nobody asked why?

It seriously impeded my way of life. It got in the way of living, doing, existing. I could not remember anything. I could not wake up for important tests, meetings, interviews. I could not even reliably put a piece of paper in a folder, keep it there, and remember that I had ever done it.

These days, they call it ‘executive dysfunction’. But that’s a nice term for ‘it’s your fault until you find a name for it and figure out how to fix it, and get mad that it could have been a reasonably easy fix’.

Oh, I also have ADHD. But I’m not sure which came first. Am I unable to focus on things because I didn’t sleep properly for years, had a severely wonky thyroid gland, or is it a bit of everything? I may never know.

What I’m finding out is that it’s wild, what I can do with an attention span!

I can file my taxes well ahead of the deadline, and receive my refund before anyone else!

I can pay rent well ahead of time!

I can figure out what I want to do and actually do it!

I’m relearning CSS and JavaScript right now, because I feel like I did not have enough of an attention span or focus back when I first learned it. It’s also useful because so much has changed since—like CSS is actually fun now!—that I don’t mind.

I’m learning that I am able to sustain a creative pursuit on the side. I have spent a gargantuan amount of effort consolidating my hard drives from Singapore and Malaysia and the US and everywhere in between that, for the first time I believe I have all the writing, photography, video files, that I ever created, in one place. And actually be able to find them. This was not something I was remotely capable of doing at any point in the past. If something was not immediately before me, it did not exist. I have written entire books that I have forgotten I have ever written!

I can even shoot, develop and scan film on a regular basis, something I was never able to do! (I could not even remember what film I used, or where anything was, until now.)

I think most of the people in my early life were happy to buy into the myth that I was a bumbling, forgetful creative person, or to ascribe some kind of pathological shortcoming or disability to me, but the truth was simply that I was a person who needed help, and didn’t know that I did.

As it turns out, being autistic and being not at all in tune with your body or with what’s normal or expected, not knowing how to ask for help, has health and other vital implications! If I could do it all over again, I would have learned to pay more attention to my body, and learned to apply my autistic superpowers to all facts of life: by digging deep into why something was, rather than simply accepting that “that’s just the way I am”.