I have just changed the lighting in our sitting room – again. I’ve unscrewed yet another bulb from one of the main lights (which are made up of five stalks, each with a bulb on the end), turned the other main light off completely, and installed a lamp with a low wattage bulb instead.
A few weeks ago I stopped using the main lights in the bedroom and installed a lamp in there with another fairly dim bulb. I now only turn the main lights on when I really need to see anything. I also turned the brightness on my computer screen right down to the minimum, and even so can only manage to spend about an hour at a time working at the computer before I start to feel quite ill and need a significant break.
I have become seriously sensitive to light in the last few months, or, more accurately, I have become properly aware in the last few months, of just how seriously light affects my health.
I’ve always known that light levels mattered to me much more than they seem to to a lot of people. When I’ve been very depressed in winter I’ve been greatly assisted by both a lightbox and a “daylight” alarm clock. I also struggle, during the long days of summer, to get to sleep at night or to stay asleep past dawn if I don’t have complete blackout curtains. I even bought a special curtain rail that fits close to the wall so that not the slightest sliver of light can be seen once the curtains are closed. It has to be dark, really really dark.
My sensitivity to light is also, I have discovered, a large part of my inability to cope with shopping. Shops tend to be brightly lit places, with lots of fluorescent bulbs. I have recently been experimenting with wearing dark sunglasses in supermarkets and have found they help significantly with the nausea and exhaustion that I always assumed was part of the normal shopping experience.
Considering light sensitivity has also solved another mystery. Around 3 years ago we had to move to a rather small flat, and most of our possessions are currently in a storage unit some 20 miles away from home. They need sorting very badly, as they were packed in great haste and many are unlabelled. I’ve had several attempts over the years at going to the unit, unpacking a few boxes, and starting to sort through their contents. After around 20 minutes I become so tired I cannot stand, and not long afterwards I start to feel desperately sick and in a state of collapse. This has always puzzled me. I’m a strong, relatively fit person with a great deal of physical stamina (I run ultramarathons for a hobby), yet just unpacking a couple of boxes finishes me off. This has never made any sense.
Until, a couple of months ago, I considered the lighting in the storage facility. Which is similar to the sort of lighting in supermarkets, but even brighter and more intense. Unshaded and glaringly bright industrial strip lighting. And suddenly a mystery that has puzzled me for nearly three years was solved – the reason I cannot work in the storage unit is that the lighting in there quite literally makes me sick.
Obviously, we now have a problem to deal with – I have to be able to sort the stuff, throw what we don’t need, repack tidily the things we want to store until the time we can move somewhere a bit bigger, and rescue things that are precious and needed and bring them to the flat. But at least we now know what the problem is, so we can work on solving it.
My sensitivity to light also explains a couple of mysteries from my past.
When I was a teenager and first needed to wear glasses I thought that getting photochromic lenses would be pretty cool, and also really useful because I wouldn’t need to have a separate pair of sunglasses. Because my stepfather was an optician, he gave me my glasses as a present for many years, and I always had photochromic lenses because I discovered I really really liked them. However, by the time I was in my late 20s I’d moved away, things had changed, and I started to buy my own glasses. Because I was struggling for money, owing to being unable to keep any sort of job for very long, I simply started to buy the cheapest glasses, the ones with plain untinted lenses. My energy levels decreased significantly at around the same time, although it’s only with the benefit of hindsight and new knowledge that I’ve connected the two events, but now that I have, it’s rather obvious.
During the latter stages of the 2001 episode of burnout, I started to realise that I was going to end up in a rather serious situation with rent and food and so on as it became obvious that I was going to lose my job. I didn’t have the first clue what to do about this, so thought I would try to get to the nearest branch of the Citizens Advice Bureau in the hope that someone might be able to help me. I remember walking down the street, near where I lived in north London, and as I walked the light got brighter and brighter and brighter. Eventually it became so painful and so overwhelming that I collapsed onto the pavement. People rushed over to help me. And I eventually sat up, managed to rest for a while, and got to the CAB, who were no help at all.
The mystery about this episode was that as I came round I looked to see how other people were reacting to this sudden painful intrusion of brightness into their lives. And, oddly, none of them seemed to have noticed at all. They were just carrying on with their lives. The mystery of why these people hadn’t all collapsed in the street as I had was another that was only solved in the last few months, when I started to read about autism and sensory processing disorder.
So, discovering I am autistic has explained yet more mysteries from my past, and given me the information I need to work on solving problems in the future. I suspect some of the exhaustion I’ve felt when going home from jobs in brightly lit offices and classrooms has also been down to light, and if I ever do get well enough to work again then suitable lighting might be the sort of adjustment I’d need in order to stay in a job.
As far as we are able, we’re sorting the lighting out in the flat. Being able to just have gentle natural light would be lovely, but much of our flat is entirely internal, without windows, so we have to make the best use we can of the gentlest lighting we can cope with while also leaving the option for something brighter when we need it to see properly.
And I now have sunglasses, in my prescription, in two levels of tint, medium and dark. Wearing them out in the world is definitely helping me to cope. I wish I’d known years ago that something as simple as wearing sunglasses regularly would improve my life so significantly.
But I do now know. And this is why, although discovering I am autistic means I know I will never “get better” and I need to rethink my ambitions for the future, it also means that I can start to do things, such as altering lighting and wearing sunglasses, that will improve my quality of life on a daily basis. I can stop wasting energy trying to cope with unnecessary exhausting visual input and use that energy to feel healthier, or to achieve a little more, or even a bit of both!