Over-reliance on “The Zone” as an ADHD Creative

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I saw this piece at the Seattle Art Museum and it seemed like a nice little ADHD metaphor.

Once again, the count of my writing days this week sit at a measly two. One and a half, really, if I’m being less of a liar. Only actual work on Somnolence counts toward that goal, so it’s not as if I got nothing done on the other days, but I still find myself wondering if I actually care about my writing every time I look at that number. It’s a frustrating thing to wonder after years spent working on it, but my personal interest and commitment have never been easy to measure. They never seem to directly translate into the willpower to actually do a thing on a regular basis.

The basic formula seems like it should go: Level of interest + Commitment to a result = Productivity.

It feels like you should be able to turn it around and judge that if your productivity is high, you’re either very committed, very interested, or both. If it’s low, your interest and/or commitment must be low. It’s probably not that simple for most people, though, because obviously there are a lot of other potential factors in life. Mental or physical illness can throw everything thoroughly out of whack, because they suck up energy, time, resources, and simply make some tasks impossible. Being neuroatypical also messes with the equation, in part because we’re usually expected to approach goals and planning in a way that’s highly unintuitive and ineffective for some folks. Often, we’re not offered, or even allowed to seek, alternative methods that might allow us to succeed.

It can leave people with ADHD honestly believing that they just don’t care about anything, or that they’re incurably lazy because they can’t seem to muster the will to achieve any goals they set. They generally believe this because they’ve been told something like that after every failure. Many parents and teachers either don’t believe that routine tasks are significantly harder for kids with ADHD, or they figure that tough love will somehow motivate the kid to stop being so darn incapable of succeeding. It doesn’t work that way, but it’s amazing how many people think it does, as if kids routinely go through the emotional hell of failing in school and disappointing their families for fun.

I’ve got depression and ADHD, and it’s certainly been quite a lark. I’ve had both conditions all my life, for as long as I can remember. These days, they’re both being properly managed, which is nice but also kind of weird. As I’ve said before, actually looking forward to stuff with genuine joy is surprising after years of “excited” meaning something closer to “I’m motivated enough to do this theoretically fun thing, and the dread is currently manageable.”

My interest levels were permanently smothered under a huge wet blanket of bleh. Feeling hopeless and terrible about yourself really doesn’t help on the commitment front, either. If nothing makes you feel better and you’re pretty sure none of it matters, there’s very little reason to work hard at anything, even if you’re pretty sure you do care, somewhere deep down under the blanket. I knew I was depressed, growing up, but I didn’t know I had anything else interfering with my ability to function. Depression can act like ADHD anyway, messing up both memory and focus, so it is genuinely hard to tell the difference. Confusing matters further, ADHD also often triggers depression, especially in girls. Girls don’t get diagnosed as often, and face significantly harsher punishments for acting out, so they tend to just shrink into themselves as they continue to struggle.

People with ADHD can’t work as expected because certain types of brain function aren’t optional if you want to get certain results. If you don’t have the right chemicals and energy doing the right things in the right part of the brain, focus simply will not happen. Focus is just the result of those physical processes, and it cannot be faked or powered through. The rest of the brain, with all its willpower and concerns and intentions, can scream all day long about how important something is, but it can’t actually do what the broken bit is supposed to do. It can even become less functional under increased effort, and is significantly worsened by stress, guilt, and all the other feelings that come with pressure and frustration. The effort can be sort of mentally painful. It feels awful.

It also, in my experience, forms a horrible kind of negative feedback loop if the person doesn’t know what’s happening to them. If a kid gets homework and doesn’t enjoy it, but is able to hang in there and finish it, they learn that increased effort produces results and that maybe homework isn’t the literal worst thing in the world. If a kid with ADHD gets boring homework and settles in to give it their best try, they’re gonna learn a much less uplifting – but just as real – lesson. They learn that putting in that effort is significantly uncomfortable, and that they get inexplicably poor results regardless of how hard they work. The more times that happens, the less reason they have to put in the effort at all and the more stressed they’re likely to feel at the thought of it. It looks like stubbornness, and sometimes results in genuine anger and refusal to cooperate, because who wouldn’t be kinda pissed about being expected to keep doing something that feels awful and doesn’t work?

They might also get lectured, as I often was, about how they’re too smart to be failing and aren’t living up to their potential. This is a shitty thing to say to any kid, because when they continue to fail, they’re then faced with two logical conclusions. They can conclude that they really are lazy and that this is just what lazy feels like, or that they’re just not all that smart. I went with lazy, and then I went to the library. Class made my brain feel nauseated, and they wouldn’t let me read in class. I liked reading. Reading didn’t make my brain feel nauseated, so I did a lot of it. The first half of my sophomore year was spent reading through the very weird mix of literature that ends up in high school libraries.

The reason that I could bury myself in a book, even a fairly disturbing one, for hours, but couldn’t stand memorizing Spanish conjugations, was that it did something different to my brain. It got me truly interested, and the extra spark was enough to get that faulty focus engine to work properly. Increased effort won’t jumpstart it, but high levels of interest sometimes can.

So, people with ADHD often learn that if they’re really fascinated by something, they can actually pour all their focus into it and get results. They can soak up information about their particular interests like sponges and lose themselves for hours in a state of hyper-focus, also known as being in the zone. Being in the zone feels awesome, especially when all you have to compare it to is that staticky feeling of utter boredom and frustration. There’s very little middle ground to be had, since it requires so much extra fuel to get that part of the brain to do its job.

Just given that, it seems like if a person with ADHD has an interest that can become a career, they’re actually pretty much set. That hyper-focus becomes a boon, and they should be able to throw their entire heart and soul into the process of building a business, developing a profitable skill, or earning a degree. Some people are really fortunate and their interest is tech-related, but there are lots of other skills and knowledge-sets for people to get lit up about. Most hobbies can kinda fit into an industry niche somewhere. Reading and art are my hobbies, and writing came naturally out of my love for books and my interest in creativity.

Unfortunately, there are major draw-backs to running on this hyper-focus alone. The primary one being that, no matter how fascinating something is, it can become more dull if you do it all the time. It’s inevitable that most long-term commitments require doing boring stuff sometimes, even if other parts are still fun. Once something becomes routine and they don’t really feel like working on it, all the same ADHD issues crop up. A Neurotypical person would be able to push through the dull patches and do it anyway, but the ADHD adult who has years of experience telling them that boredom feels a bit like slowly being smothered in quicksand, is going to panic.

Hell, it’s so ingrained that I get anxious just at the thought of a boring task, and I instinctively shy away from letting the things I’m interested in become routine, because I know the experience is so bad and I don’t want them being tainted by it. That’s pretty much the worst instinct a writer can have if their goal is publication. It’s fine for a hobby, but not for a career. All of my habits, built up over years of trying to skip around the stuff that shuts my brain down, and feeling useless and crappy about myself because that was pretty much everything that I needed to do, are totally counterproductive now. They weren’t productive before, either, but at least they made some sense.

Now that I’m on a medication that brings my mental function in the right area closer to average, I actually can push through boredom and get into a working rhythm, even if that task wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing at the time. And yet, I still put writing off all day in favor of other, more immediately gratifying, things. I’m scared to pick it up if I’m not already feeling lit up about what I’m about to work on. I wait for that highly unreliable muse, even though I consciously know that I can now generate the required motivation myself.

It seems very likely that these old habits will shift over time. I’ve only actually been on the medication for a few months, and it generally takes longer than that to change a whole system of coping mechanisms. Hopefully, being aware of the anxiety that triggers that avoidance will help me stop acting on it without thinking. And, hopefully, I’ll also eventually be able to stop wasting my energy by questioning whether I actually really care every time something gets hard and it makes me want to quit.

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Toci also suffers from boredomphobia.

 

5 thoughts on “Over-reliance on “The Zone” as an ADHD Creative”

  1. You’ve done a good job of describing the experience of having ADHD. I witnessed this in someone while he was growing up. It was painful to see, hard to understand and heart wrenching to try to figure out how to help him. There was little to no understanding of the condition at the time so I had to use my own experience as a reference and what I’d gleaned from everything I’d ever read to synthesize my own understanding. I am pretty sure I have some kind of learning disability (very possibly ADD of some variety, dyslexia, or ??) so I at least was able to recognize that he was intelligent and interested in things and that he got really frustrated and upset when he couldn’t do what was expected of him.

    Over the years I’ve figured out some ways to trick myself .. well, trick may not be the right word.. do some cognitive rewiring of my own thinking that has really helped me. One thing is, when I find myself getting anxious because I need to do something and I’m afraid I won’t be able to do it I shift my thinking about it. First, I give myself permission to “goof off and procrastinate.” I believe that I am doing important internal organization while I’m goofing off. I often find that when I do begin the task after some circling (the way a dog will circle multiple times before lying down) I’m better prepared than I was if I’d just tried to start immediately. I also, consciously, begin the task in my head before actually start it. I imagine the steps, and I also think about why and how I’m going to do the task.

    This is just an example of how I’ve been able to find workarounds for myself. I think the thing was, I had to start looking at myself as “normal for me” and stop comparing myself to everyone else. I had to start seeing my own processes as “just as good or better.” I firmly believe that we are all normal – the problem is the environment we humans have created for ourselves does not have a clearly defined slot for anyone who is not somewhat “machine-like” in their behavior. I think that what is viewed as procrastination in our culture must have had a very valuable place in human behavior at some point and we need, desperately, to try to create work environments that value people from a diverse neurological pool. Depression is a symptom of trying to live in a world that expects you to be different than what you are and it is a huge problem for mankind. It may also be a part of our evolution; the question is; is it a good direction or one of the Darwinian “wrong turns?”

    Love and hugs ❤ ❤

    Liked by 1 person

  2. PS .. Actually, I said that depression is a symptom of trying to live in a world that expects you to be different than you are .. but of course that is just one perspective. I should have said that one symptom … is depression. Not the other way around. Also, my personal ‘hacks’ are only kind of effective and I have not solved all of my own problems – not even close. I think it’s possible to make great progress though and I am so proud of you, Jasmine. Keep exploring your own nature. You will come up with your own personal solutions.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I appreciate the perspective, and I agree about depression being one of the natural consequences of the way society works. It’d actually be kind of weird if depression weren’t common, given everything.

      I think I need to practice that kind of mental preparation before a task. Starting is always harder when I’m not quite sure exactly how I’m going to go about it.

      Like

      1. In one of my est trainings the trainer said he was having a terrible time making himself run every morning (I don’t recommend running, ever) and he learned that what he had to do was just set a goal of putting on his running shoes when he woke up. That kind of thing has helped me.

        Liked by 1 person

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