Small Wins

A day may come when I’ll sleep like a person instead of a raccoon, but it is not this day. Nor was it any of the previous days this week. On the upside, I have toast. Toast is excellent. I also got to go to the park with the pups and the boyfriend on Sunday, which was super nice, so technically I’ve been outside and seen actual sun pretty recently.

I’ve been trying to make my bed every day, even when I haven’t exactly slept in it, and found that it does make a surprising difference in my general chill level. It’s comforting to have a spot in the house that’s always neat, and it makes it more inviting when I actually do convince myself to lie down. Plus, it feels good to have taken even a small constructive action early in the day.

I recently finished reading The Power of Habit, which said something about small wins and how they help build momentum. The idea is to warm up with small, manageable tasks that give a sense of accomplishment and progress to work from. I feel like if I can get better at that, it might help with the executive dysfunction issues, because part of the problem there is that I tend to constantly feel like I’m waiting for some condition that’s right for getting started, even though I know that there’s nothing to wait for.

Experience should have taught me by now that it helps immensely if I just stop waiting to start whatever big task has me stalled and do something less intimidating, like loading the dishes or feeding the snakes. Switching gears is often the only thing that’ll get me moving, no matter how hard I feel like I should be focusing on the more important or time consuming task. Forcing it can be extremely pointless when willpower simply is not the issue, and as a matter of practicality, I really need to admit that and stop allowing myself to stall out. It’s not a conscious decision, but there are conditions that make it worse, and they tend to coincide with the typical responsible-work-ethic suggestions I grew up with. The common wisdom says to focus on the hardest task first and offer yourself some sort of reward for later, but I’ve found that that particular strategy can actually freeze me in my tracks for an entire day. If I had just gotten the dishes done, or gone to the park, or even just enjoyed the bath or snack that I was planning as a reward, I might have unfrozen myself earlier. Relabeling a distraction as a small win can sometimes yank my brain out of ruts much more effectively than just trying harder.

In that spirit, I’ll also say that it’s nice to be scheduling this on time, and I’m gonna count that as a medium-sized win even though it’s not all that much of a post.

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Spring had better get her ass here soon. I need blue sky and pretty smelling grass.
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Not that I can’t appreciate the whole swamp vibe. I just don’t like it every day.

Writing days this week: 5

 

Filling the Unforgiving Minute

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If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew 

to serve your turn long after they are gone,

and so hold on when there is nothing in you

except the will which says to them: “hold on!”

If by Rudyard Kipling

This is my favorite poem, and it has gotten me through a lot. It’s the second poem I memorized when I needed to cope with repetitive negative thoughts, and now there’s a whole list of them that I know by heart. They’re all pretty much just chosen because they appealed to me at the time I was ready for a new one, with no particular theme or genre. I started doing this because I desperately needed to be distracted, and turning my brain around once it gets into a pattern is really hard.

Distractions like TV and books and other activities are handy for this, but they tend to leave me way too distracted. I already don’t enjoy the way ADHD makes my head buzz, and it is extremely easy for me to get sucked into stuff in a way that isn’t enjoyable. Playing a game or watching TV is great, but less so when I’ve been doing it mindlessly for hours because I literally can’t stop. That just winds up with me feeling guilty and mad at myself, which totally defeats the purpose of finding distractions in the first place. Even so, I’ve relied pretty heavily on stuff like this.

Being social might seem like a healthier alternative, but I really value my alone time. I don’t get lonely, really. I definitely miss specific people and crave their company, but there aren’t a lot of them, and I still need a lot of space to feel comfortable and be able to work. Being around people takes up a lot of my attention, even when we’re not directly interacting, so it’s kind of difficult for me to get anything done when I’m not alone.

It’d be cool if I didn’t need the distractions at all, and now I’m hoping to change it, but it was really necessary for a few years. See, there’s this delightful thing called rejection sensitive dysphoria. It’s a very common symptom of ADHD that, for some reason, I had never once heard mentioned until about a year ago when I stumbled across a little tumblr note about it. Lots of people with ADHD experience overwhelming anger as part of their response to perceived rejection, but I just deflate like a sad balloon. My chest and all my limbs suddenly feel way too heavy to move, and I just want to lie down and let life go on without me because it’s too hard, and I’ll just mess up even more if I keep doing anything. It becomes extremely hard for me to even muster the energy required to speak.

RSD is fairly debilitating, regardless of the specific form it takes, because it happens so quickly and immediately swamps the brain in intense emotion before any logic or coping mechanisms can kick in. Once it gets going, it’s also extremely hard to defuse, and there was a period in my life when it seemed like everything in my life and all of my thoughts triggered it. Fortunately, that’s over now, but I’m left with a reflexive habit of staying distracted all the time. That’s not really the best for creativity, or for general peace of mind. It’s definitely not good for my tendency to get locked into activities in a way that isn’t actually enjoyable and, ironically, it makes all my ADHD symptoms worse.

So, now I get to unlearn the constant distraction habit. I need to be able to just be in my own head again without constant stimulation, if for no other reason than that it’s important for creative work. Memorizing poetry is still a really helpful tool, because unlike a TV show, it has clear limits and isn’t overstimulating. Reciting the ones I’ve learned, either aloud or in my head, gives me a little sense of satisfaction that boosts my mood, but not too much. It’s a very intentional and specific way to stop my thought process in its tracks and take it in another direction. When the feelings do hit, I’m usually able to recognize what’s happening and weather it out.

Mindfulness meditation also helped a lot with that, even before I knew anything about RSD. I recently discovered that Terry Pratchett actually described mindfulness practice in his Tiffany Aching stories, and he called it second thoughts. They’re the second thoughts that watch your first thoughts. They give you distance from the automatic ideas and feelings that run through your head. It’s not that any of the initial reactions stop happening, it’s just that there’s a part of you that is observing instead of participating. It doesn’t stop the feelings, but it can allow me to shift them a little away from my identity, and then just wait out the storm.

 

Writing days this past week: 7

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.