Restructuring My Mornings for a More Functional Brain

I’ve always had serious trouble waking up before noon, but for the past couple weeks I’ve been waking up pretty consistently around 9:30am. Usually a little bit earlier, because I have a setting on my phone that senses when I start to move around naturally and triggers the alarm then, so it doesn’t interrupt a deeper sleep cycle. That makes it a lot easier for me to just get up and not hit the snooze button, and not hitting the snooze button means I don’t fall into a horrible sleep inertia trap.

I’ve added a tiny bit of journalling right after I wake up and before I check my phone. Free-writing first thing in the morning was always too daunting for me, so I picked up something called The Five Minute Journal. It’s a little silly, but it gives writing first thing in the morning a little bit of structure, and it really does only take about five minutes to fill out. I’d like to eventually start free-writing every morning, but this is a good soft start. It also focuses on setting intentions for the day that are realistic, which is something I really struggle with. You pick three things that would make the day feel successful if they got done, not fifteen. It’s handy.

I make my tea and breakfast, heat up the dog food, and I usually listen to audiobooks while I eat and feed the pups.

I cuddle the pups and the bunny for fifteen to thirty minutes, usually also while listening to audiobooks or watching documentaries on youtube. If I don’t schedule this in, it tends to happen anyway, so I just decided to embrace it. At this point I’m usually still in my pajamas, which is fine.

I either set my computer in my office or on the living room couch, and I start work. Or I get distracted and start work an hour later. I’m still working out the kinks in this new schedule, but just being able to wake up well, without a lot of stress or tiredness, makes a huge difference in my whole day.

The main thing, other than having the right medication for my ADHD, that makes all of this possible is that I’ve been really insistent about getting into bed around 12:30am or 1am. I take a pretty long time to fall asleep, even when I’m not stressed about anything, so I need a solid head-start or I’m definitely not going to get enough sleep before my alarm goes off.

Another hard lesson that I’ve had to learn is that I always take a pretty long time to actually get into bed once I start getting myself ready. I end up doing the dinner dishes, letting the dogs out for a last bathroom break, checking all the doors to make sure they’re locked, rechecking them because I don’t trust my memory, turning off all the lights, putting the bunny back in his cage for the night and giving him his bedtime treat. (He’s ridiculously spoiled, but in my defense, he’s also super cute.) Anyway, you get the idea. It takes a while for me to actually put on my pajamas and get into bed, so I have to start a lot earlier than my actual planned bedtime. Starting early for anything is not a thing I, or most people with ADHD, tend to excel at, but the aforementioned medication early in the day and a well-timed dose of melatonin in the evening make it easier.

It’s a work in progress, but it does feel like I’m really making that progress. It feels good.

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A weird and interesting dead tree with dead vines wrapped around it at my dog park.
Blackberry leaves and thorns with a cloudy sky in the background.

ADHD Willpower Drain

There’s a theory that every choice we make in a day uses up a portion of our supply of willpower. It gets replenished while we sleep, and drained over the course of the day the more decisions we have to make. That’s part of why habits and routines are so helpful, if you can form them, because ideally they each take one or more choices out of the day by making those actions automatic.

I think that that kind of incremental willpower drain is extra hard on people with ADHD, because every time my brain goes “I wonder how hard it would be to build a miniature beach in an aquarium complete with real tiny fish and crustaceans” I have to use a little bit of energy to stop myself from immediately googling the best sources for Thai micro crabs and corkscrew vallisneria. I have to use some willpower every time I think of a cool thing to draw, which happens multiple times a day. I have to use it to decide that I’ll go out in the garden later because I’m currently writing my blog post. And then I have to decide that again fifteen minutes later when the dogs get excited and bark at a squirrel outside the window. And again when I hear the birds outside on our bird feeder. And again when I remember that I meant to move our tomato seedlings back inside so they won’t get sunburned.

Eventually, I usually get derailed. Maybe it’s because I just run out of willpower juice after ignoring every random suggestion my brain makes while I’m trying to just do one damn thing at a time.

I have no proposed solution at the moment. I’ve just been observing how many times a day I have to decide not to do a random thing and how tired that eventually makes me feel. It also, unfortunately, makes me sort of averse to doing creative stuff on a whim even when I do have the free time for it. I get into the habit of telling myself I’ll do that stuff later, even when I totally could just do it now.

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One of the trees in my yard that unexpectedly makes flowers. They are white and pretty and I have no idea what kind they are.
Little white tree flowers on the deck. They’ve been falling like snow, in part because the local birds seem to find them delicious. It’s pretty, but they stick to your shoes if you walk around on them.

It’s So Cold

And I’m still mostly fine, strangely enough. I was kind of snowed/iced in on the hill by myself for most of the weekend, but it wasn’t too bad. I kept warm, cuddled my dogs, and focused on writing and other indoor projects. I am getting a little sick of being cooped up, though, and there’s another cold front heading for us, so that might be a little frustrating. I’m just gonna try to make the most of it.

I have gotten outside a little bit for walks the last couple days, but I’m thinking I need to find a treadmill for our basement, because I don’t want to let the weather make me quit that routine and I really am a complete wimp about the cold. My nose and hands start to hurt after about a minute of being out there right now, but I am determined to keep up the activity as much as I can because it helps so much with my focus and mood. Some days that means just chasing the dogs around the house and running up and down the stairs, but whatever works.

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I really love my office. Image: Some orchids and succulents on a windowsill, with snowy trees outside.

Writing days this past week: 5

Not Feeling the Winter Dormancy

I know it’s a trick, but this week of almost spring-like weather in Seattle is making me want to go out and dig stuff up, and plant other stuff, and just be outside. It’s been cold, but not too rainy. I hear we’re in for a proper cold snap, though, so I guess I’d better prepare to hunker down with various hot liquids and cuddly dogs and/or partners for a while. I did go out and check on the garden today, and found that most of my herbs and berries have survived the winter so far. Hopefully they can hang on a little longer.

My pet snakes are busy brumating, which is like hibernation but without the intense commitment. They’re awake, but they don’t eat, or really move around all that much. They mostly just hiss irritably at me every time I check on them. My little lizard has gone into her version of brumation, too, and she actually does sleep the whole time. I can wake her up to check on her, but she goes right back to her snoozin’ corner after I’m done handling her. She won’t eat anything for another month, probably. Possibly longer. (The frog doesn’t mess around with that winter fasting shit, though. He’ll try to eat my fingers if I take too long with his bugs any time of the year.)

Even all my indoor plants are growing extra slowly, despite all the lights I use to turn my office into an artificial sunroom. It’s funny, because I think part of the reason I’m so ready for any signs of spring being on the horizon is just because I’m not feeling especially dormant myself, even though I usually hate the cold and dark to the point of wanting to copy my reptiles and just sleep through it entirely.

The new year feels pretty promising to me so far, especially with the changes I’ve made over the last few months. Having medication that helps me stay alert and focused during the day, and actually doing most of my sleeping at night instead of during those precious few daylight hours changes my experience of winter dramatically. That isn’t exactly a shock, it’s just a new experience. Previously, this basic stability and control that a lot of people probably take for granted was mostly beyond my grasp.

Even though my garden and half my pets are down for the rest of the season, I feel like I’m just waking up.

You can’t see it, but these strawberry seedlings are shivering. Image: a bunch of young strawberry plants in a terracotta pot.
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This sunset actually made me swear out loud when I turned around and saw it after parking in front of my house. Image: An intense orangey pink sunset over a dark neighborhood

Writing days this past week: 4

Mindfulness and All That Calm Crap – ADHD Tips

I’ve recently come back to meditation. It has helped me immensely in the past, but I tend to forget about it when I’m feeling good and I get more active. Over the summer, I get outside more often and the sun makes me feel better in general. In the winter, I start to get foggy, tired, and more easily depressed and anxious. I start to struggle more with repetitive and upsetting thoughts, and tend to spiral into feeling angry or depressed about things in the past. All of that hurts my overall mood and ability to be productive, and all of that is exactly the kind of stuff that meditation, even just a few minutes of meditation a day, can help to reduce.

If you enjoy the works of Sir Terry Pratchett, especially his Tiffany Aching books, then you’re already familiar with mindfulness under another name. He called it second thoughts: The thoughts you think about your first (reflexive and automatic) thoughts. Having these self-regulating thoughts is one of the signs of a witch in his stories.

Meditation in its simplest form just helps you learn to hear yourself think, and strengthens your ability to be objective about your impulses and feelings. Instead of being angry because I remembered that thing my ex did that one time, I get to think “I’m feeling angry” from a slight distance, and then have the option to watch that feeling move through my mind and body without being carried away by it. It doesn’t necessarily make it more fun to feel angry, but it means that instead of being taken over by it, I can watch it move across the clear sky of my mind like a cloud bank (or a tornado, as the case may be.) It’s darker for a while, and it might bring unpleasant things like rain and wind, but it doesn’t control me and it isn’t endless. It doesn’t always work that neatly, of course, but I’m slowly getting better at catching myself before I get swept away.

If the idea of meditation itself leaves a bad taste in your mouth for any reason, then there may be alternatives that can help you practice those same skills without stressing yourself out. The benefits of mindfulness don’t come from sitting still, or from somehow magically resisting boredom, they come from increased awareness of the moment you’re in and of the way you’re thinking.

My favorite alternative practice: Do you have a pet? Specifically, do you have any animals in your life that you like to spend time with? Animals are pretty much permanently locked in the present moment. Yes, many of them have some limited ability to plan, and they certainly have memories, both good and bad, but they’re still mostly focused on the here and now. How else would they know when it’s time to wake up from a dead sleep and shout at the evil invading raccoons? That kind of presence in the current moment is a big part of what people try to achieve with meditation, and the cool part is that we can kind of piggyback onto an animal’s peace of mind just by being with them. Do you ever just chill out and watch your cat stare out the window at birds? For that period of time, you’re grounded. Your mind will naturally wander, but every time the cat twitches her tail or chitters her teeth, you’re drawn right back to the current moment. Notice what drew you away and then admire your kitten’s finely honed killer instinct, and that’s basically all the vital bits of mindfulness meditation.

Living closely with an animal comes with great health benefits for humans, benefits that already overlap a lot with the physical and mental health benefits of meditation. Any animals you hang out with (or garden patch you’re weeding, or landscape you hike through, or kiddo playing with legos, or maybe even a puzzle game on your phone if you need technology involved) can help keep you grounded while you practice.

If you have ADHD, your mind already works against you when it comes to focusing on something repetitive. That’s exactly why meditation can be so helpful for us, if we can manage it. It’s like strengthening a weak limb by exercising it, but if you can’t stay engaged with the practice in the first place, then the limb never gets strong enough to make the process easier. Picking something that sparks interest but is still soothing, like stroking a dog’s fur (or in my little dog’s case, soft skin and fuzzy pajamas) can keep an ADHD brain present when counting breaths would just get annoying.

The point isn’t to never let your mind wander away from your calming activity – in fact, if your mind never wanders then you’re not really getting the benefits of meditation. Meditation benefits us when we catch our minds wandering, note the type of thought or feeling that took us away, and go back to tracking the rhythm of our breath, or the cute snoring of the animal under our hands. Even if you immediately get distracted again by worrying about their vet bills, that’s just another chance to come back to the process. It helps that they’ll inevitably stretch or yawn or purr in their sleep, which drags you back and gives you extra chances to notice that your mind has wandered and where it went.

Bonus: The idea is to notice your own thoughts in a non-critical way, so try to think of your mind the way you think about your pet’s natural behavior. Getting distracted by something flashy and wandering off to investigate is just their nature, and it’s ours as well. Our minds are designed that way, especially the minds of ADHD folks. It used to be highly advantageous to be able to plan and dream up new solutions to old problems, all while keeping watch for a lion in the brush, grinding grain or weaving with our hands, and listening for a child or a neighbor in trouble. It’s definitely not always as helpful to us now, but our minds are simply always going to wander to the past and future (when we’re not hyper-focused, anyway, which is a different ADHD strength that comes with its own set of benefits and drawbacks.)

The final great thing about this kind of mindfulness practice is that it can even be done when you’re being physically active. Walking your dog? Walking meditation. Playing with your cat and a string? Still counts. I adore watching my dogs eat their meals, because they’re so happy and enthusiastic about it, so I always spend that couple of minutes twice a day holding their bowls for them and just enjoying their single-minded pleasure. As long as you’re being intentional about an activity, and you can notice your own thoughts as they happen, you can get the benefits of meditation. Even just five minutes of practice every day, or just once or twice a week, is basically guaranteed to provide some good for your brain and your life. Even if you don’t notice a difference, there’s pretty much no downside to taking a few spare minutes to enjoy a simple pleasure and practice being understanding with yourself.

Some resources:

The Headspace Guide to Meditation and Mindfulness by Andy Puddicombe

The Mindful Way Through Depression by Mark Williams, John Teasedale, Zindel Segal, Jon Kabat-Zin (This book made a big difference for me at a very low point.)

The Headspace app is really handy, and can be used for free. They also have a subscription system that gets you access to more features. The app lets you set reminders for meditation, it offers little tips at customizable intervals, and offers guided meditations of different lengths so you can choose exactly how long you want to commit yourself for every time you sit down to meditate. They also offer bedtime tracks to help you relax and get to sleep.

The Insight Timer app is very simple. It lets you set a timer for however long you want, and then choose from a set of pleasant little bells and chimes as your alarm. I think it has some other features, but that’s really all I use it for.

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He’s probably trying to be zen, but it’s hard when Toci takes the whole bed and refuses to share. (Image description: Two dogs in pajamas, one hairless and the other black and tan coated. The hairless dog, which is smaller, has taken over the whole bed and the black and tan one has been pushed almost completely off.)

Writing days this past week: 2

Tying Up Loose Ends

I’ve been having trouble focusing enough to write this post, and part of the problem is that I always try to juggle too many things at once. It’s hard to simplify the situation after getting bogged down in it, because clearing specific items away requires focus, and I’m usually bouncing from one thing to another. It’s not even that my day is busy, it’s that my mind is constantly busy. I don’t always think about it this way, but every single thing I know is unfinished or needs my attention is like a tiny (or sometimes not so tiny) mental drain. It’s actually more noticeable when one of those little mental weights lifts, because I’m pretty used to all of that being there.

I hadn’t realized how worried I was about my pets being prepared for winter until I made time to renovate my lizard tank with an extra lamp and climbing log, and I suddenly felt lighter. It wasn’t urgent, so I let it wait, and I thought that was the smarter thing to do so I could focus on work, but just knowing that it needed to be done had been distracting me more than I guessed. I had a similar concern about my fish tank, which has needed a filter with stronger flow for a while. Again, not an urgent tank, but I got it swapped out today and I feel a lot better.

I’ve started trying to designate at least one of those non-urgent mentally draining tasks per week, so I can cross them off and remove more distractions from my mental space. I think it’s working, and maybe I’ll post about some of them as I go along if I think they could help inspire anybody else.

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Some white flowers, viewed from below, in front of a stone building.

Writing days this past week: 2

Personal Update: Still Working on Sleep

I did an overnight sleep study this week. It is very difficult to sleep with a mess of wires glued into your hair and wrapped around your torso, while an infra-red camera and a microphone record everything you do. I brought my computer with me, which was silly. I thought maybe I’d get some work done before sleeping, but I got neither work nor very much sleeping done. Still, it’s another step toward getting more restful sleep, hopefully.

I just finished reading Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman. It’s an older book, obviously, but this was the first time for me, and I loved it. The audiobook is very worth getting, if that’s a format you enjoy. The narrator gave a great performance, and each character has such a distinct voice. That’s surely due to both Gaiman’s writing and the narration, but it makes for a great listening experience.

A black and white sketch of a spider.

Writing days this past week: 2