Tips for ADHD Creatives: Part 3 – Block vs. Executive Dysfunction

A lot of people say that writer’s block doesn’t exist. I’ve heard it compared to having doctor’s block, or plumber’s block. Obviously, people in other professions get stuck, and frustrated, and aren’t always feeling it, but they don’t get to claim they’re simply incapable of working because of some mysterious force. If they did, they certainly wouldn’t be encouraged to sit around for a while and wait for the inspiration to return.

Writer’s block is pretty much a catch-all term for a handful of common creative problems, and refusing to name those problems doesn’t generally help anyone. I get stuck a lot, but there’s always a reason. It’s not that the words have abandoned me, it’s often that I legit can’t picture what I meant to do next, so my brain is refusing to move forward. If I identify that internal resistance and work out a plan of attack, I can often move past it. If I just called it writer’s block, I might be more inclined to wait it out, which in that particular case would be the exact wrong move. The plan won’t get any clearer if I stop working entirely, only if I shift my focus to where the actual issue is.

It gets more complicated, though. There is always a reason when I get stuck, but sometimes that reason actually is a mysterious force that grips me and refuses to let me work. I know, I know. That sounds a lot like writer’s block. Bear with me, because it’s really not.

Most creative advice assumes that the audience is neurotypical, and that’s pretty unrealistic, especially given the high percentage of artists and writers who struggle with mental illness and/or have neurodivergent conditions like autism or ADHD. Conventional wisdom assumes that everyone is working with, more or less, the same mental and physical toolset, which just isn’t the case. There is a weird and unpredictable force that strikes some people, but it isn’t the fault of any muse (probably.) It’s called executive dysfunction, and it sucks hard.

Executive dysfunction is like a glitch in the brain’s programming. It’s that feeling when you click on an icon, and you can see it acknowledge that you clicked it, but nothing happens. So, you click it again, and nothing happens. This happens twenty more times, and then you have to stop before you throw the phone at the nearest wall, because it is infuriating. You had the thought, tried to initiate the process, but nothing happened. No error message pops up to tell you what’s wrong. It just. Won’t. Do.

This is not the same as procrastination. Stalling and procrastination are behaviors that a person can generally control, even if it’s hard. They’re not always conscious choices, but they’re avoidance habits, not an actual inability. It’s the difference between “I really really don’t want to do my homework, so I’m doing the dishes and watching this episode of Friends for the fiftieth time” and “I physically can’t seem to reach over and open my laptop, even though I’ve just been sitting on the couch and scrolling through Facebook on my phone for two hours hating every moment of it because I desperately want to be getting my work done. Now I’m hungry, but I still can’t move or take my eyes off the screen. Send help.”

There isn’t an easy solution to executive dysfunction, but some of the advice for dealing with writer’s block can help a little:

“Switch environments.” Go to a friend’s house, or work in a coffee shop, or just go for a walk and then come back to it. Light a pretty candle or put on music. Changing something around you can sometimes help break through the mental barrier.

“Set yourself up to succeed.” Make your office or work-station a comfy place to be. Make sure your computer is always charged. Stick a water bottle and a granola bar near your work area, so you have them in case you’re having trouble switching tasks later. Tidy up your supplies when you’re done with them, and make sure there’s never anything physically stopping you from doing your most important tasks, because even one additional step between you and that work might be the thing that trips you up. Use the energy, when you have it, to be your own parent and take care of future you.

“Remove social media from your list of options.” This goes with the previous item, but it deserves its own section. Block Facebook, Youtube, or whatever other sites you tend to get sucked into on your computer, uninstall them from your phone, hide the icons, or just be really sure not to open them when you need to do something else, even for a second. Don’t sit down for a short break anywhere near the TV. Hide the remote. Whatever makes it harder to get trapped. It’s not a willpower problem. It’s not being weak. It’s taking care of yourself.

“Downgrade your expectations to lower the pressure.” It really doesn’t have to be good. You can’t edit a blank page, and any words that you write really are better than the ones you don’t. A practice sketch still represents valuable experience, even if it isn’t something you’ll want to show anyone.

“Review the steps in front of you.” Do you have a plan, or has the task become an amorphous blob of stress in your head? Have you written down each step you need to take, or at least gone through them in your mind? Can you break them down into more detail, or do some research about the process? Not being able to picture what’s next can trigger genuine dysfunction.

“Stop trying to do this thing, and see if it’s possible to do a different thing.” This sounds like procrastination, but it can be really good advice if you’re dealing with executive dysfunction. Can’t do the art, but you can maybe manage doing the dishes? Great! Can you feed yourself? Take a shower? Walk your dog? Write in your journal? How about a blog post? Try anything that will help you get out of the rut and into motion, because building up a little momentum is often at least half the battle. Executive dysfunction is mostly a starting problem, so see if you can sneak up on the task by going around it.

“Be patient, and wait it out.” Try not to be angry with yourself if you’re just stuck. Try to stay hydrated. As soon as the spell lifts, even if it’s right before bed, try to get a tiny bit of something done just so you can feel some sense of progress to combat the frustration, even if all you produce is a really crappy drawing of your cat, or a few sentences on a page. It’s still something. Try again tomorrow, but don’t stay up all night trying to catch up. Sleep deprivation makes everyone’s executive function worse, across the board. It snowballs.

Conventional advice you might want to avoid:

“Just do it.” Um, yeah. This generally won’t work if you’re dealing with executive dysfunction. That’s why it’s called dysfunction, not mild reluctance.

“Write/draw every day.” Maybe just modify this to write/draw/other creative pursuits every day you’re able. The idea is not to make yourself feel awful or burn yourself out, just to build up experience and skill as consistently as possible.

“Get an artistic buddy and keep each other accountable!” This can really backfire. It might work for you, but if you experience a lot of guilt and anxiety, do not let your relationship with this friend be poisoned by it. You don’t want to wind up avoiding the friend because you feel like you’ve let them down every time your brain isn’t working.

Encourage each other, absolutely, but accountability is for people who are procrastinating, not for people dealing with a disability or illness.

Here’s a suggestion that isn’t usually given for writer’s block: Seek help. Not just from a buddy, but from a professional. Mental health is physical health, and there are medications and therapies that may be able to help. If that glitchy brain is screwing up your life, get thee to a brain doctor.

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Just some cute grapevines growing in my yard.

Writing days this past week: 3

Getting Some Rest

I was sicker than I thought, but I’m finally getting over it. It was just an annoying flu-like virus, but it left me super tired, and that forced me to deal with the fact that I was also making myself super stressed out, which definitely wasn’t helping my immune system. (Seriously, I caught that damn thing and developed noticeable symptoms in like eight hours. Not great.)

I’ve never been able to do enough, in my life. I’ve always been functioning at way less than normal capacity, so I’m honestly kind of unable to think of myself as overworked, because the primary message I’ve always gotten is that I should be doing a lot more than I am. I never had a reason for the fact that I did less than other people, so it makes sense that I never learned to recognize my personal limits. They weren’t legitimate limits, they were just me not trying hard enough.

I’m still frustrated as all hell that I can’t magically leap from undiagnosed ADHD and years of totally unhelpful conditioning to being a medicated and functional professional, but I should probably acknowledge how impractical that expectation is. I should also probably be working harder to change the weird coping mechanisms I’ve developed, because they mostly suck.

In the past, being stressed was pretty much my way of showing that I cared. I felt guilty and anxious about not being able to do all the stuff I was supposed to do, and that seemed like a necessary form of penance. Like, if I was gonna be useless, the least I could do was feel bad about it, and then hopefully the people around me would see that I was trying. I also just figured that feeling bad enough about it might eventually motivate me to stop sucking at everything, but this was not the case, because that’s not how it works.

Basically, I spent a long time assuming that the problem with me was that I didn’t feel bad enough to change, or that I wasn’t throwing enough pure effort into things. I have been stressed and upset and anxious a lot over the years, but I’ve never been working too hard. I was just lazy. Working too hard is reserved for people who get results.

Being stressed has never made me consistently productive, but it was usually enough to boost me through those last-minute procrastination sessions where I’d finish something in one night that should have taken me weeks. That was the only way I could get any results at all. Unfortunately, now that I can actually do more on a regular basis, it’s also wearing me out more. Being in that guilt and adrenaline mode every day just doesn’t work.

It does, in fact, make everything much harder, and it also makes me catch every germ that so much as glances my way. So, I’ve been sleeping a lot this past week, and eating semi-regular meals, and not doing very much else. I’m gonna try again next week. I’m also going to try not to see being slightly more “legitimately” stressed as a sign that I’m finally doing something right, but I think that’s gonna take some time to shift.

Time for the stressed Toci picture again, I guess.

Writing days this past week: 1

Got a Haircut and Went Outside

I don’t have a ton to say today, but I’m kinda proud of the work I’ve done this week. It’s been busy, but mostly productive. I got my hair cut, finally. It had been threatening to strangle me in my sleep. My valentine’s day came a day late, but it was very comfy and full of yummy food. My husband made his awesome rice pilaf, and we got all caught up on Crazy Ex Girlfriend.

Oh, I also un-broke my dog. Peruvian Inca Orchids tend to be a little high-strung at the best of times, but our boy gets especially weird when he doesn’t get enough exercise, and it manifests as him becoming incredibly clingy with our other dog, to the point where it genuinely pisses her off. This leads to a horrible cycle where she snarls at him for bugging her, and he tries even harder to be all up in her personal space because he’s upset about getting barked at, and I can’t work because they’re doing this right next to me on the couch. Walks around the city seem to do nothing for him, but a few trips to the park a week completely restores his chill, so I’ve learned my lesson. I had been putting off the park and telling myself that I needed to stay close to home and focus on work, but that ends up being counterproductive, even when it doesn’t turn one half of my pack into an emotional wreck.

I don’t necessarily end up getting much more work done when I put off doing stuff I enjoy, since it’s easier to work when I’m in a better frame of mind. There’s a fine line between that and totally losing track of the whole day, but I’m getting better at toeing it.

Plus, I guess, exercise is supposed to have some sort of health benefits and make it easier to think clearly or something. Seems questionable to me, though. I don’t buy into all these newfangled fads like cardio and celery. I go outside mostly to turn over logs for salamanders, watch my dogs hunt chihuahuas, and take moody pictures of trees.

Tired dogs really are happy dogs. This may have human applications. We’ll see.

Writing days this past week: 6

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