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

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.

Toci also suffers from boredomphobia.


Almost a New Year

The stretch between Christmas and New Year’s Eve is odd. It’s too short to settle back into normalcy and too long for the holiday feelings to stay fresh. I’m writing this post on a break as I drive home from Christmas with my family, and it’s been a nice quiet trip. I love road tripping by myself (well, myself and the pups) because I can take the time to really enjoy the scenery and go for little walks in new places. I especially like having that alone time around this time of year, because it’s a convenient pausing point to consider where I am now, where I was last year, and where I’m trying to get.

I’ve decided that I’m going to start posting the days I’ve worked each week at the bottom of my blog posts. Knowing that people actually might notice if I skip a blog post has helped me stay on track, and I feel like I have a handle on regular posting now. It’s not big deal, but the little boost of self awareness will hopefully help me keep from letting too many non-working days slip by when I get sad, hazy, and generally frazzled. Blog posts won’t count toward the number of writing days, just work on my fiction. I’m aiming for five days a week, since I do still have to write posts and do other types of work. I’m not gonna get down on myself if I fall behind, but I need to develop my self-discipline, and that seems like a solid goal for this year. 

That’s as close as I’m coming to a New Year’s resolution this time around. 2017 has been a thing. I’d say I’m glad to see it go, but who knows what the next year is going to bring. It’s daunting, but new life always springs up from destruction and decay.

Writing days this past week: 0 (A bit of an embarrassing start, but I’m glad to have spent this time focusing on my family and friends.)

Balance and Tough Self-Care

As I’ve mentioned previously, balance is not something that comes easily to me, and I’m not just talking about my tendency to tip right over whenever I’m distracted from important stuff like where my feet are and how gravity works. It sometimes feels like I’m either ignoring all my other responsibilities to focus on work, doing all the things except work, or taking a mental and/or physical health day that stretches into a week of feeling guilty and frustrated. If it were possible to make a three way see-saw, that’s what it’d be like in my head.

Still, I think I’m in a better place than I was a few months ago. I’m sleeping consistently, instead of every other night, and running a little closer to normal person time in terms of appointments and deadlines. Work is happening. 

I’m getting better at being kind to myself instead of breaking down when I feel like I’ve failed, but I still need to learn how to be tough on myself without the breakdown. When I’ve been hard on myself in the past, it was pretty much just self-bullying. It had no purpose, it certainly didn’t motivate me, and it was absurdly out of proportion to anything I had actually done or not done. That was no good, but without any internal structure I tend to lose track of important things and miss out on opportunities to move toward my goals. 

Self care has been discussed to death lately, but what I really appreciate are the posts that remind me that self care isn’t just bubble baths and scented candles and wine with breakfast. (Or whatever you do with wine. I don’t really know.) 

Practical self care is taking care of yourself the way you’d care for a friend or a child. Or, as one person put it, like a demon taking care of its host body so that it won’t fall apart. Whatever works. There’s being your own personal bully, which absolutely sucks, and there’s being your own coach, which seems pretty valuable to me.

Till I get better at this, Toci has been appointed my temporary coach. So far, she has ordered me to sit in multiple uncomfortable positions so she can use me as a throne. I assume this is some sort of wax-on wax-off, hidden wisdom type shit. Probably to teach me endurance or something. 

My Less Than Epic Entry Into Writing

Writing wasn’t my dream career. I didn’t start as a kid like a lot of authors, and I don’t have any cute snippets of childhood fiction to share, sadly.

I started writing in 2011, when I was 22. At first I just did some journaling to cope with my depression. I’ve always loved to read fantasy, and an idea for a fantasy story had been rattling around in the back of my head for a while. I think the stream-of-consciousness journaling that I was already doing helped loosen me up enough that I just started writing it down.

I pounded out a few chapters, then slowed to a crawl as I ran out of the bits I had already figured out, struggled through a few more, and then stopped. I knew I didn’t have the skill to write that story the way I wanted to, so I quit. But then, I did something totally normal and healthy that was nonetheless a big deal for me. I decided to get better at writing so I could come back to that story and tell it really well. I started writing little short stories when I had ideas, just ’cause, and that was fun. They weren’t great, but I could finish them in a few sittings, and finishing anything felt really good.

I switched to a second novel project for Nanowrimo in 2012, and figured I could just do it all in one go because it was supposed to be a shorter and less complex story. I was very wrong, and I didn’t win. I hadn’t plotted either of those attempts, and even though that story was simpler in concept, I had allowed it to ramble again and gotten totally lost. I kept working at it, but I was pretty frustrated, and effective practice was still totally foreign to me. I was just flailing around and trying to make this huge thing without a plan.

Looking back at it now, I see that the drafts for those two stories actually add up to a pretty impressive amount of output for a beginner. I wasn’t tracking my progress very well at the time, and I counted all discarded work as basically wasted time and effort even though I was actually learning from it.

The idea for Somnolence came to me in a dream. I hate myself a teensy bit just for writing that ridiculously pretentious sentence, but it’s basically true. In 2013, I had a dream that was just the climax battle of a fantasy story. It felt super epic and compelling, and when I woke up I wrote it all down in my journal and started making up more backstory for it. I really liked it, and it had the potential to draw from a lot of the emotional crap I was going through at the time. In a spectacular act of self-sabotage, I switched projects again. I kept feeling like I needed a clean slate because the other projects had gotten so messy. In reality, I needed to learn to plot properly, but that didn’t really occur to me till I had written about half of Somnolence.

I slogged on, working mostly when I felt inspired and wasn’t too depressed to move my fingers on the keyboard, and it took for-fucking-ever to finish the first draft. I declared it finished, just barely, on New Year’s Eve right before I moved from California to Seattle in 2016. That really was a huge milestone, although it immediately paled in the face of what I wanted to do next. I wanted to edit it properly and actually publish it, and I had no idea how to make that happen. Fortunately, by then I was just barely starting to grasp the practice thing and I’ve always been really stubborn. I’ve been researching, reading, joining writing groups, watching youtube videos, blogging, and practicing writing craft.

I don’t know what it is about writing that drives me to improve. I find it satisfying in a way that I don’t really understand. I love to draw, but I never felt the need to practice enough to polish my skills or make a career out of it. I’m usually pleased with what I can produce, but I’m perfectly content to do it as a hobby. Writing comes less easily to me. I’m often not at all pleased with my initial results, but it’s still where my energy goes, and I’m happy with the progress that I do make. Working toward the goal of being a published author has helped me change my life in a whole bunch of positive ways and improved my self-esteem. It wasn’t my dream growing up, but it is now.

Me at my favorite hiking spot, just after pulling an all-nighter to finish that first draft.